Traffic planning in a post-pandemic world
Recently, we’ve seen a tremendous shift in roadway usage and traffic patterns. If you’ve driven on the highway at any point in the past few months, you’ve probably noticed the striking reduction in traffic since the start of the pandemic. The increase in people working from home, rising unemployment rates, and closing businesses all have significant impacts on transportation planning and funding. Work such as traffic studies and traffic congestion management, roadway widening, Transportation Systems Management and Operations (TSMO) and Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) all must change to reflect our new normal.
For transportation professionals, this pandemic has given us unique insight. Ordinarily, shifts in traffic patterns this dramatic are fairly short-lived and localized—until now. This situation can allow us to reimagine our transportation system and find more resilient, sustainable paths forward.
Here are the top three lessons I’ve learned as a transportation professional:
1. We can’t predict the future.
It’s impossible to predict the future. But decisions about how and where to build or expand roads are made decades in advance. As transportation professionals, we have to consistently be looking ahead. Economic shifts, new technology, and cost of fuel are just a few of the factors to take into account when planning a transportation system. And even when we give our best effort, something can come along out of nowhere and completely derail any forecast we’ve made—like a global pandemic. This lack of certainty brings us to the next lesson:
2. Flexibility is essential.
What we have learned from this pandemic is that our transportation systems should not be designed for only one possible future. We must design systems that can be molded to fit multiple eventualities. Now, we see multiple states repurposing roadways to provide more pedestrian and biking paths, loading zones, and even outdoor seating areas for restaurants. Our systems must be capable of handling these shifts—as well as multiple other possibilities.
As we face global climate change, we cannot ignore the effects natural disasters could have on our roadways. We need to build our transportation systems so that they can be reimagined to fit our current circumstances, whatever they may be.
3. Change is more possible than we think.
Businesses have been resistant to the sort of traffic solutions we’ve been forced into since the start of the pandemic. Roads are designed for the few hours each day when traffic is heaviest. Reducing rush hour traffic by having more people work from home, or conducting meetings virtually, is much more cost effective than expanding our roadways.
As businesses have essentially been forced to adapt, we can see what we are capable of. Significant change is within our reach. It always was—sometimes, it takes a large societal shift to show us how to get there.
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