The future of urban life and transportation after COVID-19

Our research team at the University of Illinois, Chicago have published an analysis from the first wave of our comprehensive COVID-19 survey. From a representative sample (n=1200) of Chicagoans, they uncovered insights into how COVID-19 will impact the future of travel, and what policies should shape our transportation systems in the coming years.

How will Chicagoans travel during and after the pandemic?

Many people have transitioned to working from home because of COVID-19. Before the pandemic, only 29% of respondents worked from home in any capacity, while during the pandemic, 63% report this. Moreover, only 15% of respondents worked exclusively from home before the pandemic, compared to 48% during COVID-19. This has placed considerable value on “home workability,” or the ease with which an individual can telecommute and work effectively from home. An emphasis on ‘home workability’ may be an important factor in making future residential decisions, given that frequent distractions or discomfort can have a negative impact on productivity while working from home. On a larger scale, the transition to telecommuting is likely to have a positive environmental impact by reducing traffic congestion and air pollution.

The perception of different travel modes has also been fundamentally shifted by COVID-19. Shared modes such as taking taxis, ride-hailing, and riding transit are perceived to be either high risk or extremely high risk by 61%, 72%, and 78% of respondents, respectively. In contrast, individual modes such as driving alone, biking, and walking are perceived to be high risk or extremely high risk by only 6%, 16%, and 8% of respondents respectively. Many people are already shifting from shared methods to individual methods for their own safety. In the case of biking and walking, this shift points towards a more sustainable future for our cities. The researchers also note that the use of individual travel modes could reduce the severity of future outbreaks, resulting in a more resilient city. 

Autonomous vehicles may become increasingly important as long-distance transportation trends shift away from air travel and towards cars. 43% of respondents indicate they will travel less on airplanes after the pandemic, and only 14% indicate they will travel on airplanes more. As an increasing share of long-distance trips are made by car, we expect demand to increase for a hassle-free driving experience. Autonomous vehicle technology is on the way, and we expect the pandemic to push more individuals towards autonomous vehicles for long-distance business and leisure travel.

How should transport policy look in the future?

The risk perception of shared and individual travel modes has an important implication for the future of transportation policy in cities. Though many respondents view shared modes as unsafe, socioeconomic status may restrict access to individual modes for some respondents. Thus arises the concern of equity in transportation. Future efforts to plan transportation systems ought to incorporate this need for equity through measures to increase the accessibility of individual travel modes. 

The researchers also highlight the successes and failures of government policy in response to COVID-19. Stay-at-home orders were issued in most areas of the country and were intended to reduce the number of people going out in public and the spread of COVID-19. However, the survey results indicate that this goal may have been subverted. Over a third of respondents work in essential businesses, meaning a stay-at-home order for non-essential workers only kept around 60% of people at home. Furthermore, a majority of respondents regularly went to the store for groceries. This trend highlights the importance of thoroughly planning policy responses to future pandemics. Our research team suggests that future policies be multifaceted and include attempts to stagger the operating hours of some businesses.

Overall, the survey results have shown the need for stronger policies in response to COVID-19 that facilitate compliance with stay-at-home orders. In particular, policies are encouraged that will also positively impact sustainability and equity. Finally, changing trends in transportation and working from home will require a good deal of flexibility from businesses and transportation planners alike. The many changes brought about by the pandemic will continue to become more defined as further waves of our COVID-19 survey illuminate trends in travel, work, policy, and urban life.

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