Can Cities in the United States Avoid Gridlock as Life Returns to 'Normal'?

Date: July 17, 2021

Traffic is so common in American cities that picturing life without it required going to other countries for inspiration. The COVID-19 closures and lockdowns in 2020 then kept drivers off the road. The thought experiment took on a life of its own.

The fundamental ramifications are obvious. First, public transportation ridership fell by 80%, leaving mostly lower-income people in jobs that were designated essential to take buses, subways, and commuter trains.

Second, in most metro areas, private motor traffic decreased by more than 50%, and by more than 75% in some tech-oriented towns like San Francisco, where more people could work from home. Cities grew quieter and less polluted as traffic decreased. For the first time, people could hear birdsong. The quality of the air has improved. The sky had become clearer.

Surprisingly, though, the number of traffic accidents has not decreased. Despite the fact that there were fewer people driving, average speeds increased as the roads became more empty. Distracted driving has also risen, with more people texting, emailing, and shopping while driving. Accidents increased as a result of overconfidence, speed, and distraction.

Finally, calm highways presented an opportunity to reinvent and develop cities that were less car-centric. Street food has grown in popularity from Boston to Los Angeles. Outdoor spaces were recovered by diners, pedestrians, and bicycles.

Will these tendencies persist when states relax epidemic restrictions and workers decide whether or not to return to work? As a city researcher, I anticipate the following main elements influencing post-pandemic traffic patterns.

Rebounding Traffic

For a variety of reasons, the increase in walking and bicycling during the epidemic was excellent news. Cities grew calmer and less polluting as surface traffic decreased. For the first time, people could hear birds singing in numerous areas and walk down streets free of traffic.

Boston, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, and Washington, D.C., which are known for their gridlock, all saw fewer congested highways. But it's unclear whether this will be a long-term solution or a band-aid.

While many states and cities were still under COVID-19 limitations by mid-June 2020, traffic had returned to about 90% of pre-pandemic levels across the country. Washington, D.C., had 70% of its typical rainfall, New York City had 82 percent, and Los Angeles had 85 percent. Many cities are swiftly reverting to pre-pandemic traffic levels as vaccines and the end of pandemic controls let people to move around more freely.

Surprisingly, having more vehicles on the road may actually improve safety. With increased traffic, the average speed may drop to a more manageable level.

Distracted driving, on the other hand, may be able to counteract this tendency. We live in a distracted society, where many people believe it is OK to text and tweet while driving. Cities and governments will need to refocus attention on measures like limiting smartphone usage in cars as traffic returns to pre-pandemic levels.

Creating More People-Friendly City Streets

Many cities are moving forward with plans to minimise car travel and make streets safer for pedestrians and bikes, which is perhaps the most welcome traffic-related news.

The epidemic provided a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reinvent the city as a place where drivers had to share space. This was also a trend that existed prior to COVID-19, but it picked up steam in 2020 when the streets were mostly vacant.

Free public transportation, protected bike lanes, bike-sharing initiatives, congestion pricing, regular street closures, priority bus lanes, quiet streets, and decreased traffic speeds are all being implemented in several cities. Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. are among these cities.

However, there are opposing interests and political forces to consider. According to one survey of mayors, many supported modifications to street space, but just a few planned to make them permanent. City officials recognise that major economic interests want consumers and workers to be able to drive themselves into the city.

The following months could represent a critical turning point. The epidemic provided a tantalising peek of what communities without automobiles may look like. Following the epidemic, urban spaces were reclaimed for public use, a less car-centric city emerged, and a safer, slower, quieter city with streets shared among a range of users was reimagined. Many interests, on the other hand, seek a speedy restoration to the status quo.

The conclusion will be determined by how well city residents and advocacy groups make their case for more pedestrian-friendly public roadways.

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