Planning for transportation in a “post-pandemic world” was the focus of presentations and discussions at the annual meeting of the Metropolitan Area Planning (MAP) Forum December 4.
NJTPA Executive Director Mary D. Ameen welcomed more than 200 participants to the virtual event, which included representatives of the 10 Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) from New Jersey, New York, Connecticut and Pennsylvania that compose the forum. The group was formed to enhance planning activities across jurisdictional boundaries in the multi-state region.
The first topic was the future of the office, presented by Oliver Schaper and Wendy Andrew-Doele of Gensler, one of the world’s largest architectural firms. The company has been active in assessing the effects of the pandemic on the commercial real estate market and surveying worker opinions. While up to 80 percent of people surveyed in four major cities want to return to offices in some form, over half favor a hybrid model that includes remote work for part of the week. People particularly miss the office as a “social connector,” Andrew-Doele said, adding “They want that sense of belonging and group.” She said that is particularly true for younger people, despite their reputation for being comfortable with interacting via technology.
Health has also emerged as a growing priority. Many of the firm’s clients are looking to adapt outdoor spaces for increased use and becoming more flexible regarding the configuration of indoor spaces. Schaper said recovery from the pandemic was “a reset moment,” offering “the opportunity to rethink how we design our offices and also how we think about urban and transportation policy.”
The future of commuting was addressed by Kaan Ozbay, Director of the C2SMART Center at the Tandon School of Engineering at New York University. He recounted the drastic decline in travel in the first months of the pandemic and the shifts in the months since. An online survey found that people in New York have turned away from the subway in favor of alternative modes, with the use of CityBike almost doubling and the use of private autos up by 16 percent for commuting.
While many New Yorkers have those travel options, Ozbay noted, many don’t—particularly, the elderly, people with disabilities and low-income residents. He called for a focus on accessibility in guiding transportation programs to meet all residents’ needs and for “urban operators” to use data to identify problems and develop quick solutions. However, he cautioned that, with the current uncertainties, we shouldn’t be hasty in abandoning what worked in the past – such as the region’s transit system—if we want to be prepared for future emergencies. (The C2SMART Center has created a dashboard of transportation data and trends related to the impact of Covid-19 at c2smart.engineering.nyu.edu/covid-19-dashboard)
To address the need to adjust socioeconomic and demographic forecasts, Debra Nelson, Assistant Director of the New York Metropolitan Transportation Council (NYMTC), introduced Tina Lund of Urbanomics, a consultant to the Council. Lund said that the forecasts used in developing the NYMTC long-range plan would look to economic recovery from the pandemic occurring by 2030. This, she said, was based on the experience of other crises, such as recovery from the September 11 terrorist attacks, which took five years. A recent European study, looking back to events since 1894, found similar recoveries spanning five to 10 years.
Addressing goods movement issues, Anne Strauss-Wieder, Director of Freight Planning at the NJTPA, said that the freight sector has faced great challenges in supplying essential goods during the pandemic, particularly in changing operations to keep workers safe. By late summer, she said, container volumes at the port had rebounded to record levels. At the same time there has been a massive increase in e-commerce, including the new trend of in-store pick-ups. Walmart alone, she said, saw a 79 percent increase in e-commerce in the 3rd quarter.
This, she said, has accelerated trends already underway before the pandemic and exacerbated worker shortages. Companies seeking to move closer to customers, she said, have created a “red hot” industrial real estate market in the metro region.
The meeting also included presentations on the MAP Forum Resiliency Working Group by Meghan Sloan, Connecticut Metropolitan Council of Governments and Jennifer Fogliano, NJTPA; and on the development of long-range plans by Gerry Bogacz, NYMTC, and Lois Goldman, NJTPA, with comments by other member-MPOs on the status of their recently adopted plans.
A video recording of the meeting is available at www.youtube.com/watch?v=fZhIp_DPJEY
The presentations are available at https://njtpa.org/mapforum2020