Will the increase in telework continue? How will shifts in commuting affect public transportation and downtowns? Will there need to be a shift away from office space? It is possible to continue some of the positive environmental impacts — including cleaner air — after the pandemic ends?
These are just some of the questions members of the NJTPA’s Regional Transportation Advisory Committee (RTAC) posed during its April 13 meeting during a discussion on the NJTPA’s next Long Range Transportation Plan, which will have a horizon year of 2050.
When the coronavirus pandemic hit, work was well underway on the NJTPA’s next plan, which will serve as a vision for the region’s future. A lot of the “game changers” that were considered as part of the last long-range plan — climate change, autonomous vehicles, a need for adequate infrastructure funding — are still relevant today, but the pandemic has shifted the way we look at things.
“How we’re thinking about a lot of these things is very different,” said Lois Goldman, Director of Long Range Transportation Planning at the NJTPA. “Things like telework, things like complete streets and the big game changers obviously are the state of our economy and the things that this epidemic has highlighted in terms of equity and income disparities.”
More than 718,000 New Jersey residents have filed for unemployment benefits since mid-March. In the first week of the outbreak alone, the NJ Department of Labor said applications were up 1,600 percent. About half of the people seeking unemployment benefits have a high school diploma or lower level of education. In addition, about half of private sector employment in the state, or roughly 860,000 businesses, are small businesses, many of which are struggling to survive.
The next long-range plan must consider these factors and more. RTAC members questioned what the impact on downtowns might be. More people could move to downtowns because they are employment centers and essentials – like grocery stores – are often within walking distance. However, some people questioned if there could be a shift from cities to the suburbs where people have more space to socially distance themselves from others. Other issues that were raised include:
- Office space: Bigger offices would allow workers to have more space, or offices could shrink with more employees telecommuting. In some areas, it may be possible to convert office space into much-needed housing stock.
- Complete Streets: With fewer cars on the road, it may be possible to install more bicycle lanes and larger spaces for walking.
- Equity: It will be important to ensure adequate access to broadband, members noted. People should also have access to remote training and employment opportunities.
- Transportation Funding: With more fuel efficient and alternative fuel vehicles on the road, gas tax revenue was already declining. But now, with stay-at-home orders in place, the gas tax revenue has plummeted.
Goldman said the goal of the next long-range plan is to set the stage for a positive future that addresses some of the equity issues more deeply and helps make the economy stronger.