The pandemic has drastically changed travel, with 42 percent of people working remotely rather than commuting. This shift will have lasting and profound impacts on transportation that must be considered as we plan for the future, according to experts who spoke during an October 6 NJTPA symposium focusing on Adapting to Change. It was the first in a series of “TPA Tuesdays” symposiums gathering insights and input for Plan 2050, the next update of the JTPA’s long-range transportation plan. (Video of the symposium can be viewed below.)
Morris County Freeholder Kathy DeFillippo, Chair of NJTPA, welcomed attendees to the online event, noting that during this past year “we’ve had to adapt to changes at many different levels, perhaps much more than we ever thought.”
Keynote speaker Harriet Tregoning, Director of New Urban Mobility Alliance, focused her remarks on three categories of change underway: transportation technology, climate change and economic disparity. In all these areas, she said changes could have positive or negative impacts – bringing us “heaven or hell,” in her formulation – depending on how we manage and shape them. “It is up to us to figure out how we can get more of the things we want and fewer of the things we don’t want,” she said.
Among the points she raised:
- The changes underway in travel present a severe funding challenge for transit systems and there may be a need to tap revenue streams from new mobility services.
- Increased remote working in the long term could change peak travel pattens, possibly resulting in a small morning rush and perhaps little or no afternoon rush.
- Land use changes could include less need for office buildings and new uses for parking and other space in downtown areas.
- While the pandemic has increased walking and biking, it also has motivated people to drive alone to avoid others, undermining transit.
- The impacts of climate change are growing, including the worst hurricanes season in 170 years.
- Greenhouse gas emissions are still growing in the transportation sector – the largest contributor.
- Auto transportation is “remarkably inefficient” – with cars parked 95 percent of the time – providing opportunities for reducing emissions.
- Walking and biking could be greatly expanded, given that 52 percent of trips are less than three miles.
- The pandemic has increased inequality, particularly affecting low-income people who are less able to work remotely and are in vulnerable service and retail sectors – leading to a likely “K-shaped” recovery split by income levels.
- A key approach to meeting future challenges is to direct investments less to moving vehicles – and improving the “level of service” on roads – and more to providing access to jobs and destinations for all people.
A panel of experts discussed and expanded upon the keynote presentation. The panelists were Nat Bottigheimer, New Jersey Director for the Regional Plan Association; Jeffery Lowe, Associate Professor at Texas Southern University; Ann Forsyth, Director of Harvard University’s Urban Planning Program; and Sam Schwartz, CEO and Founder of Sam Schwartz Engineering. Among the points raised:
- Studies in Europe and a new report show that if people wear masks, transit poses little virus transmission risk; public agencies must combat the myth of unsafe transit.
- The connection between transportation and health needs to gain greater recognition, including the stress induced by inadequate transit and travel options for those without autos.
- Analysis of income and racial disparities in transportation investments must be followed by concrete action, including risk-taking by public officials to focus investment on equitable access
- A new hierarchy must be established in which pedestrians, rather autos, are the priority in designing streets and transportation, building upon the experience of the pandemic.
- The pandemic crisis has provided a window of opportunity for working across sectors to make transportation better serve all people and protect health and the environment.
The second TPA Tuesdays symposium will be held December 1 at 9 a.m. and will focus on Advancing Equitable Transportation Systems. For more information visit the Plan 2050 website: njtpa.org/plan2050