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SALT LAKE CITY — From onramp bottlenecks to city gridlock, traffic has roared back from its pandemic hibernation to reach levels of commuter traffic that match, and in some cases exceed pre-pandemic levels, towing back with it air pollution and roadway frustrations.
But even as streets have filled back up, the pandemic appears to have altered some long-established transportation habits that could have lasting impacts on the way we get around, prompting new conversations in transit-engineering circles while causing leaders to reevaluate priorities and hit the gas on particular projects.
"It's exciting times to reevaluate historical decisions we've made. The pandemic has given us reason to rethink some things, and this is a chance to nudge them in a direction that's more equitable and sustainable," said Jon Larsen, transportation division director for Salt Lake City.
While it's hard to see silver linings through a rear-view mirror, traffic experts see cause for cautious optimism as pandemic-related changes in commuter behavior may hold the potential for lasting positive impacts on Utah transit, and have already begun to influence how planners think about the future of moving around — because the commuters who were swept clean from the streets during lockdown aren't the same as they were before.
The normalization of telework has produced a commuter population that's nimbler and more adaptive. Drivers, like a virus, have mutated, which is seen in the subtle changes of traffic patterns.
"There's some nuance when we talk about the traffic returning. The traffic at rush hour is roughly as bad as it was, but traffic at off-peak times and other times of the day is lower," said Ted Knowlton, Deputy Director at Wasatch Front Regional Council, an inter-local transportation planning agency, who suggests one of the changes in remote work lifestyles is shorter trip distances.
"One thing we've seen as a general matter is that with auto trips, on average, the distances have fallen. So people are accomplishing their wants and needs closer to home. They're localizing their activities. That could mean that people are staying home during the day to telework and then running their other errands on the local streets. Whereas they might have been doing that activity in the major employment centers before," Knowlton said. "I think this is actually a really good thing that people are localizing more of their activity and their trips."
In addition to localized activity, Knowlton says remote living flexibility is putting downward pressure on congestion in other ways too. For example, he believes drivers are responding more adaptively to unplanned incidents, like bad weather and traffic accidents.
"If the weather is bad, or there is a nasty traffic accident on the freeway, and people learn about it in advance before they leave their home, we now have the ability to be flexible as a commuting population. We can make a quicker decision and say, you know what, I'm going to telework today. We have the ability to handle uneven changes in congestion more easily as a society."
Another pandemic-related alteration, according to traffic experts at UDOT, is a softened morning rush.
"We're seeing traffic volumes that we saw pre-pandemic, but the difference is in commute times. It's more spread out, especially in the morning commute. We don't see as much of the concentrated traffic in the timeframe between 7 and 9 a.m. It's been more spread throughout the morning, and that speaks to the flexibility in schedules that people have now. People are delaying their travel to work," said John Gleason, director of public affairs at the Utah Department of Transportation.
But that doesn't change the fact that traffic is back — after all, UDOT is "seeing the traffic volumes that we saw pre-pandemic, and in some cases there are even more vehicles out there, especially during the evening commute," Gleason said.
So if people are working remote and localizing activity, what's causing the traffic?
One reason is something Knowlton calls "latent demand."
"When roads are less congested, people tend to travel more — that's latent demand — and it's inhibited when there's traffic congestion, but when congestion goes away people say, these roads aren't so bad. Maybe I'll drive a bit more than I used to. Maybe I'll leave in the middle of rush hour. That latent demand is always out there, so with reduced traffic congestion stemming from telework more people are making that choice to drive," said Knowlton.
Another answer for the traffic despite remote work is the drop in public transit, which sank as riders during the pandemic grew weary of sharing space and looked for other options.
"It's fully expected that transit ridership would be down right now. When there is fear of airborne spread of COVID, public forms of transportation — bus, TRAX — people tend to stay away from those if they have the option," said Ted Knowlton.
Leaders hope the decline of ridership will reverse, and in an effort to rebuild faith in the safety of public transit while fighting air pollution during the punitive inversion months, UTA and Salt Lake City have partnered in Free Fare February, a program that offers transit ridership on the house for the month.
Whether its ridership falloffs or stretched-out morning commutes, experts say the caveats of traffic's return shouldn't be taken for granted as Utah's transportation environment remains fluid.
"I think it's important that we avoid rushing to judgement that we've established a new normal. We'll still have to wait and see what the new normal is," said Ted Knowlton.
Yet many in the transportation world are hoping that new changes in locomotion are the new normal — in fact, they're already planning on it. Bicycle ridership virtually doubled during the pandemic, according to Knowlton, which has put pressure on traffic engineers to shift gears on projects.
For example, Jon Larsen, transportation division director, says the groundswell in bicycle ridership that began in the pandemic has compelled planners to refocus on non-motor vehicle transit projects like neighborhood byways.
"Some of our neighborhood byways got bumped up the priority list as a result of the pandemic. We're using that momentum to do some permanent changes. Like the Kensington neighborhood byway and the Eighth East neighborhood byway, and some westside neighborhood byways in Poplar Grove."
Neighborhood byways are quiet streets strategically chosen for their proximity to busy streets. They are considered a critical component to the city's transportation future and they facilitate non-motor vehicle transit with the installation of wayfinding signage, connectivity features and safety enhancements.
More than neighborhood byways, the resurgence of bicycle ridership makes existing and future transit options more politically tenable, says Larsen, giving transportation officials firepower to pursue active transport projects like the currently underway 9-line, which has created multi-use trails to diversify transportation options while also repurposing sections of traditional car lanes as exclusive bicycle lanes and increasing bus frequency.
"As a traffic engineering profession, we've done our designs for the peak 15 minutes of the peak hour of the day to accommodate cars, and everything else was kind of an afterthought. Do we need all that space just for cars, just so people are not inconvenienced during the peak point of the peak commute time?" said Larsen. "There's already been a big push to rethink some of that, but pulling out of the pandemic we're starting to ask, what else are we missing here? How else can we improve and who should we be serving that we're not?"
For Larsen, these projects are about more than sustainability and transit trends. Rather, they represent a move toward a more equitable society.
"The 20th century transportation investment just assumed people would get around with a car, but that's an expensive investment just to be able to function in our society. It can be a real burden because you might only have the option to get to work with a car, and maybe all your money is going to that car. People should at least have other options, like safe comfortable bike lanes and a good transportation service. That can be life-changing for people who need it the most. Access to jobs and opportunities and education and child care without needing a car is a big factor in pulling yourself out of poverty," Larsen said.
As an example of transportation inequity, Larsen described how highway construction has often impacted lower socioeconomic neighborhoods, as displacement and separation translated to diminished access to opportunity regions for certain communities. He explains something similar happened in Utah with the construction of I-15 during the 20th century, which unofficially cordoned off east and west side communities.
"With I-15 we created a barrier that was impactful to those that have to live next to it, and it's divided the city. Some communities were disproportionately benefited from it, and some disproportionately faced the negative impacts. One way we're trying hard to overcome that and make it right is through east-west bus service and bike lanes to improve those connections."
Moving people, not just vehicles
Saying goodbye to the pandemic's short-lived reprieve from congested streets, the return of traffic has spurred important conversations around transportation while foregrounding transit issues in a state whose accelerating population growth has fast-tracked traffic challenges. If leaders are hesitant to declare a new normal, a bigger picture is on full display as the resurgence of car-covered roadways underscores the urgency for systemic improvements to transit infrastructure and long-term planning.
"We're the fastest growing state in the country, and with all of the growth we're not going to be able to continue expanding our roads. We need to encourage public transportation and other modes of getting around because we're not going to build our way out of congestion," said John Gleason.
"It's not just about getting around. It's also about improving quality of life. People will look at you a little funny and say, 'How does transportation do that?' Well, think about where else you would rather be than stuck in traffic, trapped in the evening commute bumper to bumper. You'd rather be home playing with your kids, or outside on a run. Less time stuck in congestion means more time doing the things we want to do. That's why we want a strong transportation system, because we're moving people, not just vehicles."