What will traffic and pollution look like post-coronavirus?

Three possible scenarios for our roads after the pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic has utterly upended the U.S. economy. In many cases, what seemed unthinkable a few weeks ago is now the new normal. But eventually the pandemic will end, the economy will reopen, and the new normal will move back towards something at least akin to the old normal. But just how much will it move? A little? A lot?

Take something like traffic: The number of cars on American roads, especially in major cities, has fallen like a rock. A recent study found traffic volume on California roadways dropped 60 percent thanks to the coronavirus lockdowns. Nor is "traffic" just about traffic: It's about how much Americans work from home; how much they use mass transit; how much they rely on online delivering services, from Amazon to Instacart; and how much we pollute, to name just a few examples.

There are lots of different microcosms you could pick to try to get a window into how life in America's post-coronavirus economy will or won’t change. But traffic and all its second order effects is a good place to start. So here are a few of the possible scenarios.

Traffic is permanently lower: Why would that happen? The two biggest reasons would likely be that more Americans wind up working from home, and we rely on online shopping and delivery services more heavily, particularly for groceries. This could happen both because lingering cultural fears of another pandemic make "light" social distancing norms a kind of permanent cultural fixture; or it might simply be because, having lived through the new world the coronavirus created, we find we want to keep some of it.

For instance, American workers doing their jobs from home has slowly but steadily increased in the last two decades, from 3.3 percent in 2000 to 5.2 percent in 2017. Since the pandemic hit, major companies from Microsoft to Facebook, Twitter, Square, and Google have all told their employees to work from home. Surveys suggest anywhere from 29 percent to 43 percent of American workers could potentially do their jobs at home. (According to Gallup, 43 percent already work remotely at least occasionally.) Large majorities of Americans have access to the broadband internet they'd need — though it's worth noting the people who don't have that access, or who can't work from home for other reasons, tend to be lower class, more marginalized, and more vulnerable.

While we don't know exactly how many more people have switched to working from home due to the coronavirus, the potential for a pretty large shift is there. "The coronavirus is going to be a tipping point," Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics, told CNBC. "I foresee that this is going to really accelerate the trend [towards working from home]." There are lots of reasons the change may stick post-coronavirus: Workers might like the convenience more, and employers might find they don't lose as much productivity as they feared. The average American commute is now a record-setting 27 minutes, just one way — and people would probably be glad to be rid of that, too.

As for online shopping, orders on Instacart have jumped 150 percent in just a month, and the company is trying to hire 300,000 more of the workers who actually go out and buy and deliver the groceries. Amazon is hiring 175,000 more people for deliveries and operations, in part to deal with grocery orders that are reportedly 50 times higher than normal. Other companies like Kroger and Walmart are expanding online operations as well. And while delivering groceries and items ordered online still requires cars on the road, it requires significantly less of them for the same number of people compared to all of them going out and physically shopping.

There are lots of positive knock-on effects of less traffic, beyond lowered stress for everyone still on the road. That California study found that injuries and fatalities from traffic accidents have dropped by half. We've also seen dramatic reductions in air pollution: You've probably come across the remarkable pictures of clear blue skies over of cities like Los Angeles, and research confirms air pollution is way down in major cities across the country. Carbon monoxide emissions over New York City have fallen 50 percent, for instance. Pollution and particulate matter are also way down in other countries like India that also locked their economies to combat the coronavirus. This isn't just good for skyline views or the environment: air pollution kills over 100,000 Americans annually, by worsening conditions like cardiovascular disease.

Granted, these drops in pollution are thanks to the total cessation of economic activity, which will eventually restart. But traffic certainly plays a big role, so we could get permanently reduced pollution with permanently reduced traffic.

But what if traffic returns to normal? That's also a possibility. In that case, injuries and fatalities on the roads would also go back to their previous rates, as would air pollution. (And we need air pollution to be reduced permanently for our society to enjoy the health benefits, as the effects build over time.)

There are a lot of reasons the traffic and commuter and online shopping trends created by the coronavirus might not stick: Working from home does come with its downsides as well, including loneliness and the loss of camaraderie and the hard-to-define qualities of in-person communication that can make it better and more productive. Unlike electronics and consumer retail items, the grocery store industry has had a hard time getting online ordering systems up and running. There's the need to pair all those grocers — from big chains to mom and pop stores — up with all their potential vendors, not to mention the massive variety of items and potential substitutions better worked out in person. The coronavirus pandemic may be the crisis that finally forces online grocery shopping to come of age — or it could simply remind everyone that they prefer doing it physically in the store.

"Generally, over time, even if things have that lasting effect, the permanent change is rather modest," Ram Pendyala, the director of Arizona State University's School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment, told an ABC affiliate about the traffic reductions. There's just a lot of inertia in how our society and economy operates that would have to be overcome for things like traffic and commuting and pollution to permanently change. The coronavirus might create a big enough shock to push us over that hump, but maybe not. China, for instance, was where the virus first hit, and now the economic lockdowns are beginning to end there. And China's air pollution is already back to its pre-coronavirus rates.

America isn't China, obviously. Our society might react differently, long-term. But who knows.

Finally, could traffic and all its second-order effects become worse after the coronavirus? Maybe. Not that many American adults used mass transit to begin with — roughly 11 percent. But it's pretty widespread in certain major cities, like New York, Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. You could imagine a scenario in which lingering fear of another pandemic causes Americans to start avoiding tight packed groups as a matter of habit, which could obviously include situations like metro lines and buses. (This doesn't even get into the financial havoc the coronavirus lockdowns are wreaking on our public transit systems.) And if people aren't using those forms of transportation to get to work, they'll have to use cars.

Even if traffic itself doesn't increase after the coronavirus fades, pollution could. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has already stated it will not "seek penalties for noncompliance with routine monitoring and reporting obligations" — i.e. it's not going to monitor or punish pollution — for the duration of the pandemic. That's meant to be a temporary move to relieve the economic pressure of the lockdown. But the Trump administration has been out to reduce environmental regulations regardless, and you could easily imagine this crisis becoming a chance to make that leniency permanent.

The ultimate point might be that, while we're not in complete control of how our society looks like after the coronavirus pandemic is over, we do have some power over this change. The Italian city of Milan, for example, is trying to expand cycling and walking lanes, lower speed limits, and other measures in preparation for the end of its coronavirus lockdown, to try and make the new lower-traffic normal permanent. If we decide there are some aspects of the new normal we like, we'll have to get proactive — and demand our policymakers do the same — if we want them to stay normal once this whole mess is over.

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