May 4, 2020 - Energy & Environment

The push to keep traffic at bay after the coronavirus pandemic

Adapted from The Brookings Institution analysis of Streetlight Data; Map: Andrew Witherspoon/Axios

Two Brookings Institution analysts say it's possible to revive the economy while maintaining the benefits of greatly reduced traffic — but only with important policy changes.

Why it matters: The radical decline in movement during the pandemic has caused steep reductions in car travel. Going forward, the extent of the bounce back of vehicle and air travel will affect oil demand and emissions of CO2 and traditional pollutants.

The big picture: "[T]he COVID-19 lockdown has enabled the country to execute a transportation experiment at an almost unfathomable scale," write Adie Tomer and Lara Fishbane in this new post.

  • "Those results should give us hope that it’s possible to reduce congestion, deliver a safer and greener transportation system, and still bring the economy back to full capacity."

By the numbers: Their piece gets to the scale of the driving decline, though traffic is already rebounding, as this Apple proxy data shows.

  • Even if driving rebounded completely by next month, 2020 would see the lowest nationwide vehicle miles traveled since 1998, they note.

What's next: As states begin easing restrictions, they call for several steps.

  • Allowing continued telework in sectors where that's possible.
  • Transportation departments should implement fees based on miles driven to make up for losses in gasoline tax revenue, which are under pressure anyway as cars get more efficient.
  • They back growing calls for using the pandemic as an opportunity to permanently revamp streetscapes to better accommodate bikes, pedestrians and other non-auto uses. (Check out #Covid19streets on Twitter for more on this.)
Go deeper