Feb 14, 2022 - Podcasts

The new American rush hour

As more people go back to in-person work, rush hour traffic has started to come back across the country. But the pandemic has changed the timing of our morning commutes.

  • Plus, the new wave of global COVID protests.
  • And, grading Trump’s trade deal with China, two years later.

Guests: Axios' Hans Nichols, Joann Muller, and Neil Irwin.

Credits: Axios Today is produced in partnership with Pushkin Industries. The team includes Niala Boodhoo, Sara Kehaulani Goo, Julia Redpath, Alexandra Botti, Nuria Marquez Martinez, Alex Sugiura, Sabeena Singhani, and Lydia McMullen-Laird. Music is composed by Evan Viola. You can reach us at [email protected]. You can text questions, comments and story ideas to Niala as a text or voice memo to 202-918-4893.

Go deeper:

Good morning! Welcome to Axios Today!

It’s Monday, February 14th. Happy Valentine’s Day!

I’m Niala Boodhoo.

Here’s how we’re making you smarter today: grading Trump’s trade deal with China, two years later. Plus, the new rush hour.

But first, the latest wave of covid protests…is today’s One Big Thing.

NIALA: A Canadian trucker envoy protesting COVID mandates has disrupted Ottawa since the end of January and blocked a key bridge at the U.S.- Canada border. Authorities are working to clear protesters, but the so-called “Freedom Convoy” has inspired similar movements around the world from New Zealand to Belgium. Here with what's behind this latest wave of global COVID protests is Axios’ political reporter, Hans Nichols. Hey Hans!

HANS NICHOLS: Good morning.

NIALA: Hans, can you first remind us, what's motivating these protests in Canada?

HANS: Well, a lot of things, right? I mean, the headline is sort of concern about COVID vaccination. But more broadly, it seems to be just an expression of populism. So yes, the actual cause is what they're talking about is these truckers up in Canada don't want to abide by all the various vaccine mandates coming in and out, whether or not you can go to a bar or restaurant, but it seems to be something so much bigger. And that is general frustration/populism on who's controlling the country, who's controlling the culture and who's controlling the terms of the debate.

NIALA: So this weekend hundreds of people were fined - and dozens arrested in Paris. They blocked vehicle traffic in Brussels for the next two days in order to prevent protests from coming there. Are these people saying they're motivated by similar things?

HANS: This all feels, the sort of different strains of the same virus to mix a lot of metaphors. And the viruses sort of anger at elites, sort of general fatigue and maybe not even general but acute fatigue with COVID and frustration.

NIALA: Isn’t it sort of strange that it's happening now, as we're seeing the Omicron wave subsiding across most of the world?

HANS: Yeah, that's a good point. I think to the protestors, they would say, isn't it strange that it's taken this long? It's not that they're going to be like, “oh, it's all cool now like Omicron wave is receding”. This is much deeper, in some ways it's bigger than COVID. And the question really for politicians in Western capitals is how sustainable and endurable will it be.

NIALA: Right. And you cover the White House. How do you think these protests factor into how we're handling things here in the U.S.? Is it affecting, for example, how the White House is handling things?

HANS: From the House's perspective, I'd say there's sort of two ways to look at this. Number one is the short-term supply chain. What's this going to do in inflation? Which is why you had the present United States call his counterpart, the prime minister of Canada, you had the White House read out that call and talk about it harming auto factories in Detroit. The broader question is, is that like, how much COVID fatigue is in this country? And you're seeing all these democratic governors, some senators in tight races, democratic mayors talking about easing restrictions, lifting mask requirements in schools. But as we go to this next phase of the pandemic, it does seem as though progressive America is behaving more like red state America, six months ago, 12 months ago, maybe throughout in this entire ordeal.

NIALA: Hans Nichols covers the Biden administration for Axios. Thanks Hans.

HANS: Thanks for having me.

In 15 seconds, how the American rush hour has shifted.

NIALA: Welcome back to Axios Today. I'm Niala Boodhoo.

As more people go back to in-person work, rush hour traffic has started to come back as well, but the pandemic has changed when we're commuting. Axios’ Joann Muller covers the future of transportation and has been reporting this out from Detroit. Hey, Joann.


NIALA: What does the rush hour look like now across the U.S.?

JOANN: Well, it's really interesting. The morning rush is a lot lighter than it used to be. There's a new, late morning peak in some cities, which is around 11 o'clock. The evening rush has been a little less impacted than the morning rush. The traffic is starting even earlier, like three or four o'clock in some cities.

NIALA: And does this vary by city and by region of the county?

JOANN: Yes, absolutely. So I talked to the folks at TomTom, who are sort of, a navigation company and they've collected all these GPS signals and they track these traffic patterns around the world, and one of the data analysts told me the change in patterns in cities really depends on what type of work they're doing. Cities where there's a lot of information workers who can work from home, the traffic there remains significantly lower than in 2019. But in some cities it's actually come back almost to normal. Not everyone is working from home and this is something important to remember

NIALA: Does this data suggest that there might be a fundamental shift happening across American cities?

JOANN: Well, I think we really have to wait and see, because quite honestly, companies haven't figured out what the future of work looks like. And so I think traffic patterns will depend a lot on what happens with work and since we don't know the answer to that yet, we really don't know how many of these shifts in traffic patterns will be.

NIALA: Joann Muller is one of the co-authors of the Axios What's Next newsletter. Thanks, Joann.

JOANN: Thank you, Niala.

NIALA: Here's one more work habit that's changed during the pandemic. A recent survey found that about 60% of remote employees work from the toilet at least once a week. And that includes everything from answering emails and messages to yes, attending virtual meetings. So please make sure your mic and camera are off beforehand

NIALA: Two years ago, Donald Trump's big trade deal with China promised around $274 billion in American exports. But it's fallen far short. Axios’ chief economic correspondent, Neil Irwin is here with the numbers. Neil, what are the numbers here?

NEIL IRWIN: The reality is that U.S. exports to China have only matched about 57% of what was promised as part of President Trump's trade deal two years ago. It's not only the fact that the numbers are not quite matching. They're really where they were before the trade war even began a few years ago. So ultimately we've had several years of all these negotiations, all these tariffs, all of this action that led to U.S. exports to China being no higher than they started things out.

NIALA: Neil, I bet a lot of people saw these headlines a couple of years ago about former President Trump and the trade war with China. How does all of this affect the average American consumer today?

NEIL: So on the consumer side, look, we still have these tariffs in place. Those are one thing that are keeping prices high. Not, not the main driver of inflation right now, certainly, but they don't help. Uh, and then for exporters, for any kind of industry that's exporting around the world. If you're a farmer in agriculture, manufactured goods in the U.S. The fact that you're not getting the kind of access, not getting the kind of purchases from China that were purchased, that means less business for you.

NIALA: But of course, the pandemic has been a really difficult wrinkle in sorting out whether or not all of this is permanent, right?

NEIL: It is. I mean, that said, look, the fact that we had all this drama around the trade wars and this big deal that was unveiled right before the pandemic as kind of the savior of U.S. exports to China. And we're kind of back where we started. That's a sign this approach really isn't working for American exporters. You know, the Biden administration has moved very carefully, cautiously on this trade relationship. They're not trying to rip up the Trump trade agreements. They haven't dropped a lot of these tariffs. Where this goes from here, we don't know. Are the two largest economies in the world going to remain as deeply intertwined as they have been, or will more of a kind of chasm open up between us?

NIALA: Axios’ chief economic correspondent, Neil Irwin. Thanks, Neil.

NEIL: Thank you.

One more note before we go today: there was SO MUCH HYPE ahead of yesterday’s superbowl halftime show, featuring some music legends: Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Mary J. Blige, Kendrick Lamar and a surprise - 50 Cent. So of course with that lineup, nostalgia was the name of the game.

But for me, there’s no question that the very greatest superbowl halftime show is still 2007’s performance by Prince, singing purple rain…in the rain, in my hometown of Miami.

And of course, congratulations to the LA Rams on their win.

By the way: you might already know that the Monday after the superbowl is one of the biggest days of the year for employees to call out sick – Axios’ Sport Editor Kendall Baker calls it one of the least productive days of the year. And according to a 2021 Harris Poll survey, 39% of American workers think super bowl Monday should be a national holiday.

I’m Niala Boodhoo - thanks for listening - stay safe and we’ll see you back here tomorrow morning.

Go deeper