Last August, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio took time out of a COVID-19 press conference to send a direct message to city residents.
“My advice to New Yorkers is, ‘Do not buy a car,’” de Blasio said. “Cars are the past.”
By that point in 2020, New York state had processed 18% more new car registrations in the city than the summer before, according to the New York Times. In all of 2020, the New York metro area saw nearly 900,000 new cars registered, according to data from IHS Markit. As of May 2021, there were another 437,548 registered, nearly 7.5% of the nation’s total new car registrations this year.
At the same time, ridership on New York’s public transit remains depressed, with daily subway ridership less than 50% of pre-pandemic levels, according to daily ridership data. The New York Daily News reports that Metropolitan Transportation Authority Chief Financial Officer Bob Foran told the authority’s board that a 15% service cut might be necessary in 2023 if ridership does not rebound in full.
That’s trouble for a city that has made a concerted policy effort to get people out of cars, said Eric Beaton, deputy commissioner for transportation planning and management for the New York City Department of Transportation.
“Any increase [in vehicle ownership] is concerning,” said Beaton. “New York functions better when we encourage nonmotorized travel.”
New York was not alone in seeing transportation goals scrambled by the COVID-19 pandemic. As people stopped commuting to work and started avoiding crowds, transit ridership dropped, and many urban residents found themselves drawn to private vehicles. According to a December 2020 analysis from McKinsey & Co., the ability to reduce the risk of infection was consumers’ top factor in choosing a mode of transportation, above travel time and cost. That, the analysis said, “may give private car use the greatest boost, but micromobility options and walking/biking are also expected to gain ground.”
David Keith, an assistant professor of system dynamics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Management, has studied car ownership, especially around the question of "why this vision of shared mobility hasn't happened yet." A recent study he co-authored found that Americans take a lot of value from simply owning a car, a feeling that was even more distinct in the past 18 months.
“We’ve found that during the pandemic, the idea of having a car in the driveway to jump in and go to the doctor or the supermarket was quite vivid,” said Keith.
A StreetLight Data analysis of mobility trends in U.S. cities found that vehicle miles traveled (VMT) in cars had rebounded by spring 2021, despite many offices remaining closed to in-person employees. VMT in March 2021 was nearly 2% above the February 2020 level and 20% higher than March 2020, when lockdowns began. Overall, 37 states showed an increase in March 2021 VMT.
“From a sustainability point, there’s a risk that if we don’t find a way to work with businesses and cities and school districts to prevent everyone from getting back on the road at the same time, we’ll be back to what we had before [the pandemic], and maybe even worse,” said Martin Morzynski, vice president of marketing for StreetLight Data.
Beaton said he knows that once some New Yorkers buy a personal vehicle, it becomes a “sunk cost, and people will use it.” So as the city eyes reopening, he’s concentrating on making it more attractive to get around without a personal car, encouraging transit use or expanding car-sharing opportunities.
“The pandemic has been tough for a lot of us as we think about health and safety and personal choice,” he said. “Now, as this starts to get resolved, we want to have these clean and efficient alternatives available.”
The ‘hidden value’ of cars
New light vehicle registrations reached a 10-year high in March 2021, with 1.64 million cars registered nationally, according to IHS Markit data released in May. In a statement, Tom Libby, associate director of automotive loyalty and industry analysis for the company, called the number “remarkable as it exceeds any monthly result during the four-year stretch from 2015 through 2018 … the highest volume four-year stretch in history.” Experts warn those numbers may also reflect some pent-up demand and a supply shortage in 2020 due to manufacturing restrictions.
Owning a car doesn’t mean it will be used every day, but the purchases do reflect what Keith calls cars' “hidden value.” A study he co-authored, published in June in Nature Sustainability, surveyed drivers in four U.S. cities and found that people find worth in their car even when it sits idle.
“What we found is that the estimate of value an American gets from a car is greater than the true cost of ownership,” Keith said, referring to the maintenance, insurance, gas and other monthly expenses in addition to the purchase price. “There’s a lot of value beyond the times you’re actually using it. If I want to go out for ice cream or run an errand, and there’s a car in the driveway, that’s a value.”
Then there’s the other pandemic comfort trend — families moving out of cities and into suburbs. A StreetLight Data blog post found that, on average, people who relocated in March and April 2020 moved to areas that were 22% to 33% less dense, a significant increase from the previous year. Although not every area showed this “urban exodus,” Morzynski — who himself relocated out of San Francisco — said these relocations have implications for driving habits.
“Me personally, I’m putting more miles on the car than I used to, even though I’m working remotely,” he said. “San Francisco is not conducive to driving, but now, if I’m going into the city once or twice a week, I’m driving a 45-mile trip.”
Rafael Prieto Curiel, a professor in advanced spatial analysis at University College London, thinks of urban mobility as a game. “You want to play against everyone else in the city to make your trip as fast or as cheap or as comfortable as possible,” he said.
But what’s best for one driver isn’t best for everyone else, he said. In a paper published in Open Science in July, Curiel created a mathematical model of car use in a city where residents could either drive or take public transit. As more people in the model turned to cars for their commute for a shorter trip time, a paradox emerged: The city had the highest level of congestion and the longest possible commute times. The best way to lower the commute times after that point, the model found, was by reducing the number of people allowed to drive, either through driving restrictions or increasing transit use.
“We are all selfish in that we want to minimize our own time, but acting selfishly reaches a suboptimal solution for the city,” Curiel said. “The collective system that pushes you to drive is terrible. It just shouldn’t happen if we want our cities to be livable.”
Alex Engel, a spokesperson for the National Association of City Transportation Officials, said “there’s a lot of conversation and a lot of worry” among the group’s members about what the pandemic recovery could do for traffic, especially as cities have spent the last decade encouraging sustainable transportation through road redesign and bringing in micromobility fleets.
Early in the pandemic, many streets were turned over to pedestrians and bikers, and restaurants took over curb space for outdoor dining. As businesses begin to reopen, NACTO is working with cities to keep some of those outdoor spaces permanent; the organization, with support from Bloomberg Philanthropies, gave out $50,000 in grants each to 10 cities for traffic calming and open streets programs, with another $60,000 set to be distributed this year. The biking boom, which saw urban residents snapping up bikes to get around, was another silver lining of the pandemic lifestyle.
New York’s Beaton said his department has stepped up construction of bike lanes and protections for traffic-free streets during the pandemic, with an eye toward making these changes permanent. Last summer, New York had 67 miles of open streets under a temporary program, which has been renewed for 2021. The city is also working on a testing period for creating some streets that are reserved only for transit or restricted to certain types of traffic, using the pandemic as a test bed for more long-lasting changes.
“We’re doing a lot in the spirit of making these permanent,” Beaton said. “How can we take what’s really good about them and make them stick? People really want them to work.”
'Old habits die hard'
The nonprofit Commute Seattle works with local businesses and property managers to encourage policies and perks for sustainable transportation, such as transit benefits or bike infrastructure. Executive Director Kevin Futhey said that before the pandemic, the city had seen a big increase in telework, even though only 6% of workers reported it in a survey on commuting modes to the city center. That was a promising sign in the fight against rush hour, and one that could last beyond the pandemic as more workers and managers have gotten used to working from home.
However, Futhey worries that Seattle may still see excess traffic as the city starts to reopen if people are not encouraged to use transit. According to the 2019 commuting survey, transit ridership — which are 46% of commutes to the city center — has not substantially increased, while single-occupancy vehicle commuting rose slightly (which Futhey said could be statistical noise).
“There’s a potentially bad situation if employers are requiring people to come in before they’re ready to get back on a bus or rail,” Futhey said. “To get back to the ridership numbers we had, those buses are going to be pretty crowded. People might rather drive, which leaves us with bad traffic.”
Futhey said he’s focused on encouraging employers to keep telework policies in place long term — keeping commuters off the road entirely — or to stagger employees’ arrival times to reduce rush hour peaks. Strategies that can reduce the rush hour crunch, he said, can go a long way to discourage driving by making commutes more pleasant.
Some of the longer-term strategies may be on hold, like New York’s long-awaited congestion pricing, which would toll drivers for entering Manhattan’s central business district. After being held up by the Trump administration, it’s not likely to kick in until 2022 at the earliest.
But there are more immediate steps cities can take, beginning with getting people back on public transit. Boston offered $60 in transit credits and bikeshare passes to 1,000 workers. The Southern Nevada RTC issued free weekly transit passes in May to new employees or people returning to the workforce. The Chicago Transit Authority halved the price of day passes for summer months. The American Rescue Plan, which passed Congress in March, also provided $30.5 billion in emergency funding for transit agencies, which will help avert service cuts and fund programs to restore ridership.
Some agencies are also rebuilding their networks around their most frequent riders. The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, for example, used data from the pandemic to identify commuting patterns among essential workers. It will use an "equity toolkit" based on ridership in nine neighborhoods to inform its transportation recovery plan with a goal of reducing commute times and adding service for essential workers.
Experts say there’s also a prime opportunity for a major mobility shift in the infrastructure bills working their way through Congress. The Senate is poised to pass a $1 trillion infrastructure bill with $39 billion for transit and a program to reconnect communities divided by highways through street redesign and road demolition. (The bill also contains $110 billion for roads, bridges and highways.) Democrats are hoping to pass another $3.5 trillion package that would include climate spending that could include more funding for sustainable transportation.
But using that money to reverse any pandemic-era driving trends will require a concerted effort by city officials, planners and businesses, said StreetLight’s Morzynski. Otherwise, he said, “human nature” might keep people in their cars.
“Old habits die hard,” he said. “If we’re getting all these dollars, we need to provide the right infrastructure for now rather than go back to plans we had 10 years ago.”