If you’re among the people still commuting for your job — or you’re anticipating a return to the office in the near future — the pandemic brings this modicum of relief: Not only is your traffic lighter now, it’ll probably stay that way for the time being. Of course, that's not necessarily something to be happy about.
The state Department of Transportation released traffic models predicting rush hour traffic lighter than pre-pandemic levels for at least the next three years. Transportation planners weighed forecasts from Moody’s Analytics and the government’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, along with their own data about how many cars occupy the state’s busiest thoroughfares, to draw up estimates of total vehicle miles traveled on our roads.
They sketched out three scenarios, according to State House News Service’s coverage of the report, all of which conclude we won’t see a return to the 6 to 9 a.m. traffic volumes of old until well past the end of 2023. Those scenarios imagine: a gradual return to activity once COVID-19 is either less virulent or people are vaccinated; or a situation where the pandemic's effects on the economy linger for a while; or maybe a permanently changed work world in which telecommuting is more common.
“This is not saying that (traffic) will never get back to where it was in terms of total, but we’re saying in all of these scenarios, we don’t have the same kind of morning congestion that we used to have because of the combination of economic changes and travel changes,” Stephanie Pollack, the state’s transportation secretary, told the MBTA’s Fiscal and Management Control Board during a discussion of the report Monday.
You'd be hard pressed to celebrate that smoother ride down Routes 1 or 128, or Interstate 93, given the underlying reason for the lighter traffic — that businesses vacated offices in order to maintain social distancing and prevent spread of the coronavirus.
Also dampening the mood are the ripple effects — for one, fewer commuters mean significantly fewer riders on MBTA trains, subways and buses. Their absence is compounded, Pollack noted, because rush hour traffic also tends to be one of the reasons people switch from driving to using public transit.
The MBTA is straining to shore up its operation, with about $59 million more in funds promised in Gov. Charlie Baker’s revised budget, and another $80 million in reallocated federal funds. Still, the agency's budget writers expect a shortfall of anywhere between $308 million and $577 million for fiscal 2022, which begins next July.
That will almost certainly mean deep cuts — a grim prospect that will have even further impacts on people who depend on transit to go to work and school. The Alliance for Business Leadership — a group of business and health groups, transit advocates, unions and others — recent sent a letter urgently asking the T’s managers to do everything in their power to keep the network intact.
Doing so doesn’t just protect people who ride the Newburyport/Rockport line, or any of the other commuter rail trains. It also protects people driving across the Tobin Bridge or whizzing through the high-occupancy vehicle lanes, temporarily open to all traffic, on Interstate 93.
“Even those who do not regularly ride the MBTA benefit from a transit system that reduces pollution and congestion, supports our economy, and keeps our neighbors, caregivers and loved ones safe,” the group pointed out in its letter, according to Statehouse reporter Christian Wade’s account of the MBTA Control Board’s meeting. “Decision makers must recognize the essential nature of transit service and act accordingly.”
Even for the best intentioned MBTA managers, it's likely to be a struggle.
So, if you’re still driving into work, the morning commute that once consumed an hour and a half of your life may be narrowed by half. And the traffic report, at least for the short term, looks to be pretty good.
But it’s an easier commute that comes with a heavy cost and ever-branching complications making us wistful for those days of beep-and-creep traffic.