Even though commuting volumes have rebounded almost entirely from the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, traffic congestion has not returned, Maryland’s leading transportation analysts have concluded.
As a result, researchers at the Maryland Transportation Institute now believe, the state can achieve significant improvements in commute times by getting a relatively small percentage of people to work from home on a long-term basis.
The findings are certain to delight critics of the Hogan administration’s plan to widen two Washington, D.C., region interstate highways using a controversial funding system.
The institute’s analysis is drawn from a voluminous cache of cell phone data, which researchers insist is stripped of individual origin and destination information to preserve anonymity.
The conclusions were presented to a legislative subcommittee on Thursday. The panel is looking at how telework — which has skyrocketed to unprecedented levels since the coronavirus outbreak began — can be sustained, to reduce fuel use, time spent in traffic, and pollution.
Comparing 2019 traffic volume with this year’s data, MTI researchers concluded that “just a 5% reduction in travel demand could lead to 32%-58% reduction in traffic congestion on major freeways.”
That would mean getting 5,700 drivers who would normally take Interstate 270 at the height of the traditional commute to telework or travel off-peak, institute Director Lei Zhang told the panel.
“In April [traffic volumes] were down by more than 50% and now we’re coming back up to 80% or 85%, but still we don’t see a lot of traffic jams,” he said. “A 15% reduction in traffic volume observed in July 2020 was able to eliminate almost all traffic bottlenecks in the region,” he added.
A comparison of vehicle speeds between last year and this year showed dramatic changes as well. Since the pandemic, motorists on almost all Maryland highways have been able to travel at or near posted speeds even at the most congested periods of the day, the institute found.
Many employers have already indicated it will be many more months — at a minimum — before they bring workers back to the workplace. Office layouts are being reworked to provide more space between desks and building engineers are struggling to reduce crowding in elevators, shared spaces and stairwells.
Some prominent companies have recently said they will give up their offices and make telework permanent.
While planners and policymakers cannot assume that the trend is permanent, Zhang cautioned, they should be actively looking for ways to keep as many workers off the roads at peak times as possible.
“The question is what if we could convince just 5% or 10% — or even 2% — of people to continue working from home, or otherwise avoiding driving during the peak period, what would the benefits of that be in the state of Maryland?”
Del. Carol Krimm (D-Frederick) suggested the immediate creation of a “blue ribbon commission” to take advantage of the current spike in telework.
“I’m concerned that we are in this opportunity zone and I don’t want it to slip away,” she said. “I think we have to be more aggressive now. This is our opportunity to raise telework to a place that people can actually opt for and for businesses to opt for.”
Transportation Secretary Greg Slater, who briefed the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Transportation and the Environment, sidestepped Krimm’s call for a new commission. Instead he highlighted the state’s existing efforts to encourage telework, carpooling and transit use.
At the legislature’s request, the Maryland Transportation Institute conducted simulations in which peak-hour traffic was reduced by 5%, 10% and 15%.
Analysts found that a 15% drop in vehicle use during peak periods would reduce energy consumption by 22%, equivalent to 60 million gallons of fuel annually, a savings of $918 million for commuters.
Greenhouse gas emissions would drop by 650,000 tons.
During remarks at a transportation industry event Thursday morning, Slater said COVID-19 has made it difficult to plan for the future.
“The estimates we make today are different than they would have been a month ago and they’re going to be different a month from now, so a lot of uncertainty,” he said.
“We’re really hoping to learn a lot from what happens to that,” he said of the shifts in commuting patterns over the last few months.
Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) announced plans to to widen I-495 and I-270 using a public-private partnership in 2017 — and he is pushing ahead with those plans, despite the difficulties encountered by the state’s first P3 project, the construction of the Purple Line, and the dramatic shifts in commuting.
The Maryland Department of Transportation recently certified four potential bidders as having the wherewithal to submit proposals.
Backers of Hogan’s plan sought to diminish the impact of MTI’s analysis.
John Townsend II, head of governmental affairs for AAA-MidAtlantic, accused critics of the plan of “pretzel logic” and “magical thinking.”
“This new data, as well as the [Draft Environmental Impact Statement], only reinforce the compelling need to move forward on improvements to the American Legion Bridge and I-270 now, while interest rates are at historic lows, to help get us and our economy moving again, and to ensure that the P3 program delivers a positive return for all of us and bring a goodly measure of relief to gridlock-beset commuters,” Townsend said in an email.
Emmet Tydings, head of the Suburban Maryland Transportation Alliance, said policymakers need to plan for a future that by some projections will bring an additional 1.2 million people in the Washington-Baltimore region.
He predicted congestion will get worse “when in-person schooling restarts.”
MDOT spokeswoman Erin Henson said the continued success of the Port of Baltimore — and the state’s recent expansion of the Howard Street railroad tunnel in Baltimore, allowing for double-stacked containers — means the state’s need for additional capacity is only going to grow.
“MDOT will continue to track trends in travel behavior and monitor traffic volumes, will evaluate and consider all new information that becomes available to ensure solutions will meet the needs of Marylanders now and in the future,” Henson said in an email.
During a recent Maryland Economic Development Commission meeting, staffers from the state Department of Commerce said that 35% of workers in the Washington and Baltimore regions have jobs that are ideally suited to working from home.
State Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles told the committee that 80% of his workers now telecommute, down from 97% at the beginning of the pandemic.
The MTI simulation looked not only at the D.C. region but at several of the state’s most heavily-traveled corridors — including Interstates 95 and 70 — and found significant reductions in delays.
A 10% reduction in peak-hour outer loop Beltway traffic resulted in a 61% reduction in delays. A 5% drop in morning peak traffic on I-70 would produce a 58% drop in delays. Shaving 15% off of southbound I-95 commuter traffic would produce an 89% reduction in peak-travel delays.
Subcommittee Chairman Marc Korman (D-Montgomery) said the institute’s findings buttress what he and others have observed in their own travels — and what he has noticed checking out MDOT traffic cameras at peak hours. “You can see it with your own eyes.”
Armed with data showing when people travel and why, Zhang said it’s clear that many people have shifted elements of their normal routine because they can, resulting in travel that is more spread throughout the day than before the epidemic.
For example, many people who would have run errands after work are now sneaking to the store in the middle of the day.
“The most difficult thing to change about a person is his or her behavior,” he told lawmakers. “Because of COVID, many people have changed their behavior.”