Transportation, Air Quality, and Health Impacts During COVID-19

Bukola Bakare
Western Carolina University

Traffic congestion adds considerable expense to business operations. Businesses may lose money due to shipment delays, productivity losses, wasted fuel, and refunds for late deliveries [1]. Delays due to traffic congestion have also halted manufacturing lines [1]. Traffic congestion results in up to $27 million in lost time and fuel for businesses [2]. In addition, traffic congestion can cause daily stress and frustration, while exhaust emissions pollute the air [3]. Air pollution was linked to over 30,000 deaths in the U.S. in 2015 [4], with broader implications for patients with lung cancer, heart attacks, strokes and other lung diseases like asthma [5]. Furthermore, car exhaust released into the air can stunt the growing lungs of children living in polluted areas [6]. Preliminary studies indicate that air pollution is associated with a higher number of deaths due to Covid-19 [7].

Although municipalities, states, and not-for-profit entities have been searching for solutions to traffic congestion for decades, the problem persists. Constructing additional roads is a limited solution, since space and capital are limited. And people who see empty roads may opt to use their personal vehicles that lead to congestion, rather than using public transportation, carpooling, or other methods of travel. To summarize a 2009 study [8], creating more roads creates more demand for those roads.

More recently, as the Covid-19 pandemic upended life in the United States and led to massive unemployment [10], studies from the first few months of the pandemic showed significant traffic congestion reductions [11] and correlated improvements in air quality [12]. For example, according to a University of California-Davis study, the number of miles driven by American drivers between early March and mid-April 2020 declined by 71%, and greenhouse gas emissions dropped by 32 million metric tons [13]. Beyond necessitating remote work for many employees, the pandemic required many business operations to be halted. This disruption compelled many businesses to rethink business operations or put into practice alternatives to the standard 9-to-5 workday with its associated rush hour congestion [14]. The number of people working remotely has limited the number of vehicles traversing our roads, greatly reducing traffic congestion and improving road operations.

With lockdown restrictions eased across much of the country, traffic has returned to the roads. However, with an estimated 42% of the workforce now working from home [15], traffic patterns and congestion have shifted. In a study of five major U.S. metropolitan areas from April to July 2020 [16], during the first spike of cases in the pandemic, showed that while miles per vehicle returned to the February 2020 pre-pandemic levels, congestion declined significantly as commuters spread their travel throughout the day. This dispersion in peak traffic is partly due to employees, particularly essential workers, who might typically take public transit but instead traveled in personal cars for fear of contracting Covid-19 [17]. Nevertheless, in spite of the increase in vehicle miles traveled, the amount of time spent waiting in congestion has decreased. This is important for air quality, as idling cars exacerbates the already negative impact of pollution from constantly flowing traffic [18]. As the pandemic has shown, reducing traffic clearly benefits public health and business operations.

Through their reduction in congestion, work-from-home policies and flexible work schedules benefit employees, employers, and society at large. Although research pre-dating the pandemic showed that employees working from home were at least as productive as their peers in the office [19] [20], some companies remain hesitant about the benefits of remote work in the long term. Still, early evidence from the pandemic shows that the productivity of remote workers has continued to match or exceed pre-pandemic office-based productivity levels [21] [22]. Just as important, remote work policies are a major component of decreasing traffic congestion, decreasing air pollution, and increasing public health and quality of life [12]. Corporations should strongly consider keeping the flexible working hours and work-from-home options created during the pandemic. As the economy has rebounded from the first round of unemployment, new opportunities present themselves for mitigating traffic reduction. Even as recent research has shown that workers’ attitudes towards commuting have changed, policy interventions that encourage these changes are required to ensure that traffic congestion does not rebound after the pandemic [12].



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