In March, many companies told their employees to work from home and gave no indication of when it might be safe to go back to the office. For a while, there were fewer people on the road commuting to work. Now as some restrictions ease and the economy slowly ramps up, transit experts say many may continue to shun public transportation and shared rides.
“The concern is if people who previously were commuting by vanpool or public transit all shift into single-occupancy vehicle transport we could end up with gridlock worse than what we had when the economy was doing well,” said John Ford, executive director of Commute.org.
There is reason for concern. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines suggest avoiding public transportation to minimize risk of transmission of COVID-19. Instead, it recommends biking, walking or driving to work.
The Coastside has long struggled with traffic congestion around prime commute hours. While unable to predict what the return to “normal” will look like, Ford said he thinks people will most likely turn to carpools or rideshares as the safest option after driving alone.
“As people find trusted carpool partners, they can practice social distancing by having someone in the front seat and someone in the back, windows open to allow circulation. And people will wear masks,” he said. “This is where we think most of the people are going to gravitate to.”
Commute.org is San Mateo County’s Transportation Demand Management Agency. The agency’s members include 17 cities and towns as well as San Mateo County. Half Moon Bay City Vice Mayor Robert Brownstone sits on the board of directors. Its aim is to incentive people to find other means of transport other than driving solo.
Ford said Commute.org is looking at additional ways to advocate for people to use carpool programs. Two popular transit apps, Scoop and Waze, offer carpool-matching programs that screen and pair people with similar commutes. Commute.org’s incentive program offers riders up to $100 for riding carpools for a set number of days. To expand that program the agency is adding a similar incentive to people who bike to work.
Ford is speculative when it comes to the future of public transport. He said transit agencies such as Bay Area Rapid Transit and Caltrain are working on establishing uniform rider policies to make it as safe as possible.
As stay-at-home orders are revised, Ford said he is not sure whether there may be a point when a flood of commuter vehicles suddenly are back on the road all at once.
Of the San Mateo County companies surveyed by Commute.org, 40 percent said they were able to continue the teleworking model.
“The commute where your car does not have to leave the driveway is the best for air quality and in terms of traffic,” Ford said.
Regardless of the future of commuter patterns, Half Moon Bay city officials recognize traffic will be a persistent issue. Several long-term planning projects aim to create safer routes for bicyclists and pedestrians to encourage alternative modes of transit.
Public Works Program Manager Jennifer Chong said the city asked a group of volunteers to document barriers in their neighborhoods that prevent them from getting around without a vehicle. Working with Stanford University, the volunteers took photos and notes and uploaded them to an app for data collection. Chong said the volunteers will go over the data with city officials and council members at an upcoming mobility subcommittee meeting.
The volunteer group can eventually expand and the data collected will help inform the City Council as it looks to improve alternative modes of transit in the city.
“The more data the better idea we get on where people are coming from to form solutions,” Chong said.