Travel & Health after Covid

Chart on how much time is spent commuting
Source: BU School of Public Health, and prepared by Wonkblog

When we think of Covid’s impact on transportation what first comes to mind is the reluctance of people to take public transportation, and fear that confinement, say in an airplane or a cruise ship, will spread the virus. People in cities are slowly returning to these travel modes but there are other impacts from suburbia which may be longer term.

The Covid pandemic has enmeshed transportation with health. Before the pandemic they were more loosely linked.  Public health officials seldom gave priority to tamping down the fatality rate – over 40,000 lives annually from vehicle and pedestrian deaths. Transportation researchers meanwhile, typically modeled efficiency and time-to -travel as more essential components than health outcomes. 

Two Trends:

Over the past 18 months, the pandemic has flipped awareness to the vital connections between transportation and health. What was once a distant environment for younger people has become front and center.  This leads to a fresh assessment of lifestyles and behaviors that promote well-being. One of them may be a reluctance to get back in the car and on the road. The other is a live-for-the moment attitude.

The latter, like many topics in transportation, is counter-intuitive. There are fewer cars on the road since the pandemic because more people are working from home or simply traveling less. We exclude crowded, traffic-clogged cities. On the road, the risk for being in a serious accident or becoming a traffic fatality has increased. The reasons are explored in data collected by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in a June 2021 publication called, “ Traffic Safety Facts.” It is a sobering document. Based on sampling cases arriving at trauma centers, they found almost two thirds of drivers tested positive for at least one active drug, including alcohol, marijuana, or opioids between mid-March and mid-July, 2020. 

Before Covid, in 2019, about half the medical cases in the trauma centers involved alcohol or drug impairment. During Covid the overall level rose and multiple categories of substance abuse per patient. Rates have not normalized back to 2019 levels. There has also been a surge in substance abuse among pedestrians and motorcycle riders. There could be multiple reasons leading to this uptick, mostly likely, less enforcement of speed limits and driving violations, particularly in suburban locations. Meanwhile, drivers may also be playing out their personal, at-home lives when they travel without regard to the risks of doing so. 

Staying Healthier:

That said, the pandemic has also connected health and transportation in more sanguine ways. Millions of commuters working from home discovered local ways to travel around their community, on bike, walking, or scooters. The pandemic also speeded up entry of a relatively new mode, the electric bike. During the pandemic, year over year  vehicle sales increased by 240%. 

E-bikes make a positive impact in the dialogue of health and commute. Travelers can go longer distances, but also choose the exercise level that suits them. E-bikes also help clean the air, and reduce emissions from carbon based fuels.

 So, post-Covid peak, commuters who used to sit in traffic snarls for long periods may have recognized the time-savings of an e-bike. They can envision, perhaps for the first time, a different way of getting to the office. 

Perhaps the connection between transportation and personal health factors into why so many white-collar type employees, currently working at home, prefer to stay put. Until Covid, longer commutes were the tradeoff they made to live more affordably, or in larger homes, or for better public services.

These newly minted teleworkers may have discovered what the transportation field modestly acknowledged.  For nearly twenty years researchers have noted the connection between longer commutes to work and stress, obesity and even mental illness. Commuters had taken steps to shield themselves with larger vehicles and more dashboard entertainment. Still, they knew they can never gain back the travel time that they spend (or waste?) in the vehicle. 

Thinking Forward:

That brings up heads with two contradictory trends. For those who stay at home to work, there are alternative choices likely walking, scooters, and e-biking. Yet when they do travel,  there is substance abuse and a higher risk of collisions.

Roads will not as safe until we take steps to make them so, beginning with greater enforcement and more awareness of driver impairments. There is a lot of bad behavior out there because drivers feel less inhibited. But, we are also beginning to use our roads differently. Traditional drivers have more pedestrians, bikers, and scooters, plus the e-bikes to contend with. It’s bringing health and travel into short-term conflict, but probably into more long term road sharing and harmony.  Questioning old patterns brings a search for healthy ideas, and the potential for radical change.