UW Study provides glimpse into future of commuting

New Normal study models the future of transit

After two years of wearing masks, social distancing, and less people attending social gatherings or public events, there is a sense of normalcy returning as Governor Inslee dropped the indoor mask requirement this month. But some may also ask if there is really returning to “normal” as COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way we work, go to school, and connect with friends and loved ones.

With many people returning to work as offices reopen, another question is if traffic on roads will return to “normal.”

Dr. Jeff Ban, a civil and environmental engineering professor at the Mobility Innovation Center at the University of Washington, has launched a study to answer that question. As part of that work, he and his team used a computer model to determine what returning to work would look like for commuters, as well as how it would affect transit ridership and overall system performance.

The model imagined four different scenarios, varying the share of commuters working form home between 10 and 50%, in combination with a range of shifts from transit to driving. These tests indicate that traffic congestion and transit ridership depend heavily on how many workers do eventually return to the office.

One surprise Ban’s team found from analyzing recent traffic trends is that while peak traffic has mostly returned to normal, the commutes don’t last as long in the Seattle area. Also, there is actually more traffic in-between commutes.

The model is the result of a partnership with Sound Transit, King County Metro, PSRC, and is partly supported by Challenge Seattle. PSRC contributed its SoundCast transportation model to the study, which helped Ban’s team develop the four scenarios used in their study. SoundCast was also used by PSRC to develop VISION 2050 and the Regional Transportation Plan.

Although there is some uncertainly as to what exactly will happen when offices fully reopen, the study aims to picture what commuting might look like as the central Puget Sound region emerges from the pandemic. Additionally, local transit agencies are using Ban’s model to anticipate potential ranges in ridership on commuter routes in the near future.

Additional modeling work is being conducted using data from Community Transit and King County Metro, which is expected to be completed this summer.