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With transit a worry and offices reopening, is Boston’s traffic about to get worse than ever?

Offices are about to reopen in Boston, and commuters are skittish about the T. Is traffic about to get even worse than it was pre-pandemic?
Offices are about to reopen in Boston, and commuters are skittish about the T. Is traffic about to get even worse than it was pre-pandemic?Barry Chin/Globe Staff

In poll after poll, commuters say they aren’t eager to return to the crowded confines of public transit. The MBTA’s stated goal is to keep vehicles uncrowded. And the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is urging offices to help their workers find ways to drive to work.

Taken together, does this all add up to a return — or even a worsening — of the region’s infamous traffic congestion as offices in Boston and Cambridge prepare to reopen on Monday?

The good news is that it probably won’t be an issue immediately, and possibly not for several months. Between 25-percent capacity limits at offices and large swaths of the workforce that will continue working from home, seemingly nobody expects a near-term return to the roadway conditions that haunted the region prior to the coronavirus. Put simply, even if a lot of people who previously took transit start driving to work, that will likely be neutralized by the number of people still working from home.

“[Travel] flows around the city, into and out of the city, are going to increase gradually over the next several weeks and months, following the public health guidance of the state and the city,” said Chris Osgood, Boston’s chief of streets. “I think you’ll also see steps that are taken by offices and buildings to think of adjusting shift structures so you’ll see fewer folks commuting at exactly the same time.”

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But urban planners worried about a huge spike in traffic found themselves in a defensive posture last week after the CDC issued guidelines saying employers should encourage office workers to drive to work — a stark contrast with longstanding public policy goals aimed at getting more commuters out of cars to fight traffic.

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“If these guidelines are followed, our cities will be in a state of paralyzing gridlock and our economy, our cities, and all Americans will suffer,” Corinne Kisner, executive director of the National Association of City Transportation Officials, said in a statement.

And if more commuters begin driving even occasionally while the virus circulates, it’s possible that will form a long-term habit well into the future, breeding a new legion of drivers clogging highways and polluting the air after the virus subsides, said David Straus, executive director for the Association for Commuter Transportation.

“Driving as a behavior is one of those wicked challenges that is really hard to change,” Straus said. “The worry is that people will shift to driving, and as more and more employees return to the worksite, there will be a real severe crunch on the parking supply.”

About 120,000 people drove alone to work during the morning rush in Boston as of 2010, according to the Walsh administration’s central transportation plan, a number that undoubtedly grew over the past decade before plummeting during the pandemic. Traffic began to tick up slightly in May, and business organizations in and near Boston say they are hearing from companies who hope to reserve more parking for workers ahead of the reopening.

But parking facility operators don’t expect capacity to be an issue. Boston has about 380,000 off-street parking spaces, according to a 2016 analysis by the business group A Better City, though that figure includes residential spaces. About 78,000 were located downtown.

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“There’s still ample supply to meet the demand, even if you have the situations where people are opting to drive themselves as opposed to being on mass transit,” said Jeff Eckerling, chief growth officer for SP Plus Corp., a national company that manages several prominent facilities in Boston such as the Government Center Garage.

Since business has been down by as much as 95 percent in some US commercial districts, there is still a lot of space to fill back up, Eckerling said. And at least in the near-term, workers will be staggered in offices by different days and times, so motorists probably won’t need to reserve a spot for a whole month and may be able to share spots.

“When you look at the potential shift of more people driving being offset by more people telecommuting, and a flex-pass rather than a monthly pass, that might work,” said Jeff Karp, president of LAZ Parking, another major parking management company in Boston.

CA Webb, president of the Kendall Square Association, said this could work similarly on the corporate level: Organizations that plan to mostly shift to remote work for the foreseeable future could share some of their spots with neighboring businesses that need more people on site.

For now, there isn’t much precedent in the United States to understand how travel patterns will change as Boston reopens. The cities that have most aggressively reopened are largely car-dependent, and not among the small cohort that includes Boston where large portions of white-collar commuters rely on transit.

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“In cities where mass transit is offered and has a lot of usage, are you seeing a bigger uptick in demand for parking compared to non-transit cities? It’s too early to tell," said Eckerling.

But if and when commuting returns to its prior levels, there’s no question that a significant shift from trains and buses to cars would have a major impact on congestion. An online tool published by researchers at Vanderbilt University indicates that if one-third of all Greater Boston transit riders shifted to cars, the typical car commuter would spend about an extra half-hour a week in traffic compared to pre-pandemic levels, a number that would surely be greater in commercial centers where transit is more highly used.

However, the tool also suggests that kind of shift from transit to driving would be more than offset by a 10-percent increase in work-from-home. The high number of people out of work could also play a role in limiting traffic for now.

Plenty of commuters don’t have the option to work from home, but those without cars won’t have the option to drive, and even those who do may not be able to afford the high costs of city parking. City officials have pledged to set aside more space for biking and walking, hoping commuters with shorter trips may shift to those modes instead.

Nor is the city giving up on transit: Officials say establishing more bus-only lanes could still make transit attractive because it would allow more frequent — and thus less crowded — service.

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“We do want to make sure that transit is a safe and available choice to as many residents and commuters as possible,” Osgood said. “Throughout the reopening phase, we’re going to be monitoring the situation and seeing the other things we might need to do to complement that.”

But most near-term transportation planning in Massachusetts has been centered on keeping workers at home to limit the strain on the roads and a transit system that will need to carry fewer people to ensure safe distance between riders. Some prognosticators believe the rise of telecommuting during the pandemic could stick around long-term, as companies become far more comfortable with at least part-time remote work.

If that doesn’t pan out and transit riders remain squeamish, traffic could become a problem as more people return to work, Massachusetts Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack acknowledged.

“We are preparing for a lot of different futures," she said. “In one of them, if people don’t use the T and people go back to . . . working at places they have to travel to, then yes, there is a risk about traffic.”


Adam Vaccaro can be reached at adam.vaccaro@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @adamtvaccaro.