Coronavirus vaccines may be on the horizon, bolstering prospects that daily life will return to normal sometime in 2021 — and with it, the region’s grueling pre-pandemic traffic congestion.
A new survey conducted by the city of Boston and the business group A Better City suggests that many commuters are planning to take to the roads when they eventually return to Boston’s busiest commercial centers. About 38 percent said they plan to drive alone to work once the crisis is over, compared to about 23 percent who drove before the pandemic.
Meanwhile, just over half of regular subway riders plan to return to public transit, from 29.2 percent of overall commuters to 16.4 percent. Buses and commuter trains would see declines in returning riders, too, according to the survey.
This data could have troubling implications for Greater Boston, whose stifling congestion and aging transit infrastructure were near the top of the political agenda before the virus emptied the roads and rails and undercut the efforts to improve the strained transportation system.
“We should all be worried that once the public health issues are overcome, we wake up to a world where our transportation issues are even worse than they were in March 2020,” said Chris Dempsey, director of the advocacy group Transportation for Massachusetts.
The survey’s authors were more sanguine, noting that the majority of commuters said they would return to their pre-pandemic transportation mode of choice, including taking public transit, with others moving to biking or walking. In other words, it could be worse.
“The drive-alone rate, I thought it might be higher than it was,” said A Better City president Rick Dimino.
Speculating about future commuting patterns has been something of a COVID-era parlor game for transportation experts and advocates. But the survey of more than 4,000 workers offers some concrete data about how a subset of commuters is approaching the question.
Some caveats: The survey isn’t representative of all Boston-area commuters; it is heavily weighted toward white-collar college-educated professionals and workers in the health care industry, and it focused primarily on major commercial areas such as the downtown area, Kenmore Square, the South End, Back Bay, and the Seaport. Most respondents — 60 percent — have been working from home full time during the pandemic.
But how these workers return to downtown workplaces — if they do at all — will play a major role in shaping the region’s new transportation landscape.
And those decisions may come just as Massachusetts officials are scheduled to reduce transit service across the MBTA because of revenue losses and low ridership during the pandemic. Those widespread cuts are expected in the first half of 2021.
At a public meeting Monday, Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack argued that even an effective vaccine rapidly deployed in the spring would not solve the T’s budget trouble, with transit ridership likely to still lag for many months.
“Ridership and revenue is not just a function of a vaccine or the economy. It is also a function of behavior changes,” she said. “That does not make your riders come back, if they’re working from home a day or two a week, or a quarter of them are working from home a day or two week; the fare revenue takes a while to get back.”
Indeed, the survey found that 80 percent want to spend more time working at home in the aftermath of the pandemic. While 21 percent of respondents suggested they hope to work remotely every day, 47 percent said they’d favor doing so a few times a week. Even that kind of change could create more room on the roads or in transit vehicles.
But Dimino said service reductions will only exacerbate the struggle to rebuild ridership, he said.
“The T is moving in the wrong direction relative to thinking about service cuts,” Dimino said. “When the workplace return is expected to begin growing, that’s the obvious wrong time for transit to be less available for the workforce.”
The survey suggested policy makers may be able to influence commuting decisions, as some drivers acknowledged they could be coaxed into using public transit by either cheaper fares or if they had to pay a fee to drive in congested areas.
And not everybody leaving the MBTA would necessarily wind up behind the wheel; the survey also suggested a post-pandemic surge in both cycling and walking commutes.
“People are open to riding a bicycle to work,” said Vineet Gupta, planning director at the Boston Transportation Department. “That’s why it’s important we step up to install more bike lanes.”
The authors of the survey also theorized the results may undersell the number of commuters who will eventually resume taking public transit if a vaccine helps eradicate the virus.
“The majority of those planning to make the switch indicate that their primary motivation is safety, suggesting that some amount of this behavior change could be impermanent in a post-vaccine future,” according to a report on the survey findings.
But Robin Chase, a transportation researcher and founder of Zipcar, noted that once people begin driving to work, they may be less amenable to switching to public transit. Those downtown commuters, Chase said, may end up lamenting the very gridlock they helped cause.
“Even though they know the congestion was horrific, somehow people just forget about it,” she said.