Studying the Impacts of the Pandemic and Future Mobility Patterns in California During the Post COVID-19 Recovery

Starting in early 2020, the world has experienced huge disruptions due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has heavily altered social and economic activities with effects that are expected to last, at least in part, even after the health emergency is over. By the end of February 2021, more than 28 million cases had been confirmed in the United States, with more than 500,000 Americans losing their life because of the pandemic. The combination of individuals’ concerns about contracting the virus combined with the various measures implemented to contain the contagion have caused devastating impacts on employment and the financial conditions of many (but not all) US households, as well as huge modifications in activity organization and travel choices. Among other impacts on the transportation sector, over the past year the United States has experienced a steep decline in air travel for long-distance trips, as well as in the use of public transportation and shared mobility for shorter-distance trips. A temporary reduction in vehicle miles traveled (VMT) and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from car travel was observed in the early stages of the pandemic, especially during the heavy transition to remote working and the initial stay-at-home orders, but this was followed by a substantial recovery in car travel during later stages of the pandemic. 

The analyses carried out in this study will shed light on the complicated impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on activity participation and travel patterns, including commuting and non-commuting (e.g., discretionary) trips, and the use of various means of travel. These analyses will also examine whether, and to what extent, the general aversion towards public transit, ride pooling, and other forms of shared mobility, may persist after the end of the pandemic, as a combination of objective factors (e.g., the need to avoid the risk of contagion during the early recovery, the results of changes in policies for social distancing that are extended for months, and changes in the supply of these services), psychological factors (e.g., people might be more scared of germs and viruses even after the pandemic), and habit formation (e.g., if people get used to traveling alone or driving, they might be more hesitant to pool or to go back to using transit in the future). It is important to consider how such impacts may differ by groups of travelers and subsegments of the population.

Understanding what different groups and segments of the population do, with regard to these changes, and how likely they are to continue to do certain things and/or react to future policies (e.g., enacted to contain car travel after the pandemic) is of utmost importance for transportation planners and policy makers to reign in transportation in the “post COVID-19” society. Accordingly, this study will produce valuable insights that will be of direct interest to planners at Caltrans as well as useful to inform the scientific community and other relevant stakeholders and planning agencies.


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