NJSPL Report Release: The Transportation Impacts of the COVID-19 Pandemic

March 1, 2024

The COVID-19 pandemic had major impacts on transportation behavior in New Jersey and throughout the world. Our research sought to examine these shifts in behavior and whether any of them will be long-lasting. Using survey data collected from New Jersey residents, we examined behavior and viewpoints for a variety of changes. These included public views on the closing of streets and allowing outdoor dining in streets and on sidewalks; changes in bicycling and walking; factors associated with working at home and whether this will continue in the future; and whether online grocery shopping will continue.

The most visible shift that continues to this day is the large increase in working at home several times a week. This change has benefits in potentially relieving congestion during some days of the week, but also has reduced revenue for public transit. On the other hand, our survey results found that people want to work at home more often. The time savings and schedule flexibility are valued, as is more time with family. These are real benefits and suggest policies to promote working at home have societal utility and perhaps greater utility than adding new lanes to a highway to try to relieve congestion. Our study found some variation in who is able to work at home, and in general, those able to do so are more affluent and educated, suggesting some potential disparities in how people are affected by commuting.

We queried respondents on their views of the many changes made to streets during the pandemic, specifically focusing on converting street space and sidewalks to facilitate outdoor dining. This was supported by more respondents than those who opposed these changes, and many were neutral in their responses. The pandemic demonstrated the ability of municipalities to rapidly find ways to accommodate the needs of their residents to be outside and that of restaurants to serve customers outside. In normal times, these types of changes are stymied by requirements to give street space to motor vehicles; any change requires a detailed study of effects on traffic with little consideration of the safety benefits of accommodating walking and cycling.

In our analysis of changes to walking and cycling, those who were aware of changes in the street were more likely to increase their walking and cycling. While much of this was recreational, there are health benefits associated with more physical activity. Those who worked at home also reported increases in both walking and cycling. The policy implication is straightforward and consistent with New Jersey’s Vision Zero goals to eliminate traffic fatalities; making streets safer by providing pedestrian and cycling infrastructure can increase both walking and cycling.

We analyzed online grocery shopping to determine whether early COVID-induced increases would persist in the future. Our analysis suggests a small increase in online grocery shopping but similar levels of in-person grocery shopping in the future. While we don’t see any change in travel behavior associated with online grocery shopping, we did find some benefits. In particular, those with fewer cars in the household might be able to access food more easily, especially those in lower income neighborhoods with no nearby supermarket. Given the higher cost of online grocery shopping, this might require policy to subsidize these costs. Older people tended to be less likely to use online grocery shopping; while we did not explore why this was the case, it could be due to less access and familiarity with online platforms. Given the increased vulnerability of older people, finding ways to increase their access to online grocery shopping would have value should there be another respiratory pandemic. This is especially true as we also found that those in denial of COVID, based on a set of attitudinal questions, actually increased their in-person shopping, potentially exposing more people to COVID.

Read the report here. 

By Robert Noland, Hannah Younes, Evan Iacobucci, and Wenwen Zhang

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