U of M study shows COVID-19 greatly impacted commuting patterns, job accessibility

Movement patterns in cities, especially office job commutes, were substantially changed in 2021 by remote work, economic change and other responses caused by COVID-19, according to new research from the Accessibility Observatory at the University of Minnesota.

Behavioral changes were shown when focusing on reduced congestion and lower transit ridership. New data reveals deeper impacts that differ by the three modes studied: autotransit and biking.

When looking at findings from the auto analysis, limited access to opportunities, mainly due to traffic congestion during peak morning travel periods, was almost entirely eliminated. The study measures access to opportunity, as the number of jobs that the average worker traveling by auto, transit or bike can reach within 30 minutes, on average.

The top 50 most populous urban areas in the U.S. saw significant increases in access to jobs by driving during the morning peak. For example, compared to pre-pandemic travel patterns in January 2020, the typical worker in 2021 in Minneapolis can reach 42% more jobs.

“These are huge changes to which opportunities people could access with a car — without any big infrastructure or land use changes,” Observatory senior researcher Andrew Owen, lead author of the reports states. “Underlying the accessibility increases is a drop in peak drivership that has softened but is not going away — if we can take advantage of this and provide real alternatives to driving alone, we are hopeful that during our lifetimes we can create solutions for congestion without freeway expansion.”

Improvement in the auto network was greatest in cities like Los Angeles or San Diego previously most burdened with congestion.

Despite the focus on reports of plummeting ridership nationwide, the jobs that workers could reach by transit in 2021 changed very little compared to the busiest metro areas even with labor shortages and capacity restrictions due to health concerns and financial uncertainty.

“Federal grants for operations early in the pandemic helped maintain access to jobs for essential workers, who needed transit most,” said Accessibility Observatory director Eric Lind, co-author of the reports. “The challenge now for transit agencies is to continue to maintain the level of accessibility they have been providing.”

Researchers said that the recently published data reveals how changes in travel behavior can drastically improve the usefulness of public transit. Analyses of the Access Across America study of accessibility to jobs, conducted since 2014, are the first comprehensive national survey of how the changes in daily travel due to the COVID-19 pandemic looped back to significantly alter people’s access to different job opportunities.

Annual nationwide data from the National Accessibility Evaluation is used to guide key transportation and land-use policy decisions. In addition, detailed accessibility evaluation can help in selecting between project alternatives and prioritizing investments.