AS WE BEGIN THE JOURNEY to the “new normal,” post-COVID work environment, there is the strong likelihood that traffic congestion will be worse than before.

With COVID leaving many with lingering doubts about the safety and health risks associated with public anything, including public transportation, many will turn to the private automobile as their transport mode of choice in increasing numbers. This will undoubtedly lead to the rise of congestion. The chances that a large percentage of the population can work from home indefinitely is highly unlikely. Already traffic is slowly on the rise and some buses are nearing full capacity in peak hour. The question is what to do next.

Research completed recently at MIT may give a few pointers. A study of congestion and mode shift around the world and a survey of motorists on the most congested metro Boston highways and roads show that motorists already had health and safety concerns about transit before COVID. Post-COVID these factors will almost certainly be even more acute.

A survey of 402 motorists on the 10 most congested roads in metro Boston reveals that people regularly stuck in some of the worst congestion in the nation don’t take the T or commuter rail for one or more of several reasons: difficulty accessing the T, the lengthy travel times, high commuter rail fares, and transit unreliability.

Ninety percent of survey responses were received between February 14 and March 19, before COVID was regarded as a significant problem, yet 67 percent of the respondents nevertheless described the trains, buses, and stations as crowded, dirty, unhealthy, or unsafe.

The research further demonstrated the powerful impact that free or subsidized workplace parking has on commuters’ decision to choose to travel by car rather than take the train. Nearly 72 percent of those surveyed said they enjoy free or subsidized parking at work. This free parking acts as a hidden subsidy for travelling by private car rather than taking transit.Results of the survey indicate that nearly 64 percent of workers from Massachusetts and Rhode Island commuting on the most congested corridors would consider shifting to transit if the cost of driving went up by 50 percent.

Survey respondent data was mapped using GIS (Geographical Information Systems) maps to identify the geographical spread of motorists concerns with taking transit. While the core MBTA rail transit fares were seen by motorists as acceptable, a number of long distance commuter rail fares were seen as too high by survey respondents and mentioned as one factor discouraging them from taking the train.

Complaints about difficulty accessing the train system were most acute in suburbs and towns to the north and west of metro Boston. This may be an area that the MBTA will need to study in greater detail in the future to determine where specifically these problems are and what can be done to make the T more accessible to those living there. It may involve new bus routes, increased feeder bus frequency to commuter rail stops, increased station parking availability, or even a new train, light rail ,or bus rapid transit route in coming years.

The research is part of a study entitled “Alleviating Carmageddon with a research-driven Rapid Transit approach” submitted in pursuit of my master’s degree at MIT this spring. A copy of the thesis can be downloaded by clicking here.

If we wish to shift a number of motorists to rapid transit in numbers significant enough to cause a drop in congestion on our key highways and roads, the report recommends the following measures:

  • Increase the cost of driving using at least one of several measures, including road pricing, congestion pricing, higher gas taxes, or a carbon tax.
  • Reduce the abundant availability of free or subsidized parking at the end point of drivers’ regular commute. (The survey would indicate that in order to shift large numbers of drivers, these first two points should increase the total cost of driving.)
  • Improve access to rapid transit in neighborhoods that feel cut off from the network, including more frequent feeder buses, more parking, and select extensions to the network to bring in communities left out, particularly north and west of the inner metro area.
  • Improve rapid transit service by increasing frequency on certain commuter rail lines and improving reliability of the subway lines.
  • Reducing commuter rail fares on certain lines to make them more attractive.

Ian Ollis is a former member of the South African Parliament, having served as the shadow minister of transportation. He has recently completed a transportation-focused master’s degree in planning at MIT. He is on twitter @ianollis