Troy Linck has a new commute to work — a 25-second walk from his bedroom to his home office.
It is better than the commute in the center he made in the last 35 years in cars, buses and light rail trains.
“If I can work from home, it takes one of my major stressors off the table,” said Linck, marketing manager with St. Linck lives in Minneapolis.
Millions of others have made the same transition to working from home. It has triggered a revolutionary change in how Americans get from here to there – and a revolution in Minnesota’s transportation system.
ENLARGED TRANSPORT PATTERNS
Traffic patterns from three generations have been disrupted by the COVID-19 and the work-at-home movement. Urgent times are fading, commuter transport use is declining, and even highways are evolving.
“Transportation choices have been hugely impacted by COVID everywhere,” said Kyle Shelton, director of the Center for Transportation Studies at the University of Minnesota. “We should think about all our planned projects in a new way.”
Since the 1940s, the map of highways in metro areas has resembled spokes on a wheel leading from suburbs to work hubs in the center.
The purpose was simple – get workers from their bedroom community to jobs in the center. The traffic rushed into the cities and then out again, just as reliably as the tide.
The pandemic changed this model. For the past 18 months, Minnesota workers have fled their offices to work from home.
TRANSIT USE THE ANSWER PANDEMIC
By 2022, more than a quarter of U.S. employees will work from home several days a week, the nonprofit Global Workplace Analytics predicts. These employees do not ride buses or trains. Even those who commute will not necessarily go downtown. About 80 percent of the metro area’s jobs are in the suburbs, according to a August report from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.
As a result, commuter traffic is declining. Planners were stunned when COVID removed 96 percent of riders on the Northstar commuter rail line from Minneapolis to Big Lake. Trips on most other commuter lines fell by about half.
“That type of travel is not happening anymore,” said Eric Lind, head of research and analysis for Metro Transit.
But do commuters not return when COVID declines?
No, says the National Bureau of Economic Research. About 20 percent of U.S. jobs will be done at home permanently because workers and employers find it more efficient and comfortable.
COMMUTER LINES CAN SCRAPE
Another sign of change for commuter lines can be seen on metro highways.
Total traffic on highways has almost returned to normal since the pandemic, while rides on public transportation have fallen by 61 percent. The Metropolitan Council is examining these trends and has predicted: Commuter lines will shrink and local service lines will increase.
Accordingly, it plans to triple the local bus’s fast transit lines to 10 in the metro area. These include the $ 532 million Gold Line to Woodbury and the $ 475 million Rush Line to White Bear Lake.
The lines could be called anti-commuter lines.
Although they are called fast transit, some will take twice as long as the driving time to reach their stops.
But they are not created to go from point A to point B in a straight line. They are designed for all the stops in between – the grocery store, the doctor’s office, the fitness center, the pharmacy. The gold line will e.g. Offer service every 15 minutes for a total of 23 stops.
“The gold line is all day and for all purposes,” Metro Transits Lind said. They feel confident that the new lines will be popular due to the strength of local routes during the pandemic.
Met Council spokeswoman Bonnie Kollodge said rideships on local routes — but not commuter routes — are healthy 90 percent of use before COVID.
ELECTRIC CARS, DRIVELESS TRUCKS, UBER
While there are equestrian shifts as with the Northstar commuter line, there are also successful local lines such as the A line along Snelling Avenue. Other local service lines — including Routes 5, 18 and 21 — have been strong right through the pandemic, she said.
Looking ahead, the Met Council will have to contend with other unknowns – more electric cars, driverless trucks and the impact of Uber riding services on highway traffic.
Riderhip may increase due to climate change, said Amy Vennewitz, acting director of the Metropolitan Transportation Services Division. As people become more aware of the effects of car exhaust on the planet, she said, they might decide to use cars less and buses more.
Population growth will offset declines in rider numbers, Met Council officials say. The metro area is expected to swell by a third to 4 million people by 2050.
The future looks very different for the metro area’s road builders. Highway routes cannot be changed as quickly as bus routes can. But they have watched carefully as the traffic level collapsed and then shot back again.
After COVID hit, highway traffic immediately dropped by half. In September, it rose back to 95 percent of normal, according to Minnesota Department of Transportation spokesman Jake Loesch.
It was, he said, “pretty unprecedented.”
WARPED RUSH HOUR
The work-at-home movement also has skewed rush hour. The afternoon rush hour is now four hours long, from 1pm to 5pm
The morning’s rush hour from kl. 7 to 9 is still 22 percent below normal, said Jonathan Ehrlich, head of travel modeling and research at the Metropolitan Transportation Services Division. It is considered a major drop, given the pandemic hit more than 18 months ago.
Ehrlich has no idea when or if the morning rush will resurface. “What is permanent and what is not?” he said.
MnDOT has noticed some spin-off effects of the city walk in the center. Three parking ramps in Minneapolis, which the agency monitors, remained only 15 percent full in September.
“This is a great proxy for other facilities,” said Adam Harrington, Metro Transit’s director of service development.
It’s more proof of a shift away from the classic commute in the center, he said. Looking ahead, an adaptation seems safe — more E-ZPass lanes.
“E-ZPass is a long-term solution,” said Sue Gergen, E-ZPass Minnesota Communications Coordinator.
Officials may open or close lanes to suit drivers’ hour-by-hour requirements. They can open the lanes in one direction in the morning, then the other direction in the afternoon.
Customers pay to use the courses, and therefore the courses pay for themselves, Gergen said.
Several E-ZPass lanes are already planned for Interstate 494, she said.
A NEW BLACK MORNING TRAFFIC STOP
If homework Linck is typical, transit riding and highway traffic will remain low for a while.
For his daily errands, Linck does not see a future where he would take public transportation. It’s just too easy to drive.
For work, he is quite comfortable with his commute of 25 seconds, and it seems unlikely that an upgrade in bus services will make a difference. “I took the bus to work before and it took three transfers,” he said.
Linck laughed as he described his workday now. “My morning traffic jam,” he said, “is when I stand waiting for my coffee to brew.”