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David Fields

And now a few words from our city transportation planner

Didn’t know we had one, did you? Well, we do, his name is David Fields, and he had a few things to say to Chron reporter Dug Begley in a recent Q&A:

As you look at upcoming plans and projects around the city, how is COVID-19 affecting them? Are there tangible things that are changing or are the changes more conceptual, in the sense we might not know what demand is going to look like 12-18-24 months out any longer?

Streets are funny things. Some people see them as having just two purposes: Movement and storage. That might be cars, bikes, transit, or walking, but for all of them, we often limit in our minds what this very physical and expensive infrastructure can do for us.

COVID-19 is reminding us that streets don’t need to do the same job, 24 hours per day, seven days per week, 365 days per year. If we limit streets to these two jobs, we’re not getting the full value out of our investment in our city. While our streets move people at some times of day, those same roads can be used as play spaces at other times. Businesses reminded us that space used for parking sometimes can be used for restaurant pick-up zones at other times.

Learning this lesson is a huge benefit for our city, because the more ways we can use our roads, the more value we provide to our community.

From a planning perspective, has the new coronavirus bought you a little time to sort things out? The challenge here historically has been projects rarely have kept up with traffic and often induced demand makes the shelf life of their benefits much shorter. So, is there a silver lining to a pause?

COVID-19 is a teaching moment. It’s time to take a hard look about what we thought could never change. One of those big topics is believing that everyone who commutes must commute five days every week, somewhere between 6 a.m. and 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. People are working from home more than ever, which means fewer people traveling to work each day. Businesses are learning to be flexible and technology is helping.

The takeaway is that traffic is not set in stone. If 10 percent of our workforce can work from home in the future, traffic becomes a very different conversation. The key for Houston and for our work is to find ways to encourage this behavior we’re learning now, so it’s a choice by our residents and businesses that ends up helping everyone. It’s also resulting in more people walking around close to home more on those days that they stay home to work.

The silver lining is the chance to remember that we control our transportation choices and nothing is set in stone.

There’s more, so go read it. The point of interest for me is the observation that if work from home becomes more widely adopted, it really changes traffic patterns, and potentially reduces the future need for road construction. This has always been a consideration for transportation wonks, but we’ve never seen it in action like this. I am certain that more people are going to resume commuting to work in the coming weeks – here we are hand-waving away the potential for further lockdowns – but I’m also certain that some number of people who have been working from home as a result of COVID-19 will continue to work from home going forward because they like it and it suits them. Who knows what our streets and highways will look like after that?

Again, this is not a revelation to transportation planners and their ilk. A steady increase in telework has always been factored into their calculations. The point is that this is likely to be a step increase in those numbers, which changes the shape of the curves in their models. Some plans are already in motion – the 59/610 interchange rebuild, for example – while others are not yet finalized – the ginormous I-45 project – but in either case what we once thought was true now may not be. What are we going to do about that?

On a somewhat random side note, another factor that transportation nerds have been eyeing has been the rise of autonomous vehicles. Autonomous vehicles that are shared by multiple riders are one option touted as a possible future mode for mass transit. I’ve been skeptical of stuff like this for a variety of reasons, but it’s not hard to imagine such a thing having more appeal in the future, at least as an alternative to buses, and assuming there’s a way to separate the passengers from each other. Also assuming that the ridesharing companies that would surely be among those providing this service survive the current economic environment, which, who knows. You’d think now would be the time for someone to be touting the benefits of this concept, but I at least haven’t seen such chatter.