Will Covid-19 Permanently Take Millions of Cars Off the Road?

A recent study by KPMG has concluded that the Covid-19 pandemic may permanently change driving habits in the United States, even after a vaccine is distributed and life otherwise returns to the way it was before the pandemic. According to a report on StreetsBlog, the study suggests that “traffic volumes probably aren’t going to climb much higher than the benchmark they’ve reached to date: just 90 percent of pre-pandemic levels.” In the long term, this might result in as many as “270 billion fewer miles driven on our roadways each year,” and as many as 14 million cars permanently off the roads.

According to the KPMG study, the reduction in vehicle miles traveled would largely be due to overall shifts to remote work by people living in “corridors that were formerly travelled by wealthier, predominantly white white collar workers.” The study found that about 37% of jobs in the US “could be done remotely,” specifically identifying the following percentages of the following sectors that fall into that category: 100% of “computer and mathematical” jobs; 98% of “Education, training, and library” jobs; 97% of legal jobs; 88% of “business & financial ops” jobs; 87% of “Management” jobs; 76% of arts, entertainment, and media jobs; 65% of office and administrative support positions; 61% of architecture and engineering jobs; 54% of “life, physical, and social sciences” jobs; 37% of “community and social service” jobs; 25% of “personal care and service” jobs; 6% of “protective service” jobs; and 5% of healthcare practitioners.” The study goes on to note research showing that Chief Financial Officers at companies across the country might be planning to keep 10-15% of their workforces working remotely.

Connected to these trends is a reduction in shopping excursions during the pandemic, with 60% of respondents to a survey of 1,100 adult consumers saying that “they are doing more shopping online than in-store, vs. 44 percent before Covid-19,” and two-thirds saying that they will continue shopping online after the pandemic ends. This results in a reduction in vehicle miles traveled, though StreetsBlog cautions that the 10% reduction overall is not inevitable and that even if it was, it would not be a sufficient enough reduction to “adequately curb transportation-related climate change emissions, end our traffic violence crisis, or remove the financial burden of car ownership from the backs of low-income Americans.”

KPMG estimates that the reduction in cars on the road will yield “huge second-order effects,” including a drop in car sales, reduced gas tax revenue for state governments, and reduced sales of replacement parts. On the other hand, it may yield more demand for commercial vehicles, as an increased dependence on online commerce yields more opportunities for delivery capabilities.

A number of forces could influence the long-term number of cars on the road, KPMG said. One is the potential for a massive shift from public transportation to cars and carpools, which KPMG found many public transit riders are already intent upon due to the pandemic. StreetsBlog argues that federal, state, and local authorities could retain those riders by investing billions of dollars in transit agencies “to keep the trains and buses running, clean them frequently, and increase service to allow riders to spread out.” Cities could also construct protected bike lines to make people feel more safe cycling, which may reduce the number of people buying single occupancy vehicles, and plan cities such that “every neighborhood is a ’15-minute’ neighborhood, where no resident needs to get in a car to travel to work, buy fresh food, get her kid to grade school, or visit a doctor.” This would require in turn a commitment to a bigger and stronger social safety net, which reduces the need for workers to commute far and wide to multiple jobs across their cities, while being forced to choose the most inexpensive childcare providers for their children, according to StreetsBlog.

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