Notable Themes at the Transportation Research Board’s 2021 Annual Meeting

Over several weeks in January, Eno policy staff attended the virtual Transportation Research Board Annual Meeting. The event, which typically draws tens of thousands of attendees from all around the world to the District of Columbia, was held entirely over Zoom this year. Eno staff attended committee meetings, workshops, lectern sessions, and poster presentations.

Following are some insights and takeaways from the events:

COVID-19 pandemic

Unsurprisingly, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on transportation services and behaviors was a topic of discussion in almost every session we attended. Several different research teams pointed to longitudinal survey data on transportation behaviors and attitudes that indicate an interest in some level of post-pandemic telework for those who are able to do so. Dr. Deborah Salon of Arizona State University, presenting research from a 9,000-person survey (you can still take the survey here), indicated that:

  • While the share of respondents who indicated that they would continue commuting by car after the pandemic was largely the same as before the pandemic, those who said they would always drive to work (i.e. five days/week) fell by nearly 20 percent. In other words, respondents who are able to work from home once the pandemic subsides anticipate doing so at least some of the time
  • 30 percent of survey respondents anticipate walking more post-pandemic, and 15 percent anticipate biking more
  • 35 percent of respondents anticipated less personal flying, and about 42 percent anticipated less business flying

Other anticipated commute shifts include a potential transition toward off-peak commutes, especially on shared modes. In a different session titled “Planning for Transit in a Post-Pandemic Future,” speakers from the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) and the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) discussed the importance of providing better transit service throughout the day due to an anticipated shift away from peak commute periods.

Several presenters discussed the need to plan for future pandemics and seasonal viral spread on transit. California State University Assistant Professor Aly Tawfik, presenting findings from a study on viral transmission on transit, stated that without regulatory guidance, many small transit agencies may not adopt technologies that are effective at reducing viral transmission. WMATA’s Vice President of Planning Shyam Kannan discussed automation as an opportunity to keep costs down and maintain safety in the event of future pandemics.

Racial equity

The session “Equitable Recovery – Reimagining City DOTs” featured city transportation department heads from Charleston, Chicago, Oakland, and Toronto. The panel indicated that equity is more than just ensuring equal space, but also about understanding and incorporating different lifestyles and needs into transportation plans and policies. When discussing government institutions and the role of public leaders, common themes included partnering with communities and businesses, building alliances with other transportation agencies, and engaging communities when determining how money is spent. Ryan Russo of the Oakland DOT stated that public and private entities often function under “legacy policies” that should be re-examined. For example, parking meters often aren’t serviced on Sundays, which benefits drivers, yet bus riders are charged for Sunday service.

There was also more focus on the relationship between policing, traffic enforcement, and racial equity in light of last year’s protests against police brutality. In a session titled “Arrested Mobility,” Charles Brown of the Alan M. Voorhees Transportation Center documented the over-policing of mobility in Black communities and other communities of color, and how these communities have and continue to be denied their inalienable right to move, to be moved, or to exist in public space, which has led to adverse socioeconomic and health impacts. Brown cited many examples of over-policing of Black communities and communities of color across all modes of transportation: in Portland, Black transit riders are eight-times more likely than White transit riders to be charged for transit violations, while in Chicago, majority Black neighborhoods receive twice as many bike citations than majority White or Latinx neighborhoods.

Among the panelists’ suggestions to address over-enforcement and arrested mobility included stronger mobility data collection that documents the lived experiences of Black residents, penalization of race-based 911 calls, a shift away from enforcement-centric approaches to traffic safety, and reparation-style infrastructure investment in Black communities. The conversation around policing in transportation is only going to become more central as cities reassess their approaches to public safety and identify areas where enforcement roles traditionally assigned to police, like mental health calls and traffic safety, can be re-assigned elsewhere.

Climate change and the environment

Curbing greenhouse gas emissions across the entire transportation sector continues to be a focus among researchers. In one session, researchers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Energy Initiative analyzed lifecycle emissions from all types of cars that were comparable in every way except their fuel source. While battery electric vehicles have the lowest emissions, they still produce greenhouse gas emissions from fuel production (i.e. the electricity used to power those vehicles) and vehicle manufacturing. Further, the emissions associated with fuel production can vary dramatically depending on the carbon intensity of the power grid, which differs state by state. For example, Washington state has the lowest carbon intensity electricity grid, so the emissions attributed to battery electric vehicles might be lower there than they would in West Virginia, which has the highest carbon intensity electricity grid.

In a session about the environmental effects of aviation during and after COVID-19, the FAA’s Chief Scientific and Technical Advisor for the Environment Dr. Jim Hileman indicated that the pandemic has disrupted some of FAA’s business as usual, including international standard-setting meetings and lab testing for things like fuel efficiency standards.

Concluding thoughts

Senior Policy Analyst Brianne Eby was honored to receive a scholarship to attend the TRB Annual Meeting from Young Professionals in Transportation International. The Eno policy team looks forward to attending next year’s sessions, hopefully in person!

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