Automobile Usage in the United States (What Exactly has Caused Reduced Traffic Load and Environmental Benefits?)

COVID-19, Electrification, Ride-Sharing, and Autonomous Driving have impacted automobile usage in the United States, effectively reducing traffic load and benefiting the environment.

1. COVID-19 and Mobility Reduction

  • With the lockdown imposed in many states to contain the pandemic, schools, universities, and colleges closed, and many companies opted for a work-from-home approach to protect its employees.
  • As many automobile users have stayed at home for work and education, the use of private transportation has decreased drastically.
  • The use of public transportation also changed since most commuters stay at home or changed to private transportation for health concerns. Public transportation has decreased by 60% during the pandemic.
  • While every region shows significant signs of quick recovery after economies reopened, the recovery is different still in every state. According to a study by Arizona State University, the traffic in Phoenix decreased by 30% during the lockdown.
  • McKinsey conducted a survey among US automobile users to determine how their use of private, public, and shared transportation has changed during and after the pandemic. They found that 52% of people travel less than they did before COVID-19.
  • Consumers say they will use micro-mobility again after COVID-19 and return to other habits like biking and walking.
  • In every region of the US, consumers have shifted from using trains and airplanes for intercity traveling to private vehicles.
  • 33% of consumers value access to a private vehicle more than they did before the pandemic.
  • The periods indicated per wave are Wave 1 (May 9-18), Wave 2 (May 27-29), Wave 3 (June 16-18), Wave 4 (July 15-17), and Wave 5 (September 2-4) and the change in automobile use with private cars, public transportation, shared micro-mobility, and car-sharing since the lockdown are detailed below.
Automobile Usage in the United States (What Exactly has Caused Reduced Traffic Load and Environmental Benefits?)

2. Automobile Use After COVID-19

  • As many Americans are studying and working at home to comply with social distancing measures, traffic reduction has created a new perspective in transportation needs, energy consumption, and sustainability, as it has reduced the wear of roads and the air is cleaner.
  • A study conducted by Ram Pendyala, director of Sustainable Engineering and Built Environment School at Arizona State University, forecasted that the realization of the impact little transportation has in our lives, economy, and environment could change the way we choose to travel in the future.
  • After COVID-19, there may be an increase of people choosing greener forms of transportation, changing the rules of work environment vs. virtual presence, choosing to work-from-home permanently, and reducing their need to travel.
  • People will continue to choose alternatives to public transportation, like micro-mobility and shared-ride services for a while, until they feel safer.
  • However, the study indicates that while transportation to gatherings, work, and the school has decreased, the one for logistics services has incremented as more people are choosing to have their goods delivered to them instead of going out.
  • On the other hand, there is the possibility that after the restrictions are lifted, there will be a surge for leisure travel, many will go back to old habits, like visiting friends and family, going to work and study, restaurants, events, and outdoor activities.
  • The mindset of security from driving the car for short, medium, and long distances might persist longer. But people will eventually use confined spaces of public transportation again, as their needs require it.

3. Electrification and Vehicle Use

  • With the adoption of electric vehicles in the US, studies indicate that providers need to understand the automobile usage behavior in the region so they can offer the best option based on the user’s mobility needs.
  • In dense cities like Chicago, people can incorporate electric vehicles into their daily activities as their distance and energy consumption needs can be covered in shorter areas. However, other regions and users might find it better to use conventional vehicles based on the distance to be traveled and the availability of resources.
  • The use of electric vehicles is influenced by trip demands, competitiveness, performances, supply limitations during the trip like power, batteries, consumption, recharging possibilities, and availability of charging stations in the area, etc.
  • Electric vehicle owners prefer using them for daily trip distances and choose to use conventional vehicles over electric options based on convenience if needed.
  • However, as part of the Electrify America project, companies like Walmart are creating more charging stations to supply this energy demand on-the-go and give people the security to use their electric vehicles on any trip distance.

4. Autonomous Driving

  • Since 2016, Waymo, a subsidiary of Alphabet, has been testing autonomous driving on public roads of Arizona. 62 thousand autonomous vehicles have already been purchased from the company to provide services.
  • The adoption of autonomous driving is expected to reduce the use of conventional vehicles for providing services, slow-moving traffic caused by human error, and allow people to use their time efficiently, like being able to work while traveling.
  • Autonomous driving is also expected to reduce the need for parking land, and replace the need for transportation drivers in services, eventually dissuading automobile use when commuting in urban areas, accidents, and costs associated with traveling.

5. Ride-Sharing

  • A study conducted by the Transportation Sustainability Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, determined that ride-sharing has effectively reduced vehicle usage in the US, decreasing gas emissions by 34%-41% and carbon dioxide emissions by 10% annually.
  • Ride-sharing options, like Lyft and Uber, have allowed people to opt-out from buying a car, decreasing the traffic load in many states and the costs of car ownership.
  • The study determined that for every ride-sharing vehicle, there are between 9 and 13 cars less in use.
  • Finally, with fewer cars on the road, ride-sharing has reduced travel delays, traffic congestion, and the use of over 3 billion fuel gallons and 7 billion traffic jam hours.
Glenn is the Lead Operations Research Analyst at The Digital Momentum with experience in research, statistical data analysis and interview techniques. A holder of degree in Economics. A true specialist in quantitative and qualitative research.

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