By Stephanie Hirshon
Deputy Director of the MetroWest Chamber of Commerce
FRAMINGHAM – Commuting patterns throughout the entire Commonwealth have definitely changed since the beginning of the pandemic. As someone who has commuted to the MetroWest region from the North Shore for over 20 years, I have seen traffic increase to outrageous levels. But no one could have predicted the impact the pandemic has had on congestion in such a short time.
Over the years, the commuting method of choice to and from MetroWest has been the single-occupancy vehicle or SOV. With very few alternative commuting options, SOVs congested the roadways, including highway and secondary roads. Traffic increased by the hour, with miles of back-ups on the MassPike. Peak commuting times increased to 3 to 4 hours in the morning and in the afternoon causing a constant flow of heavy traffic throughout the day. Pre-COVID news highlighted the need for traffic reduction measure across the Commonwealth, with very little in the way of solutions.
As a transportation consultant for almost 20 years, the most challenging part of my job was to change commuting behaviors and how employees and employers thought viewed getting to and from work every day.
And then March 2020 happened.
During the early days of the pandemic and lockdown, streets were empty. Workers stayed home because they simply could not go to work because doors were locked. Those who were fortunate to be able to work from home did.
Large companies, malls, corporate centers, and downtown businesses were closed. Only those deemed essential were going to work every day.
Children were not going to school and the “school bus” effect on congestion did not exist. For many households, at least one parent needed to stay home with young children as they complete schoolwork online.
No one knew how long it would last. But by early summer, we knew we were in for the long haul.
As we aim for the goal of vaccines and returning to ‘normal’, what does that look like? How will our lives change? Hopefully, companies will rehire to pre-COVID-19 levels and those out of work will find employment.
If that scenario happens (and we all hope that it does with time):
What will commuting to, from, and within, the MetroWest region look like?
Will employers evaluate staffing levels at worksites and encourage more work from home programs?
Will our neighborhoods and secondary roads see relief from overflow congestion from highways?
Will public transportation be able to adapt to changing behaviors and lifestyles of commuters to provide much needed service?
These questions will be answered over time as we try and return to ‘normal’ life.
It is hard to find much positive news these days. One of the few positives that I see coming out of the pandemic, is the reduction of measured pollutants released into the air due vehicle emissions. Nitrogen Dioxide levels dropped by 25.5% from summer 2019 to summer 2020. Congestion improved on many roadways and commute times decreased. Hopefully, this trend will continue as we recover in 2021 and beyond so that excessive commuting does not continue to negatively impact the quality of life for those living, working, and playing in the MetroWest region.
Editor’s Note: SOURCE and the MetroWest Chamber have formed a partnership. The Chamber’s column will run on Tuesdays on the digital news media outlet.