The tap-and-go of the brake pedal, the choir of blaring car horns, and the red glow from taillights ahead feel like a snapshot from another lifetime.

Philadelphia’s commuter gridlock used to be an icebreaker connecting bashful coworkers awaiting the office microwave and distant relatives around kitchen tables. While that conversation may have quieted as the number of drivers on the road severely abated at the height of COVID-19 stay-at-home orders, cars have clearly returned to city streets.

Traffic volumes in the region are still below pre-pandemic levels, but experts who spoke with The Inquirer anticipate a likely uptick in congestion as more people return to workplaces and once-shuttered activities, causing pollution, inequities, and financial losses, among other issues. Now is the time, they said, to restart fervent discussions about solutions to Philadelphia’s serious problem.

Some factors at play are more apparent than others, such as the perception that public transportation is unsafe, leading some riders to find new ways to get around. Other effects have yet to be fully seen, such as unemployment, long-term telecommuting policies, and even online shopping that keeps buyers off the road.

Before COVID-19, city officials saw “probably the worst congestion that the city had ever experienced,” said Christopher Puchalsky, director of policy and strategic initiatives at the Office of Transportation, Infrastructure, and Sustainability (OTIS). Whatever lies ahead might not be any better.

“I will get out my crystal ball,” he said. “At some risk, I will make a prediction that we could have congestion as bad, or worse, than before the pandemic come next spring and summer.”

Not 'a blip’

The lights of moving vehicles blur as traffic moves along I-95 at the westbound ramp to I-676 and Callowhill Street near Penn's Landing in July.
TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
The lights of moving vehicles blur as traffic moves along I-95 at the westbound ramp to I-676 and Callowhill Street near Penn's Landing in July.

Statistics for Philadelphia are “hard to drill down,” Puchalsky said, but he believes traffic is back to 80% or more of baseline figures. His estimate is similar to numbers from the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation and the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

Average daily volumes for the region are down about 20% compared with pre-pandemic levels, said Louis Belmonte, PennDot assistant district executive of operations. In mid-September, vehicle volume along the turnpike also was down about 20% compared with the same time last year. The tolled highway expects it will take three to five years for traffic and revenue figures to fully recover.

Though the downturn translates to striking financial losses for PennDot and the turnpike, they may pale in comparison with SEPTA’s. Ridership on buses, subways, and trolleys is down 65% from pre-pandemic levels. Regional Rail is worse off, with about 85% fewer riders than it used to see.

This is a big experiment that we’ve never done before.

Barry Seymour, DVRPC executive director

While many area residents remain bound to home offices, or are kept off the road because of business closures or limited-capacity openings, experts offered a bevy of suggestions for the discrepancy. No, rush-hour traffic hasn’t returned, but truck traffic is holding steady. People might not be driving into the office but are opting for road trips over air travel.

“I think people are just getting tired of being stuck in one place. They’re looking for an excuse to drive," said Thomas Macchione, the turnpike’s manager of traffic engineering. "They may not be driving to work, but now they’re driving to do something just to get away from their house, at least while the weather is nice.”

Apple’s COVID-19 mobility tracker, charting changes in routing requests since mid-January, showed a 27% increase in driving for Philadelphia, 25% increase in walking, and a staggering 46% drop for transit late last week.

Megan Smirti Ryerson, associate dean for research at the University of Pennsylvania Stuart Weitzman School of Design, is concerned about those who once chose SEPTA or PATCO over other options such as a private car, but now perceive public transportation as too risky.

If too many people switch to cars, “then SEPTA struggles to provide transportation for everyone, but particularly for those who need it,” she said.

To add to the challenge, troves of past data that transportation planners typically lean on to make future forecasts are essentially irrelevant. This period in history is not “a blip,” she said, but should be considered “an inflection point."

“All of our planning is based on historical data, and what does historical data mean?" she said. “Just think about your own travel patterns before and after.”

‘Creatures of habit’

It would make sense that drivers who again found themselves stuck in traffic would return to public transportation or other means. But it’s not that simple, Ryerson said.

Besides obvious considerations when choosing how to commute, such as parking cost, availability, and travel time, there are other, “harder to measure things,” such as the opportunity to read a good book or catch up on email, she said. A new factor in that complicated category is how comfortable someone feels during a pandemic that has claimed more than 200,000 lives in the United States.

“This is a big experiment that we’ve never done before," said Barry Seymour, executive director of the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission. "… The big question is what will continue the way it was, let’s say, a year from now, whatever we’re looking at in a post-pandemic world. What will return to the way it was before and what will be different?”

Most stick with their routines and aren’t likely to pick a new way to get around every day, especially if they’ve bought a monthly parking or transportation pass, or more permanently, a car. Used-car sales are booming as many look to avoid public transportation and ridesharing, the New York Times has reported.

“People are generally creatures of habit,” Seymour said.

Public transportation riders also need dependability; they need to know that a train, bus, subway, or trolley is coming when they need it. Regional Rail trains still aren’t running as frequently as they were before the pandemic.

With routines disrupted during the pandemic, a fresh start could lead to different decisions, said Ethan Conner-Ross, senior vice president and principal at Econsult, a firm that last year published a report putting a price tag on Center City congestion.

It’s happened before. SEPTA ridership plummets after labor strikes because riders stick with the other ways they’ve found to travel. The authority waived fares after a 40-day strike in 1998 as an incentive to passengers, looking to save itself from a ridership “death spiral.”

“We, as Philadelphians, should be considering ourselves in control of this to some extent," Conner-Ross said, "and not assume this is all kind of an immutable force.”

Political willpower

Traffic clogs Center City in March 2018.
TOM GRALISH / Staff Photographer
Traffic clogs Center City in March 2018.

The city had sought to get a handle on congestion and its causes, such as rideshare drivers stopping and blocking lanes, as well as truck traffic clogging Center City streets, well before the pandemic.

Although residents voted in favor of creating a new group of traffic enforcement officers in May 2019 to help mitigate the issues, “planning for the program is moving slower than we would like due to strained capacity as a result of COVID-19,” city spokesperson Kelly Cofrancisco said. Officials did recently adjust parking and loading regulations aimed at tackling traffic congestion and bettering SEPTA service along Chestnut Street.

“If everyone drives in a car, nobody’s going to go anywhere, it’s just going to be utter gridlock,” said Erik Johanson, director of business innovation at SEPTA. “So we have to get to a point, for cities to really reopen effectively, we have to get to a point where people are feeling comfortable on transit again.”

Automated enforcement of bus lanes and dynamic pricing of parking spaces are also possible solutions but would require City Council support. State Rep. Martina White, a Republican on the House’s Transportation Committee whose far Northeast district includes part of accident-plagued Roosevelt Boulevard, introduced legislation in June that would make way for an automated bus lane enforcement system.

OTIS is working on “a few things” to address problems, including a spike in traffic deaths and injuries, said Puchalsky. He did not elaborate.

Councilmember At-Large Isaiah Thomas, who heads the city’s Streets and Services Committee, is taking transportation issues borne of the pandemic one step at a time. He recently called for public hearings "to dissect” the problem of hit-and-run accidents. In Philadelphia, 911 receives a report of a hit-and-run 40 times a day, according to the hearing resolution.

“I wouldn’t want to make traffic congestion decisions until we see or feel what’s going on there," he said. "I think our focus right now is really those dangerous intersections.”

On the contrary, Ryerson and others believe that it’s already time to act.

“We have a moment where we can invest in a system that is not ‘Carmageddon,’” Ryerson said. “I think that it’s also a moment of whereas if we throw up our hands and say, ‘There’s nothing I can do,’ we are looking at ‘Carmageddon.’”