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Commuter Culture Altered During Pandemic

Spending Less Time Behind the Wheel

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Above image credit: A commuter behind the wheel. (Photo | Adobe)

There are only 24 hours in a day. We spend roughly two-thirds of that time working and sleeping. In theory, at least, we can spend the rest however we like.

Unless, of course, you spend three hours a day commuting to and from work — like Louise Bell.

Compared to some cities, Kansas City’s rush hour may seem more like a rush minute, thanks to a massive highway system and relatively low-density development pattern. It’s gotten even easier to get around town during the pandemic, as traffic thinned out even more as people worked from home, if at all.

A new Coverage.com study used the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey to conclude that Missouri ranked 18th in the country with an average one-way commute time of 23.6 minutes (11.3% less than the national average). Kansas was 7th with an average one-way commute time of 19.3 minutes (27.4% less than the national average). South Dakota had the shortest commute time and New York had the longest.

While Missouri and Kansas ranked in the top half of states in the study, it doesn’t mean there aren’t areas that still have long commutes. In Linn County, Kansas, the average commute time is 33.7 minutes, the highest in the state. Missouri’s highest commute times come from Caldwell County, with an average commute time of 33.5 minutes.

If there was ever a silver lining to the pandemic, it could be that some people making these long commutes are getting their time back.

Take Bell, for example. A Caldwell County resident who lives about six miles outside of Hamilton, Missouri, Bell drives 90 minutes one way into Kansas City for her job as a court reporter at the Jackson County Courthouse. 

Bell lives outside Hamilton so she could raise her daughter in a small town, while she worked a job in the city. She has been making the commute to KC for more than five years. 

“Other than in the winter time, I don’t mind the drive at all,” Bell said. “I put my brain on autopilot and listen to the radio. I’ve been studying Mandarin for the past couple of years, so I listen to Mandarin lessons while I drive.”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Bell has been able to work from home, which has given her three hours of her day back. She’s been using that time to catch up on sleep, and spend more time with her daughter when she gets off at 5 p.m.

Bell says she will have to start commuting again soon, as her workplace enters a phase that will allow some reporters to be back in court.

Open Roads

Bell’s work-from-home experience matches closely with the flow of traffic in the city during the pandemic.

According to data from the Mid-America Regional Council, weekly traffic volume in the metropolitan area was cut in half during mid-March, when lockdowns were put into place. In June, traffic volume returned to 90% of normal capacity, and has stayed that way through August. 

“Longer term it’s hard to predict how long we might see traffic volume operate below normal,” MARC Director of Transportation and Environment Ron Achelpohl said. “At this point it’s probably related more to the economy, due to working from home and layoffs. Traffic usually tracks pretty closely with the economy.”

Many households are saving a lot of gas money during the pandemic because they aren’t driving as much. But that’s sapping fuel tax revenue for state transportation departments, which have been struggling during the pandemic. 

According to the Missouri Department of Transportation’s October COVID briefing, revenue from motor fuel, motor vehicle sales and motor vehicle driver’s license are approximately $38 million lower than projected for the 2020 fiscal year. In April it was reported that MoDOT expected to lose 30% of its revenue over the next 18 months due to the pandemic. 

Bell says she spends around $400 dollars on gas a month. That’s a fairly normal number for people who make massive commutes like she does. Now that those commutes are happening less frequently, the state is paying the price, even if it’s easier on commuter’s bank accounts.

“I’ve been grateful to save the money on the gas,” Bell said.

Another reason for a decrease in traffic volume is fewer people working. Missouri reported a 7% unemployment rate, and 41,839 unemployment claims, for the month of August. Kansas saw a seasonally adjusted unemployment rate of 6.9% in August.

With roads less crowded, one would think that would mean fewer accidents. The opposite is actually true. 

According to Achelpohl, the fatality rate in traffic-related incidents has gone up since less drivers have been on the road. Put simply, speed kills.

“We’ve seen speeds increase a lot,” Achelpohl said. “Folks are getting pulled over for going over 100 mph.”

Bell was back in the office for the first time in a month just two weeks ago, when she was hit by a driver running a red light that totaled her car. A Reviews.com study that looked at the most dangerous states to drive in, found that Missouri and Kansas are the 20th and 19th most dangerous states to drive in, respectively.

On the Road Again

It’s uncertain exactly what the future of transportation will look like in a post-pandemic world. The advances in telework and ecommerce have made driving long distances an even bigger inconvenience than before. 

Fewer people are taking public transit during the pandemic. Meanwhile, more people are walking and riding bikes. It’s hard to gauge whether these changes are permanent, or just a symptom of our current circumstance.

Some essential workers will continue to make long commutes regardless of the changes.

Tracy Weatherby, works at USD500 in Wyandotte County, but travels from Linn County. Her commute is nearly two hours daily. After finishing the 2019-2020 school year remote, she is back to working in person at least once a week.

“I will continue commuting as I was before COVID, it’s worth the commute,” Weatherby said. “I love the kids, my coworkers, my principal, and we have some great families that are struggling. Sometimes it does my soul good just to help.”

Jacob Douglas covers rural affairs for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America.

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