Among the most dramatic changes wrought by the COVID-19 pandemic was a sudden reduction in mobility. A huge number of people commuted less frequently, and almost everyone traveled less for business and personal reasons, shopped less often at stores, dined less often at restaurants, and nearly ceased to socialize face-to-face.
We replaced some of this former mobility with virtual interaction. Many of us quickly became experts at navigating technologies that allowed us to interact with coworkers, teachers, doctors, friends, and family, almost as if we had traveled to see them. Many of us also appreciated the extra time suddenly gained by simply not having to travel to places. And as the pandemic went on, the technologies themselves improved, making virtual interaction increasingly seamless.
Nationwide, more aspects of society are reopening. But we should resist the urge to return to all of our pre-pandemic transportation choices. Maintaining some COVID-prompted habits can be beneficial to individuals, organizations, and the environment.
In the spring of 2020, I launched the COVID Future survey project, together with collaborators both at Arizona State University and at the University of Illinois Chicago, with funding from the National Science Foundation. The project is a multi-wave, national survey of U.S. adults that aims to measure both how much their transportation choices changed during the pandemic and the extent to which people expect these changes to persist as the pandemic wanes. To date, we have collected thousands of responses in two waves of survey data, and we are collecting a third survey wave this fall.
Although the COVID-19 pandemic has brought illness, death, and economic hardship, our data suggest an opportunity to emerge from the pandemic with an improved quality of life. In summer and fall of 2020, just under 75% of COVID Future survey respondents reported there were some aspects of pandemic life that they may want to keep into the future. In winter and spring of 2021, this fraction rose to nearly 80% among the same group of people. Many of the features of pandemic life that respondents most valued related to reducing the need to go places, with working from home at the top of the list for employed adults (Figure 1). Consistent with our findings, the Pew Research Center’s October 2020 survey reports that among those who can do their jobs remotely, nearly 90% would like to telecommute at least some of the time post-pandemic.