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UT Researchers Receive Funding for Study into Transportation During Pandemic

E-scooters sitting on the side of the road.

The rapid spread of Covid-19 has changed the way most of the world goes about its daily routine, with many businesses having to temporarily close and forcing students of all levels to transition to online courses.

Even so, grocery stores, medical facilities, and some forms of restaurants remain open, requiring workers to commute to and from work. In metro areas, that can often mean taking some form of transit, potentially exposing workers in these vital areas to the disease.

CEE Professor Chris Cherry and Assistant Professor Candace Brakewood have a plan to change that, and it comes with backing from a National Science Foundation RAPID Award.

These awards are granted for research with “a severe urgency with regard to availability of, or access to data, facilities, or specialized equipment, including quick-response research on natural or anthropogenic disasters and similar unanticipated events.” Events like the coronavirus.

Transportation demand has dropped by 50-to-90 percent across all modes in the US, and transit has been particularly hard hit with micromobility modes like shared scooters also seeing drops in use. As travel demand recovers, it is important to understand the role of shared modes in restarting the economy and maintaining social distancing.”

—Chris Cherry

The main question they want to answer is whether adoption of new forms of transportation, such as bikeshares and e-scooters, could provide commuting options that would allow workers a way to get to work without putting them in the close confines of other passengers on traditional transportation methods, and whether people would even choose these alternate methods in the first place.

One of their early findings is that answers to these questions varies greatly by city or region. In New York and Chicago, for example, bike shares are up a minimum of 65 percent from the same date the year before, but in Seattle and San Francisco, their use has plummeted.

The answer as to why there is such a variance lies with the cities themselves.

“It, not surprisingly, is tied to the kind of response the city had to the virus,” Brakewood said. “In Seattle and San Francisco, there was a greater shutdown of activity and at a sooner date than in Chicago and New York. Where businesses stayed open longer, workers were required to report longer, but the good thing is that it shows that those workers at least tried to find methods of commuting that still allowed them to be better spaced from others.”

Moving forward, the program is looking at commuting patterns in Nashville.

The team will also look at ridership trends across various modes of transportation, giving them a more robust understanding of how cities and the workers within them respond to times of crisis, helping guide future decisions.