How did commute patterns change in Arlington during the pandemic?


In March 2020, stay-at-home directives began to be put in place as a response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Travel behavior changed seemingly overnight, especially travel to work. How did the pandemic alter commute patterns of Arlington residents? For Arlington residents that continued to travel to work, did they stick to the same mode of travel they had pre-pandemic, or did they shift to other modes for their commute? To get data that can help answer these questions, we can refer to the 2021 Arlington Resident Travel Survey and Special Analysis report for more information.

The 2021 Arlington Resident Travel Survey and Special Analysis report provides an in-depth profile of commute and non-commute travel patterns and travel behavior of Arlington County residents. The report also provides insight into the level of awareness and satisfaction that residents have regarding transportation resources and services in Arlington County.

The 2021 survey was conducted from May to July 2021, using a representative sample of Arlington residents. Due to the timing of the survey, the survey included additional questions aimed to better understand commute travel behavior as the COVID-19 pandemic continued into 2021. To provide better context to commute travel during this time, the 2021 survey examined three periods for commute travel:

  • Current commute – defined as modes or frequency of use at the time of the survey (May to July 2021).
  • Pre-pandemic commute – defined as modes or frequency of use in February 2020, before stay-at-home directives were implemented in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Post-pandemic commute – defined as modes or frequency anticipated to be used post-pandemic

Based on the 2021 survey results, commute travel in Arlington was altered in the following ways during the pandemic: telework surged in popularity, use of public transportation dropped, and driving alone outpaced all other non-SOV modes (non-single occupancy vehicle modes) for commute travel. However, commute travel as reported in February 2020 show that drive alone decreased and train use increased, mirroring broader travel trends reported in similar survey reports, such as the 2019 State of Commute.

Telework increased in popularity during the pandemic

In summer 2021, 7 in 10 employed Arlington residents were working from home for all or most of their workdays. Pre-pandemic, 58% of employed Arlington residents teleworked at least some of the week. Telework rates increased during the pandemic, with 82% of employed Arlington residents reported to be teleworking at least some of the week during the pandemic, based on data collected in April and May 2021. Over half of them (53%) teleworked five days a week.

Comparing pre-pandemic and current travel commute mode data

Commute modes for current travel differed from before the pandemic. Pre-pandemic, use of non-SOV modes comprised majority of weekly commute days. Currently, when excluding non-telework days, non-SOV mode use dropped to only 15% of workdays. Non-SOV modes comprise use of public transit such as trains and buses, carpool, vanpool, and active transportation modes such as walking and biking.

For those that still commuted during pandemic, driving alone increased and public transit use decreased. Before the pandemic, use of drive alone and train for commutes were almost at par (34% vs. 33%). Currently, drive alone comprise 20% of weekly commute days, while train use dropped to 7% (previously 33% pre-pandemic) and bus use dropped to 3% (previously 11% pre-pandemic).

Pre-Pandemic vs. Current Commute Modes

Comparing pre-pandemic and 2015 commute mode data

While the pandemic appears to have altered commute patterns, a comparison of commuting in February 2020 with that from 2015 data indicated a decline in drive alone use and an increase in transit use. The decrease in driving alone and the increase in train use mimic commute travel trends already reported in similar reports, such as the 2019 State of Commute.

2015 and 2020 telework comparison

Anticipated commute post-pandemic

The 2021 survey also asked about what commute modes employed Arlington residents foresee using after the pandemic, specifically when they return to a workplace outside their home. Responses gathered from this set of questions help provide further insight about how employed Arlington residents will travel to work: whether any of the changes in travel patterns will continue, if they will revert to how they commuted before the pandemic, or if they hope to continue their existing telework arrangement and work from home.

Based on the survey responses, it is likely for pre-pandemic commuting patterns to return. The 2021 survey asked Arlington residents how they anticipate to travel to work after the pandemic. When the responses were analyzed based on their pre-pandemic commute, the results showed that a majority of those who commuted by driving alone, transit, or bike/walk say that they are likely to use the same modes post-pandemic.

However, the results aren’t as clear cut for respondents who used carpool/vanpool pre-pandemic: 44% anticipate using the same mode post-pandemic, while 20% say they will drive alone to work, 18% will take transit, 16% will telework, and 2% will bike or walk.

In terms of telework, looking to the future, majority of respondents are amenable to telework; 87% of respondents who currently telework would prefer to telework at least one day a week, post-pandemic.

pre-pandamic commuting pattern

It should be noted, however, that shifts in commute mode as reported above could have resulted from some other factor unique to the respondents, which the survey does not fully capture. Examples of unique factors that could affect mode shifts could be a new job, new home location, new work location, or some other personal preference that has changed.

Interested in learning more? Download the 2021 Arlington Resident Travel Survey and Special Analysis report here:

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Go to Publisher: Mobility Lab
Author: Tasha Arreza