As cities, states, and provinces throughout the U.S. and Canada slowly begin to reopen, there is no doubt there will be a new normal not only in the way people commute, but in the way capital projects are planned and executed.
Graeme Masterton, transit planning lead for Stantec, spoke with METRO about commuter systems being impacted, new costumer patterns and the possibility of people returning to an office environment.
With commuter systems being hit so hard, how quickly do you feel passenger rail systems can recoup some of that ridership and what will be some of the keys to that recovery?
That is an interesting question that poses a fundamental weak spot or flaw in the way we have traditionally done transit planning, or specifically rail-based planning. Looking at the last 50 years, we’ve sort of just projected the same thing, which is it will continue to get busier. I do not think anyone really planned on a total change in travel behaviors, where the peaks are later in the day, or only a few times during the week. On the other side, with people working from home, or offices consolidating, it changes where and when people travel compared to how they used to. Obviously, rail is not a very easy mode to switch to meet those different patterns, so they will have to work to understand those overall movements, where they are going, and how it affects their existing systems. Also, when trying to rethink how you run commuter rail and regional rail systems, you may have to look at running smaller trains more frequently, rather than just the pure conventional long haul into town in the morning and back out of town in the evening. So, when you think of the larger regional systems in Chicago, Boston, or New York, you are really moving people long distances. If that all changes, it is going to be a challenge to then reformat infrastructure to fit different movement patterns. I think for the most part, the fundamental change that will need to be made is not looking at these rail services as a separate system that takes people from point A to point B, but rather a piece of a more integrated system that can get people from point to A to point C, D, or F.
Working with your customers, do you feel they have a sense of what those new patterns are starting to look like, or is it too soon to tell?
I think it is too soon. What we have seen from the use of location-based data and traffic API data is that vehicle miles traveled daily has rebounded, but the time of day those miles are being traveled are different. Taking myself as an example, when I was working from home, I would use my hour break to take the dogs for a walk, pick up groceries, or do other things I would have normally done at the end of the day because it was now possible. We have seen that direct shift in movement throughout North America consistently. Transit systems are still waiting to see what is going to happen because there are many unknowns. For example, nobody knows what all the large corporations are going to do with all their office space as they examine what they had before versus what is needed now. And so, in the next six months, as annual leases come due, you will start to see some consolidation and filtering of change. And then it will really depend on how many people can still work remotely. There will be a certain percentage that will have to return to the office because it is essential for them to do so. There will also be a large percentage that still commute, but only part time, so when people are commuting will be slightly altered and the typical Monday through Friday pattern will not look the same as it traditionally has. It may never go back to being what it was, because not only could the time of day they travel change, but also the days of the week, depending on when they are going into the office. For some rail systems who do not own their own tracks, this shift will cause some significant challenges because freight rail has traditionally taken that midday portion. So, if ridership is now migrating to the midday portion of the day, instead of the a.m. or p.m. peaks, that will be a very significant challenge that rail systems will now have to overcome.
Do you think more people are willing to go into the office now as vaccination rates go up, then they were at the height of the pandemic?
What we are seeing is that the older generation is little more tentative about going back to the office because they are more susceptible to getting COVID-19. And, you know, this is not going away. COVID is going to be here forever, and we may need to get annual shots, like many currently do for the flu — it is what it is. Because of that, we are going to see some generations that are more tentative about going back, while some of the younger generations may be reluctant because of the freedom they have experienced in working from home. So, we do not really know how that generational change is going to make things work. Within the office environment, a lot of generations below mine make other commitments when their days are done as they work to maintain that work/life balance. After the last 18 months or so where people have gotten some freedom back by not having to commute for two or three hours and instead use that time to be productive, it will be hard to suddenly force them to come back in the office and resume cubicle life when they know they can stay home and be just as productive, if not more so.
One of the things people are going to have to do at transit agencies much more is look at the use of location-based data, and other data sources that are more real time, and start to monitor the last couple of months of travel patterns so they can see how they must adapt to meet those new patterns. And then, they must start thinking about those operational issues where they have traditionally done signups and stuff for operators three to six months in advance and begin to change all those processes as transit usage continues to evolve, which is going to bring challenges. Understanding how that flexibility needs to be thought about is probably something new for most people, because in the past, we've always sort of built the coming year’s services by looking at last year’s numbers, as well as the years before, and making minor adjustments up or down based on projections. Now, transit might have to focus on data to see how people are moving. We did this for Winnipeg’s Transit Master Plan. Location-based data showed us that people were not necessarily moving in and out of downtown primarily, they were often moving from A to B where neither was a downtown destination. That understanding helped us work with the City to give a fresh look to how it plans its transit routes.
When you look at the data, it might be that Mondays and Tuesdays are not what they used to be and now Wednesdays and Thursdays are the days where ridership is higher. So how do you change your operation to still get those people back on board and move them as they need to be moved, but also introduce flexibility so that if patterns change you are only a couple months behind, rather than a couple of years behind as you monitor regional travel models and do surveys to see how people are moving? It is going to be a challenge.
With workforce development being such a huge aspect of the industry, how do you feel these new work norms, like work from home, will impact a company’s ability to continue the professional growth of its employees?
If you look at how university students have responded to remote learning, it is a real mixed bag. Some things are easy to learn remotely and for other things you really need to be there to talk to people and bounce ideas off them so that you can understand. One of the interesting positives that came out of COVID is that conference sessions and the different types of sharing of information have become a lot more interesting and valuable. If you were attending a conference before, you would have to pick a couple of sessions and miss other sessions that you may have been interested in, or you might not have been able to attend at all because only certain people within your company got to travel to shows. Because it has been remote, and the prices have been reasonable, everybody has been able to afford to send 10 people to attend a conference, instead of just sending one, so it expands the ability for people to learn from other places. What is missing that I have always found valuable is when you are in a city and walking around and looking and understanding what is happening with your own eyes it sometimes imprints a little bit better. But at least you can go back and listen to all the different seminars and sessions independent of them being live now, which is kind of a nice thing. Before, once a session was done, it was done, and it never really happened again. You would have to try to find the person presenting and see if you could get a copy of the slides maybe, but that was it. So, from that perspective it has been positive. Will that suddenly disappear once COVID is done, and it is back to in person conferences, I do not know. But it will be a challenge to have offered that access to knowledge and then suddenly take it away because of cost or distance, in my opinion.
The other issue is that the mentor/mentee relationship taking place while not in person will continue to be difficult. Another challenge in addition to that, which has been talked about in the New York Times and other publications, is the whole notion of people gaining access to experience jobs and other opportunities simply by walking by someone’s office at the right time. How do you give those opportunities to people when they are only working in the office a couple days a week, or possibly not at all? To overcome some of those challenges here at Stantec, we have been trying to do internal lunch and learns or workshops with our clients so that we can be more inclusive and still see people’s faces when they are talking, so it at least feels close to being together in person.
A larger challenge, I believe, moving forward will be how to keep people from feeling disconnected from their company when they are only in the office a couple days a week, or are working from home permanently. I think because of this issue, you are going to see the younger generations that have typically only stayed two to five years in a place, maybe jump ship even faster. That, of course, will create another challenge in a field where you are always trying to recruit and steal talent from one another. In fact, it may amplify that situation. In addition, transit agencies may find it difficult to compete with the consultant industry, because talent may find it more appealing to work for a company based in L.A. from where they are currently living, rather than move to the city where the transit agency is located, for example. This is especially an issue in places where the cost of living is typically high, which already makes it difficult to recruit. For example, a couple of years ago, New York City Transit had a terrible time trying to attract junior and senior level people because they cost of living was so high when compared to the salaries they would be making. Now with the notion that we can all work remotely from all over North America fairly easily, transit agencies are going to have to really think about how they can bring in talent and keep them by providing opportunities to train and move up the ladder. I do not think there is going to be an easy fix, there is really going to have to be a lot of intentional thought put into workplace development and keeping people interested in their jobs and potential they have to grow at those companies and agencies they are currently working for.
On a personal level, what has life during the pandemic been like for you?
It has been an interesting year for me. I have averaged like 100-plus days of airline travel a year for the last seven years, and I have not left my city, or even my neighborhood, for 18 months, so that has been an interesting thing to get used to. I am a water colorist on the side, so I have done probably four times the number of paintings in the last year than I would have normally been able to crank out. I also setup a home office, so I got all my toy buses and trains out of boxes where they have been sitting for the last nine years since I last had an office. It is kind of fun to have all that stuff back out on display.