Traffic is seen on I-15 on Thursday, May 21, 2020. 

OGDEN — It’s not exactly earth-shattering when officials from Northern Utah’s planning arm say COVID-19 has had some significant impacts on transportation since the pandemic began to unfold in the state six months ago.

But what could be supremely consequential, those officials say, is if the trends currently being seen have some staying power.

During a recent discussion with the Utah Clean Air Caucus, Wasatch Front Regional Council Executive Director Andrew Gruber said planning officials all over the state are beginning to understand that living through a pandemic could forever alter people’s lifestyles and decisions.

Since COVID-19 emerged, Gruber says Wasatch Front residents, like many other people around the nation, have been doing more teleworking, more online shopping, more biking and walking, less commuting and driving, and making different uses of their living and working spaces. In essence, many people’s lives are revolving more and more around their own neighborhoods.

“We’re all quite familiar with the short-term impacts that came from the height of the COVID recession and the stay-at-home orders,” Gruber said, noting a massive statewide traffic volume reduction by as much as 50% from mid-March through April. “But as things are shifting and as we gradually recover ... what are the potential long-term implications?”

Ted Knowlton, deputy director at the WFRC, said it could be what he describes as a “great localization” of life and activity.

Some of the more dramatic changes to Northern Utahns’ driving habits have leveled out since the initial weeks of the novel coronavirus, although August changes are still substantial.

According to WFRC data, retail trips in the council’s six-county service area (Box Elder, Davis, Morgan, Salt Lake, Tooele, and Weber counties) are still down 7% from pre-COVID levels. Trips to the workplace are down 40% and freeway volumes and air emissions are both down 10%. Bicycle trips are up 40% and trips to open-space areas (city, state and national parks, trailheads, etc.) are up 160%.

“This has settled in,” Knowlton said. “Now that the economy has rebounded, especially in Utah a fair amount, this gives us a sense of what might happen post-COVID.”

In a world after COVID-19, Knowlton said, the types of retail centers that will still be in demand are places that offer a ‘broad experience,” in addition to quality service and products normally associated with successful retail establishments.

“Can you bicycle somewhere? Can you bicycle safely? Are there parks?,” Knowlton said. “You add all of these things, all of these desires within a halo around your home and you can think of it essentially as a great localization. (In the future), the question will be, more than ever, what is surrounding my home?”

If the changes in lifestyle being seen right now endure, Knowlton said, the physical form and function of cities will change. A localization of activity could have positive effects for many households, businesses and economies, but the changes could also impact municipal revenues. Economic benefits follow the teleworker, according to the WFRC, including the ability for municipalities to capture their distribution of online retail sales taxes.

Knowlton said if the great localization comes to fruition, communities that are complete will thrive. That means having the presence of strategically located town centers, nearby grocery stores, restaurants, parks and things like salons.

“This is a big shift,” he said. “If communities provide these opportunities, they will be desirable. ... If (they) don’t ... we’ll likely see more people make locational decisions about where they work based on price. Which means they drive until the price of housing falls. ... People will drive longer distances, they will tend to live in locations that are less transit accessible and that has air quality impacts. We really have a fork in the road here.”

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