Carnegie Mellon University
August 20, 2020

The COVID-19 Pandemic and Transportation Engineering

How can transportation engineering help mitigate the effects of the pandemic? What can we learn from the current disruption? Hamerschlag University Professor of Engineering Emeritus Chris Hendrickson explores the impacts and lessons from COVID-19 for the transportation engineering profession and how they can help future planning.

In his editorial, Hendrickson writes that the COVID-19 pandemic has been an enormous global disruption with immense economic, environmental, and social impacts throughout the world. However, he believes that transportation engineering has a role in mitigating the negative effects of the current pandemic and future disruptive events. 

Activity-based travel information has been used as an analysis tool in the pandemic. Proprietary smartphone location tracking data was made available from numerous sources on a summary basis to monitor travel. Data was reported on a daily basis and for small geographic areas. This data was also used to track individuals with exposure to the virus in countries such as China. Interestingly, the advanced activity-based models used in transportation and those used in epidemiology modeling are very similar, mainly because both are interested in predicting demand on a system (e.g., use of transportation, spread of disease) based on detailed models of human interactions across space and time.

The impact on freight transportation has been noticeable. Supply chains were significantly disrupted and shortages of personal protection equipment, sanitizers, medical ventilators, and toilet paper, for example, quickly developed. Over the past 20 years, the logistics industry has adopted a just-in-time approach for many products, which has reduced the need for warehousing. This approach has significantly affected the movement of freight across the globe and across individual countries and is usually seen in positive terms; however, the lack of warehousing of critical medical equipment has negatively impacted the ability of many countries to fight the pandemic. It has become apparent that stockpiling of significant amounts of emergency-related equipment and products may become more typical and supply chains may become more domestic.

Unlike natural disasters and wars, the pandemic did not affect the physical infrastructure of transportation. Rather, it directly affected the human aspect of the transportation system. The pandemic has demonstrated the importance of understanding the connection between the transportation system and its users.

The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically illustrated the need for preparation for future disruptions. With respect to natural disasters, our transportation system has served a two-fold purpose: evacuating citizens away from affected areas while simultaneously allowing first responders to access these same areas. Similarly, the current pandemic requires that essential services be maintained. The COVID-19 pandemic also has illustrated the complementariness of the transportation and public health systems. Transportation helped spread the virus but also ensured that essential supplies were available. 

Hendrickson says that the long-term travel impacts of the pandemic are still uncertain, and many questions still remain to how we will adjust to take on the next crisis. For now, transportation engineering professionals are hard at work coming up with solutions to our current issues and those of tomorrow.

To read the full article, go here.