COVID and the Intersection of Transportation and Health

In this uncertain time, there is only one certainty—change, rapid, sweeping and potentially radical. It is increasingly apparent to the public that there is an important intersection between economic drivers and health. So, what do we know so far?

In the first weekly report on unemployment since the declaration of a pandemic by the World Health Organization, claims rocketed from 232,500 to 3.283 million. This is the greatest single jump in the history of the Department of Labor’s data series. It’s nearly five times higher than the previous record, notched during a bruising recession in October 1982. Whole sectors of the economy—retail, dining, tourism, air travel—are essentially shuttered, with millions of employees, employers and enterprises in suspended animation. To find something comparable to the speed and scale of the past few weeks, you need to go all the way back to 1931-32, and even then, things didn’t move this fast.

COVID-19 & Impacts on Transportation

These impacts will be keenly felt everywhere across the economy, particularly in transportation.  Transportation, especially freight movement, lags and leads the economy. As economic activity slows, it’s typically preceded for some months by a slowing demand for movement of goods and people. And the first notice of an upswing typically comes in the form of more freight on more ships, trains and (especially) trucks, moving to more destinations. In what we suspect will be a short-term exception to this rule of thumb, some freight sectors are currently booming, virus be damned. As Americans stock up on everything from bleach to sardines to (of course) toilet paper, long-haul and delivery carriers are straining to respond—and are getting the job done. Data from telematics provider Geotab showed that commercial car use dropped by 57% on March 27. However, commercial medium- and heavy-duty trucks only slowed to 73% and 78%, respectively, compared to baseline data from February 1 – March 15, 2020.

But this short-term reactive boom won’t be enough to sustain trucking at the same levels of the past few years. A forecast from industry analyst FTR projects a drop of 24% in goods transport for the 2nd quarter of 2020. The same company predicts no rebound until the end of 2020, with a return to pre-COVID levels sometime in mid-2021.

Transportation Today

Is there hope for drivers and employers (and workers generally) in the short term? Yes. Under the terms of the stimulus package passed last week, companies are eligible for up to $10 million in guaranteed SBA funding aimed at companies with fewer than 500 employees. If a company maintains its payroll during the eight weeks following the initiation of the loan, that loan is forgivable. Is this enough?  In the long run, no, since this particular program is scheduled to expire on June 30 of this year. However, it could tide over some transportation companies until the pandemic slows and Americans start returning to normal routines. Beyond that, substantial political discussion indicates that additional aid packages for businesses and individuals are more than a marginal possibility.

Freight transportation is a game of inches. Low margins and intense competition push fleets to squeeze every possible fractional mile from every gallon of fuel. From 2009 through 2017, the American Transportation Research Institute showed that the largest or second-largest single expense for trucking year after year was fuel, along with driver pay. Diesel prices have dropped along with gasoline since 2020 began, but diesel remains substantially more expensive. For the week ending March 30, EIA reported national average prices for gasoline at $1.88 and diesel at $2.58. This represents a fall of 15% for diesel, but almost 25% for gasoline since the end of 2019—and freight transportation is still overwhelmingly dependent on diesel—for now.

Benefits of Adopting Alternative Fuels

Metropolitan Energy Center works hard to ensure our region’s critical transportation systems are doing all they can to be clean and emit fewer pollutants. All the incremental improvements listed in the next paragraph represent ways for freight transportation to move past diesel, or at the very least to optimize its use, cutting fuel costs and consumption in the process. Companies able to embrace one or more of these strategies have better odds of surviving the coming recession than those that don’t, while still providing Americans the essentials of daily life.

A silver lining and a way forward is continuing, steady movement towards cleaner, more efficient freight transportation technologies—something that matters on multiple levels. On March 24, diesel engine manufacturer Cummins announced increased investment in Loop Energy, a Canadian fuel-cell OEM whose zero-emission units extend the range of heavy trucks. On March 22, UPS confirmed that it has ordered 10,000 all-electric delivery box trucks from manufacturer Arrival, with deployments beginning late this year. UPS has also committed to renewable natural gas contracts for 250 million gallon-equivalents in renewable natural gas for a period of seven years, covering fleets in multiple states. Automatic and automated manual transmissions are becoming industry standard for Class 8 trucks, improving fuel consumption from 3% to 8%, a huge gain for the vehicle class. Low-rolling-resistance tires can increase heavy-duty fuel efficiency from 6% to 14%, though the tradeoff comes in shorter tire life. And a seven-unit cross-country test run in 2017—Run On Less hosted by Shell and PepsiCo—showed that Class 8 trucks, loaded with freight and on normal routes, averaged a bit more than 10 miles per gallon, which is an excellent improvement in efficiency for the vehicle class.

Why Clean Transportation Matters

Why do these improvements matter? For two reasons: Not only do they solidify long-term survival for freight companies on which nearly all Americans depend, they set up better public health outcomes for everyone. Transportation emissions—from trucks, from trains, from cars—kick in at ground level, where people live. And the public health impact of clean air is substantial, whatever the source of pollutants. An important transportation emission, PM2.5 is short-hand for solid particles (particulate matter) small enough to float in the air and get lodged in one’s lungs, impeding breathing.

A Carnegie-Mellon/University of Montreal study of the 1918 flu pandemic found that cities that used more coal for heat and power fared substantially worse than those using less. The analogy isn’t perfect—coal continues to fade even for power generation, let alone the home heating of yesteryear.  But the more we learn about the health impacts of ozone and PM 2.5, the worse those impacts are revealed to be. This is true for COPD, asthma and heart disease even at low levels, and ozone and PM 2.5 are two of the main pollutants created by conventional transportation fuels.

Pockets of PM2.5 pollutants are likely to affect lung health for people suffering COVID-19 complications. The CDC states that there are multiple underlying conditions that make COVID-19 outcomes worse. These include lung disease and heart conditions, both of which are exacerbated by air pollution. By CDC’s initial estimates, patients with underlying conditions were up to 4.1 times as likely to be hospitalized and up 6.6 times as likely to need ICU treatment as those without.

Clean air doesn’t just matter as an abstraction. Clean air isn’t a squishy fetish object for tree-huggers. Clean air isn’t a “well, that would be nice someday” concept. Clean air matters now in helping to deal with this pandemic. It matters to kids with asthma. It matters in the future in helping people live longer and deal more effectively with chronic health issues. And it should remain a foundational goal of public policy. Finding ways to improve air quality and eliminate emissions is what we do, and what we’ll keep on doing, and we hope you’ll be there with us. Contact us to start reviewing your transportation operations to help meet our regional clean air goals.