In this episode, host Kristin Hayes talks with Abel Brodeur, an associate professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Ottawa. Brodeur discusses his recent research into the far-reaching effects of lockdown orders in the United States, which notably include a steep reduction in car crashes as more people stay home. Because lockdown orders have economic consequences far beyond the spread of the pandemic, Brodeur contends that policymakers should consider these additional costs and benefits when making decisions about protecting public health.
Listen to the Podcast
- Car crashes have been less frequent during lockdowns: “Car crashes in the United States in March, April, were going down by 50 percent in states and counties where there was a lockdown implemented, in comparison to other states [and counties] at the same moment of time that didn't have a lockdown implemented … It's going down because people are staying at home.” (5:49)
- The total economic costs of car crashes are staggering: “Now, the question is: How much money is [lost] when there's a car crash? If you talk to insurers, they can give you an estimate of fixing the cars. The claim is going to be something like $5,000, maybe on average, for a car crash. Well, 300,000 [car crashes] times $5,000 is a lot, but that's obviously very incomplete. There are many other costs. There are costs related to lawyers' fees. There's congestion. There's traffic jams. Everybody arrives late to work. And then there's the doctors, the firefighters—there's so much going on. Some estimates say that maybe a car crash is $10,000; maybe it's $15,000.” (12:32)
- Speculating about the economic impacts of COVID-19 and the future of lockdowns: “Is it going to be a depression that's going to last for years? It depends on how many other waves we're going to get [of the virus]. In the northeast of the United States and in Canada right now, things are a bit more relaxed, but there might be another wave in September. If you look at the IMF [International Monetary Fund], we see that they keep revising down their prediction for growth. Now, it's minus 7 percent this year—it used to be minus 2 percent. So, I think people are getting more and more pessimistic, which means that there will be more lockdowns, which means that there will be less car crashes.” (20:23)
Top of the Stack
- "On the Effects of COVID-19 Safer-At-Home Policies on Social Distancing, Car Crashes and Pollution" by Abel Brodeur, Nikolai Cook, and Taylor Wright
- "A Literature Review of the Economics of COVID-19" by Abel Brodeur, David M. Gray, Anik Islam, and Suraiya Jabeen Bhuiyan
- English Passengers by Matthew Kneele
The Full Transcript
Kristin Hayes: Hi, everyone. Welcome to our third Resources Radio Live recording. I'm your host, Kristin Hayes. Once again, this week, we are recording the podcast in front of a live, albeit virtual audience. In addition to being lightly edited for the podcast, this webinar is being recorded and will be posted on our website afterward.
This Resources Radio Live series focuses on topics that lie at the intersection of the COVID-19 pandemic and energy and environmental issues. So far, we've talked about electricity consumption and air pollution. And today, we're turning to a third topic that has received considerable attention during this period, which is the transportation sector.
My guest today is Abel Brodeur, who is an associate professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Ottawa. Abel is going to be talking with us about some of his recent research on transportation impacts, and in particular, some data related to car crash incidents during the lockdowns. But Abel has also been looking at the economic impacts of the pandemic across a range of other dimensions. And we'll talk a bit about that broader research as well.
So, thank you again for joining us on Resources Radio Live, and with that, let's get started.
Abel, it's a pleasure to talk with you today, and thank you very much for joining us on Resources Radio Live.
Abel Brodeur: Thanks for having me.
Kristin Hayes: Of course. It's nice for our audience members to know a bit more about the day's guest. So, can I start by asking you one of our typical questions: how you became interested in research related to economics and the environment?
Abel Brodeur: Yeah, so this is not my background. I was not trained as an environmental economist, but I think it's a combination of factors. Over the past couple of years, well, I joined University of Ottawa five years ago. And some of my colleagues, some of our graduate students are doing a lot of fascinating research on development and environmental economics. So, I think it's a lot of exposure to a lot of great research done by Carolyn Fischer, but also Anthony Heyes, Nick Rivers, and our graduate students.
And I think just over time I always thought it was a super important topic, obviously global warming and so on. But I think it's only lately that I realize that it can be really a lot of fun and super interesting from a research point of view, doing research on this. So for instance, I never thought that—and economists have been doing a lot of research on this—but I never thought that pollution can actually affect productivity of workers, productive workers that are inside, white-collars, that are in a new building with AC.
So I never thought these things were possible. And certainly, at the beginning, was not really believing the magnitude of these estimates. But then again, you keep seeing studies like this, and once you start thinking that your cognitive capacity can actually be affected by the weather, by pollution and all these things, you start realizing how important it is. Obviously, it was already important with global warming, but it just feels even more like this is a topic that is worth doing investigation on. So I guess, just a combination of a lot of different factors being exposed to a lot of really cool research on this subject.
Kristin Hayes: Yeah. And that reminds me, too. I wanted to ask: Would you consider yourself a labor economist, sort of by training or by specialty, and so that interest in workers and the intersections between workers and environment is of interest?
Abel Brodeur: Yeah, absolutely. So, “labor economist” is so vague. It just engulfs everything. So, it's perfect. All the applied microeconomists I know were trained as labor economists at the end of the day. And then they end up doing health or crime. I've been doing a lot of work on crime, urbanization, that sort of thing, and obviously environment is related to all these things. But it's the same set of methods and skills, I'd say. So, that's why you can jump in from one subdiscipline to another one quite easily.
Kristin Hayes: Yeah. Well, I'm certainly going to ask you to cover a lot of territory in our conversation today. So I'm grateful that you are up for that. But as I mentioned in the intro, the initial focus of our conversation at least is about the transportation sector. And I think it's fair to say that the pandemic has had some profound effects on travel volume, mode choice, and basically all across the world, to various extents at various times.
I am hoping we can touch on a number of issues related to the transportation sector. But I do want to start with your research on car crashes. You and your colleagues looked at county-level traffic and accident data in five US states during the height of the lockdowns. What did you find, in terms of impacts on vehicle traffic and on vehicle collisions? And I wanted to note, too: you and your colleagues also looked at air pollution. I know that was the main focus of our conversation last week. I wanted to focus on the additional findings, but of course, if you want to reference any of the air pollution findings, that would be great, as well.
Abel Brodeur: We did get data at the daily level—at the county level—for five states. And for us, it was really important to get this granular data, really at the county level, because actually in the United States, a lot of counties and cities implemented their own lockdowns. So safer-at-home policies, lockdowns, I'm going to use these interchangeably.
So, for us, it was really important to look at … when a county implements a lockdown, is the effect of that lockdown very similar to a lockdown in a state? And having daily data was very important, because one look at before and after a lockdown in comparing to other locations during the same moment of time that didn't have the same type of lockdown, where they have any lockdowns in place. And then we complimented this with data from eight major cities in the United States, going from Tucson to New York City, DC, San Francisco, Seattle, and I forget the other ones.
But what we find is a very large decrease in collisions. So, car crashes in the United States in March, April, were going down by 50 percent in states and counties where there was a lockdown implemented, in comparison to other states at the same moment of time or counties that didn't have a lockdown implemented. So the effects were really large, and we also document really large effects on fatalities. So for fatalities, it was not really clear what was going on. For collisions, it was not kind of obvious, but we knew it was going down; we just didn't know the magnitude. It's going down because people are staying at home. So, if you are looking at cell phone data that tracks where people are going, what you see is they're more likely to stay at home, they're less likely to go to work, they're less likely to go to groceries, et cetera.
So, just traffic was going down, and that's why collision is going down. But for fatalities, what can be happening is people are speeding more, stunt driving, that sort of thing. And you do see some of this in the data, for sure, but fatalities are down, just because collisions are down so much, that fatalities are also down. So we find also large effects on fatalities.
In terms of air pollution, I'm not going to spend a lot of time on this, but we find for the entire United States, again at the county level, we find a decrease of 25 percent in PM2.5 emissions. The effects are obviously larger in some places, smaller in others. So they're larger in places where people were more complying. So places that didn't vote for Trump, for instance, in the last presidential election, they're larger. So that's also in terms of decrease in pollution in places that—in urban areas, for instance—where you see larger originally, but overall for the United States, we documented a decrease of about 25 percent. So the number of days with bad, with a lot of pollution, were going down by a lot.
Kristin Hayes: I want to go back and ask just one more kind of clarifying thing about the fatality question. So, can I just summarize this? Is it an accurate summary to say that fatalities did not go down by a proportional amount compared to the percentage by which collisions went down? If I'm summarizing this correctly, they went down, but not as much as one would expect if they had been perfectly proportional to collisions. Is that right?
Abel Brodeur: That's correct. So, when you look at the data, there are some places where you see actually an increase in fatalities. It's a bit noisy, but overall, there's a decrease in fatalities, certainly in the states and counties that we looked at. So fatality data is not available for all these states and all these counties, but for a few states that I remember looking at, like Missouri, there was a decrease. When we look at fatalities for these eight major cities, we also see a decrease in fatalities—in car crash fatalities. So definitively an effect on this, but not necessarily as large as collision, because speeding is going up.
Kristin Hayes: Interesting. Just anecdotally, but I always find it particularly interesting when there's research that can either confirm or deny my anecdotal experience of a situation. And this is definitely one where I felt like I was living through much less frequently. But the times I did go out, I thought, “I think people are driving a lot faster than they used to!” So, thanks for backing me up on that one.
Abel Brodeur: Yeah, you can. I mean, it's empty. Yeah, absolutely. But it's not clear also because when there's a fatality, when there is a car crash—if you have a car crash, and there's nobody else, it's not a car crash between two cars, maybe like it was going down, it was not that obvious that fatalities would go down. There's just, maybe you have a car crash and you hit the post or whatever, and maybe you're killing yourself. That was not clear from a theoretical point of view.
Now, there are other studies that have been done in Europe and other parts of the United States that find out that fatalities might've gone down. It depends on the situation when you look at it, but I'd say that one thing that I didn't mention that is very important is we're not looking at the effect of the pandemic, we're looking at the effect of the lockdowns.
Kristin Hayes: Right.
Abel Brodeur: So a lot of the studies or blogs that are going to just show you the raw data, they're looking really at this year in comparison to last year. So they're capturing the effect of the pandemic, they're capturing the effects of a lot of policies. Whereas here, we're really trying to pin down: what's the effect of lockdowns? And we think it's important because, I guess, the way I saw this is, this is part of a broader research agenda that just tries to understand what are the consequences. What are the pros and cons or benefits of lockdowns?
So air pollution and collision for me are worse, but something very interesting in the document. But I think it's also very important to say, look: I mean, yes, when you implement a lockdown you're going to have a decrease in employment, but there are other benefits. Yes, we might save lives. There might be less COVID cases, but there are also many other benefits of having a lockdown. And many other costs too.
Kristin Hayes: Sure.
Abel Brodeur: Which we can talk about later on. But that was really the idea of documenting the effect of lockdown and not specifically the effect of the pandemic.
Kristin Hayes: Thanks. Yeah, that's a really helpful piece of context and a perfect lead in actually to the next question. So, economists are very good at quantifying things that can seem difficult to quantify, I think. And one of the things is, as you noted, a reduction in collisions and a reduction in fatalities is a benefit. And my understanding is that you and your colleagues actually work to quantify that benefit. So can you tell us a little bit more about that quantification work that you did and what you found?
Abel Brodeur: Yeah, so we really started looking at data for March, April, early May, for this exercise. And then we can talk later on about whether these effects persisted. But what we find is if you look at the number of days of lockdowns in the United States, and you prorate this to the number of people living in these areas, and you take these data that we have in the estimates that we have for these five states, and you try to generalize this to the entire United States for all these states and counties that have lockdowns. Basically, you're trying to say, if we take these estimates, what happens at the national level? We were talking about 35,000 less car crashes, which is a lot.
Kristin Hayes: It's a lot.
Abel Brodeur: I mean, every year we're talking about millions of car crashes. So, if these effects would persist for an entire year, a decrease of 50 percent is a lot of car crashes, there's also a decrease in fatalities. So, what we find is the number of fatalities going down by a lot, but at the national level. So, maybe I misspoke. So what I meant is 35,000 in terms of casualties, but in terms of collisions, just pure collisions, we're talking about hundreds of thousands. We're talking about something like 300,000 collisions. It's a lot.
And now the question is, how much money is this when there's a car crash? If you talk to insurers, I mean, they can give you an estimate of on average fixing the cars. The claim is going to be something like $5,000, maybe on average for a car crash. Well, 300,000 times $5,000 is a lot, but that's obviously very incomplete. There are many other costs. There are costs related to lawyers' fees. And then there's congestion. There's traffic jams. Everybody arrives late to work.
And then there's the doctors, the firefighters— there's so much going on. Some estimates are saying that maybe a car crash is $10,000, maybe it's $15,000. What we're trying to do is to take our estimates, bring them up to what's going on at the national level. And when you do this, you find that we're talking about billions of dollars as of early May. It can be something up to, I don't know, I remember estimates were something like for car crashes from $7 to $20, $25 billion, depending on which range you use. Whether you use this $5,000 that I've mentioned, or you use this bound, which has $15,000, including everything. So we're talking about a lot of money, a lot of billions of dollars as of early May 2020.
And then you can do a similar exercise with air pollution. Now, the problem with air pollution, it's very hard to put a number. I mean, how much are you willing to pay for clean air? So we have some studies that have been documenting, maybe we look at how much people are willing to pay in terms of looking at infant mortality or looking at many different things. And there's a cost when a baby dies, maybe because of pollution. And maybe we can try to figure out how much it's worth. There are many other ways to try to get this, but it's very noisy, and it's really hard. There is no agreement on how much less pollution is worth. But anyway, we use these bounds and we get something like, maybe it's $350 million, maybe we're talking about $7 billion as of early May.
So now we're piling up the billions; it's a lot of money. And I have this other study where we document what's the effect on the unemployment rate.
And if you look at number of jobs that are lost because of the lockdowns, there are a lot of assumptions there. But you see in the United States that the unemployment rate went out by about eight percentage points from January to say, April, May. So it moved from 4 to something like 12. It's probably more than that. There's some measurement there, but we find that if a county or state, if a state implements a lockdown, there's an additional four percentage points in job loss. So, unemployment goes up, and then if you calculate how much these people are actually making in a given year, number of weeks that they were on their lockdown, number of people, we're talking about something like $25 billion, maybe more. So that's about the cost of the air pollution plus the car collisions.
Now, obviously, there are many other economic costs. There's unemployment insurance. These people are not paying taxes; maybe it's underestimated. But the idea was just to put this into perspective, just to get an idea. We're not talking about peanuts here. All these car crashes are actually having a large effect. We're saving a lot of money, and there are also other benefits in terms of remote work that we can talk about later. But that was the idea of just looking at estimates of how much does a car crash cost on average—a lot of money. And this should be part of the conversation. I know it sounds weird to say, “we're saving lives with COVID and there's less cases, but, yeah, what about car collisions?” It's actually a lot of money. So this should be part of a broader discussion on what are the costs and benefits of lockdowns. And there's a lot, it's very complicated.
Kristin Hayes: It is. That's something that we've struggled with throughout this series, is that we don't ever want to talk about these issues as if, “Oh, there's a silver lining to the pandemic.” Well, the pandemic has been really challenging and terrible across most dimensions. But, as you point out, an economist's job in a certain sense is in fact to look at the full suite of costs and benefits and understand those things. And so it has been very illuminating, I guess I'd say, to hear from folks about those costs and benefits along a number of dimensions. Obviously, this is a very important one. So, I wanted to ask you: How unique is this to the United States? You're not even based in the United States, so thank you for looking at US data, but how unique is this? How do your findings compare with potentially other parts of the world where maybe they're not as car dependent as we are in the US or are there comparisons that you can offer?
Abel Brodeur: Yeah, so we looked at air pollution in Europe—something like six or seven countries in Europe—and the effects are larger. There's a larger decrease in air pollution in France, in Spain; we looked at Italy, the United Kingdom. So, on average for these European countries, you find larger effects in terms of decrease in air pollution than in the United States. I think, many of these countries, the United States is huge—it's like Canada. It's a huge country. Most of it is rural. So, if the decrease is coming from remote work, people staying at home. Also, obviously the economy, losing jobs, that sort of thing. And then agriculture, mining, and all these industries shutting down—you would think that the effects could be somewhat similar across countries. But we do find very large effects, also for Europe.
It's been documented also in China and many other locations that lockdowns are actually having large effects on pollution. In terms of car crashes, you find very large effects on decreases in terms of car crashes and collisions in many European countries. Now there are even studies showing other effects in South America, but the data I've looked at is mostly Europe. And you see a very large decrease. So, basically right now, we see the countries’ weekdays like the weekend—usually there's less people on the roads during weekends. Now it feels like we're always Saturday. So, you do find a very large reduction elsewhere. The magnitude is different, but the idea that pollution is going down, air pollution is going down, car crashes are decreasing. This is clearly happening elsewhere.
Kristin Hayes: I know that you actually started doing this research. You were pretty quick out of the gate in terms of wanting to look at these issues. And, of course, time has marched on, and now lockdown levels are changing in lots of parts of the world. What can you tell us about evidence that these trends are continuing? Have we rebounded to pre-lockdown levels, either in the United States or in other places? Are we back to normal in terms of this unfortunate statistic?
Abel Brodeur: In the United States, in places where they reopened the economy? Absolutely. You're back to pre-pandemic levels. I mean, more or less, maybe there's an effect that's going to be persistent depending on whether people are going to keep working from home and that sort of thing. But just in terms of magnitude, we're definitely not seeing still a decrease of 50 percent in collisions. Clearly not for states where there were more cases and where they didn't reopen as fast. You still see a decrease in collision.
It's basically just depending on the number of people who are going out. What's going to be interesting going forward, and unfortunately we don't know yet, but if you allow me to speculate a bit: I think what we're going to see in the future is there might be a bit of a decrease in terms of air pollution and in terms of car collisions. Simply because a lot of people are going to be working from home, and a lot of people are not going to get their jobs back.
There will be long-term effects, persistent effects. The question is the magnitude. We really have no idea. Is it going to be a depression that's going to last for years? It depends on how many other waves we're going to get of this. So, northeast of the United States and Canada right now, things are a bit more relaxed, but there might be another wave in September. If you look at the IMF, we see that they keep revising down their prediction for growth. So, now it's minus 7 percent this year. It used to be minus 2 percent. So, I think people are getting more and more pessimistic, which means that there will be more lockdown, which means that there will be less car crashes. There will be less pollution in the short run, but what's interesting is: is this going to stick around?
And I think it's really depending on what remote work is going to become something we're going to get used to or not, and whether companies will want that. I think a lot of workers are enjoying this a lot. A lot of workers don't like it a lot, but companies certainly are seeing decreased costs. And they don't want to get issues related to having [COVID] cases in their own company. So, some companies definitely like what they're seeing right now. Others really want to reopen as fast as possible, because they need clients.
It really depends on the exposure to other coworkers, to clients—it's really sector specific. But, for some sectors of the economy, we might see that people are going to work from home—not necessarily permanently, but for maybe months or years to come. So, there might be an effect that persists.
Kristin Hayes: Yeah. Oh, boy. So many unknowns.
Abel Brodeur: Yes.
Kristin Hayes: I want to pivot quickly to another cost associated with transport during normal times, and that's commuting, which takes a toll on workers, even in absence of crashes. Certainly commuting alone, I think it's been shown to have some significant and real costs, whether in terms of dollars spent or impacts on mental health. And so I'm wondering if we could talk about that for just a second?
Abel Brodeur: Yeah.
Kristin Hayes: And what we know about the magnitude of those costs in normal times. And then, are there researchers looking at those reductions—reductions in commuting more generally? How might that have had costs and benefits, or at least for those who are fortunate enough to be able to work from home?
Abel Brodeur: Yep. So if you look at 2019 data in the United States (mostly census data and other surveys) we find that the costs (the monetary cost of commuting in the United States for people who were working) are between $2,000 and $5,000. So, for some states it's really cheap, because they have public transportation—DC, for instance—but it takes way more time in DC because of public transportation. So, usually you see this negative correlation between these two things, and it varies a lot in the United States, but it's between $2,000 and $5,000. So let's take the middle: it's $3,500 for Americans working and commuting. It's a lot of money. It's a lot of time. So people are saving on this—saving a lot. And you know, as the podcast on electricity consumption made clear, people are going to see bills going up. That is true.
You're spending more time at home, but you're also saving money, because you don't pay for parking. You don't pay for your bus ticket. You don't pay to get a bus pass. You don't pay for gas, for fixing your car, car insurance. So, a lot of car insurance companies realize that there's less car crashes. So, you know, at some point, you have to give back some money. So, there were huge differences across insurance companies. Some of them just give you, “Here's $50, we’re good.” Others said, “Let's decrease your premium by 20 percent or 25 percent.” So, huge differences—and this is important. This is a lot of money that people are saving. Obviously, it's people who have a job that are saving this money. People who are unemployed, yes, they don't commute, but they also saw a reduction in income.
So, you're going to see increase in inequalities, but this is a monetary cost. Then you mentioned other things that are very important. There could be other costs of remote work. A lot of people have been documenting or trying to argue anecdotal evidence that there could be an increase in things like domestic violence, because people are working from home. Women are more isolated. In Canada, I've looked at a survey where we have questions about domestic violence, family stress, and you know whether the respondent—the woman—was working at home or not.
And we didn't really see a connection there. A status quo relationship. We did see evidence that women who were at home because of the lockdowns reported an increase in family stress and increase in the likelihood of domestic violence. So, the lockdown seems to have an effect on this, but not necessarily because of remote work. But remote work can also have an effect on many different things.
So, if you're not commuting, commuting is very painful. You listen to the radio or whatever, but working from home is also very painful for a lot of people. If you look at mental health data, you see that it's mostly women who were struggling a lot with the lockdowns. Mental health levels are going down overall, but especially for women—especially for young people. So, there are costs and benefits of staying at home, working, in comparison to commuting. Some people like commuting; some don't. I don't, but it's really a question of preferences. And now, people cannot really choose. You do have preferences, but now you're stuck.
Kristin Hayes: Right.
Abel Brodeur: And if things change and are permanent—well, you didn't buy the house that you were supposed to. You wanted to be much farther away from the city center, but too late. You thought you had to commute. You wanted to be closer. So, that sort of thing is going to take a lot of time for the market to clear. Or it's going to take a lot of time for these preferences to be satisfied, in a sense.
Kristin Hayes: Right, right.
Abel Brodeur: And we have no idea whether it's going to be a persistent effect. So, there's a lot of things that are happening—a lot of different costs related to mental health, related to your life, your lifestyle change. And you didn't choose them; it just happened.
Kristin Hayes: It sure did. Yeah. For that re-sorting to occur, I agree with you. I think it's going to take a while to really understand the impacts of all of these different choices that we have. So, okay. One more question for you about transportation, and it's about public transportation and mode choice. The pandemic has had huge consequences for ridership on public transportation—certainly here in the United States. And here, at least there's some concern that the pandemic may actually push public transportation into what I've seen referred to as a “death spiral,” where reduced ridership and reduced revenue leads to a reduction in services and therefore longer wait times, which can lead to even lower ridership. So, I wanted to ask you about that. If you know of research about long-term impacts on public transportation, but then also in continuing our conversation about costs and benefits, have any mode choices actually benefited during the pandemic?
Abel Brodeur: Well, walking and bicycles certainly benefited from this. I mean, some cities are completely reshaping their downtown … I don't know if it's going to be persistent or not, but it's much easier to walk now in terms of—like, think about Uber and Lyft. I mean, food delivery, sure, but the rest are suffering—taxis are suffering a lot. And then you talk about the other modes of transportation. Car sales—new car sales are down a lot. And when there's a recession, they're down. This is something that we know. And it's going to take a lot of time before rebound. Used cars usually go down, but by much less, and they rebound much faster. What we're going to see, and what we see in the data, is people are buying used cars instead of new cars. Some people and dealerships might suffer differently, whether they sell new cars or not.
In terms of public transportation, we're back to this conversation: long-term effects of remote work. I think so. I mean, to some extent. I think, to me, one thing that really bugs me is when people talk about, "Oh, some jobs can be done from home; some cannot." And I think that's not really what you should be thinking of. Some jobs can be done at work 60 percent of the time, and 40 percent of the time is at home. I mean, it's rare that you have jobs that 100 percent is at home, zero is at work, or the other way around. So, I think a lot of jobs we're going to get used to, maybe we go to work two days a week. Maybe we're at work three days a week, or just the morning—not the afternoon. If that's the case, then public transportation is in trouble. And when I think about public transportation, I'd like to think about it in two different ways.
There's the “intensive margin” and the “extensive margin.” “Extensive” is you just go, or you never use it. You use the public transport, or you never do. And “intensive” is the number of times that you use it, let's say in a week. There's a lot of surveys now in the United States, Canada, and Europe that ask people: Are you going to ever use public transportation again? Let’s say a bus. 99 percent of people will say, “Yes.” So, I don't think people will stop using the bus forever. But a lot of people were saying, “I'm not using it now until we have a vaccine,” or “I'm not using it now until we have face masks.” 50 percent of people in a recent survey in Toronto said, "There need to be face masks. Otherwise, I'm not going." And 25 percent were saying, "We need a vaccine; now, I'm not using it." So in terms of extensive margin and the short run, we're going to see an effect, and in the long run, not really. Intensive margin—that's a problem.
A lot of people are going to not want to use it five days a week, especially if you work from home a couple of days a week. So, that's where you're going to see a decrease in revenues. And I think it's going to be the same for traveling by airplane. They're starting to cut routes that are less popular. Buses are going through the same. This bus route line is just going, "Ah, it's not that popular. We're losing money, anyway." They're going to start cutting those. So, more remote areas might lose a lot in terms of public transportation, but public transportation is not going to disappear.
But in terms of long-term effects, the way I think about it is really intensive margin. That's the key. You need to make people go back to using those as much as possible, but obviously, you also want to decrease the number of cases. And some people are scared that when you go through the metro bus, you're going to get sick and you're going to get COVID. Although the evidence is not super convincing, people are scared, and you really need to make people more comfortable. And that's the only way to go in terms of making people reuse public transportation, but there's some things you don't control. Are people going to work from home, or not? And to what extent? And that's going to be what's going to drive down profits of public transportation.
Kristin Hayes: Well, let me take my moderator’s privilege to ask you one last question, then—two last questions, actually—before we wrap up. You and other colleagues at the University of Ottawa have in fact been looking at the whole body of literature that's out there, related to the economic impacts of the pandemic and/or the lockdowns. And that's a huge undertaking, but it's clear that you're trying to look across these costs and benefits pretty holistically. Can you just say anything quickly about what you're hoping the impact of that broad literature review will be?
Abel Brodeur: I mean, at the beginning, it started as a small project with graduate students, like, “Hey, keep me updated on new papers, and just give me summaries.” It was huge. Within two weeks, we had hundreds of papers. I mean, there's been more than 1,000 papers written by economists on COVID. More than 1,000—easily more than 1,000. So our goal was, let's try to do a literature review in which we are broad enough. We had to cherry-pick some papers, not necessarily because those are the best papers, but just because there were too many. But the goal now (we released this a couple of weeks ago; it's been downloaded thousands of times) … And I think there was a need for this, just because I think a lot of people were working on the same questions. There are also some databases that just list the number of papers, and some papers are finished, and others are not completed, but you need to know where the literature is going.
You need to know what people have done, and you don't want people to work exactly on the same questions. I've done that mistake of working exactly on the same dataset—the same research question as somebody else. Which is nice, because then we compared the results, and usually it was very similar. I was happy with the replication, but it would have been nice to know this in advance, because I would have worked on something else or just maybe changed the angle, or looked at subgroups, or something like this. So this really became the goal. Just like, let's make this public, and who knows who's going to read this? It doesn't really matter. You just get an idea of like, here's the literature, here's what it looks like right now. It changed; it’s been a few weeks. It's a moving target.
Kristin Hayes: Sure.
Abel Brodeur: So we keep updating it. It's a nightmare, but we do our best, and hopefully it's useful. I don't know. But the thing I learned is, when you do a literature review, you get an idea of where the literature is going. Just kind of neat and interesting. So I sort of know, in many different fields, what are people going to look at in six months from now. This has given me a bit of perspective, but then again, I'm an economist—so I have no idea what's going to happen two weeks from now, but maybe I know what's going to happen six months from now.
Kristin Hayes: Yeah. Well, we'll have to have you back on the podcast in six months, then, to reflect on what you've learned in the interim. Abel, this has been a really interesting conversation. I really appreciate you bringing this perspective on the transportation sector and a number of other issues to the series. So thank you very much.
Abel Brodeur: No, thanks to you.
Kristin Hayes: Yeah. And with that, I will close with our regular standard closing question, which we call “Top of the Stack.” I'm wondering what content you would recommend for our viewers and listeners related to, well, anything you'd recommend, really. It doesn't have to be specific to this topic, but something you'd want to share.
Abel Brodeur: Okay. So I had a baby a couple of months ago. I have no time to read nothing! But my wife is Spanish—she's from Catalonia. And in Catalonia, once a year, they have the equivalent of Saint Valentine, where the guy gives a flower. But the boy, the husband, the man, receives a book. And my wife bought me this a few years ago. It's called English Passengers.
Kristin Hayes: Okay!
Abel Brodeur: And it's one of my favorite books, ever. This is fiction. This is 19th century. It's about a reverend, a priest, in the United Kingdom in London. And he thinks that the Garden of Eden is in Australia. So then he goes on long journeys with a scientist; they don't like each other. And they go on a boat that—turns out that the boat is from people who were smuggling alcohol, but that’s just a detail.
Anyway, they don't like each other. And then it's a long journey going there. And when they get there—spoiler alert—they don't find a Garden of Eden, but they find something much cooler. They find madness. And from that point on, the book is just amazing. It's a lot of fun. And you learn a lot about the history of slavery, tons of things, about Tasmania, about Australia in general, the history, which I knew absolutely nothing about. It's a great book. Great read. Has nothing to do with anything, except maybe transportation; they use a boat.
Kristin Hayes: Maybe that form of transportation is going to see a renaissance during this period too—who knows?
Abel Brodeur: I hope not!
Kristin Hayes: Yeah, we'll start transatlantic boat passages again.
Abel Brodeur: Exactly.
Kristin Hayes: Boy, I don't think so.
Abel Brodeur: Yeah.
Kristin Hayes: Well, that's great. That's a fascinating recommendation. I really appreciate it. Well, Abel, I think we're going to wrap up, and thank you, again. It's been a pleasure, and hopefully we can talk to you again on Resources Radio at some point in the future.
Abel Brodeur: For sure. Thanks.
Kristin Hayes: Okay. Thanks so much. Bye, everybody. Thank you for joining us.
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Associate Professor at the University of Ottawa Department of Economics
Senior Director for Research and Policy Engagement