COVID-19’s Lasting Effects on Transportation

The past few weeks have provided a plethora of takes on the COVID-19 crisis-induced trends in transportation, and speculations on those which are likely to last. Insights range from bleak to optimistic, and market trends seem to indicate a variety of possible outcomes. I’m letting myself view the trends in crisis transportation in the same mindset I try to view ‘normal times’ transportation in: with extreme caution and enough optimism to keep me believing transportation infrastructure is capable of systematic change for the better. The virus seems likely to pose significant challenges to city leaders and transportation professionals, with pressure from all the typical suspects. With great challenge, though, come great opportunities, some of which have already begun to be seized by local leaders around the world.

Of Concern – Transit

A need for transportation is no longer a result of privilege, but a burden on the less fortunate.

The driving force of my transportation-related concern for the virus is that it has re-framed thinking: a need for transportation is no longer a result of privilege, but a burden on the less fortunate. If leaving home puts you in danger of contracting or spreading the virus, why leave home? In response to social distancing guidelines, the share of workers stationed at home offices has increased, and there are indications the greater workforce will likely shift in this direction for the near future. Among people lucky enough to still be employed, white collar workers have the luxury of making the choice to work from home; blue collar and service workers do not. According to an analysis of census data by Governing Data, public transit commuters tend to have significantly lower income than the average commuter. This indicates that transit riders are more likely to hold jobs requiring them to continue to leave home, putting them at especially high risk as socially distancing is more difficult on a bus, train, or streetcar.

Due to falling fare and tax revenue, funding has slowed for agencies across the country, with an estimated $26-38B in losses predicted nationwide, affecting every transit agency. In response to the virus, many agencies have suspended operations. Congress included $25B in the CARES act to provide for agencies, but this likely won’t be enough to offset all the costs of the pandemic.

Of additional concern is the fact that the level of service has dropped for many agencies that are still running. New York’s MTA stopped 24/7 subway service for the first time in 115 years this month, and now sanitizes the entire system between 1AM and 5AM each night. The death toll among MTA employees has reached 83. In sum, the challenges of COVID may leave the people who depend on transit with severely diminished service, if any is available at all.

Another serious concern for transit agencies is the loss of tax revenue from work-from-home policies. In a likely leading example for the tech industry, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey recently announced workers will be allowed to work from home “forever”. Many other companies are looking to shift portions of their workforce away from physical office space following the crisis. Reasons to do so include following social distancing protocols until a vaccine or viable treatment is made available, and cutting operating costs in a rapidly deteriorating economy. Real estate generates ⅓ of NYC’s tax revenue, the sum amount of which seems likely to fall significantly in coming years. In many cities, this trend means less money percolating through to local governments, which would otherwise ultimately trickle into infrastructure investment and repair.

Conversely, demand on the local transportation system, particularly in dense urban cores, will fall as commuting numbers drop. This both helps to offset a predicted drop in maintenance funding and provides an opportunity for low-cost reconfiguration to better serve other users. Seattle has provided a fantastic example of this possibility, permanently closing 23 miles (and counting) of roadway to through traffic to make space for bicycles and pedestrians, expanding their Stay Healthy Streets program.

A major concern, however, is the ability of business to continue to function without the traffic generated by downtown employers. Lunchtime rushes sustain many small businesses in downtown areas, meaning that as large businesses move out, small businesses will fail in turn. Such a future is not encouraging, as a lack of employers and points of interest discourage further investment in infrastructure of any sort.

The Car as PPE

A possible backlash to the crisis is, as Aaron Naparstek put it, the use of cars as PPE. Like staying home, this option is only available to the privileged. Those living in suburban areas with access to drive-thrus, curbside-pickup locations, and (most importantly) a car, will be able to live within the bubbles of their home and automobile as businesses re-open to limited function. I am massively concerned that this attitude may accelerate the trend of Americans moving off their feet to behind the wheel even more than in ‘the before times’.

Opportunity – Active Transportation

People enjoy commuting more when it is done on active modes. Recognizing this fact and responding with complete streets infrastructure and policy may help city leaders encourage commuters to return to work in person at higher rates.

On the other hand, trends in active transportation seem encouraging. More people are biking and walking. Bicycle sales and maintenance figures are up significantly from this time last year. With quiet roads, time freed from not commuting, and stay-at-home mandates necessitating near-home recreation, more people are taking to the streets in human-powered forms. Municipalities are starting to take notice and respond in kind. Cities from Bend to Birmingham to Burlington have temporarily closed streets to allow for socially-distanced recreation space and slow vehicle traffic on quiet streets.

Recent research out of The University of Amsterdam – surveying road users in Europe and the U.S. – indicates that people enjoy commuting more when it is done on active modes. Recognizing this fact and responding with complete streets infrastructure and policy may help city leaders encourage commuters to return to work in person at higher rates.

The virus has provided gunpowder for legislators abroad moving complete streets policy forward, too. Preliminary data shows links between ailments like polluted air, asthma, obesity, heart disease, and susceptibility to the virus. While of typical concern, the COVID crisis has prompted immediate action to fight these evils in Paris, London, and Milan. Many of the changes proposed in Europe are set to be permanent. In the U.S., recent complete streets successes in San Francisco, Seattle, and others, indicate that changing practices may begin to stick in the U.S. as well. With time, community support for immediate COVID response may grow to foster more permanent reallocation of space as has been seen in Europe.

Safety data emerging from the crisis is also extremely encouraging, as New York set a new record for days without pedestrian deaths – 58. The safe streets of the pandemic could, with proper stoke added to the fire, kick start a Netherlands-style revolution in which constituents demand a safer environment to travel and recreate.

Looking Forward

While the outlook for transit agencies is undoubtedly bleak, there are viable opportunities for the advancement of complete streets and active transportation in the face of the virus. It’s a crucial time for leaders on all levels to address budget concerns and prioritize projects that will effectively support recovering communities. Complete streets have been repeatedly proven to show the largest return on investment, and do well to address the inequity cast by the virus’ initial impacts.

As the situation evolves, I look forward to keeping my finger on the pulse, particularly at the UW Pandemic Urbanism Symposium in two weeks (free event!). As always, I’m encouraged by the efforts of the National Complete Streets Coalition to catalog success stories, educate, and advocate for complete streets action in policy. Feel free to leave comments below or get in touch with any thoughts.

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