Commuting After Covid

How will this unprecedented new reality affect mobility? Will Uber charge extra for a germ-free ride? Will fear of contagion reverse twenty-five years of steady growth in mass-transit ridership? Will workers be willing to sit in traffic after weeks of commuting to Zoom meetings in their slippers? I would love to provide answers, but right now I can’t see past Tuesday. Wait, is today Tuesday?

Mobility in the pandemic future

Social distancing on an Oakland Slow Street.

In the before times, traffic was always bad and always getting worse. Motor vehicles terrorized two-wheeled and two-legged human travelers, sending them fleeing into the gutters. Car exhaust made the air thick with toxins and their noise jangled nerves. Commuters joined rush hours that lasted half a day. Suburban idyll offered no respite. SUVs ferried kids on the twice-daily school run, followed by drives to soccer and band practice, drama club and mathletes.

Now, in the Covid-19 era, traffic is down 38 percent across the nation, according to data firm INRIX. Michigan has seen a 55 percent decline. Traffic over the Golden Gate Bridge has dropped 70 percent. The nation’s capital normally has the worst congestion in the country, but according to a recent report in the Washington Post, the coronavirus has made rush hour disappear. The twenty-two million unemployed and tens of millions more working from home aren’t going anywhere. There is no school run, because there is no school. Instead, gargantuan kid haulers sit impotently in driveways, mostly just blocking the view from indoors.

How will this unprecedented new reality affect mobility? Will Uber charge extra for a germ-free ride? Will fear of contagion reverse twenty-five years of steady growth in mass-transit ridership? Will workers be willing to sit in traffic after weeks of commuting to Zoom meetings in their slippers? I would love to provide answers, but right now I can’t see past Tuesday. Wait, is today Tuesday?

Still, the pandemic has already overturned a number of deep-seated assumptions about how we interact with our surroundings. Patterns and habits that have seemed inevitable are suddenly open for debate. By extracting mobility from the realm of daily habit, the stay-at-home orders have given us a wonderful opportunity. Pollution in China has long been one of those inevitabilities, even as the Chinese government has tried to do battle with bad air and worse greenhouse emissions. But within three weeks of the Wuhan shutdown, emissions there fell by 25 percent. Globally, they are down about 20 percent. Los Angeles has been having its longest stretch of “good” air quality days in at least a quarter century, and satellite imagery shows air pollution declining across the country. Suddenly we can see the absurdities and inequities of auto-dominance in cities. A huge proportion of us have now experienced, for better or worse, what life without an hour-long commute can be like.

In cities and towns across the country, Americans are dusting off their bikes and putting new air into old tires. New York City, the pandemic’s current epicenter, reports a 52 percent increase in bike trips over the East River bridges compared to a year ago. Bikesharing has surged as well. New York’s official bikeshare operator Citi Bike (owned by Lyft) says that trip numbers have jumped by 67 percent compared to last year. In Philadelphia, bikeshare trips have nearly doubled, according to the operator, Indego.

The lack of automobile traffic has made biking easier and more fun. Last week, I biked to our local supermarket in the small city of Salem, Massachusetts. It’s only four miles away, and the trailer let me transport a week’s worth of groceries, including salty snacks. When I’d attempted the ride before the pandemic, I found it downright insulting. The narrow road is edged with grime and runs past a quarry and its steady stream of rock haulers. Cars and trucks would race by me at forty miles an hour. Now, for the first time, the ride was a diverting pleasure.

Walking is another diversion. In normal times, we saw the world through the windshield and traversed it with superhuman speed, power, and endurance. Walking speed, about three miles an hour, is certainly less thrilling than motoring at sixty or even twenty-five. But now the Covid constitutional, the pandemic perambulation, and the thrice-daily walking of the dog have become highlights of a housebound day. Whether we have a destination or not (mostly not), we’re reconnecting IRL with the scale and scope of our physical world.

Has that reconnection aroused your political consciousness? Have you anxiously passed a maskless dog walker on a three-foot-wide sidewalk and wondered how you’re supposed to socially distance? Have you considered trespassing onto the street? Then you might find common cause with transportation safety, equity, and sustainability activists. Over the past two decades, they have slowly clawed back urban space from the automobile. The virus is an unwelcome but powerful ally.

Kansas City, Denver, and Minneapolis are closing streets. After residents of Oakland, California, began crowding along the city’s lake shore and its walking trails, the city closed seventy-four miles of streets—10 percent of its total—to through traffic. (The city had a pre-pandemic “Slow Streets” plan; recent events have supercharged it.) Boston is closing parkways to “expand pedestrian and cyclist access,” and the Cambridge city council voted to close the riverside Memorial Drive to cars completely, extending a Sunday ban. Ironically, 19th-century planners had created Memorial Drive as a scenic carriage road and esplanade. Then, as the authors of an official history of the road put it in 2002, “20th-century enhancements . . . signaled a shift towards the needs and realities of the automobile, whose sounds and speeds demanded altered standards of usage.” These scenic roads became an end run around congested city streets until they, too, were ground down to a halt by traffic.

New York City’s SUV-infatuated mayor Bill de Blasio has been slow to join the pedestrian parade. He did allow a pilot closure of 1.6 miles of the city’s six thousand miles of streets but almost immediately pulled the plug. Asked about Oakland’s 10 percent plan and the closures in other major cities, De Blasio said, “I do not believe it will work, period.”

The New York city council, however, threatened to override the mayor, and Governor Andrew Cuomo demanded the city use street space to alleviate crowding around parks. De Blasio reluctantly agreed to open forty miles of streets and has promised a hundred miles before the pandemic ends.

New Yorker Sarah Goodyear, co-host of the podcast The War on Cars, thinks the mayor could do better. “What I see is a city that has yet to adjust to the new reality, which will be with us for some time,” she told me via email. “The space allotted for cars needs to be dramatically reduced so that people can use it for safe, efficient transport and exercise on foot and on bike.”

Meanwhile, alternate side parking rules have been suspended, a boon to car owners in the city who store their cars for free on the street. The ease with which the mayor made this accommodation while resisting street closures speaks to an endemic antagonism to cyclists. Recalling his efforts to install bike lanes forty years ago, former New York City traffic commissioner Sam Schwartz says he was shocked by the opposition. “Despite the fact that more than three hundred people were being killed in traffic crashes,” he told me, “I could not go to a community meeting without people complaining about the few bikes that we had on the road in the 1980s.”

Stripping street space from car owners and distributing it to pedestrians and cyclists promotes not only safety and efficiency, but equity as well. Keeping a car in a city is an expensive undertaking. Those who do often use them to escape the city to beach houses in the summer, mountain retreats in the winter, and just about any second home when a pandemic descends.

In recent years, of course, cities have been beset by another kind of car traffic, the hailed ride. Business is down about 70 percent in cities hit by the virus, and Uber has begun plans to lay off up to 5,400, or one in five of its paid staff. As for its 1.3 million US drivers now out of work, Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi asked congressional leaders and Donald Trump for a bailout on their behalf. “I respectfully and urgently request that the economic stimulus you are considering . . . in response to Covid-19,” he wrote in a March 23 letter, “include protections and benefits for independent workers, not just employees.” At the same time, Uber is suing the state of California to prevent it from classifying drivers as employees.

Coronavirus has thus lain bare what we have known all along. The ride-sharing companies have profited by avoiding costs such as health care and unemployment insurance. They have privatized benefits and socialized risks. What happens next is anybody’s guess. The federal government answered Khosrowshahi’s call with a $600 weekly flat rate benefit for gig workers (including, it should be noted, freelance writers). That’s good for workers, so good in fact that they may not return to driving—a minimum-wage job for most—until that money runs out. Meanwhile, Lyft and Uber have yet to turn a profit. Absent a new business model, their Covid story may turn on labor policy more than the evolution of mobility.

For those who cannot afford a car or a taxi fare, there is public transportation, and that story is grim. In LA, bus ridership is down 65 percent; rail is down 75. Atlanta’s MARTA trains have 67 percent fewer riders, Chicago, 82 percent. The Bay Area Rapid Transit System (BART) lost more than 90 percent of its riders in the space of three weeks, as did Boston’s MBTA, and New York’s MTA. Washington DC has closed nineteen of its ninety-one stations for lack of ridership and the resources to protect staff.

Transit systems were already struggling, but now the drop in ridership is causing catastrophic drops in revenue. The Federal Transit Administration will distribute $25 billion in relief funding and give Amtrak another billion as part of the first trillion dollars in federal relief. That’s a bit like giving a dose of hydroxychloroquine to a patient who needs a ventilator. Mass transit could use the whole trillion.

On March 21, a passenger boarded Jason Hargrove’s bus in Michigan, where Donald Trump has been fomenting an insurrection to “liberate” citizens from the Democratic governor’s lockdowns. The passenger coughed four or five times, according to the angry video Hargrove posted to Facebook. “We’re out here as public workers, doing our job, trying to make an honest living to take care of our families,” he said. Eleven days later the 50-year-old Detroit bus driver, a married father of six, was dead from Covid-19.

In New York, seventy-nine MTA employees had died of Covid-19 as of early April. The rate of death at the MTA outpaces that of any other public agency. The Amalgamated Transit Union and the Transport Workers Union issued a joint statement vowing “aggressive action” if transit systems did not protect their members. “We will not sit back and let transit workers be treated like cannon fodder in this war against the coronavirus,” the April 3 statement read in part. According to a report by the public policy research group the Pioneer Institute, transit agencies have made improvements, albeit unevenly. For example, transit authorities in Washington, New York, Chicago, and the Bay Area have provided personal protective equipment (PPE) while Boston has not. Some, but not all, have restricted the number of riders, changed fare payment policies, and enforced rear door boarding to protect drivers.

One wants to believe that transit workers will get more respect, more money, and more protection in post-Covid America. But it seems just as likely that the pandemic will further bankrupt transit agencies, exerting downward pressure on the wages and working conditions of men and women like Jason Hargrove. The essential workers who have relied on transit during the pandemic will in turn suffer with degraded and less frequent service.

But while transit riders and transit workers bear the brunt of the outbreak, automobility may have gotten a boost. Drive-in Easter services, drive-thru testing centers, and curbside pickup are merely extensions of existing conveniences for the automobilist. Even before the pandemic, Amazon would deliver to your car, and Target and Walmart began to offer curbside pickup to compete with Amazon. Banks, restaurants, dry cleaners, and even liquor stores have featured drive-thrus for decades. To all of the other benefits of personal car ownership coronavirus adds another: hygienic isolation.

Coronavirus has also collapsed oil prices. My wife likes to joke that our cars are now getting three months to the gallon. Among the many ironies of the moment, however, is that the gas we’re not buying is on deep discount. Gas has fallen to $1.77 a gallon on average, according to the AAA.

As of this writing, West Texas Intermediate crude oil is bubbling below $14 a barrel and Brent crude, around $20. (WTI dropped to negative $37.63 a barrel on April 20. Traders were willing to pay to dispose of their oil contracts.) The market has collapsed so completely that pipeline companies are requiring proof that a producer has a buyer lest the unsold oil clog up their pipes. Dozens of oil tankers are anchored offshore, full of oil that no one needs.

The reality is that there’s nothing Trump can do to control the price of oil. After his announcement that Saudi Arabia and Russia had struck a deal, prices jumped long enough for Jared Kushner to make a quick buck. A day or two later it was back down below $20 a barrel. Energy analysts expect it to remain thereabout for years.

That’s good news for the millions of Americans who love pickup trucks: the top three bestselling vehicles in the country are pickups from Ford, GM, and Fiat Chrysler, in that order.1 Moreover, the Detroit automakers earn the overwhelming majority of their profits from gas-guzzling pickup trucks. On April 29, Ford announced that coronavirus had forced it to cancel its planned electric Lincoln SUV. That’s bad news for those (both inside and outside the industry) who expected 2022 to be the year of the electric vehicle. It’s certainly not good news for the planet.

Americans—whether they live in our cities or out in the burbs—have responded to the coronavirus, the pandemic, and the lockdowns with two competing pictures of the future of mobility. Some paint a post-crisis picture of people riding bikes and walking on open streets under bright, clear skies. They envision their lives without a daily slog from home to work and back again. They imagine a new awareness of front-line workers—both those who ride mass transit and who make it run. With public support and direct action these veterans of the war on Covid will finally earn a living wage.

In an alternate post-Covid reality, it will be a long time until we meet strangers without infection on our minds. Therefore, people will retreat to the perceived safety of the family car. A glut of cars on the market and record low interest rates will send them to the dealerships. Cheap gas will have them shopping the biggest, and therefore apparently safest, machines they can afford. These are alternative but not necessarily competing narratives; doubtless they will coexist. The virus won’t tell us which way to go, but it will provide a touchstone. When Joe Biden wants to shift money from highways to mass transit, he’ll be able to say, “Remember when . . .” And we can nod knowingly. I don’t predict, but I hope, that we move forward intentionally, with a vision not simply of how we want to get from A to B but of how we build a transportation system to serve the society as we want it to be.

  1. I wrote about pickup trucks in 2016. 

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