From Public Transit to Traffic: A Glimpse at Post-Pandemic Transportation
by Smart City Expo Atlanta
May 05, 2020
A Glimpse at Post-Pandemic Transportation
As people around the world are impacted by shelter-in-place advisories and adhering to social distancing guidelines, sitting in traffic has become a distant memory.
Before the COVID-19 crisis forced the world to come to a screeching halt, congestion levels in cities around the world were on the rise. Thanks to increased urbanization, an overwhelming surge in ride-hailing services, underinvestment in infrastructure, and the exponential use of e-commerce, cities were struggling to manage congestion.
While the COVID-19 crisis may have emptied city streets for the moment, will congestion and traffic continue to plague cities in our new normal?
David Zipper is a Visiting Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Taubman Center for State and Local Government, where he studies the interplay between urban policy and new mobility technologies. He anticipates that when shelter-in-place restrictions ease, people, in the short-term, will be hesitant to use shared transportation options—public transit, rideshare, and carpool—due to lingering concerns about infection. Instead, Zipper believes, most will opt for private cars, particularly if the recent dip in gas prices continues.
Parking, Planning, and The Curb
While congestion may initially increase, staggered school and office timings coupled with continued remote working and learning may mitigate some of the traffic. But one of the strongest reasons why the use of private cars will be short-lived is the growing parking challenges in today’s cities.
“If everybody in NYC decides they want to drive into work,” Zipper says, “Have fun getting across the Verrazano Bridge. And it’s not like there are going to be any parking spaces created to accommodate them.”
“Without a theory or data to support them, planners set parking requirements for hundreds of land uses in hundreds of cities,” writes Donald Shoup, a professor of urban planning at UCLA. Typically, city codes can require one parking space built for every 100 to 250 square feet of floor space, all part of an attempt to democratize transportation and reduce congestion. The result—as anyone who’s driven in New York City can tell you—has largely been counter-productive, leading to increased construction costs, reduced housing supply, environmental consequences, and an urban landscape that is choked with cars. And there’s still nowhere to park.
Cities like Chicago, which was recently ranked one of the top five worst cities for congestion in the U.S., is instead transforming its largest parking garage into an innovation lab. Former Chicago CIO and City Tech Collaborative CEO, Brenna Berman, is working with Millenium Garages to repurpose the 3.8 million-square-foot underground parking facility into a collaborative innovation space to test new technologies, business models, and uses for the space. According to Berman, “While it is important to rethink the role of parking as a core part of mobility disruption, it is also important to rethink the uses of major urban structures from the perspective of how residents are engaging with the built environment today and what they need to be happy, healthy and productive. What is the best use of that structure and how can it be transformed?”
City Tech is also addressing the new role of the curb—less street parking is opening up valuable city real estate. From deliveries to drop-offs, cities around the world are capitalizing on this additional space and how to effectively maximize the use of the curb. “We’ve entered an entirely new way of buying goods and services, but our infrastructure is only adapting incrementally,” Sarah Kaufman, Associate Director of the Rudin Center for Transportation Policy and Management at New York University, told The New York Times in an interview. Kaufman, who will be releasing a large study of transportation impacts resulting from COVID-19 in June, believes “we need to completely rethink how we use our streets.”
To make the city more walkable and greener, Oslo, Norway banned vehicle traffic on many streets and removed 700 parking spaces, replacing them with bike lanes and mini-parks. And, even though cars drive on some streets, they can’t park, which has had much of the same effect as banning cars altogether.
Mayor Anne Hidalgo of Paris, a leader in the fight against climate change, has also been phasing out car lanes and parking spots in favor of more community space. She previously introduced policies preventing older, high emission vehicles from entering and parking in the city while also banning vehicles in certain neighborhoods altogether. Now, as an alternative to private cars and public transport post-COVID-19, she has reinforced her commitment to a green recovery by allocating 300M euros to build extensive bicycle lanes, many of which mirror current metro lines.
And the Mayor of Milan, Giuseppe Sala, keenly aware of the correlation between high air pollution and high mortality rates for COVID-19, is continuing his mission of reducing vehicle congestion by transforming 22 miles of core city road space for biking and walking this summer.
In the U.S., to accommodate for social distancing and more community space, Philadelphia led the way with street closures and cities like Denver, Minneapolis, and Oakland—which gave its residents 74 miles of road space for biking and walking – followed suit.
As cities transform to address climate change and congestion, the cost of driving, traffic, and lack of parking will eventually force people back to public transportation.
Zipper’s concern is that, in the time it takes for public transit utilization to resume, the financial strain on public transit agencies will grow too high. Fare collection during COVID-19 is minimal, and many transit agencies are offering their services for free. To recoup, they might be forced to reduce headways.
“The people who are hurt the most by that are people who are traveling at off-beat times, and those are often low-income individuals,” Zipper says. Even if most city transit is able to bounce back, the commuter rails might suffer long-term as more individuals either drive and choose to work remotely more often.
Public transportation agencies around the world are already working on enforcing social distancing, mandating the use of face masks, and reducing the amount of people allowed on any one train. And in true smart city fashion, these new challenges present an opportunity for innovative solutions.
“There will be a hunger for safety as we get back to life as the virus goes away,” Zipper says. “I think there will be some creative approaches to disinfectants.” One example is a type of UV light called UVC. The powerful ultraviolet rays are shorter and can kill airborne viruses like COVID-19 by destroying their genetic material—and UVC is already being used to disinfect buses in China, hospital floors, and money.
Another solution is of course, contactless payments. London and Chicago successfully deployed tap-and-go technologies in their transit systems years ago and New York followed suit last May. In light of the pandemic, we will see contactless transactions part of our new normal in all aspects of work and life overall.
An Eye Towards the Sky
Post COVID-19, cities may begin to experience not only a green recovery but increased equity and safety. The less cities rely on cars, the more other forms of transportation can thrive, benefiting all residents.
Before COVID-19, micromobility apps facilitating scooter and bike-shares were on the rise. In the U.S. alone, the number of shared micromobility trips doubled between 2018 and 2019. They fill an important role in transportation gaps, serving as first mile, last mile, and hyperlocal options. According to research from Bird, micromobility is additionally a strong mode of alternate transportation—when the transit union in Paris went on strike last year, micromobility ridership increased by nearly 300%.
That said, we need to rethink how we will truly address equity. Seven years after launching Citi Bike in New York City, docking stations are finally being rolled out in The Bronx this week, particularly to assist frontline workers at two of the hardest hit hospitals. How will marginalized communities and the unbanked be served through contactless payments and alternative transportation models, which are digitized? Cities will need to work even harder on developing equitable and inclusive infrastructure in communities ravaged by COVID-19.
One benefit to tightening roadways and cities widening sidewalks to facilitate social distancing, will be in addressing historic challenges faced by persons with disabilities and others carrying strollers and deliveries. With alternative options and fewer cars, pedestrians will be able to move around the city more safely (right now, nearly 50% of car-related fatalities happen in urban areas).
And while autonomous vehicles, hyperloop, and other transformative transportation is on the horizon, if you ask entrepreneur and inventor Sebastian Thrun, flying vehicles will provide the majority of urban trips, ahead of cars. As CEO of Kitty Hawk Corporation, he leads the air travel company in efforts to pioneer the way we move around cities by creating electric vertical take-off and landing products. The goal is to take congestion and pollution off of our streets and help people move around cities by air.
“This might take two decades,” Thrun says, “But air travel will be safer, cheaper, and much faster than ground travel.”
The question of equality remains: if private cars are a barrier to entry for transportation, personal planes certainly will be, too. Still, the technology does address many of the problems of the personal car. These personal flying machines could cut travel times significantly—Thrun says the average American’s 53-minute commute would be 10x faster—and vertical airspace would eliminate traffic jams. With no pedestrians or micromobility vehicles to contend with, safety would increase. Thrun’s team is also working to make the planes quieter to avoid noise pollution.
We’d just need to figure out where to park them.