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STATE OF PLAY

Covid-19 is revolutionizing the way we commute

Peter Phobia for Quartz
  • Lila MacLellan
By Lila MacLellan

Quartz at Work senior reporter

Published Last updated

In early March, I left my apartment in upper Manhattan and drove to Ontario to visit my elderly parents. For a few days while I was there, the number of reported cases of the novel coronavirus was rising in Toronto at about the same pace as they were in New York City. As the numbers climbed in both cities every day, my grip on my rental car’s steering wheel got a little tighter.

At first I had been leaving the car at my AirBnb and using Lyfts and Ubers to bypass the gridlock of Toronto’s suburban parking lots. But as the case numbers ticked into the double digits, I started driving everywhere, to limit any prolonged contact with strangers. Back in the US in time to see New York’s Covid situation turn catastrophic, I looked into keeping my safe, metal pod, but it was too expensive. Instead, I leased a Ford. Then I found a small house to rent in a tiny upstate community clinging parasite-like to a state park. My spouse and I eventually moved out of our New York top-floor walk-up completely.

I had valid reasons for all of these decisions, but it’s not without shame that I admit to them. Like many people, I fell in love with New York partly because its density made walking—the most democratic form of movement, as British author and filmmaker Iain Sinclair puts it—a joy, while the cheap subway made owning a car unnecessary. Though the crowds and broken signal delays were often maddening, I admired the vast underground system for what it symbolized, the ability to move and mix 5.5 million commuters of every social strata, members of every community, the young, the old, people with and without disabilities, daily, for a fare of $2.75 per person.

“The miracle isn’t so much that the trains are actually running—we know how to do that, and we can probably do it better,” says Alexis Perrotta, a lecturer specialized in urban transit and housing at Baruch College Marxe School of Public and International Affairs, City University of New York. “The miracle of it is that we’re all there together, and we are somehow not killing each other and not getting into fights.”

Even more inspiring are the moments of communal connection, she adds, like the videos that occasionally surface of commuters breaking into song when stuck in a tunnel. Such events, which are not unique to New York, prove that subways and buses offer a place for collectivity, a sense of solidarity that people crave and might even be missing after months of stay-at-home orders. In fact, Perrotta sees functioning transit systems as akin to public squares—there’s a minimal barrier to entry and the expectation is that they’ll be open to all. This helps explain why mass transit stations have become the sites of protests in the name of equity and freedom in Hong Kong, Santiago, London, and elsewhere.

Still, lacking the information that would have informed more civic-minded choices, and lucky that I could work remotely (a privilege more common among white people, like me, and Asian Americans, than it is among Black and Latino workers), I made sudden, self-serving decisions. And I wasn’t alone: Somewhere between 130,000 and 400,000 New Yorkers have decamped since the pandemic, based on New York Times analyses of mail forwarding and cell phone data respectively. It’s not known how many of those who left also bought cars, for which sales are down overall, but climbing. Online-only contactless car sale sites apparently gained credibility almost overnight. And similar exodus stories and trends are playing out in other cities around the world.

Reuters//Lucas Jackson
An eerily empty New York street in early May.

Worse, data compiled by Bloomberg shows car travel in many metro areas is returning much faster than transit ridership.

If the trend toward cars continues, it would be a step backward for many large US cities. Before Covid-19 arrived in North America, data analysis in the US showed that in denser cities where more people held college degrees, levels of public transit usage, as well as cycling and walking commutes, were higher than in sprawling metros. That was good news for urban air quality and carbon emissions, but also for social mobility, inclusion, and innovation.

“Public transit has two big functions and you can look at it from two sides of the spectrum: on a very cynical neoliberal side of the spectrum, you can say public transit is a funnel for workers to get from lower-income areas into their office buildings so that they can serve capitalism,” says Perrotta. “On the very other side of the spectrum, you can say public transit is the thing that makes opportunities accessible to everyone in a very equitable way. You’re not constrained by how far away you live from something or whether you can walk, whether you can afford to own a car. Anyone can get to anything,” she adds.

“Both things are true. It’s vital for both of those reasons.”

Now, the coronavirus—and the sudden drop in public transit demand and overall reconfiguring of our lives—is providing a unique opportunity to reshape the way we move through cities, and to ensure that future plans consider the needs of every group to access opportunities, but especially those short-changed by transit planning until now. Whether the effects of the pandemic on subways, metro systems, car-sharing apps, buses, and bicycles will last past the arrival of an effective vaccine, if one is developed, is unknown. But what is clear is the ways in which the pandemic has surfaced social injustices in many global centers, and the consequences we may face if we don’t seize the moment and find ways to build everyone a safe, dignified, and convenient commute.

Looking at cities around the world, our reporters have found that some planners are indeed jumping at this opening to influence what comes next, and even solve inequities in their region. In other cases, change may be slow to come, or not come at all—either because the transit system was already pretty equitable and high-functioning (offering lessons for other global centers) or because those in power won’t allow it.

If cities do want to prevent new habits from forming—like everyone jumping into cars, or fleeing cities to work from the suburbs for example—and encourage new ones—more people walking or biking—now is the time.

Transit planners know how commuting adjustments can be sticky. “Any time someone goes through a major life change, like they switch jobs or they move in with their partner, or they have kids, it’s a moment where they reset their transportation habits,” says Steven Higashide, director of research for the TransitCenter, a research and advocacy group based in New York. “Those habits are hard to break, until some other major change happens.”

For that very same reason, he adds, this is exactly when cities need to act.

Table of contents

What’s at stake | Disease shaped cities | Coronavirus won’t kill the commute | Transit systems reinforce injustices | Biking’s diversity problem | The bus may rise again | What’s ahead

What’s at stake

Even as cities slowly reopen, it’s unclear when—or how—commuting will feel normal again. For many, the days of rushing for a train, bus, or streetcar, jamming into tight spots between faces and armpits, or settling in for that mindless in-between time that commuting offers, feels distant.

That’s in part due to a lack of understanding of how the novel coronavirus itself gets around town, and the best ways transit authorities can respond to it. Consider that the CDC made the questionable decision in late May to recommend car travel over buses and trains, because Covid-19 can be so easily spread in enclosed, crowded spaces. Meanwhile, there’s been very little research on the link between heavily used transit systems and clusters cases—and the most prominent of it, on the New York City subway system, has been heavily criticized. (Newer studies from France and Japan have not connected any clusters of cases to transit systems.)

In most urban areas, the public doesn’t know what to think, and instead of scientists, “politicians are talking at us, and it’s tragic,” says Perrotta. Not sharing clear information to help people make confident decisions about bus or train rides—perhaps simple instructions like “wear a mask, open the windows,” —is a failure.

Reuters/Njeri Mwangi
An employee of the Kenya Railways Cooperation sprays disinfectant inside a passenger train during the coronavirus pandemic in Nairobi on April 29, 2020.

What’s at stake goes far beyond getting office workers from their home offices to downtown financial districts. If transit agencies continue to see massive losses over the long term and begin to collapse, the same people who have been disproportionately affected by the virus’s ravages stand to be affected: In the US context, that means low-paid essential workers in jobs at grocery stores or cleaning hospitals, who also live in lower-income neighborhoods and are more likely to be Black or Latino and not own cars.

This population can’t afford to lose access to frequent, safe trains and buses. A recent study from Harvard University found that commuting times were “the single strongest factor in the odds of escaping poverty,” according to the New York Times. “The longer an average commute in a given county,” it reported, “the worse the chances of low-income families there moving up the ladder.”

In the shorter term, too, it will be imperative to get frontline workers around safely. This moment offers more as well, says Higashide, “I think one thing that’s clearly been exposed throughout the pandemic is the extent to which essential workers rely on transit,” Higashide says. “That raises the question of whether we’re going to honor essential workers by keeping transit reliable as traffic comes back.”

Disease shaped transit and transit shaped cities

If Covid-19 does permanently alter how people commute, it won’t be the first time that an epidemic prompted transit changes, in turn reshaping cities.

At the turn of the 20th century, says Jonathan English, a writer and urban planning PhD candidate at Columbia University, the world’s cities were crowded, dirty places associated with communicable diseases. The goal of avoiding sometimes deadly afflictions was one factor that led to the rise of mass transit systems.

Those who advocated for transit projects in New York, for instance, argued that it was inherently unsafe to have large families crammed into the tenements of the Lower East Side. But, says English, people were crammed into those buildings for one reason: They needed to be able to be within walking distance of the places where they worked and earned an income.

Could they have lived further from work and walked longer distances to get there? Not according to what’s known as Marchetti’s Constant, a well-documented phenomenon that says most people are willing to commute for an hour, total, per day, no matter where they live in the world or how they get around. The Italian physicist Cesare Marchetti first proposed this idea in 1994 and subsequent studies have found that this curiosity of human behavior explains the size of modern cities and ancient ones. When people could only walk to work, English explains in a City Lab article, “the radius of development from the heart of the city was limited to not much more than one mile—about the distance a person can walk in 30 minutes.”

The arrival of the horse and carriage didn’t do much to expand the world’s oldest cities. But underground subways and streetcars allowed people to jet out of the downtown core, and to live in one neighbourhood and work in another. These fast modes of transport were followed by faster commuter trains and, eventually, the car and expressways.

At every turn, speedy technology meant the city expanded and de-densified, and housing on the outskirts of town became affordable and desirable. But we know where this pattern brought us: to ugly sprawl and jammed highways in big urban areas.

Without a flying car ready to change the equation again, we are left to make density work, with excellent transit options, if we want to keep our commutes capped to a reasonable 30 minutes each way.

Coronavirus won’t kill cities or the commute

Some academics have speculated that cities will suffer so greatly from the closure of businesses and cultural spaces, the loss of commercial real estate revenue, the budgetary demands of Covid-19, transit challenges, and more, that they may not bounce back. Not to mention, if millions of people find themselves working from home, why would they do that from an expensive city core? This could be the end of cities as we’ve known them, they say.

Many urbanists, however, believe that cities are capable of overcoming the shock of the coronavirus pandemic. After all, cities have endured many threats, including overcrowding, disease, wars, attacks, and natural disasters, because—as the noted thinker Richard Florida argues—they’re worth it. “Urbanization has always proven the greater force — stronger than the devastating Black Plagues that began in the 14th century, the deadly cholera outbreaks in 19th century London, and the horrific tragedy of the Spanish Flu,” he writes. “Each and every time, the economic power of cities — their ability to compound innovation and productivity by compounding the talent of ambitious and creative people — has been more than enough to offset the destructive power of infectious disease.”

What’s more, if working from home en masse was going to kill cities or the commute, it would have happened by now, says English. We’ve had the means to ping each other for work purposes and make video calls for years, he says, but you still haven’t seen most people who could seek out cheap housing in the country. That’s because not all employers believed remote employees would be productive, yes, but also because people choose where to live based on many factors—wanting to be near friends, family, and others who want the same lifestyle, the same bars and restaurants and gathering spots—and not only where the office happens to be, he explains.

Likewise, Perrotta speculates that we’ll see city dwellers basically invent excuses to travel, even if they are working from home: maybe less often, maybe choosing rideshares with plexiglass partitions, or by bicycle. Either way, we’ll still see a lot of buzzing around towns.

Reuters/Toby Melville
Nurses bike to a protest over pay and conditions during the coronavirus pandemic in London on June 3.

In other words, transit that serves everyone and protects pathways to opportunities will remain essential. So, as long as habits are changing, says Higashide, cities ought to take advantage of transit’s rule of induced demand, which says that building integrated train, bike, and bus lanes, and creating superior infrastructure actually encourages transit use. Conversely, defunding sustainable forms of transit can create a vicious cycle: People won’t use an unreliable service, so it becomes further neglected, and receives less operating funding, and so on.

Advocates also see the Black Lives Matter movement and George Floyd protests around the world as an opportunity to upend the structures that support inequality, particularly that which falls along racial lines. The events of this extraordinary spring and summer, says Higashide, have made it a time “to cement sustainable transportation habits right now.”

Here’s a sample of some actions cities can take (and have taken) to discourage car culture during and after the pandemic:

Transit systems reflect and reinforce social and racial injustices

As protests and the pandemic have highlighted, the innovations in history that have improved the quality of life for many people have not affected everyone equally—and the history of transportation is no exception. Structural inequalities and discrimination have dictated who could afford new commutes to the suburbs, and who was stuck living with dubious bus or train service at best.

In South Africa, for example, a sprawling informal minibus system arose out of a disregard by the apartheid government for the commuting needs of the country’s Black-majority population. In the US, blatant racism has always been a part of the transit story, whether in world-changing incidents, like the day Rosa Parks demanded change and dignity for all Black Americans on a public bus, the damaging legacy of white flight, or the prevailing perception of cars as the symbol of individualism and success, while mass transit has been seen as a form of social welfare.

Racist intentions are also embedded in design details: Robert Moses, for instance, built the Southern State Parkway on Long Island with overpass bridges high enough for private cars to pass under, but too low for buses that might carry Puerto Ricans from the city to the area’s beaches.

Reuters/Leah Millis
People take part in a “moving protest” on bicycles, organized by Black Lives Matter and Shut Down DC, to support essential workers during the Covid-19 outbreak in Washington.

Assumptions about who is using transit infrastructure in the US have also created two-tiered systems in many suburbs, where it’s common for bus systems and trains to be operated as separate entities, says Higashide. In suburban Long Island, outside New York, for instance, you have buses that run to the local Long Island Railroad stations, but they don’t align with the train’s schedule at all, he says. The presumption is that railroad users are driving to the station and other lower-income users are taking the slower, much maligned bus. In Europe and other developed areas, even in North American cities outside the US, like Toronto, you don’t see the same literal and figurative disconnect, nor is it a given that bus riders are necessarily low-income residents.

The indifference that has led to such disparate experiences for transit users —and the fairly outright attempts at race-based segregation—have also been easy for the privileged to ignore. Fortunately, both the Covid-19 experience and subsequent Black Lives Matter protests have changed that. “Transit already plays an enormous and important role in connecting people to opportunity, but the way that racism shapes planning decisions and the way that racism leads directly to sometimes deprioritizing transit in black neighborhoods, and the types of policing that we that we impose on transit systems—these are really important issues,” says Higashide. Difficult conversations about transit and justice are long overdue.

Biking’s diversity problem

As cities explore updates to old systems, they will also have to consider the potential downsides of new modalities, which on the surface might seem more equitable. Including bicycles.

To be sure, the sudden widespread adoption of active forms of transportation, particularly bicycling and walking, which are safer options during the pandemic, and healthier than passive transit at any time, has been the most encouraging response to Covid-19’s commuting challenge. Cycling has seen the most dramatic spike in popularity, with US sales of bikes and bike parts reaching a record $1 billion in April.

In a real paradigm shift, a coalition government in Ireland signalled in mid-June that the country’s transportation budget would prioritize active modes of commuting. Leaders agreed to allocate 10% of its transport budget to cycling projects and another 10% to pedestrian infrastructure. For comparison, David Zipper, a visiting fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Taubman Center for State and Local Government, wrote on Twitter, US federal funding is about 80% auto and 20% transit, “with scraps for bike/ped.” But a new nearly $500 billion transportation bill is in Congress now, he added, and Americans should let elected officials know if they felt inspired by Dublin’s aspiration to foster strong cycling cultures.

It’s worth noting, however, that past pushes to boost rates of urban cycling haven’t always extended to Black and Brown neighbourhoods, and the culture of cycling has been “unbearably white,” as Kevin Hylton, professor of equality and diversity in sport, leisure and education, at Leeds Beckett University wrote in The Conversation in 2017. “In London, a city where a third of the population identifies as black, Asian and minority ethnic, 86% of male cyclists and 94% of female cyclists are white – and two thirds of all cyclists are male,” he pointed out, and in the US, he underscored, the police have been known to target black cyclists for minor fines, and even arrests, far more often than white cyclists.

As cycling booms, therefore, it may take grassroots organizations like Black Girls Do Bike, started in Pittsburgh seven years ago, by Monica Garrison, to lobby city agencies to deploy resources evenly. BGDB was created to increase the visibility of Black women cyclists and develop a supportive network of Black riders out for fun, exercise, and safe commutes to work. In seven years, it has grown to 85 chapters across the US and attracted tens of thousands of members, and it has made lobbying for social justice one of its functions.

Lula Carter, who runs the Los Angeles chapter, says that her club of 1,300 riders has added more than 100 members over the past few months, even though the rides are now shared over Zoom and the bikes are on stands. The spike of interest “has been phenomenal,” says Carter, a sign that the group’s focus on organic growth is working. “When people see us together, riding, it’s like, ‘Whoa, where’d you guys come from?’” she says. Cycling was “just something that people assumed that black people didn’t do,” she adds. “But we all learned how to ride bikes as kids. And it just never evolved into doing it as an adult.”

Biking, by the way, also has a gender diversity problem. Surveys from European, Australian, and North American cities have found that fewer women cycle than men, even when women are just as likely to own a bike, because women fear for their safety. BGDB members are coached on staying safe on the road, but Carter says they face an additional hurdle: When the women ride without any men from other clubs tagging along, they often hear racial slurs from drivers.

Studies of cities where more women cycle suggests that better infrastructure would help close the gender gap. This year, representatives of BGDB met with Los Angeles city councillors to talk about the dearth of bike lanes and services in Black neighbourhoods. “We should not have to drive 20 miles to be able to get on our bike and then ride, in order to be safe,” says Carter, “We should be safe right here in our communities as well.” She was happy with the positive reception BGDB received, but expects that the Black Lives Matter movement is going to ensure that action follows.

Private cycling companies have also joined the public conversation about race by acknowledging that their ads have for too long featured only white athletes—a problem in outdoor recreation broadly— and that the industry has not prioritized diversity. Some brands, including Specialized and SRAM, both major makers of bike components, have recently pledged to make a stronger effort to open bike shops in Black neighborhoods, hire Black models, and Black employees at all levels. Carter, who was happy to see those declarations, also says, “We need to see action. We want to see us in the commercials that you’re promoting. We want to see us at the table, if you’re going to be selling stuff to us, we need to be included.”

“It should not be in 2020 that an African American feels like they don’t belong somewhere,” she told me.

The bus may rise again

In all the justified excitement about the Covid-enabled revival of bicycling and e-bikes, or micro-mobility solutions like electric scooters, transit enthusiasts should also be careful to save some passion for an even older form of transportation that can move greater numbers of people: the bus.

Since it was developed by the French mathematician Blaise Pascal in 1662, the fixed-route bus service (a horse and eight-person carriage in its earliest days) has evolved to become a mainstay of mass transit systems everywhere, but its reputation is far from universal. In many European cities, the bus is seen as a decent, reliable mode of travel. In many parts of the US, however, buses have been underfunded and relegated to third-class status.

Higashide, also the author of Better Buses, Better Cities: How to Plan, Run, and Win the Fight for Efficient Transit (Island Press, 2019) found several examples of the bus signalling failure as a trope on American television. He writes:

In Insecure, Issa crashes her car; her boarding the bus the next day is a sign of how precarious her life has become. In Broad City, Abbi has to retrieve a package from a distant island; her stepping on a bus is a sight gag, a sign that she is going to a truly obscure part of the city. In the premiere episode of Atlanta, Donald Glover’s character Earn boards a MARTA bus with his baby daughter, feeling like he isn’t going anywhere in life. He spills to a fellow rider: “I just keep losing. I mean, are some people just supposed to lose?

But now, buses may finally be getting some respect, precisely thanks to who rides them: essential workers. In the early part of the pandemic, when New York’s streets were nearly free of private cars and commercial deliveries, bus speeds improved by 15% in April of this year compared to last year, says Higashide. Now cities need to ask how they can keep those gains, he adds.

Reuters/Kim Hong-Ji
A woman wearing a maskwaits for a bus under cherry blossom trees at a stop in Seoul on April 8.

Transit planners like Higashide know many of the answers. They have seen how increasing the frequency of trips, or the distance between bus stops, where appropriate, improves customer satisfaction; or how giving people a civilized, safe space to wait for a bus makes them more likely to do so. Adding bus-only lanes and redesigning routes in Seoul, in the early 2000s, helped reverse a downward trend in public transit usage.

Well-intentioned planners have suggested that buses need to be “sexy” he writes in his book, but the way to de-stigmatize the bus, Higashide says, has always been to improve how well buses work. Seattle, where transit planners have focused on frequent service, has done just that. He considers London another model bus city: after congestion pricing was introduced there in 2004, they “carpeted the city in red bus lanes,” he says.

In the wake of the pandemic, he says, “it’s actually heartening to see that in multiple cities, policymakers are committing to, or suggesting carving out space on the street for buses.” In New York, mayor Bill De Blasio committed to 20 miles of new bus service, including five new busways, Los Angeles city leaders have announced new bus-only lanes downtown, and city councilors in Toronto are calling for a five-year plan to add bus routes to suburban districts to be reduced to only two months.

In India, Manavi Kapur writes, buses were the first system cleared for reopening amidst the pandemic, in recognition of the essential, affordable service they provide for the city. Neglected for years as the city focused on the shiny new metro system, the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted how much of a lifeline they provide.

Whether or not windowed buses and outdoor bus stops are safer than sealed subways and underground stations while the virus is still circulating is unclear, but that perception exists, too, says Higashide, and ridership might increase because of it.

The way ahead

 The highway planners who created America’s interstate network were in part successful because they attached the project to a social message: Paved roads would rid cities of urban blight. That was code for what they would do: tear through African American communities and displace Black residents.

More than half a century later, the Covid-19 pandemic has given actual moral credence to years-long calls for transit reforms to undo damage from the past, and make commutes not only greener, but more inclusive. We know what needs to be done, and, as Quartz reporter Amanda Shendruk illustrates in her story on Paris, the most promising experiments don’t always require large amounts of money or time, but they do take creativity and commitment.

When I asked Steven Higashide why some cities had already made great strides to improve transit and others haven’t even before Covid-19, he credited leadership on city councils, but also organized rider groups. With any luck, the coronavirus crisis will leave behind many more of those, too.