We cannot return to pre-COVID congestion

A roadmap for attaining a new transportation vision

WE HAVE BECOME ACCUSTOMED to describing 21st Century innovations as “disruptive” to established practices and behaviors.  Yet in this era of disruptive technology, historic inertia has prevented or slowed the advancement of more sustainable approaches to urban mobility. In large part, there is never enough consensus among a broad spectrum of individuals, thought leaders, and policy makers to move the needle in a different direction and make specific interventions happen. The COVID pandemic might be a once-in-a-generation (or lifetime) disruption that alters these patterns, changing some of the ingrained behavioral instincts (e.g. future uncertainty) that often pose barriers to introducing new approaches to urban design and mobility.

I want to use this opportunity to share some thoughts about what I’m calling the sustainability response to COVID-19. Our response to this pandemic must be forward looking, using this as an opportunity to build a better society – healthier, inclusive, and more egalitarian.  Defaulting to the pre-COVID status quo, an auto-centric society with all of the downsides of spatial and socio-economic stratification, would be an unforgivable mistake.

One of the biggest challenges we will face in the post-COVID period will be the potential to lose our sense of community, which will have serious negative implications on social cohesion and local economies (particularly neighborhood restaurants and small businesses). Long-term social distancing is the enemy of social cohesion, a recipe for dysfunction and decline. Urban streets given over to a narrow subset of uses (the personal automobile and ride-hailing services) are barriers to the forms of mobility that support social cohesion while also improving access to key destinations. What I’m talking about is safe and unimpeded cycling, walking, and rapid bus transit.

Many sustainable mobility objectives take on a new resonance as a result of the COVID epidemic. The unambiguous vulnerability to this disease experienced by those with underlying conditions like asthma and compromised respiratory function underscores the importance of improving air quality. And concerns about crowding in any public space highlights the need to revisit and redesign our streets and sidewalks, to enable urban density to exist without crowding, and provide people with safer, more attractive mobility options.

There is a proven connection between poor air quality and vulnerability to respiratory disease like COVID. A Harvard study found that a one-unit increase in long-term average exposure to fine particulate matter (produced by vehicular traffic and diesel locomotives) is associated with a 15 percent increase in COVID mortality rates. And there is related evidence (most recently from the Union of Concerned Scientists) that these diseases tend to afflict disadvantaged communities in disproportionately greater numbers. These findings point directly to the importance of transitioning to electric locomotive and bus systems without delay.

Concerns are being raised about the ability of the status quo ante public transportation system to recover during a COVID transition period, a period during which strict distancing measures are relaxed but a vaccine or other anti-viral solution has not been achieved.  The COVID transition is likely to have many iterations during the course of its existence. For example, it is likely that social distancing restrictions may initially be relaxed only for certain cohorts (based on age, health condition, geography), and in specifically limited ways. One question will be at what scale people will require access to destinations via public transportation. What we must avoid is a flight to single-occupancy driving during this period, as it will establish a potentially irreversible trend toward more auto mobility, with all of its associated negative externalities.

During this transition period, working hours and shifts might be staggered across industries. That will have an impact on peak travel times, potentially spreading out ridership throughout more of the day. Just as we have worked hard to “flatten the curve,” the business community needs to work toward flattening the peak. This needs to be done in a way that respects and avoids adding more capacity at the times when hospital shift workers are using the public transportation system. We need to give these essential workers space. Such a circumstance will require more frequent all-day transit and rail service – basically running the system on a peak schedule all day.

There may be a higher proportion of telecommuting during the transition period. This will also help flatten the peak, making it easier for transit and rail systems to provide necessary service without crowding. This will be particularly important as colleges and universities and schools gradually return to in-classroom education.

Based on trends to-date, more people will choose to walk or cycle to destinations if possible. This will be especially true if the initial period of social distancing relaxation is applied to a younger, healthier cohort. This shift to more sustainability will need to be anticipated, encouraged, and responded to by the short-term introduction of safer protected cycling lanes on key routes, and the expansion of dedicated bus lanes along key routes.  Imagine a networked series of “recovery corridors” through the Greater Boston region. Those recovery corridors would include the bus routes that sustained relatively strong ridership demand even at the height of the crisis, as well as additional routes connecting people to key destinations like hospitals.  This effort will be the prelude to a larger reimagining and re-use of the urban public realm, as municipalities (with the cooperation of the MBTA) introduce recovery corridors on both key bus routes and other major city roadways.

There are three synergistic pathways that can help restore transit and rail, leveraging its strengths to support a healthier urban environment and stronger urban economy.

A public transportation system that provides more service with less crowding.

This means more capacity achieved by: more equipment and different equipment (e.g. electricified train cars, typically called electrical multiple units, or EMUs), frequent all-day schedules (that support two goals: responding to hospital shifts and a staggered, spread-out workday); dedicated bus lanes and free bus (helping support greater frequencies); protected cycling lanes (we must accommodate modal shift from transit to cycling and walking).

Strict but achievable public health protocols for riders and transit employees.

This means: bus retrofits to protect drivers; fare-free unlinked bus trips; a 10-rider limit on a 40-ft bus (which would require greater bus frequencies); one-person operation of Green Line trains to minimize employee exposure and maximize the train capacity per operator; bus sanitization taking place before and after each shift and at each layover on a route; continuous station sanitization; a requirement that all riders and employees wear masks. (The governor issued an order requiring masks on public transit on Friday.) Some of these measures can be lifted once there is a vaccine or other solution in place.

A system that reduces carbon and particulate emissions. This means a deliberate transition to an all-electric bus and commuter rail fleet by 2035. The MBTA must commit in the short term to purchasing EMUs and electric buses (electric trolley buses and battery electric buses) with a forward looking commitment to fleet replacement on a schedule: 30 percent by 2025, 75 percent by 2030, 100 percent by 2035. This requires equally prompt action on design and construction of bus maintenance and storage facilities. We can begin by putting into place the Phase 1 regional rail plan approved by the Fiscal and Management Control Board in 2019. That plan is affordable, achievable, and essential to the region’s future. The Legislature must take steps to support this effort both by funding the transition and relaxing procurement requirements in order to streamline the process.

 The MBTA should take lessons from national and global best practices as it pursues these pathways.  For example, the Chicago Transit Authority has taken an interesting approach by providing relatively continued service, and introducing forms of agility to the bus transit system. The CTA approach is summarized: Despite these unprecedented circumstances, we are currently providing as much service as possible with our dedicated employees who are healthy and available for work.”   

 CTA is undertaking a more agile bus crowding protocol, giving bus operators authority to stop taking on new passengers if their bus is becoming crowded, using a guideline of 15 or more passengers on a standard 40-foot bus. The Rhode Island Public Transit Authority has also adopted this 15-rider limit. While I am proposing a 10-person limit (at least initially), bus drivers might be given the option to go up to 15 passengers under high-demand circumstances.

Singapore is demarcating spaces on subway trains, stations, and buses so riders know where they can sit or stand and where they must leave space.  Many systems are requiring riders to wear masks. We do not need to reinvent the wheel; we need to learn and adapt from what others are doing to good effect.

Viruses have a nasty and often unpredictable way of mutating, making them elusive targets for those seeking cures. As awful and unprecedented as this crisis may be, it cannot be allowed to mutate into a weapon that destroys the qualities of urban life that enrich and improve us.  Nor can we sit by while it preys on the most vulnerable, whether they be those who are medically more susceptible to disease, those who struggle from day-to-day to make ends meet, those essential workers on whose shoulders much is being borne, or those who own the small businesses that are currently shuttered but which keep our neighborhoods vibrant, safe, and strong.  Our responsibility is to think, to learn, to experiment, but ultimately to act.

What I have laid out here is a proposal for a pathway forward, considered from a transit and urban public realm perspective. Much of it builds on thinking and advocacy that has been developing locally over the past few years. Some of it requires a larger reimagining of how our transit and rail systems and our urban streetscape function.

Meet the Author

These are unprecedented times and they require action that responds in kind.  COVID-19 is an unwelcome pattern break – one of those moments in time that changes one or more of the old ways of doing things.  Let’s make sure that we use this pattern break to move forward toward a more equitable, sustainable future.

James Aloisi is a former Massachusetts secretary of transportation who serves on the board of TransitMatters.