Let’s plan for the coming ‘new normal’

A federal stimulus bill is chance to make real changes

THE HEALTH CRISIS that has the world in its grip presents each of us with challenges the likes of which few have known.  We are all living under stressful, trying circumstances for which there’s literally no playbook. Yet in circumstances like this it’s vitally important that those of us able to focus beyond the moment not be so overwhelmed by daily events that we ignore or defer the development of thoughtful approaches to rebuilding some of the very pillars of our society. For the reality is that we have built a society, as reflected through the lens of our legacy infrastructure, that is not resilient or capable of responding effectively to crisis situations like this.

The current crisis provides a powerful impetus to reconsider and reimagine much of what we have grudgingly accepted as unchangeable. In the transportation sector that means reimagining the auto-centric society built through much of the last century, an auto-centric society supported by heavy public subsidies and a legacy infrastructure that even today acts as a stubborn barrier to a transition to a more sustainable model. Many elements of that legacy infrastructure will not respond effectively to the needs and realities of a post-COVID world.

As we come to recognize and accept that the “normal” we will eventually return to won’t be the “normal” as we knew it, but something new and different in many ways, we realize that we’ve been given a rare chance to make impactful changes to our legacy mobility and infrastructure systems. Out of adversity we can direct our energies, and eventually direct policymaking, to be more resilient and responsive to our health, safety, and quality of life needs.

Our failure to do this will be viewed by future generations as a colossal failure of creativity and a damning example of generational irresponsibility.

What America – and especially urban America – needs, perhaps more than anything other than a solution to the current crisis, is a clear vision for a reimagined public realm and mobility network.  We’ve seen glimpses of what a more sustainable, public health and safety oriented urban environment would look like.  More cycling and walking, better land use choices, and transit service delivery that focuses as never before on the basics: cleanliness, greater frequencies, more reliability.

Certainly we cannot double down on current behaviors compelled by the health crisis. 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: safe and unimpeded cycling, walking and rapid bus transit. We urgently need funding and a plan to make these sustainable modes as safe as they can be.

We can’t possibly think it is wise or safe to return to the status quo ante.  We cannot sit back and let people mistakenly believe that the only reliably safe form of mobility is single-occupancy driving. That model proved destructive to our environment and failed to provide regionally and socially equitable access, creating an opportunity gap that would be economically irresponsible, and immoral, to continue, let alone grow.

In order to implement change, states and municipalities will need federal financial support. Economic relief and bailouts have been the immediate go-to solution because it’s so straightforward: it’s mostly about electronic transfers of money. But beyond that necessary approach to short-term economic relief, there must be consideration of a set of longer-term initiatives that help us build a healthier, more resilient society.

There is a more than reasonable expectation that sometime before the end of the year Congress will enact a federal infrastructure stimulus bill.  By “stimulus” I mean federal funding for investments by states and municipalities that have the dual effect of creating jobs (short-term and longer) that build more resilient and responsive public works systems. These could range from improvements to the national grid that support the transition to electric vehicles, to improvements to water systems (think Flint, Michigan), to improvements to transit and rail networks that support economic growth and access to jobs, healthcare, schools.

Any new federal stimulus bill must be drafted to avoid the mistakes of the 2009 stimulus program. I was state secretary of transportation during that time, and I know from that experience how difficult it was to spend stimulus money on worthy transit and rail projects.  This difficulty was embedded in one of the basic (and, from a transportation perspective, faulty) elements of the 2009 stimulus law: its focus on speed.  The proxy for speed was the federal push to fund “shovel-ready projects.” This framework in practice excluded most transit and rail initiatives, as most “shovel-ready” projects are typically auto-centric.  The message today must be that stimulus shouldn’t just be “make work,” it should be “work that makes us more resilient to future pandemics and more sustainable overall.”

 In the transit and rail sectors, for example, federal stimulus funding should be made eligible for retrofitting equipment and stations. Buses can be retrofitted to install protective screens for bus drivers, and all transit and rail vehicles retrofitted with high-quality air filtration systems. Make bus transit more appealing and public health oriented by directing federal funding to improving capacity and frequency, two major contributors to a healthier (less crowded) and more reliable bus service. That would mean funding to transit agencies and municipalities for dedicated lanes, traffic signal priority, sidewalk reconstruction to accommodate level boarding, and better bus stops. That is just one modal example of the kind of new normal mobility system we should be planning for today.

Another example is federal funding support for the complete electrification of the bus and rail systems.  We cannot make more people susceptible to lung and coronary diseases as a result of their daily proximity to noxious diesel and other fossil fuel emissions. The soot (black carbon) spewed out by our current diesel locomotives is a significant contributor to diminished air quality and climate change. A recent Harvard study tied long term exposure to particulate matter in the air to a 15 percent higher COVID mortality rate.

That’s why the MBTA and the Commonwealth need to move without unnecessary delay to put the Fiscal and Management Control Board’s phase 1 regional rail plan into action.  Electrifying the Fairmount Line, the commuter rail line from Lynn to Boston, and the Providence/Stoughton Line will be an important first step toward providing better mobility in a manner that supports public health and social equity.  Funding to accelerate the conversion of MBTA bus maintenance and storage facilities to accommodate an all-electric fleet should also rise to the top of the priority list.

Finally, it is clear today that more people will choose to walk or cycle to destinations if possible, rather than take transit. This will be especially so 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.  An initial focus should be on those routes that sustained relatively strong ridership demand even at the height of the crisis, as well as 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, and any federal stimulus bill ought to include funding directly to municipalities as well as transit agencies for this purpose.

It would be a mistake of profound and lasting import if we took the wrong messages from the COVID-19 health crisis.  If we use the crisis to retreat to the perceived safety of single occupancy driving, or less housing density, we will be doubling down on the discredited era of highway expansion and spatial dislocation and disparity.  Our society will quickly become more insular, and with that insularity inevitably comes a loss of empathy, a lack of creativity, and a diminished quality of life.

Meet the Author

The quality of life that comes from density and sustainable mobility – the ability to reach essential destinations, to access opportunity, to enjoy the human benefits of community and the creativity generated by the many random chance encounters (call it the urban water cooler effect) that enable discovery and growth and personal enrichment – these have been temporarily taken away from us as we live our lives connected through the glare of computer screens.  It will not always be this way, and we all hope sooner rather than later we will return to “normal.” Let’s act now to ensure that the new normal will be more sustainable, more resilient, more inclined to social cohesion. It’s up to each of us to make sure that Congress (and the Commonwealth) gets this right.

James Aloisi is a board member of the advocacy group TransitMatters and a former Massachusetts secretary of transportation.