We must guard against human isolation

Social distancing, telecommuting are enemies of social cohesion

Second of two parts.

THERE’S NO STATUS QUO for a river. That’s what’s behind the old saying that you can’t step in the same river twice.  Rivers are inherently dynamic, refreshed by rains and snow melts, always moving, rarely stagnant. Time is like that, too. Time depends on movement forward; time is stagnant only for the rare occasions when an animal  hibernates or a plant becomes dormant and winters over, but that seasonal stagnation ends abruptly in growth, movement, renewal. The ultimate form of stagnation, the fullest expression of a permanent status quo, is death. So I challenge you to consider whether returning to a pre-COVID status quo is really the right path to take as we emerge from the pandemic.

Great disruptive events challenge us to think about our lives and the systems we have put in place to support our economies and lifestyles. Disruptions like COVID-19 are unwelcome not least because they deprive us of the routines we took for granted, routines that may have been rooted in highly unsustainable practices but were nevertheless ingrained into our comfort zones.

The open question at this moment is whether metro Boston, and the capital city itself,  will emerge from the pandemic with such a deep yearning for “normalcy” that we will embrace our pre-COVID unsustainable lifestyles even more tightly, or whether we will take advantage of this opportunity moment to redirect policies and advance new policies that support a more inclusive, economically stable, and sustainable society.

The great danger is whether the pandemic will cause lasting changes in how we live our lives that will be more profound and destructive than any we experienced coming out of prior disruptive national or global events. The patterns and behaviors of the old status quo are stubbornly resilient and deeply ingrained and will, if left unchecked or if not replaced by viable alternatives, regain prominence just as, over time, the forest reclaims the abandoned farmhouse. Can a sustainability response – an essential rejection of the pre-COVID status quo, and specifically a rejection of how the legacy urban infrastructure functions to enable auto mobility at the expense of everything else – be crafted in a way that achieves public and political support in a timely manner?

We can’t ignore the reality that technology is a 21st century differentiator that presents opportunities unique to our time. The power of the internet, the functionality of social media platforms and connectivity platforms like Zoom, and the convenience of ubiquitous streaming services all make it easier for many people to live lives without the need for person-to-person or communal interaction. As Derek Thompson recently wrote in The Atlantic, we aren’t going to return to the 1950s. But technology has no conscience, and comes with its own limitations, constraints, and inequities.

One of the biggest threats of the post-COVID period will be the reliance on technology at such a scale that it will lead to a new era of separation and segregation. Long-term social distancing, and long-term telecommuting policies, are the enemy of social cohesion, a recipe for dysfunction and decline. A wholesale shift to technology for work and entertainment comes with massive implications that relate both to human isolation and a deepening gulf between those who belong to a higher-wage privileged class (those who have reliable internet access and the financial means to participate in the internet economy, those whose jobs enable them to work remotely) and everyone else. Thompson worries about the loss of community, the places “where you keep showing up.” One of those places has historically been the public transportation system.

People from different social, racial, ethnic, and income groups routinely came together as fellow transit and rail riders before the pandemic.  They also came together as participants in the small business economy.  This is not meant to overstate the bonding and integration that took place routinely every day, but there were connections being made that comprise a non-trivial part of the social fabric.

Urban streets given over primarily to a narrow subset of uses (the personal automobile and home delivery and ride-hailing services) are also barriers to the forms of mobility that support social cohesion and improve access to key destinations: safe and unimpeded cycling, walking, and rapid bus transit. Many cities, notably Paris, Milan, and San Francisco, have advanced efforts to close streets, slow streets, or redesign the streetscape to respond to 21st century needs and desires.  These alterations were taking place to some degree before the COVID-19 pandemic; their importance to public health now makes them essential to sustainable mobility, economic recovery, and public health.

Small businesses are a central component of urban life and the urban economy. The neighborhood restaurant, the local coffee shop, the bakery, the bodega, the hairdresser and barbershop, the pet store – these are what give neighborhoods their vibrancy and sense of place. They depend on many forms of mostly sustainable mobility – the foot traffic and the proximity to bus and subway stops that provide access to customers and employees.  A reimagined urban streetscape that encourages density without crowding is essential if we want to restore and rebuild this vital local business ecosystem. Without these businesses, our streets will be dull and uninviting, and fundamentally less safe.  The city anatomy – its interconnected physiology – functions best when its various components are designed and built to support one another.  We can no longer abdicate the streetscape to faceless auto mobility. The very lifeblood of the urban economy, the small businesses that make neighborhoods stronger and safer, is at stake.

Density is the hallmark of every great urban setting, the platform for agglomeration effects and the essential component of productivity. The World Bank has identified what it calls the “3Ds” – higher density, shorter distance, and fewer divisions (i.e., better market integration) as essential to vibrant urban economies. More locally, the 2018 A Better City Transportation Dividend report makes the same case for metro Boston – a region high in productivity despite higher costs of living, due largely to the benefits of an economy clustered primarily near transit nodes.

Meet the Author

We may look back on this year’s election for mayor of Boston as the most significant political change in a half century, not simply because of the likelihood that the winner will be a woman of color, but because most of the leading candidates are embracing sustainable transportation policies with the kind of vigor and persistent commitment we have not seen before. A new mayor committed to sustainable mobility principles, who exercises effective leadership on issues like West Station and Allston Landing, connecting the Red and Blue Lines on Cambridge Street, and rolling out more dedicated bus lanes and protected cycling lanes along key routes and corridors – such a mayor can be a dynamic force for change, a generationally important leader embracing modernity in a way that promotes a more inclusive, connected, cohesive and economically vibrant city. A new mayor who understands the importance of redesigning the urban streetscape to return it to the people, to make our public realm not just safer but more congenial to inclusive economic growth, can demonstrate that there is a way to emerge from the pandemic sustainably.

I began this article observing that there’s no status quo for a river. The metaphoric river that flows through Boston politics has carved our future time and time again. The elections of John Hynes, John Collins and Kevin White, for better (and sometimes for worse) set the city on a pathway to modernity at a time when it was all but dormant and in deep decline. Learning the lessons of those times, we can build a better Boston in this century.  We can’t do that by tightly embracing the pre-COVID status quo. This is the time to think and act decisively, and redirect the routines of the past to make way for a more sustainable future.

James Aloisi is a former state secretary of transportation and serves on the board of the advocacy group TransitMatters.