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The Pandemic Changed Transportation. Can Cities Hold Course?

Less traffic and new uses for public streets are two of the side effects of the pandemic. As cities map a path forward, some of these changes are likely to linger in a post-coronavirus world.

The unusual year that was 2020 rearranged the transportation landscape with increased bike use and a reduction in car commuting, making cities quieter, safer and greener. For some cities, these changes were the realization of long-held transportation goals.

“People are becoming more fluent around things like bike lanes, bus lanes and ‘slow streets,’ and neighborhood streets,” said Janette Sadik-Khan, a former New York City transportation commissioner under Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration and a founding principal with Bloomberg Associates. Sadik-Khan now chairs the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO). “The kinds of things that were not top-of-mind before are now much more part of the common vocabulary. Coming from the perspective of transportation, I think one of the enduring images of the COVID-19 era will be this global transformation of streets and public spaces.”

Lanes void of vehicle traffic early on in the pandemic showed transportation and city leaders an outline for future use, Sadik-Khan said at the Micromobility World conference last week.

Her comments follow a recent report by StreetLight Data, which ranks the 100 largest U.S. metros along several metrics to chart their greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector. Cities that are relatively compact and dense with a robust public transit system generally rank high, while more suburban regions that are more car-dependent score lower. 

In 2020, New York City retained its No. 1 spot on the Transportation Impact Index. However, it was followed by the Sarasota, Fla., region, in part because in 2020 car commuting declined significantly, and residents clocked an unusually high number of miles on their bikes. Florida, with its reasonably nice year-round weather, has five cities on the list rounding out the top 10 communities accounting for the most miles biked.  

“So clearly, Florida had a lot of cycling activity,” said Phaedra Hise, director of content at StreetLight Data. 

The COVID-19 crisis did more than just encourage Americans to pick handlebars over steering wheels. The pandemic sent workers to makeshift home office settings, eliminating millions of daily commutes. Some of the findings by StreetLight Data showed economic activity — interpreted as Gross Domestic Product (GDP) — rebounding ahead of vehicle miles traveled (VMT), a finding which suggests economic activity does not have to be tied to escalating traffic congestion, said Hise. 

“What we are hopeful about, as the states begin to recover from COVID, and economic activity recovers, [is that] we can sustain some of that decrease in transportation emissions output, and keep VMT lower,” she added. 

StreetLight Data officials are hopeful these findings will be instructive to the Biden administration, as it drafts new policy proposals for cutting greenhouse gases. 

“I think this is something that we seriously need to look at, is decoupling the two, making sure that we have incentives in place for economic recovery, but keeping VMT low, and keeping driving lower. We’ve seen we can do it on a temporary basis. There’s really no reason why we can’t do it a little more long term,” said Hise. 

The COVID-19 crisis presented cities and regions with the opportunity to experiment with a number of transportation initiatives, said Sadik-Khan, pointing to of-the-moment buzzwords like “15-minute city,” a planning concept that aims to allow residents to access jobs, shopping and other needs within a 15-minute walk, bike ride or transit trip. 

“I think the winners of this post-vaccine era are going to be the cities that can adapt to the new realities, without going back to the status quo,” said Sadik-Kahn.  

“I think it’s important that we plan for a future we want to see, and not just cross our fingers and hope for the best,” she added.    

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.