Fall/Winter 2020 /The New (Ab)Normal/

When the Whole World Hit the Brakes

The New (Ab)Normal in Transportation

When the Whole World Hit the Brakes

In 2020, humanity slammed on the brakes, arguably for the first time in modern history.

If you could watch the passing centuries of human movement on an animated map, you would see oceans grow dense with activity as coal replaced wind, as oil replaced coal and as air travel became commonplace. Other epidemics wouldn’t even have registered: In the 19th century, as this frenzy of movement was gaining speed, six cholera pandemics killed millions, but people kept moving. “That was when steam power became common; people were just moving faster and farther than ever,” said Joyce Chaplin, author of Round About the Earth: Circumnavigation from Magellan to Orbit. With the exception of a few blips during world wars—when travel, trade and fishing fleets were supplanted by battleships—this toy model of movement would have told a single story of acceleration. That story ended in March of 2020, when every government in the world said: “Stop. Stay home.”

Of course, we didn’t totally stop. A few Airbuses still paint contrails across the skies, though often carrying only a handful of passengers. Farmworkers still rise before dawn to pick the food that feeds the quarantined masses. Medical workers, cleaners, truckers and grocery-store stockers buzz even more urgently than before. Our map of movement hasn’t gone black. But it has dimmed more significantly than ever before.

This timeout is momentary. The trend of acceleration has already begun to resume. But the pause will also trigger lasting changes, and Pomona alumni working in transportation already have a sense of the long-term implications.

Rockwell “Rocky” Smith ’77 was looking forward to a few uneventful months to wind down his career at the Crowley Maritime Corporation when the realization set in that the pandemic would change everything. Crowley is—by and large—a shipping company: It moves products. And so, when the economy halted, Smith had to ask: Would anyone want to move clothes from the factories in Guatemala to the United States? Would towns in Alaska still need fuel oil deliveries? “In Alaska we were expecting huge impacts,” he recalled. “The tourists disappear; there are going to be no cruise ships. No one is going to need fuel.”

John Urgo ’03 was also at the cusp of a career transition. In February he was preparing for a move to Santa Cruz to become the planning director for the transit system there. But how do you plan for the future of a bus network when authorities are telling everyone to stay off the bus if possible? “My wife and I were like, ‘We have decent jobs in the Bay Area. Is this crazy?’” As soon as he landed in his new home, he faced a crisis: Half the routes had to be cut, and it was Urgo’s job to pick them. “No one else wanted that responsibility. In some sense it was good to be an outsider and an easy scapegoat to make bad decisions,” he said.

Urgo was willing to be the bad guy for a moment. He had bigger concerns: Once people finished complaining about the bus cutbacks and found other ways to get around, would they ever come back? Ridership plummeted by 90 percent.

There’s good reason to believe that some of those riders will never return. They’d stay home, not just in Santa Cruz, but everywhere, just as some of the highway commuters are done for good, according to Jarrett Walker ’84, author of Human Transit, who has become something of a public intellectual on the subject.

“I would be surprised if everyone now working from home ever goes back to the office,” Walker said.

Before the pandemic, employees were already starting to schedule days to work from home, and bosses were trying to figure out if they approved of the trend. Society was dipping its collective toes in the work-from-home water. Then the coronavirus came and pushed us all in. “At our company we discovered in the span of a few days that, hey, this is working pretty well,” Smith said. “People can do all this from home. Maybe we don’t need offices anymore.” His company and many others began scrambling to end leases. Rush hour disappeared overnight. Smith marveled at how quickly it was all happening. “If you think about this history of how we went to open offices and then to cubicles, it took a few years before people got it figured out,” he said. “But in the case of COVID, nobody could go to work tomorrow.”

Working from home saves companies rent money and saves workers the time and cash they devoted to commuting. Some are bound to decide they like it. That newly homebound workforce will reduce the number of commuters at rush hour. And even if this reduction is small, it will trigger huge changes.

Planners design every road and subway station for the rush-hour crush, Walker said. That means that for the rest of the 20-odd hours in the day, they are overbuilt and underused. It’s a ridiculous but unavoidable waste of money. Or at least it used to be unavoidable.

“That billion-dollar cloverleaf maybe doesn’t need to get built now,” Walker said.

The work-from-home revolution will also decrease the smog and greenhouse gases billowing off gridlocked freeways. In the United States, transportation is the single largest source of globe-heating gases. So the decline in commuting is a boon. But it also has a dark side: As white-collar workers stop commuting—and dispense with collars entirely—they may stop supporting the transportation systems that others still need.

Briana Lovell ’08, who manages transit strategy for the city of Seattle, noticed the dramatic decline in transit ridership. She also noticed a change in the demographics of the people on the buses. It was clear in the data she saw professionally and her own observations on the bus: There were fewer white people, fewer ties, fewer sloppy-on-purpose hoodies. But there were still riders: essential workers in scrubs or steel-toed boots, people in heavily worn clothes, people tucking sacks of groceries under the seats.

“The assumption that because a lot of high-wage, white-collar jobs may be able to telework we don’t need transit is just incredibly small-minded,” she said. “Transit is not just getting people to their jobs, but also to the doctor and to shopping.”

The pandemic provides a natural experiment, she said, showing transit officials exactly where and when people ride who truly have no better options. Instead of rush-hour commuter routes, people now are riding buses and trains more uniformly across nights and weekends and in the middle of the day. “For instance, the route that goes by my house: On weekends there’s a food bank, and there’s a ton of people who take the bus and come back with huge boxes and bags.”

In the before times, when well-connected professionals had to slog through traffic jams or endure delays on transit, they would complain about it, and they would sometimes even organize themselves to do something about it. Now that political pressure may evaporate.

“When fortunate people stop having a problem themselves, they tend to stop supporting solutions around it,” Walker said.

If that happens, some transit systems will die. The government stimulus package—the CARES Act—funded transit agencies around the country through the end of the year. But that money will run out long before there’s a vaccine, so there’s bound to be a reckoning. The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, which runs Boston’s T, has a half-billion-dollar hole in its budget next year, said Chris Dempsey ’05, director of a coalition of nonprofits and regional transportation planning agencies called Transportation for Massachusetts. “That’s extremely concerning to anyone in greater Boston who wants to make sure we have a viable transit system in the years ahead,” he said.

The T system isn’t going to disappear. In big cities a lack of money means that projects will be delayed and maintenance deferred, but transit will endure because it is simply irreplaceable: Trains and buses can move a lot of people in a small space, providing a solution for the implacable problem of geometry in cities. Without mass transit, city automobile traffic goes into a permanent stall, and movement slows to the pace of a brisk walk.

But in smaller sprawling towns, where cars are a viable alternative, the pandemic really could kill transit. In Santa Cruz, where Urgo is trying to plan for the revival of movement by bus, it’s possible residents will instead revive their affection for cars, which carry them so easily through, unbound by commuter traffic.

There was one positive change that Dempsey saw—one he hoped would become permanent. Cities and towns across Massachusetts were making room on the streets for pedestrians, cyclists and outdoor dining.

His own bike commute to his office in downtown Boston transformed when the city plunked down new traffic barrels separating cars from cyclists. “It had been honking cars, exhaust in your face, trucks and commuters jostling for space in a turn lane,” he said. “Now you cruise by them on your bike.”

In Europe the changes have been more profound: Paris is adding 400 miles of new bicycle lanes, and the United Kingdom is spending $2.5  billion on building better sidewalks and bike lanes—a “once-in-a generation change to the way that people travel in Britain,” according to Grant Shapps, the country’s transportation secretary. These cities are putting down concrete, not just traffic cones. But even traffic cones provide a glimpse of a different world.

“I think people have come to appreciate the value of being able to take a walk around their neighborhood in a way that maybe they never fully appreciated before,” Dempsey said. “The hope is that we experience that, we love it, and we decide to keep it in years ahead rather than giving that space back to vehicles.”

Back in Seattle, as the plague months ticked by, Rocky Smith was breathing easier. The pandemic hadn’t been the catastrophe for shipping that he had feared. The crash in Alaskan oil demand never came. “A lot of the fuel we sell is subsistence fuel—you gotta have the lights on, and it’s running the generators. In the winter you gotta heat your shack in Nome.”

And so the ships kept cutting through the water. They kept moving in the Caribbean as well. Sure, there might have been fewer orders from the big clothing companies for the factories in Central America, but there were also new orders for masks and protective gowns. Smith could retire with a clear conscience: He’d leave the company in a time of flux, but not in crisis.

For John Urgo, in Santa Cruz, the future looked much more uncertain. Surveys showed that people had no interest in getting back on the bus. Someday the students would return to the local colleges, and surely they would want to take the bus again—or would they? And when would that day come? Santa Cruz is famously progressive and green, but how long would it support a bus service that very few people were using?

The key to thinking about all this, said Dempsey, is to maintain perspective. The pandemic will end. A new normal will emerge. This isn’t—as some have suggested—the end of cities. “You can go back in time to the 16th century and find that people predicted the Black Plague was going to be the end of London,” he notes. London—let’s just check—still appears to exist. “We need cities. They are places where people innovate and share experiences and meet each other serendipitously and interact in ways that are really important to our economy and really important to our health and really important to our society,” Dempsey said.

It sometimes feels like the shutdown will never end. Decades from now, will future historians note this period as another curious blip on the graph? Joyce Chaplin, a present-day historian, isn’t so sure. Some changes will endure. Air traffic, which is both a speedy spreader of disease and extremely vulnerable to future shutdowns, will have to evolve. Airplane designers are proposing new ideas—flipping middle seats to face backward, raising dividers above armrests and transparent bubbles around headrests. And Chaplin expects that airlines might need to more nimbly impose flight quarantines to contain future epidemics.

If we return to that imagined map of transportation through the centuries: The modern perspective suggests an inevitable growth in movement up to this point. But, Chaplin said, if we broaden our view to the entirety of human history, we’d likely find other pauses—not because everyone got together and decided to quarantine, but because of past climate change. Surely the ice age and its end changed the way people moved around the world. “Yes, on a planetary scale we are living in an unusual moment,” she said. “But it may also be a return—part of a longer cycle that we never left.”