From airlines to subways, mass transit is particularly ill-suited to the social distancing practices that help stem COVID-19’s spread, so it doesn’t come as a shock that the transportation sector has struggled to navigate the pandemic. And for transit systems nationwide, it’s a bitter pill to swallow: where public transportation was most successful, it now seems most threatening—and threatened.
Transit skeptics have a point: densely-packed transit presents serious public health risks in a pandemic, and American urbanists and public transit advocates have struggled to present a compelling counter-narrative. At a time when the very notion of “public” has become synonymous with danger, where does that leave public transit?
In late May, I had a chance to (virtually) sit down with Stu Nicholson. In January, Stu was named Executive Director of All Aboard Ohio! (AAO), a nonpartisan advocate for “a modern, consumer-focused, statewide passenger transportation network that provides people with real travel choices they want and can use.”
Though its main interest is intercity passenger rail, AAO also calls for improving local and regional transit across Ohio. At a time when public transportation can seem most precarious, Stu argues it’s more vital than ever.
“It’s like the old adage about advertising: ‘In good times, you should advertise. In bad times, you must advertise.’ The same can be said of investing in public transportation and passenger rail. Good times? Yeah, you should be improving the system and making investments to do that. If the times are bad, you’d better heavily invest in those systems.”
He doesn’t minimize the concerns of public health experts: mass transit presents serious risks for riders, personnel and their communities. But rather than turn away from public transportation, Stu argues this is the crucial moment to invest proactively in transit systems.
On one hand, it’s a matter of equity. About 8% of U.S. households—20+ million people—don’t have a car. Without public transportation, the mobility of millions nationwide would be severely restricted.
Moreover, transit ridership is heavily racialized in many US cities—a living legacy of particularly entrenched forms of American racism, crystallized by functionally segregationist policies like “redlining,” used to concentrate, isolate, entrap and impoverish black residents in virtually every major city. Reducing transit service tends to disproportionately harm poor, urban communities of color.
In addition to equity, Stu argued that “from an environmental standpoint, it behooves us to not go back to whatever the status quo was. We cannot go back to the old normal.”
Transportation is the nation’s largest source of carbon emissions, and within the transportation sector, road vehicles generate over 80% of emissions. COVID-19 and its attendant lockdowns precipitated a steep drop in automobile use, “down anywhere from 75 to 85% over the last three months in most American metros.”
Though road traffic has already begun to rebound, the difference in air pollution levels over the past three months has been dramatic.
“We’ve had a glimpse at what life without a lot of driving can be,” Stu said. “The air is cleaner, the air is clearer… It’s kind of like nature’s given us a head start—or, you know, a second chance.”
COVID-19 has laid bare vulnerabilities and inadequacies in the systems that move us locally, nationally and globally. Isolation and withdrawal are effective in limiting viral transmission but carry their own dangers, and people are already venturing out, going back to work and stepping back into society. So where does public transit fit into all of this, especially for those who depend on it most?
For Stu, the best solution is using this challenge as an opportunity to innovate not just for infectious diseases, but for long-needed reforms and infrastructural developments.
“The whole transportation industry, whether it’s aviation, passenger rail, public transit… will probably have to redesign what we fly in, what we ride in,” he said. “[T]hat’s going to inspire a whole lot of entrepreneurs and new engineers—people with fresh thinking.”
Though it’s a massive undertaking, Stu hopes it will bring about significant change in how we travel—and how we discuss transportation.
“When you’re trying to make an economy recover, the worst thing you can do is to cut back on the investment in your public transportation system, whether that’s the actual [vehicles] that run in cities or investment in bikeways and walkable neighborhoods,” he said. “Transportation is key: mobility is the essence of our freedom.”