When the World Stops Moving

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Congested highways are as iconic to Southern California as the sunshine, and slowdowns only get worse in rare moments of inclement weather. So consider Monday’s morning traffic report a sign of the times: Freeways and surface streets in Los Angeles were moving 35% faster than normal, even as a late-winter storm dumped sheets of rain.

“Not even sure what city I’m in anymore,” one local tweeted.

As the coronavirus pandemic tightens its grip around the world, city streets have transformed overnight. With offices, schools, businesses and public institutions closing their doors, and households buttoning up under “shelter in place” orders, roads from Beirut to London to Atlanta have become arteries without blood. In the U.S., average traffic speeds have significantly increased in every major metropolitan area in the U.S., according to INRIX, a traffic data analytics company, by as much as 60% in Chicago as of Tuesday morning.

Street lights illuminate an empty highway in Jalan Bulatan Kampung Pandan in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on Wednesday, March 18. (Samsul Said/Bloomberg)

Other modes of mobility have been shocked, even more so. In the U.S., public transit systems are seeing ridership tank as millions of commuters follow work-from-home orders or choose options that involve less social contact. Ridership across New York City’s MTA, the nation’s largest public transit system, fell by 60% on subways and as much as 90% on commuter trains. Washington, D.C.’s WMATA lost 100,000 riders in the course of week. In San Francisco, rail ridership on BART was down a staggering 90% as of Tuesday, and the SFMTA’s buses and railcars had plummeted 35% by the end of last week. Intercity rail travel has also taken a huge hit: Bookings on Amtrak have plunged 50% since the outbreak. Public ferry boats have emptied out, from Seattle to Staten Island.

The near-empty Broadway-Lafayette Street station in the New York City subway on March 17. (Demetrius Freeman/Bloomberg)

This data is a mixed bag. On the one hand, it shows that large numbers of citizens are following the social distancing policies and movement restrictions that their governments have ordered, in line with global health expertise. On the other, much as people hate to sit in gridlock, bad traffic and crowded trains are often the price of a growing economy, at least in the society we knew before coronavirus. The nosedive in movement indicates that people are taking an unprecedented public health emergency seriously. It also portends the profound economic crisis that is likely about to drop.

Transit is in a perilous position. In addition to signaling the economy’s screeching halt, bottomed-out ridership threatens to destabilize a critical industry. “We are bracing for a huge financial impact due to ridership declines, as well as due to reductions in other sources of revenue, from parking meters to the sales tax to hotel occupancy taxes,” said Jeffrey Tumlin, the executive director of the SFMTA. Without intervention, the hit could create large ripple effects for society and the environment, Tumlin said: A loss in revenue could mean equally large cuts to service, limiting the mobility of some riders and pushing others into cars.

Large agencies that rely heavily on passenger fares in addition to state subsidies to float their operating budgets will be hit especially hard — for a sense of how much, New York City’s MTA is now seeking a $4 billion federal bailout. Transportation For America (T4A), a progressive transit advocacy group, is currently gathering signatures on a letter to Congress to provide at least $12.8 billion “in immediate direct financial assistance” to transit agencies nationwide.

Such pleas are shot through with an additional worry: As lawmakers discuss sweeping aid packages for families, workers, small businesses, and entire industries affected by the coronavirus crisis — including airlines, cruise ships, and fossil fuel companies — advocates fear that transit is getting left out.

“Transit agencies are going to see reduced revenues at the same time that they’re boosting expenses by buying cleaning equipment and hiring more staff to do that work,” said Scott Goldstein, T4A’s policy director. “It’s a double hit that they are taking, and it’s something we’re really concerned is not getting discussed on Capitol Hill.”

Transit workers — thousands of whom are continuing to operate and maintain buses and trains through the pandemic — could also suffer. “There’s a lot of discussion about the need to bail out the airline industry because of the number of workers employed,” tweeted Yonah Freemark, a transit consultant and scholar. “But I’d like to remind everyone that just as many people in the US work in public transit agencies as air transportation.”

Some researchers also fear that transit could suffer a reputational hit that lasts beyond the pandemic. Given that pathogens spread in close quarters, it’s conceivable that commuters might be less inclined to travel en masse in the future — especially if transit service suffers by being left out of any coronavirus bailout. That would exacerbate pre-existing declines in ridership, which researchers have linked to low gas prices, cheap auto loans, the rise of ride-hailing, and infrastructure decay in transit-reliant cities like New York and Washington, D.C.

Such a scenario would impact millions of people who rely on public transit to get to work, school, and other essential activities. It would also be really bad for the environment; in the U.S., vehicle emissions already make up the majority of atmosphere-warming greenhouse gases.

But as the transportation leaders fight to keep networks and businesses intact in the teeth of this pandemic, the world is getting a striking glimpse, in certain ways, of the things that sustainability advocates have been imagining for years. Air pollution is clearing in Los Angeles — and air quality improvements resulting from China’s industrial shutdown response to the outbreak may save thousands of lives. The murky water in Venice’s famous canals is clearing up as motorboats have stopped dredging up the bottom. Bike ridership is up 50% in New York City. It remains to be seen how many of the 1.35 million lives lost every year in car crashes around the world might be saved by coronavirus-related shutdowns.

No one would ever wish for a pandemic to create this scene, which is inextricable from an unfolding financial collapse, extreme social isolation and an untold cost in lives. Yet as leaders grapple with how to heal society in the wake of this extraordinary crisis, and prepare for a future that still includes climate change, it might offer an image of what is possible. In a world turned upside down, there is evidently room to imagine answers that were unimaginable just a week ago: See Republican senators proposing $1,000 tax rebates for every American, or the White House announcing a dramatic expansion of Medicare to cover coronavirus treatments. Supporting transit, designing slower streets: These are still ways to make a world with cleaner air and safer cities, where bad traffic is no longer synonymous with a healthy economy. After all, it never really was.