Cities Have a Small Window to Save Themselves From Cars

Everyone is reconsidering their transportation mode right now. Automobiles don’t have to win.

A woman wearing a surgical mask, sitting at the wheel of a car
We don’t have to do this.
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We are all commuters of habit. Barring a major life event, most of us will keep riding the bus, driving a car, or riding a bike when we head to work or run to the grocery store. We don’t even think of doing this as a choice; it’s just how we get around.

It takes a powerful shock to break these habits, but the coronavirus could do it. As lockdowns are lifted around the country in the coming months, many urban residents may think twice before using the same transportation modes they previously did. That’s especially true for those who relied on public transportation, which requires proximity to strangers.

A moment like this—when millions of urban trips are temporarily up for grabs across transportation modes—is exceedingly rare. The stakes for cities could scarcely be higher. If traditional transit riders decide en masse to shift toward driving private automobiles, urban road networks will be saddled with unprecedented gridlock, bringing corresponding increases in pollution and crashes. But city streets could keep flowing if enough travelers choose to bike, walk, or use a scooter—or if they keep riding public transportation.

It all depends on how individuals decide to travel in the weeks ahead. The good news is that local leaders possess an array of tools to steer people away from driving, the mode they want to minimize. But cities must move quickly before people reach for their car keys. As noted by David King, a professor in Arizona State University’s School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, “it’s a lot easier to keep someone from starting to drive than it is to get them to stop driving.” New habits are hard to break, too.

In normal times, research suggests that inertia is a formidable obstacle keeping us from changing how we travel. Many of us won’t do so unless we’re moving to a new home, welcoming a newborn, or starting a new job. Now we’re seeing such a shock, but it’s societal, not personal. This has happened before. More people drove long distances instead of flying in the months following 9/11. During World War II, federal rationing of gasoline temporarily pushed urban residents away from automobile trips and toward public transportation.

Still, the COVID-19 pandemic is different. Americans are justifiably worried about being infected with the coronavirus. For some, a solution could be to avoid travel entirely by working from home. But the impact of telecommuting on transportation networks in the coming months will be limited; according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, work commutes accounted for just 14 percent of trips in 2017. One way or the other, many people will soon be venturing out to shop, to work, or to visit the doctor. The question is what mode they will use when they leave home.

Decisions about mode choice are especially urgent in big regions with high transit ridership, where many traditional passengers could afford to drive if they wanted to. Road congestion was already severe in these cities before the pandemic struck; the average person in Boston, New York, and Chicago spent more than 130 hours stuck in traffic annually. The local highway network could be overwhelmed if a big share of transit riders in these cities opted to drive instead. Case in point: A recent Vanderbilt study found that Bay Area residents could soon spend an additional 20 to 80 minutes per day stuck in congestion due to a shift away from mass transit. Evidence from China, which is attempting to return to life as usual following extended coronavirus lockdowns, is ominous: In early April, cities like Shenzhen and Guangzhou already had higher levels of rush hour congestion than a year ago.

To avoid overwhelming traffic, leaders of big American cities will need to influence the travel choices that individual residents—especially traditional transit riders—make in the months ahead. Ashley Whillans, a professor at Harvard Business School who has researched mode choice, believes that the shutdowns have given many residents a psychological “fresh start” to select a new means of travel. “Because their travel habits have been so disrupted, they may be temporarily more open to biking and walking.” She suggests that cities capitalize on this window of opportunity by offering free bike-share trips when the lockdowns end, ideally with personalized routes to frequent destinations that simplify trip planning.

Of course, it also helps to make the alternatives to driving as safe and comfortable as possible. Expanded sidewalks and bike lanes provide room for social distancing, and they also protect riders of scooters and bikes from automobiles. The recent upsurge in bicycle purchases could make it easier to coax people making short trips to bike instead of drive. American cities including St. Paul, Minnesota; Oakland, California; and New York have allocated new street space to cyclists and pedestrians, but leaders of European cities like Paris and Milan have gone a critical step further by vowing not to hand space back to drivers when lockdowns end. The first American city to make such a commitment is Seattle, which recently promised to keep 20 miles of streets permanently clear of automobile traffic.

While there is a general agreement that transit ridership will be lower than normal in the months ahead, local leaders can still take steps to stem its losses. Safety measures such as mask requirements and rear-door bus boarding are essential. But it’s also important to avoid transit service being further degraded by worsening traffic congestion, a protection offered by dedicated bus lanes (which the head of D.C.’s Metro requested in a recent Washington Post op-ed).

If the goal is to convince residents not to drive, it makes sense to reward those who do their part. LA Metro has been exploring ways to offer in-kind rewards for those who use any mode other than a personal vehicle—potentially including bikes, scooters, and even telework. “We hope this kind of a solution can play a role in the recovery process,” says Joshua Schank, director of LA Metro’s Office of Extraordinary Innovation. Miami’s transit agency is already offering nondrivers perks like discounted trips through a partnership with Velocia, a startup.

All of these measures can help tilt an individual’s mode choice by making the alternatives to driving a little more enticing. But those benefits are lost if driving also becomes more attractive because local authorities reduced tolls, as has happened on the Bay Bridge linking San Francisco and Oakland, or waived parking fees, as Baltimore has done during the lockdown. The temptation to limit driver expenses during a recession is understandable, but yielding to it invites an even greater deluge of urban traffic.

There is a window right now to implement these policies and shift mode decisions, but it is a narrow one. Data from Apple Maps suggests that Americans in cities nationwide are already driving more than when lockdowns began, with transit ridership returning far more slowly. If driving becomes an established new habit for millions of urban residents, our cities will be the worse for it. If we want to keep people out of their cars—if we want to keep our cities functioning—now is the time to work for it.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.