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