The COVID-19 threat is here for the foreseeable future. As cities reopen, protecting passengers on public transit is a matter of life and death.

Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images; Samantha Lee/Business Insider
  • Cities will need to make some major changes to allow citizens to travel safely and efficiently post-lockdown, experts told Business Insider.
  • A handful of systemic transportation issues – like the sporadic reliability of public transit, the lack of safe bike lanes, gridlock in city centres, and unequal access to transportation options – have been exacerbated by the pandemic.
  • According to experts, some keys to a safe reopening include beefing up public transit systems, providing great alternatives like walking and biking, and managing congestion through tolls and other measures.
  • Read more stories from the Destination Rerouted series here.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

As cities begin to reopen with the threat of COVID-19 still looming large, the challenge of how urbanites will get around in a safe and socially distant manner is a great one, and it’s bringing many deep-rooted transportation problems to the fore.

The Centres for Disease Control weighed in last month when it issued controversial guidance, which it has since walked back, urging commuters to drive to work alone while avoiding public transit and carpools. Urban planners, academics, and transportation officials swiftly panned the recommendation, arguing that a flood of new cars would cripple city streets and would be unwise from a public-health standpoint.

Traffic incidents already account for around 36,000 deaths per year in the US, and roughly 4.2 million people die annually from conditions related to air pollution around the globe. Car travel is, by some estimates, 20-60 times more deadly than public transit.

But the solution isn’t for commuters to unconditionally embrace mass transit either. Situations that straphangers faced daily – like crowding onto a packed bus or waiting elbow-to-elbow on a stuffy subway platform – now violate physical-distancing guidelines and could potentially put riders at risk.

Cycling could serve as an excellent alternative to public transit and driving in the long haul, and though many cities have designated additional bike lanes to accommodate increased ridership, they often lack the robust bike-lane networks needed to safely transport cyclists across a city.

None of these problems, however, are new. The threat of unmanageable and unsustainable congestion in city centres; the lack of reliable and uncrowded mass transit service; and insufficient alternatives are all deep-rooted problems that have only gained urgency as a still-raging pandemic stalks the public consciousness.

Compounding all those issues is the reality that low-income communities and people of colour – groups that have already been disproportionately affected by the pandemic – bear the brunt of these transportation shortcomings. Many low-income citizens hold essential jobs that don’t allow for remote work, meaning they have no choice but to commute one way or another, risking exposure. They also tend to have worse access to reliable public transit, along with fewer safe bike lanes nearby. Not to mention, they often lack the means to own a car, while having the farthest to travel.

Some urban-planning and transportation experts Business Insider spoke with see the current moment as an opportunity for cities to address these underlying issues and radically change the way they think about getting people around. At the very least, by tackling immediate transportation issues posed by the pandemic, cities may begin making headway on those larger, persistent problems.

So what does that rethinking look like, and how do cities make sure citizens can travel efficiently and safely in the coming months and beyond?

Reducing crowds and taking on other safety measures.

Public transit is the backbone of many cities, and it will continue to be critical for getting people to and from jobs and essential services as lockdowns ease, multiple experts told Business Insider. Not to mention, getting riders back onto trains and buses will be key for preventing undue traffic and for accelerating economic recovery.

Without reliable, safe, and frequent public transportation, buying a car could become, in effect, “an entry fee into the economy,” Emiko Atherton, the director of the National Complete Streets Coalition, a program of advocacy organisation Smart Growth America, told Business Insider. “At a time when unemployment doesn’t look great, requiring people to own a car just to enter the economy is not something that works in terms of resiliency.”

Fortunately, recent research indicates that public transit systems around the globe – in France, Hong Kong, and Japan, for instance – have not been major breeding grounds for COVID-19.

Even if trains and buses are not as inherently risky as we once thought, transit authorities can still take measures to reduce overcrowding and otherwise prove to the public that their systems are safe. In a recent op-ed, Janette Sadik-Khan, a former New York City Department of Transportation commissioner, suggests that cities ramp up health-messaging campaigns, increase high-visibility cleaning practices, and encourage universal mask wearing to lure back riders who have soured on mass transit.

Improving the capacity, frequency, and reliability of public transit systems – especially bus networks – can help agencies reduce crowding on vehicles and facilitate proper social distancing, experts say.

For many, the best bet for accomplishing that is building more bus-only lanes, which would allow buses to bypass traffic and complete more trips. “Given that current best practice is to ensure as much physical distancing as possible on transit vehicles, we really need as much space on the street dedicated to them as possible,” Alex Engel, a spokesperson for the National Association of City Transportation Officials, told Business Insider.

According to Mike Lydon, a principal at the urban-planning and design firm Street Plans, boosting the reliability of bus service would have the dual effect of reducing the number of passengers on each vehicle, while bringing down the amount of time riders need to spend in close proximity to others.

But strengthening and expanding service would require a massive investment, and sharp drops in ridership and fare revenues have left agencies strapped for cash. Transit agencies received $US25 billion in federal funding through the $US2 trillion CARES Act, but some experts say agencies will need additional aid to fully restore service, let alone make it more robust.

“There needs to be stronger federal guidance and federal support of the transit agencies to make sure people still can take transit,” Atherton said. “It’s a national problem that requires a national solution.”

Cities can make it easier for people to walk, bike, and scoot.

A key way to encourage alternatives like biking, walking, and scooter sharing is through infrastructure improvements – primarily, new and expanded protected bike lanes, which provide the safety and peace of mind people need to ride significant distances.

“Over several years [cycling has] been growing and it has a real opportunity now, if the safe infrastructure is on the street,” Kate Slevin, a senior vice president at Regional Plan Association, a nonprofit that advises cities and public agencies, told Business Insider. “That means protected cycling lanes that are clear from barriers, and that feel safe not just for expert cyclists but for people of all ages and backgrounds.”

Numerous cities in the US and around the globe have risen to the task by quickly building temporary bike routes to accommodate new riders. And many – like Seattle, Oakland, and Chicago – have also been experimenting with “slow streets” or “open streets,” city blocks that have reduced speed limits or are closed to motor vehicles entirely. These initiatives, though geared more toward social distancing and recreation than transportation, could become assets to city transportation systems, so long as they help people bike or walk more than just a few blocks, Atherton said.

With the right infrastructure in place, cycling could completely replace a bus, subway, or car trip for those with shorter commutes. For others, especially residents of neighbourhoods where mass transit stations are few and far between, travelling by bike could be a good option for getting to a train or bus stop that might normally necessitate a car trip.

“There’s a whole complementary approach to the transit network, where we can be feeding people into these more frequent bus lines, and of course the subway system as people begin to feel safer,” Lydon said. “If you can bike that mile or that two-mile distance, that’s a huge benefit if it’s safe and reliable and you have parking available.”

But communities of colour and lower-income neighbourhoods – those areas that arguably need safe bike lanes the most – historically have worse access to good cycling networks. That disparity has had deadly consequences for underserved communities.

“Pedestrian and non-motorised fatalities continue to be on the rise even as overall car crashes have gone down,” Atherton, of the National Complete Streets Coalition, said. “Those are disproportionately represented in people of colour, in older adults, and in lower-income communities.”

According to Tamika Butler, the director of California planning and of equity and inclusion at Toole Design, a transportation-planning firm focusing on biking, walking, and transit access, one explanation for those inequities is that urban-planning and transportation leaders often are not representative of the communities that are affected by their decisions.

“Whether you’re talking about the public sector, private sector, or nonprofits, transportation has been a predominantly white field,” she said. “Now that we’ve seen more people feeling the burdens of what this lack of mobility justice means, we have to really push ourselves to do things differently and not just get back to normal.” Butler suggests that cities partner with local community organisations and ramp up engagement efforts to see what low-income groups need and how they can be helped.

In addition to expanding cycling lanes and investing in bike parking, cities can increase access to the bikes themselves. Lydon and others argue that subsidizing shared micromobility services would be a relatively low-cost path toward improving last-mile transportation and reducing the temptation to drive, hail a ride, or buy a car.

Schwartz, the consultant and former traffic commissioner, on the other hand, believes that struggling transportation departments should maximise investments in transit instead of subsidizing private enterprise. Plus, he said, affording micromobility services space on footpaths and streets is a massive subsidy in itself.

France, for one, has announced a $US22 million investment in temporary bike-parking spots, biking lessons, and bike repairs in an effort to promote cycling and keep cars off the road. As part of the plan, the government is handing out 50 euros, or $US56, per person for bike repairs. “We want this period to be a new stage towards a cycling culture and we want the bicycle to be the queen of deconfinement,” France’s environment minister, Elisabeth Borne, said in a tweet.

If you must drive in the city, we can make it better.

The situation is evolving rapidly, but as it stands now, experts that Business Insider consulted are convinced that, due to a drop in transit ridership and carpooling, cities will see traffic rise to new heights as they reopen.

According to some, a marginal jump in new drivers could result in lots of new traffic, which would slow down buses and keep essential workers from getting around efficiently. “In many cities a small increase in traffic can be pretty catastrophic in terms of the impact to the transportation system,” Engel, of NACTO, said. “Just a small additional percentage of vehicles can really overwhelm streets.”

Providing alternatives like fast buses and safe bike lanes is one way to alleviate congestion, multiple experts agreed. Ramping up responsible-driving messaging and installing more automated speed cameras both may help, but don’t get at the root of the problem, Lydon said. “There’s just not enough road space for everyone to own a car.”

Schwartz and Slevin both support fast-tracking a congestion-pricing plan that aims to address that spatial challenge in New York. The program, which was approved in 2019 and is set to go into effect in 2021, would levee a fee on any cars that venture into the most traffic-heavy part of downtown Manhattan.

Many cities already employ tolls to reduce rush-hour traffic or encourage multi-occupant vehicles – and both of those could help now, too – but Manhattan’s cordon-based system would be the first of its kind and could set a new trend for cities across the country, Slevin said. The plan would not only put a check on congestion, it would also generate revenue for New York’s ailing transit system, thus addressing multiple dire challenges posed by the pandemic.

If officials don’t step up to the plate and address these urgent issues and others – experts warn – cities may see further inequities in mobility and a deepening of long-entrenched transportation issues.

But is this the demise of urban life all together? “There’s been an interest in and a love for cities that’s been growing for decades now,” Slevin said. “New York and other cities have been through a lot and have recovered – and I think we will see that recovery once again. It’s just going to take a little bit of time to get there.”

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