COVID-19 is ‘killing transit.’ Will it permanently change how we get around?

It’s hard to exaggerate just how much the world changed in just a few weeks this spring. The glittering vehicles that packed suburban office parks disappeared, leaving empty moats of blacktop. Online traffic maps glowed green at what had been reliable deep-red choke points. Families on bikes and delivery trucks moved slowly through newly quiet residential streets. And the fumes from internal combustion engines cleared, with deadly particulate pollution falling by more than half in many cities. The quarantine squeegeed away the smog, leaving sparkling city skylines. The residents of Jalandhar, India, 100 miles south of the Himalayas, had a view of snow-capped mountains for the first time in 30 years.

That plunge in pollution brought with it a drop in greenhouse gases. The state of California, for example, was on track to miss its carbon-cutting target for 2030 before the COVID-19 pandemic. But in a state where transportation is the largest source of planet-warming gases by far, lockdowns triggered large-scale reductions in emissions.

“It was going to be a challenge for California to meet 2030 goals,” said Chanell Fletcher, executive director of ClimatePlan, a California-based advocacy group. “We were not going to do it unless we saw major changes. Well, now we are seeing major changes.”

Of course, a global pandemic is not the catalyst Fletcher wanted and, she added, most benefits are already disappearing as the lockdowns lift. Whenever (or maybe if) the U.S. economy revs up, tailpipes and smokestacks will go right back to belching. Smog is already gathering in China’s cities as the country relaxes restrictions.

Still, elements of this shakeup look likely to stick around. COVID-19 has upended human patterns of movement, and some of those changes will become permanent. But which ones? Will we fall in love with clearer skies? Or fall out of love with transit, worried about the health risks that come with crowded subway cars and buses? This plague could usher in a cycling renaissance and also convince other commuters to suffer through gridlock in the solitude of their cars.

“When we experience traumatic events like this, it exposes our vulnerabilities, and that causes long term changes” said Janna Chernetz, who advocates for getting New Jersey residents out of their cars and onto transit for the Tri-State Transportation Campaign. Superstorm Sandy, for instance, hit the East Coast in 2012, flooding neighborhoods and causing at least $70 billion in damage. “After Superstorm Sandy we realized how vulnerable our infrastructure was and started working to protect shorelines,” she said. “Now the spread of infectious disease is revealing how vulnerable we are when we move from place to place. This will absolutely permanently change us.”

This plague breached the last remaining barriers to working from home like a flash flood sundering dams. Chernetz has noticed how much time she has gained without her hour-and-a-half commute from New Jersey to New York City, and she suspects many other workers are having the same realization:. “People are saying, ‘Shit, I can do my work from home rather than spending three hours of my life every day commuting. Look, during COVID-19 I was completely able to do my job. I don’t need to pay to commute.’”

Before COVID-19, bosses could tell their employees, “No, we can’t make work from home happen,” said Louis Alcorn, a graduate student studying transportation at the University of Texas at Austin. But in the new era, he noted, most bosses won’t have that excuse. Business owners might realize that it can work to their benefit — why spend tens of thousands of dollars every month on a large office space, when you could, say, switch to a smaller, cheaper space and rotate employees week to week?