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COMMENTARY | The pandemic has created a unique opportunity for forward-thinking municipalities to fundamentally change transit and mobility.
Over the last year, the ways that we travel have been fundamentally upended. It’s hard to believe that only 14 months ago we didn’t give a second thought to jumping on a bus or a subway or getting in the car and driving from our homes to our places of work. For more than a year, most of us have been working from home, leaving city centers as virtual ghost towns. And even as vaccines are rolled out, many companies are strongly considering extending their work-from-home policies.
This is wreaking havoc for public transit agencies—but it also gives them a rare shot at having a blank canvas to reimagine how cities can and should function in the future.
So, what will mobility look like in 2021 and beyond? In the short term, it’s going to be a huge challenge. That’s because there really isn’t a national plan to get back to “normal,” even after vaccines are widely distributed. Will we be allowed to attend sporting events? Will offices be considered safe zones? What about the tens of millions of Americans under the age of 16 who are ineligible to receive vaccines? No one knows the answer to these questions, and it will probably take several years before we reach a state of normalcy.
Despite the chaos, we still have a golden opportunity to develop and implement policies that will make urban life better and more sustainable for the future. As a first step, public transit agencies need to gain public trust. That’s going to require ironclad data and creative communications campaigns to convince a skeptical public that it is okay to take transit. It’s hard to win people back after a crisis, so transit agencies are going to need to make reassurance a core part of their communication strategy until ridership levels improve.
Because of the erosion of trust in public transit systems, it is likely that there will be a higher percentage of people commuting to work in their cars. While the last 12 months have largely been free of urban traffic congestion, by summer we will probably be back to gridlock levels. That’s a problem for cities trying to get back on their feet. And there’s a limited window of time to determine how to mitigate this problem before it becomes intractable.
Lots of Options Available
The good news is that there are many options available. One of the biggest is reimagining how parking spaces are allocated. If you really think about it, several square miles of every major American city are dedicated to street parking. This is a perfect time for forward-thinking municipalities to radically reimagine how to use this land for better purposes while also maximizing revenue.
For example, parking lanes could be transformed into bicycle lanes, which would make cities more accessible, cleaner and more attractive to younger residents who are less likely to own cars than their older counterparts. Cities could rent parking spaces to local businesses to use as outdoor patios, which is happening around the country.
In fact, many cities are rethinking their parking strategies. A recent Wired article examines how governments are using the pandemic as an opportunity to explore ways to repurpose street parking spaces to better meet the needs of the community.
However, as you might expect, there is resistance to changing the status quo—mostly from local businesses that feel that street parking is their lifeblood. Traditionally, local business owners have viewed street parking as essential to their livelihood and viewed bike lanes as a threat since they’d reduce the amount of available parking. But this perspective changes when owners consider the number of bikes that can fit into one spot and therefore can potentially increase the number of potential customers.
Looking Back to Look Foward
A look back at history also provides a pathway to alleviate these concerns and embrace change.
In 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake damaged the Embarcadero Expressway, a double-decker elevated highway that ran along San Francisco’s waterfront. It was an eyesore that residents had tried for decades to tear down. Local businesses, however, claimed that doing so would kill commerce because it would limit access to popular neighborhoods. The expressway was unusable and later torn down after the earthquake but local businesses continued to thrive, giving anti-highway activists the ammunition they needed to finally have the roadway removed.
Thirty years later, the San Francisco waterfront is one of the most vibrant parts of the city, and new businesses in the area, including National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball stadiums, generate hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue that would never have been possible in the shadow of a towering superhighway. Boston did the same thing thanks to the Big Dig, a project that replaced the aging Central Artery Highway and improved traffic flow by 62%.
Public transit agencies at all levels have a rare opportunity to use current conditions as a once-in-a-lifetime chance to fix something that is fundamentally broken. Let’s not waste the opportunity.
Jeremy Zuker is the co-founder of WhereiPark, a technology company that enables multifamily and commercial property owners find new revenue sources by leveraging unused parking spaces.