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Cities Must Rethink Public Transportation As States Reopen Amid Pandemic


Some city streets have undergone a remarkable transformation during this pandemic. They've become walkways or bike paths. As NPR's Camila Domonoske reports, some of these changes could stick.

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: As daily travel resumes, cities are facing new challenges. Driving rates are rising. But public transit ridership is staying low. Eve Strother, a lawyer in Boston, says she won't be getting on the T anytime soon.

EVE STROTHER: You don't want to run into someone who's, you know, not being careful. So it's kind of scary to not know how your commute will go.

DOMONOSKE: She feels much safer in her car. And in Philadelphia, David Quispe doesn't own a car and would love to keep taking transit with a face mask. But it used to take him 40 minutes to get to work. With fewer buses running during the pandemic....

DAVID QUISPE: I would expect my commute to be anywhere from an hour and 15 to an hour and a half now.

DOMONOSKE: If his office reopened now, he might rent a car long term and drive. Individual decisions like this add up. And the result could be a traffic nightmare. Some cities in China have already seen congestion rise above pre-pandemic levels. More driving contributes to climate change and makes city life miserable.

Corinne Kisner is the executive director of the National Association of City Transportation Officials.

CORINNE KISNER: It's such a small, negligible amount of increase in traffic volumes to tip us into a really devastating gridlock scenario. That simply won't work for cities.

DOMONOSKE: Cities have to stave off this disaster and keep basic services running while grappling with devastating budget cuts and trying to keep their own employees safe, too. There's no silver bullet. But part of the solution might be changing street space to encourage walking, biking or riding scooters. During this pandemic, many cities have set up open, slow or healthy streets that discourage car use, like Seattle. Sam Zimbabwe is the director of the city's department of transportation. And you also might hear his daughter's cockatiel, Sprinkles.

SAM ZIMBABWE: If you live on a block that we've closed or if you have a delivery or if you're visiting somebody, you still have all the access you need. It's just not a through street anymore.

DOMONOSKE: It was a temporary measure partly to support socially distanced recreation.

ZIMBABWE: The support and the positivity we got in just the first few weeks of putting these out meant that it was something that was pretty easy to say, let's make this permanent.

DOMONOSKE: As people travel more, Zimbabwe says the greenways will be increasingly important as a way to get from one place to another without a car. If more people bike, it can reduce congestion. Telework can cut the number of car trips, too. But not everyone has the option to work remotely. And many people in U.S. cities can't afford to live close to their workplaces. Lynda Lopez is an advocacy manager at the Active Transportation Alliance in Chicago.

LYNDA LOPEZ: Some of the rhetoric I've been hearing in the transportation world is - and I don't think this is intentional - but painting transit as, like, sacrificial. Well, it's not going to be safe for a long time. We all got to get on bikes.

DOMONOSKE: Many people rely on transit, Lopez notes, especially low-paid essential workers, usually people of color from communities hit hardest by the deadly coronavirus. So cities need to keep public transit running and make it as safe as possible. That might mean more bus lanes or more frequent buses.

Whether it's changing bus service or adding bike lanes, these kinds of decisions usually happen very slowly. Now cities are moving fast because the crisis is urgent.

Tamika Butler is with Toole Design, a consulting firm that helps cities with transportation planning, especially for biking and walking. She says moving too quickly can cut some members of the community out of decisions.

TAMIKA BUTLER: There has to be a balance between answering the call and doing what folks need while still not recreating processes that continue to exclude people.

DOMONOSKE: Butler urges cities to ask more questions and involve local residents in these decisions so that city streets are reimagined to be safer and more equitable. Camila Domonoske, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.