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Coronavirus has exposed the fragility of auto-centric cities

We need to develop neighborhoods that ensure access to food, healthcare, education and jobs — without relying on personal vehicles.


The coronavirus has exposed the ills of continued automobile-centric urban planning practices that adversely impact equity, health and the climate. Those of us who are working from home, own an automobile and can conveniently make grocery runs may overlook the fact that many in this country are not so lucky. Many households rely on public transit systems that are struggling to provide service, or they may bear high transportation costs exacerbated by a lack of access to the most critical of needs.

No technological solution will solve the systemic problems with our urban land use and transportation policies. We simply need to commit to the development of complete neighborhoods and communities that ensure access to food, healthcare, education and jobs — without relying on personal vehicles.

In the midst of this crisis, many are pointing to the outbreak of COVID-19 in urban centers such as New York City to support anti-density arguments. This sentiment is nothing new in the environmental community, much of which grew out of anti-development advocacy of the 1970s and '80s. But the world is a different place, and it’s time for the environmental community to push back on these arguments.

After all, compact and mixed-use neighborhoods — which can include medium or "gentle" density levels — are, by nature, resilient and energy efficient. Barring supply chain collapse, they far outperform suburban communities in their access to food and other critical needs during crises such as the one we are experiencing.

We simply need to commit to the development of neighborhoods and communities that ensure access to food, healthcare, education and jobs — without relying on personal vehicles.

Why then, do we continue to outlaw this resiliency in most of our cities?

American cities’ insistence on maintaining antiquated zoning and planning policies disconnects communities from economic opportunity, worsens public health and drives up emissions through increased automobile usage. Many may claim that Americans simply love their cars, but this overlooks the fact that we’ve essentially mandated car ownership through our policies and planning practices.

In fact, 75 percent of residential areas of cities are zoned for single-family detached homes effectively banning multifamily housing, as well as commercial spaces. The consequences of these policies have become painfully obvious in this crisis, as public transit service declines, businesses shutter and those less fortunate are essentially stranded in environments purposely designed to segregate uses and people.

Telecommuting and EVs

Many of us who are fortunate enough to work from home are acknowledging the potential for telecommuting, as traffic volumes plummet in cities around the world and air quality improves dramatically.

While there are some opportunities to reduce vehicle miles traveled via telework, they are limited by the number of jobs that require employees to be physically present, such as construction and hospitality, and the limited number of trips that commuting represents.

Similarly, a strategy to reduce transportation sector emissions using electric vehicles (EVs) alone will not deliver the needed reductions in time. Many in the environmental space discount the role of land use because they assume the electric vehicle market will grow quickly enough to offset our transportation emissions.

These people often reinforce their argument with the assumption that land use policies are too difficult to change and take too long to show impact. I intend to tackle that faulty assumption in a follow-up post, but in the meantime, let’s have a bit of a reality check on the impact of electric vehicles.

RMI recently analyzed scenarios for reducing the transportation sector’s carbon emissions by 55 percent by 2030 — a goal set forth by the IPCC’s call to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. We found that even if the United States were to sell over 50 million electric vehicles by 2030, it still needs to reduce vehicle miles traveled (VMT) by 30 percent. This analysis assumes a 39 percent year-over-year growth rate in the EV market moving forward.

We conducted this analysis before the outbreak of COVID-19, but we did consider a scenario in which EV sales lagged for four years — something akin to a recession — and found that the uptake of EVs would have to be 64 percent year-over-year, culminating in 19 million EVs sold in 2029. Before you get overly optimistic about the goal, keep in mind that the total current U.S. auto market is only 17 million cars, of all kinds, each year.

If we do nothing to improve the underlying issues in our land use and transportation policies, we likely will return to business as usual once the dust from this crisis settles.

Solutions going forward

Tackling the underlying causes of that vulnerability will improve health, equity and, of course, the climate. If we do nothing to improve the underlying issues in our land use and transportation policies, we likely will return to business as usual once the dust from this crisis settles. However, as we see reports of improved air quality and reduced vehicle miles traveled, we should ask ourselves how to effectively lock in these emissions reductions. To that end, here is a list of effective strategies that we can pursue today.

Take back the streets: Expand active transportation infrastructure

With transit ridership in free fall, bicycle ridership is surging in many cities. New York City’s CitiBike saw a 67 percent increase in ridership before strict self-isolation rules went into place. Mexico City is considering banning cars on key routes and replacing them with an expanded bicycle network.

If we are to believe that telecommuting will take hold for many people, why not complement that initiative by taking away land from automobiles and giving that space to pedestrians and cyclists? In addition to reducing emissions, we also should consider the public health benefits of making active transportation (walking and biking) easier and more convenient in these times of social distancing and isolation.

Provide public transit with dedicated right of way and funding for increased frequency

Despite the pressure this pandemic has put on public transit, it must and will remain a vital part of our cities. To ensure economic recovery, we need to provide convenient access to cost effective transportation. A little over a year ago, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York reported that 7 million Americans were over three months behind in car payments. How much will that number change this year, and how many of those will switch to public transit?

Public transit can play a critical role in substituting for the personal vehicle, but it must be given the spatial priority on our streets that it deserves. A bus that carries between 40 and 80 passengers during peak commute periods should not be stuck in general traffic behind single-passenger automobiles.

When given priority in the right-of-way, public transit performs very well. San Francisco’s Market Street and New York City’s 14th Street redesigns have both demonstrated success with increasing transit and non-automobile mode share by banning cars from key corridors and giving that space to buses, bikes and micro-mobility such as dockless scooters.

Since implementation, NYC’s 14th street has produced a 17-percent increase in bus ridership, while reducing travel times by 30 percent. Similarly, Market Street in San Francisco has produced a 20 percent increase in ridership, with a 12 percent reduction in travel times.

With the streets largely empty during this period of sheltering, now is a good time to paint bus only lanes in cities across America. Let’s make these changes as soon as possible, so that the driving public can ease into a new normal of transit priority.

We need a vision of transportation that does not stop at EVs and that is accessible for all.

Eradicate regulations that prevent diversity of land use

It’s time to for cities and states across this country to dispense with policies and complicated regulations that either outright prevent or make prohibitively difficult the development of anything other than single-family housing.

This is not just a matter of increasing housing supply, as Minneapolis and Portland recently have done. We must first enable and then outright encourage neighborhood-scale retail, grocers, healthcare and schools to provide households of all demographics and socio-economic levels access to very simple resources that they have been denied.

A parting note on upcoming stimulus packages and future climate bills

In the coming weeks, we likely will see another large stimulus package. As we saw in 2009, there will be significant efforts to include a variety of emerging technologies (such as advanced batteries) — as a means for job creation and skills training for the next generation.

These benefits can be real, but we need a vision of transportation that does not stop at EVs and that is accessible for all. We must ensure that we do not overlook simple, tried-and-true, back-to-basics approaches to providing Americans with cost-effective, low-carbon alternatives to personal vehicles.

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