EXPERTS AND THOUGHT LEADERS across the globe are putting a lot of thought into the urban response to COVID-19, and particularly the best approaches to steer our cities and metropolitan areas toward recovery. Recovery has multiple meanings in this context: personal health and well-being, economic recovery, and confidence recovery. Achieving a “new normal” will be gradual, incremental, and by necessity experimental as we choose among an array of options to fashion the best future for ourselves and generations to come.
If ever there was a time for creativity and redirection, it is now. Certainly public officials cannot act recklessly, but they must act with determination to move beyond the legacy mobility systems and infrastructure that have proven to be unsustainable and non-resilient. Before COVID, resilience was thought about mostly in connection with the effects of climate change, the rising sea levels, and unusual temperature and weather conditions that have increased in severity and unpredictability. We now know that resilience also relates to vulnerability to disease. Exposure to particulate matter has been shown to increase COVID mortality rates by 15 percent. Compromised lung and cardiovascular systems make people more vulnerable to getting sick more easily and more seriously. The quality of the air we breathe is not a luxury to be granted to the privileged few who can escape to the countryside – it a fundamental right, a moral and economic imperative.
The transportation sector must lead in the effort to plan for and implement a new normal that provides us meaningful access to jobs and health care and opportunity in a way that does not make us more vulnerable to disease. There are short- and long- term implications to this. In the short term it means massively transforming service delivery to respond to current and emerging needs as safely as possible. In the long term it means transforming current equipment to cleaner, all-electric systems and providing a network of transit and rail connectivity with substantially more frequent, all-day service and with convenient connections where appropriate to safe cycling lanes and walkable neighborhood environments (what’s being called “15-minute” neighborhoods that contain key daily or weekly destinations within easy 15-minute walking distance).
Transforming the public realm is one good way to begin. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh appears to be moving in the right direction, according to recent news reports, and he (and other municipal leaders in the inner core) should be encouraged to move ahead with a redesign and reuse of key streetscapes at this critical time. I have previously called for the creation of recovery corridors that would provide more space for pedestrians and safe, protected cycling lanes and dedicated bus lanes. This approach to key streetscapes can help revitalize small business and increase confidence that we can restore urban density without crowding.
While the city is making progress advancing new ideas, the MBTA is taking a decidedly tentative approach. I am reluctant to be critical of those in public service who are facing the thankless and often exhausting task of managing large systems in a time of crisis. It is not easy to lead our public transportation system in “normal” times; in times when the health of every employee and rider is potentially at risk, the challenge is enormous. Understanding and respecting that burden does not mean that advocates stop our work. Rather, these times require us to be more thoughtful and persistent as we advance a framework for urban recovery that meets the demands of the 21st Century. For me that means a framework that supports building a healthier, more inclusive, and sustainable platform for growth.
It remains disappointing that the MBTA has not established a protocol for limiting riders on buses and train cars. Other systems (notably the Chicago Transit Authority) are doing this. For riders taking bus routes like the 28, the SL5, and the 111 (to name but a few), limiting passengers per bus (and requiring them to wear masks) would go a long way toward reducing transmission risk.
A recent study of viral transmission in Seoul, South Korea, and a report from the American Society for Microbiology indicate that touching surfaces is not nearly as significant a factor as unprotected (no mask) proximity over prolonged periods of time in close quarters. These studies are consistent with observational evidence that the worst outbreaks in Greater Boston are happening in places where people are living in close quarters (whether in congregate facilities or multiple-person housing) and/or working in COVID-essential services (e.g. health and home care). For most of these people, isolation is not a possibility, and age, familial, and socio-economic conditions place them at a higher level of risk.
COVID-19 may be blind to race, age, or income status, but its impacts are felt more keenly and severely by those who are historically disadvantaged. Unprotected (i.e. no face covering) proximity over an extended period of time (10-plus minutes) is emerging as the largest factor in viral transmission. The MBTA can lower the risk by enforcing the governor’s face-covering order and per passenger limitations on buses and train cars during an initial recovery period. In a Commonwealth article on May 4, I called for a T rider mask requirement and a 10-person per bus limit. In a thoughtful study released this week, A Better City provides a more thorough, data-based set of recommendations regarding passenger capacity across the system.
It also remains disappointing that the MBTA has not established a mechanism to enforce the governor’s policy that all riders wear masks or facial coverings. I understand how challenging it will be to enforce this but, to quote King Lear, “nothing will come of nothing.” What we need at this time is a radical rethink of how we deliver service.
In the same spirit that Franklin Delano Roosevelt approached the great economic crisis of his time, our leaders need to embrace “persistent experimentation.” Roosevelt reminded us that “it is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.” For example, every commuter rail train may need to have a “no mask” car – if you want to ride without a face covering, you have to use that car. Ultimately, the T should be exploring, perhaps with the help of a charitable foundation, the possibility of providing free face coverings at bus stops and subway stations to all passengers who do not have them. That will make it easier to enforce a “no mask, no entry” rule.
I doubt that the T is any more or less safe than any other public environment, including grocery stores and offices. In many ways it may be safer as, by definition, people do not remain on the T for extended periods of time. What the T lacks is not actual safety but perceived safety. Years of disinvestment and unreliability have eroded public confidence in the T to the point that it must take extraordinary measures to assure the public that it is taking every reasonable precaution to protect their health. That may be unfair, but it is a factor in the recovery that needs to be acknowledged and dealt with. You cannot build confidence if you take the view that you are unable or unwilling to enforce passenger limits per bus or train, or the wearing of face protection. These requirements may not be necessary for a long period of time, but they will be needed to build confidence in the short-mid term.
I am glad that T leaders have called for the roll out of more dedicated bus lanes, as one way to help increase bus frequency, and I hope that municipal leaders will take steps to put these in place as quickly as possible. The T has also appropriately stepped up sanitization protocols, although these also could be increased to match some of the best practices we see in places like Taipei. There needs to be more frequent, highly visible cleaning, preferably at the completion of every bus or train route. That means several times daily.
Of course riders themselves are not off the hook. Everyone must cooperate and wear a face protection (preferably a mask of some sort). Everyone must do their best to distance. Everyone must refrain from using the T or any other environment if they are sick. These are common sense requirements, but we must follow them to the best of our ability. Just like we must be able to trust the T to do its, job, we need to trust one another to do our part.
Ultimately, we look to leaders, whether in the public or private sectors, not just to guide us but to inspire us with a clear and realistically optimistic and achievable vision of a better future, and a thoughtful plan for how to get there. To quote FDR again, “We need enthusiasm, imagination, and the ability to face facts, even unpleasant ones, bravely.” Timidity, or retreat to the comfort of the status quo ante – those pathways of avoidance won’t help advance the effort to achieve a “new normal” in which everyone can share in the benefits.
James Aloisi is a former secretary of transportation and a member of the TransitMatters board.