Commuting in the pandemic for many meant ditching public transportation for driving or other modes, if they weren’t working from home.
For Zabe Bent, director of design at the National Association of City Transportation Officials, this gives municipalities the opportunity to reassess their transportation systems. When she thinks What the Future, she’s thinking about ways to remove barriers keeping cities from doing the things they always wanted to do or known they should do.
Kate MacArthur: As people go back to offices and some sort of hybrid commuting mode, how are you thinking about what that means for transportation services?
Zabe Bent: The daytime commuters, the office commuters, that’s really only 20% of trips. A lot of our transportation systems are based on this type of pattern. And one of the things that we saw during the pandemic is those were not the people who were continuing to travel during the pandemic and certainly not traveling during the peak hour.
We need going forward to focus on the people who actually need to travel, the times of day that they need to travel, where they’re going to, and which of those trips need to be bike-based, pedestrian-based and which of those trips should be on transit.
MacArthur: We’re also seeing in our research at least a quarter of the people who expect their commute to change expect to drive more.
Bent: People make decisions based on the options that are placed in front of them. A lot of our options right now tend to be focused on driving for a whole host of reasons. We invest more in driving or driving during the peak, and I think we need to make sure that people can walk their trip, whether it’s going to have lunch at a nearby restaurant or getting on transit to go to a hospital or work or school. And those won’t be real options for people until we invest in them.
MacArthur: When we asked people about what was easy for them to walk to, and what they actually walk to, the number dropped by almost half.
Bent: Available doesn’t mean attractive. If any portion of that trip is unavailable or unattractive, it’s going to impact the rest of your trip. We have to invest in these options and make them as good or better than driving.
MacArthur: The American culture is very car-oriented, so that seems to be very entrenched behavior.
Bent: We think that it is entrenched because it has been this way all along. But if you look at pictures of, say, Amsterdam from 30 years ago or more, you see a lot of cars. They decided to move toward investment in these other options. The question is, are we actually going to take that leap of faith and say we can live differently and live well? We haven’t really done enough of that here.
MacArthur: Through this pandemic we saw sidewalks being pushed out for dining and closed streets. Are you hearing from communities about how much these changes will stick going forward?
Bent: Yeah and the decision about what sticks and what doesn’t and where has to be made at a local level. We’re already seeing some cities saying, “We are going to make open streets permanent, or we’re going to make these types of open streets permanent.” I think open streets can and should be a starting place. Essentially, this is a way to reclaim public space and to decide what’s the best way to use it. In some cases, that might be outdoor learning. In other cases it might be a mobility hub or a community space.
MacArthur: There is a move toward electric, semi-autonomous and at some point, autonomous cars. Where do those fit in how you’re thinking about transit hubs and city planning?
Bent: In my mind, a car is a car. The things you do with and in that car should make sense within the system. We should figure out options for making it shared versus privately owned. How do we make it equitable so everyone has access to these different needs as we think about how they would fit into a system with open streets or shared streets? What does car culture mean for the disabled community? We have to understand what it means person by person, either by mode, demographic group, racial group, all of those things.
MacArthur: If we’re going to a hybrid commute model, how do you plan for that for the long-term?
Bent: We look at what the feedback is from people, what their concerns are, how that matches to different times of day, different commute patterns that we’re seeing and trends that we’re seeing and try to solve for them. And to make sure that we are actually being proactive about that so that we’re not recreating the mistakes, quite honestly, of the past.
MacArthur: Can you give an example?
Bent: What are the policies that need to be in place today that are really different from what we had before? Our commuter benefits really favor drivers. Transit can be expensive in some cities, and it should really reflect how much it costs to travel. Full stop. We should also be thinking about how people are traveling or not traveling today. Can Wi-Fi access for working from home be counted as a commuter or a work benefit? Should we change the metrics so that it’s not just about congestion relief, but are we improving someone’s accessibility or improving people’s safety and mobility right now?
MacArthur: What else is important?
Bent: We have learned during the pandemic that the office worker is the most flexible worker. But if the pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that we need to focus on the most vulnerable users. And if [the pandemic] hasn’t taught us that, then we have not been paying attention.