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How The Pandemic Has Altered The Way We Get Around

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

One of the eeriest things a year ago was how cities went quiet, right? The pandemic suddenly and starkly changed the way we moved around. Roads emptied, and buses and train routes were canceled because there weren't enough riders. As part of our series on how the pandemic will affect our lives going forward, we asked you to tell us your story about how you traveled in cities over the past year. We begin with Darnell Jordan (ph) and Monica Martha Enho (ph), whom we met waiting for a bus in Washington, D.C.

DARNELL JORDAN: I mean, I only take it 'cause I have to. I don't have my own transportation at the moment. The main thing that changed was their scheduling and, you know, having to wear a mask on the bus at all times. Sometimes they pull off on you if the bus is too crowded and all that. So I mean, they done got a little more irritated than usual.

MONICA MARTHA ENHO: I have my home (unintelligible). I take the public transport to go to work because I don't have a car of my own. And the buses are so full, and sometimes I don't even want to get in. I do it because I have to. I have to go to work. I have my client. If I'm not there, she wouldn't be able to help herself.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Others called in to tell us about how the pandemic got them to try different ways of getting where they needed to go.

DAN LECOCO: As someone who doesn't see, I rely very heavily on public transportation, as well as walking using a mobility cane. As the pandemic came to be more of a reality, what I did find myself doing more and more was spending more time walking with my wife, and I had no need for my cane. As we get to the end of the pandemic, I realize that I've simply gotten out of practice using my cane, and I need to build those skills back so that I'll be equipped and ready to navigate the streets so that I can travel.

KATE BERNICK: I finally fulfilled my dream of buying a Vespa. So now I scoot around on my Vespa that I lovingly call Moira Rose. It just feels safer and more efficient than the subway these days.

WINDLEY HOFFLER WALDEN: So last spring during lockdown, I ordered a pair of quad skates, roller skates. Now, I'm 47, and I probably haven't roller skated in over 30 years. But after some pretty comic wobbling around, I got it back. OK. For some reason, I found I could skate backwards and turn in circles without much problem. But going forward was more of a challenge. Anyway, isn't that just the perfect metaphor for pandemic life?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Perfect metaphor indeed. That was Windley Hoffler Walden (ph), Kate Bernick (ph) and Dan Lecoco (ph). Will these new modes of transportation stick? And how do we make mass transit more equitable?

Gabe Klein, who ran the Chicago and Washington, D.C. transport departments and was an adviser on the Biden transition team on transportation, says the pandemic is an opportunity for real change.

GABE KLEIN: There's been a realization for a long time that we have very inequitable cities, and for that matter, we have inequitable transportation systems across this country. For higher-income people, they may spend 5- or 10%, maybe as high as 20% of their income on transportation. But for lower-income people, that can be 30% and, in some parts of D.C. where I live, up to 50% of their income.

And so when the Biden administration talks about building back better, you know, it's really about having an integrated system that looks holistically at people's health, at their job access - right? - at the emissions coming out. And so when we think about how to make the system work better for all Americans, we have a huge opportunity to align the outcomes that we really want with the investments that we need to make. And I think that we're realizing that transportation has an outsized impact on those outcomes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It does. But I think one of the things that was really interesting in this pandemic was that we saw roads emptying almost overnight. But car traffic is now back up, almost at pre-pandemic levels in some places. People say they will use the metro and buses less but still want their car. I mean, how do we avoid going from lockdown to gridlock?

KLEIN: Yeah. Well, there's a combination of things. I mean, I think post-pandemic, things will change back. It's reasonable for people to be nervous about getting on a packed bus or a train right now. But having said that, we have to make a shift. And one of the beneficiaries, by the way, has been walking and biking and taking scooter trips, for instance. But, like, of over 50 million trips in a single month in the 25 most congested cities, you know, 48% of those - of car trips are less than three miles in length. And so we have to also set policies locally that make it - and nationally - that make it more beneficial to the individual to take the trip that has a better societal income - outcome, excuse me - which also means a better outcome for them.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But transportation budgets were gutted when people stopped using public transport during the pandemic. I mean, how are we going to pay for more buses, new routes, better services, especially when we know that people who have less means, people of color are more likely to use public transport and not have the option of going on a car?

KLEIN: Yeah. Look. For decades, you know, we've been funding transportation based on this idea that the user pays for the infrastructure through the gas tax. But the gas tax hasn't changed since 1992, is never pegged to the Consumer Price Index. So we have to change the way we fund transportation. We need dedicated funding.

And the other thing is we've had this 80-20 split. So we spend 80% on highways and roads, a lot of it expansion, and then we spend 20% on transit, which is woefully inadequate. So we've got to think about the return on investment. And that means looking at the social cost benefit for our country, looking at health outcomes, looking at equity, looking at sustainability. So if we are able to do that well - and I think this administration will, and I think they do have the political will to do it - and they can get the votes, I think we will hopefully see a really great infrastructure bill that reallocates funds towards more sustainable mobility.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I mean, do you see city planners, state governments thinking about that already? - because, certainly, that has not been in evidence in some of the major metropolitan areas.

KLEIN: Well, I think city planners have been thinking about it for a long time. Now, whether we've been making the case in a way that people understand - all stakeholders, meaning the business community, our electeds - I don't know. It's very much apropos to, you know, people talking now about, should we have universal health care, right? Should college be free for people? Those are investments that we make for the long-term health and upward social mobility of our population.

I think what people are realizing is that upward social mobility is also tied to actual mobility and access to jobs and education. And so that type of investment by the federal government, the state government, the local government more equitably is going to pay huge dividends not just in our economic future, but in a future that sort of celebrates and honors all Americans.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Gabe Klein is co-founder of Cityfi and a former transportation director in Chicago and Washington.

Thank you very much.

KLEIN: Thank you, Lulu. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.