COVID Didn’t Close Roads. Why Is So Much Transit Still Shut Down?

In DC for graduation at American University, I spent a long weekend roaming the city– not in a car. There were buses, red lines, green lines, and even Limes, Birds, Spins. Scooters aplenty, and even new mopeds from Lime and more. Micromobility est arrivé! Oh, and that whole pair of feet thing. The ubiquitous, definitive, classic New Balance 990, a Nat Zorach original. So, bike lanes, bus lanes, car lanes, and cars that yield to freaking pedestrians in the crosswalk. I’m looking at you, Michigan! It’s really nice being in a place where things work, at least kind of. What was really weird, though, was how much transit is still sort of in limbo thanks to COVID and the effects on ridership. I found this to be true with Amtrak as well as WMATA.

Rebooting The Aeroplane

COVID wrecked the American airline industry in March 2020. But, as these things usually go, it was the US government to the rescue. And by summer, a lot of carriers were returning to full capacity.

Rebooting The Train

Okay, so, planes are flying! What’s next? Amtrak isn’t even operating at a full schedule. This made returning from the East Coast to the Motor City somewhat challenging. Enterprise wanted to charge a preposterous $300 for a one-way car rental.

Rebooting The… Signs?

Alarmingly for someone mulling potential relocation to the nation’s capital or nearby, WMATA’s quite frustratingly not a late night kind of thing. You can’t get the 4am train because there isn’t one. In DC and out late? Deal with it! Or, you know, sleep at your Senator’s house. Maybe the boys will let you crash with them. My last late night experience in DC– like 4am late- involved leaving my phone in a Lyft while ▇▇▇▇▇▇. (By the way, Martin, you saved my phone and saved my life. Kudos, man. POCACITO was some wild times). 

Oh, and one more thing! The wayfinding in the DC Metro– as in many other US transit systems- is pretty abysmal. (This, of course, has nothing to do with COVID and transit, but it’s something that certainly isn’t getting any better). You want to mention that one direction is “downtown D.C.” in tiny print? Like, a parenthetical aside? Is a tourist really going tohave any idea where Shady Grove or Greenbelt are? Given how ridiculous most suburb names are, I guess it’s possible that people might guess that “U Street” is more likely “urban” than some place name like Tree Lane or Fern Gully or what the hell ever.

COVID safety on transit

One reader asked me about COVID safety on transit, something we talked about early in the pandemic. I found a study from MIT that looked at this in depth. COVID transmissions rates on transit are surprisingly low for a fairly simple reason: on transit, you’re sort of doing your own thing. You’re low-energy, you’re seated, and you’re not generally talking. Combine that with a mask and the probability of getting COVID on a train is fairly low. Amtrak, planes, and city buses all operate a bit differently in this regard. But it seems like maybe it’s worth considering full restoration of fixed-route service? And then some?

Anyway. As we’re getting back to normal and thinking about this whole infrastructure package, maybe let’s think about how transit can keep running all the time? Just spitballing here, but the cars start coming and they don’t stop coming, to borrow a phrase from Smash Mouth (it’s late as I’m writing this, give me a break, ok?!). Why not the trains, too? I know, we’ll get there. In the meantime, don’t let COVID deter you from transit. Just be safe. And explore your local fixed-route network!

Nat M. Zorach

Nat M. Zorach, AICP, MBA, is a city planner and energy professional based in Detroit, where he writes about infrastructure, sustainability, tech, and more. A native of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, he attended Grinnell College in Iowa, the Kogod School of Business at American University, the POCACITO transatlantic program, the SISE program at the University of Illinois Chicago, and he is also a StartingBloc Social Innovation Fellow. He enjoys long walks through historic, disinvested Rust Belt neighborhoods at sunset. (Nat's views and opinions are his own and do not represent those of his employer).

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