Massachusetts is entering one of the toughest stretches of the coronavirus pandemic, but already some are laying the groundwork for what our new, post-virus “normal will look like.” 

It’s critical they don’t repeat the mistakes of the past. 

As the virus hit, Massachusetts’ leaders were poised to endorse one of the biggest transformations in our state’s recent history, a plan to funnel hundreds of millions of dollars towards transit upgrades like a fast, frequent, electrified regional rail system and bus rapid transit.  

The move would have, at a stroke, helped to cure our deadly congestion problems, taken a big bite out of our carbon emissions, helped ease the demand for homes in Boston’s core and brought more equity to our society. 

Unfortunately, amid what’s sure to be a painful recession of uncertain duration, it’s likely those plans could get put on the back burner for at least a year. Worse, they could be watered down or even shelved if our political and business leaders misread the lessons of this pandemic amid a search for economic stimulus projects. 

Taking Chinese consumer behavior as a potential guide, Massachusetts could see a significant uptick in demand for Uber rides and new private cars as it emerges from the pandemic. Such a response is understandable, if not unavoidable. Compared to crowded, not-nearly-frequent-enough public transit, a private car feels like a much more controlled and controllable environment. 

If, as a commonwealth, we take this knee-jerk response as the harbinger of a dramatic reordering of trends from the last 20 years, we will be setting ourselves up for failure. Our region simply does not have the space to physically handle or park large volumes of single-occupancy passenger vehicle traffic, as the last five years have shown. Furthermore, with electric car charging infrastructure in its infancy in Massachusetts, a shift away from public transit by default means a shift towards the production of more greenhouse gases. 

The good news is mass transit and a pedestrian-first mindset are in fact well-suited to helping us adapt to a post-pandemic reality. Temporary bus rapid transit lanes – which can easily be made permanent, if successful – can immediately help reduce the number of riders per bus by increasing throughput. The same updates and improvements required to deal with traffic congestion and climate change over the long term will also be able to provide transportation with less crowding. Adapting our streets and buildings to make walking and biking a safer and more pleasant alternative to some driving trips, too, will serve that need for more elbow room. 

No matter how much remote working increases post-pandemic, the physical constraints of our roadways and our need to abandon fossil fuels will not change. As we work for craft a better future, we cannot abandon the tools we need to get us there. 

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A Post-COVID-19 World Needs Better Transit

by Banker & Tradesman time to read: 2 min