Post-COVID-19 world offers opportunity for future of transportation

This column published as "Building 21st Century Mobility" in July/August 2020 issue

Shailen Bhatt / July 15, 2020 / 3 minute read
Shailen Bhatt

A big part of my job used to be traveling across the country and around the world, predicting what the future of transportation would look like. The coronavirus pandemic, along with all the ripple effects stemming from it, have made that task more challenging, to say the least.

There is a future I would like to see, and there is a future I worry about seeing. At ITS America, our goal is to bring about the future we have been working hard to create without experiencing the negative outcomes we are concerned about.

Take transit, for example. In the absence of a widely available vaccine, the issues preventing us from gathering in large numbers will also cause concern for those considering using public transit. The first question is safety. Many ITS America members are using enhanced cleaning protocols in addition to maintaining social distancing on platforms and using contactless payment and seat reservations where possible to enhance passenger safety. Many countries affected by COVID-19, including South Korea and Singapore, are safely using transit. We should determine what they are doing and see if it will work in the U.S. 

As Americans, we often talk about freedom. What I have learned throughout my work in transportation is that mobility—the ability to move from place to place—is central to freedom. We often take for granted the ability to get in a car or jump on a train, bus, or bicycle to get to work, to the grocery store, to medical appointments, to see family and friends. As we recover from COVID-19, we must recognize that transit and new mobility options are critical for those who cannot afford to own a car—this is why we must solve the issue of making these options safe for all. And not just safe—they must also be affordable. Transit struggled with farebox recovery even when running at peak efficiency, well before the pandemic hit. In other words, we cannot focus on the price without understanding the cost. The cost of an America without robust transit and mobility options is too high, because a large segment of our population will not be able to access freedom. We know too well what happens when we do not allow all Americans to fully participate in our system.

We have an opportunity to help shape what our future communities will look like by making smart investment choices that can have a positive impact on mobility and commuting patterns. For starters, we need a surface transportation reauthorization bill that allows us to invest in all modes of transportation.

For many Americans, a defining characteristic of the 20th century was the construction of the interstate system. It was far from perfect, and it created negative impacts on many urban neighborhoods; it also opened up an unrivaled century of prosperity that connected people across the country to jobs and services in a way that could not have previously been imagined. Now, in the 21st century, we must invest in transit and other forms of mobility. While the last century was about moving cars, this century is about moving people, data, and freight.

We are all talking about the new normal and what life will be like when we emerge from this pandemic. Whatever that is, it must not include the negative outcomes that defined the pre-COVID-19 America: 37,000 roadway fatalities each year, 100 or more hours a year sitting in traffic congestion, lack of access for all users of the system—which translates to a lack of equity—and the transportation sector being responsible for 28% of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions.

We now have a unique opportunity to make great strides toward ITS America’s vision: a better future transformed by intelligent mobility—one that is safer, greener, and smarter.

About the Author

Bhatt is President and CEO at Intelligent Transportation Society of America (ITS America).

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