The COVID recovery is coming. How will we get around?

It’s not often that you can feel a culture changing as it happens, rather than realizing it in retrospect. But as Seders, funerals, and happy hours move online, you can sense the growing comfort with doing it all on a screen. If these trends hold, traffic will shift from subways and bridges to fiber-optic cables. That won’t be enough to solve the country’s transportation problems, but even a small decline in commuters will mean fewer traffic jams, fewer idling engines, and less greenhouse gas emissions.

Unfortunately, it’s not just freeways that emptied. In the subway stations of every major U.S. city, the footfalls of lonely commuters echo. The crowds that surged through turnstiles, paying a few dollars at a time, are gone. In the San Francisco Bay Area, 90 percent of Bay Area Rapid Transit, or BART, riders were staying away through May.

Transit agencies rely on fares, so empty buses and trains destroy their budgets, pushing them deeper into the red with every passing month. BART, for example, lost about $700,000 a day at the fare gates during March alone. Like many transit agencies, BART gets more than half its money from fares. New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority, the country’s largest mass transit system, took in $61 million in fares in May, 88 percent less than what it had expected. “The dip in ridership is really killing transit,” Szczesna said.

Even though lockdowns are easing in many states, people aren’t exactly rushing back to buses and trains. They’re walking and getting back in their cars. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has asked employers to help workers commute by other means than public transit, such as driving.

Clayton Aldern / Grist

The MTA lashed back against the CDC’s guidance, claiming that transit was still the safest way to get around. “Our transit and bus system is cleaner and safer than it has been in history,” said Patrick J. Foye, chairman of the MTA. But any claims about safety depend on preventing people from crowding: So the MTA and every other major transit agency are asking nonessential workers to stay off trains and buses. And even when transit agencies tell riders it’s safe to come back, people might stay away. In China, as cities re-opened, more people started driving cars, and fewer rode transit.

In places like Phoenix, Arizona, which is just beginning to introduce transit to an otherwise car-centric system, the pandemic could kill those efforts, said Alcorn, the University of Texas grad student. Arizona has recently emerged as one of the country’s hot spots

But in big cities, people will eventually come back to transit to some degree, because there’s little choice. There’s just not enough room for everyone to have a car. “Where there’s tons of congestion you need transit,” Alcorn said. “In large cities, transit is the only way to get around, just geometrically speaking.”

The word “density,” in bold yellow capital letters, looked like a menacing warning light during one of New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s coronavirus briefings in early April. New York City, one of the most densely populated places in the country, has been the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the United States. After this pandemic, the word “density” will be shadowed by associations with disease and death for some. Some New Yorkers have already begun moving to suburbs. If that trend accelerates, new exurbs will take the place of woods and fields, and local politicians will likely feel pressure to expand freeways as a new crush of commuters battles their way to city centers for work.

The evidence, however, doesn’t support the conventional wisdom that density alone is dangerous. World Bank researchers analyzed the infection rate in 284 Chinese cities and found that those with lower population densities had the most disease. “[W]e can already say with confidence that density is not an enemy in the fight against the coronavirus,” the researchers wrote.

Of course, it’s true that a virus can most reliably spread in places where people are crowded together closely enough to breathe in each other’s respiratory droplets. If you can isolate yourself in a desert fastness or a mountain aerie, that’s a surefire way to keep yourself COVID-free.

As a result, there are big empty stretches of America with very few cases. But if you look at the maps showing infection rates across the country, it’s clear that rural areas aren’t protected. The sparsely populated Navajo Nation has more COVID-19 cases per capita than New York state. Perhaps it was a church meeting that triggered the spread there, combined with small, multigenerational homes, and a population that has to leave the house to work. There are also high infection rates in places like Cass County, Indiana, Lincoln County, Arkansas, and Lake County, Tennessee. All of these spots technically have low density, but they crowd people together in a few small homes, in meat-processing plants, or in prisons.

“For people who have the means, it’s easy to believe we’d be better off alone,” said Shoshanna Saxe, who studies sustainable infrastructure at the University of Toronto. “But the association is with poverty, not with density.”

Manhattan is New York City’s densest borough and home to nearly all of the city’s wealthiest neighborhoods. Despite its more than 65,000 people per square mile, the borough just happens to be the safest place to be in New York when it comes to the virus. Some of the world’s most populous cities have been heralded for how well they’ve handled outbreaks: Seoul, Hong Kong, and Singapore have shown that a stringent public health response can successfully quash the virus’s spread, Saxe said. In the absence of such a response, as in Manhattan, wealth can serve as a prophylactic, allowing people to stay home, telecommute, and simply have anything they need delivered.

In other words, the problem isn’t population density; it’s too many people forced to share the same space (what’s called internal density). A city can be safe if you are in a condominium, and a home in the rural countryside can be dangerous if you are crammed in with a dozen other slaughterhouse workers. Your risk of infection depends not on the number of people living close by, but on whether you can isolate yourself. That’s part of the reason why nursing homes were an early hot spot.

“Grocery stores in suburbs are very dense, a bar is dense, schools, and places of worship are dense,” said Costa Samaras, who studies transportation and energy at Carnegie Mellon University. “If density is a problem, then people gathering is a problem.”

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