A brave new road: how transportation might look post-pandemic

If you live in a city, the way we used to get around--at least before March--has changed dramatically. Public transit use is way down. You can't buy a bicycle for demand. People who previously took the bus or ridesharing services have gone back to the safe isolation of their car. Of course, that's if they have a car, or live close enough to their work to ride a bike. For many, public transit is the only option. So how will urban transportation look after the pandemic?

With more people on bikes and fewer on buses, how can cities adapt?

Bikes are sprouting everywhere as an efficient form of transportation during the pandemic. (Adam Killick)
Listen to the full episode53:59

The Covid-19 pandemic has changed the way many of us live our lives, from work to social activities to personal hygiene.

One of the ways it's made a very significant impact — especially if we live in a city — is in how we get around. Sales of bikes in May in some cities may be up 700 per cent over a year ago, according to some estimates. People who have to commute are turning to two wheels in droves. And still others are seeking the relative isolation and safety of their cars — if they have one.

But public transit is suffering. "We've seen a reduction in ridership of 80 to 90 per cent within a matter of weeks," said David Cooper, a transportation consultant who has worked with transit systems in Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver over the years.

"One of the challenges with transit is that it's been deemed an essential service, and has been functioning as such through the entire pandemic. But there is a mismatch between the amount of capacity that's being offered and the ridership that's using the service," he told Spark host Nora Young.
David Cooper (

This has caused some city mayors to publicly consider parking their fleets of buses because transit systems are losing millions of dollars daily.

And municipalities have been fast-tracking other projects, like building more and safer bike lane networks, at unprecedented speeds to ensure that people — especially commuters — can get where they have to go, Cooper said.

"There's a lot of projects that are actually advancing much more quickly than we've ever seen especially with pedestrian and cycling facilities."

But where does this leave public transit? Many people can't afford cars, and live in areas too far to commute by bicycle.

Cooper said with reduced capacities on buses, it's going to be important that routes and the number of buses available can adapt quickly to commuter needs.

He also said that employers may have to consider changing the way the workweek operates, so that employees may work staggered hours to avoid the typical morning and evening transit congestion. This will be especially true if people resume using cars to commute.

"We don't have additional road space that we can provide to additional cars," he said. "We have a lot of areas of Canadian cities that are quite constrained and congested, and so our ability to add more vehicles to the streets is very constrained. The onus is really on the governments and public transit to show that it's still a very efficient and viable means."

Cars, and how we use them, is the subject of a new book by Matthew Crawford, called Why We Drive: Toward a Philosophy of the Open Road

For Crawford, who is a mechanic and also a senior fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia, automobiles and the act of driving have long represented our human capacity for spiritedness and independent judgment.
(Harper Collins)

He said cars create an interesting relationship between people, especially in these times.

"Obviously we are isolated from one another in our cars. But of course, you know the road is a shared space. And so there's a kind of interesting hybrid quality to it. We're both very insulated from others in our private property. And yet having to figure out how to cooperate in the shared space of the road," he told Nora.

Our love affair with cars comes from the "joy of movement," he believes. And while there is joy in movement in everything from walking to riding a bicycle to propelling a skateboard, driving holds a special place.

"You feel it almost like it's just your body that's going that fast," he said.

But there is also a psychology to driving that's unique, he said. And that leads to both intense pleasure and road rage.

"I think it's  just inherent in the fact that we're driving sort of nose-to-tail and you can't really see the other person's expression in where their attention is directed. It means we have this interpretive problem for how to interpret another person's actions on the road."
Matthew Crawford (Jean-Jacques Santucci)

As they've evolved, cars have become increasingly designed to isolate us from the external world, he said, noting that a typical SUV might weigh three times what cars did several decades ago. 

Along with the change in size has come a "deskilling" in the level of ability required to drive and navigate, he said. This creates a kind of vicious circle: as cars become more automated, the amount of skill required to use them decreases, and the decreased skill then requires more automation. "So the initial premise that we are incompetent tends to be self-fulfilling."

Many of the newer features in cars that reduce the skill required to operate are implemented in the name of safety, but that isn't always the case, he argues, a phenomenon Crawford calls "safety-ism."

"I think that, that moral sensibility of being very averse to risk makes us more susceptible to safety claims which are not always that sincere."

He cites speed limits in the U.S. as an example, where speed limits are supposed to correspond to the width of car lanes. "On the George Washington Parkway in Washington D.C., The lanes are built to the 55 mile-an-hour standard. But the posted speed limit is 45 miles an hour. And so this is a notorious speed trap." Crawford argues this is a way of exploiting the way our driving speed naturally corresponds to the width of the road.

He also suggests that Google's push toward self-driving cars isn't just about safety. "You have to ask, why is Google getting into cars? Well, what is Google? It is the world's largest advertising firm. And the idea [for Google] of having a captive audience in a car or strapped into a device I think is very appealing."