The COVID-19 pandemic has reshaped much of modern life — but perhaps no economic sector has been impacted more than transportation.
Automobile traffic volumes plummeted as the pandemic hit, with car crashes declining along with them and people around the world taking photos of the unusually clear skies. Amtrak has also seen declines in passenger volumes of more than 90 percent, and passenger numbers on US airlines fell more than 96 percent year-over-year in mid-April. And while some in the industry hope people will quickly hop back on planes by the end of the year and the global tourism industry will return to normal, the data we have suggests that’s very unlikely.
Naturally, people are beginning to wonder what a post-pandemic transportation system will look like, and that will play out on two levels: what will happen within cities, and how people will move between them. The debate over whether the automobile will return to its throne or will finally get displaced by bikes and transit is ongoing, but in this piece, I’ll address the latter question: With air travel effectively halted, where do we go from here?
It’s essential that the Left seize this opportunity to push for an intercity transportation system that centers collective solutions, environmental sustainability, and equity. That means challenging the dominance of automobiles and airlines, and ensuring the government plays an effective role in planning a network that meets those goals.
Airlines Aren’t Going Back to Normal
People already hate flying. Between having to get to an airport located on the outskirts of the city, having to be there far in advance of your flight to ensure you have enough time for the post-9/11 security theater, then having to cram into a metal tube with little personal space for several hours, that should come as no surprise. But there are often few alternatives, and in a post-pandemic world, that will get even worse.
US airlines are already fighting plans for social distancing in airports and on planes, including the requirement to keep middle seats empty, but reports suggest there will be temperature screenings and requirements to wear masks. Passengers may need to carry proof they do not have COVID-19, and if they want to use the toilet while on a plane, they may have to raise their hand and wait for permission from the flight attendant. Seating configurations could even be changed to place plexiglass between seats and reverse the middle seat.
Christopher Schaberg, author of The End of Airports, has suggested that in the worst case scenario, first-class cabins could allow for proper social distancing, while economy passengers would be crammed together in the back, crossing their fingers they don’t get infected. It’s clear that can’t be allowed to happen, and the government must step in to ensure that’s the case.
The pandemic will fundamentally alter the business model of air travel. With lower passenger volumes, airlines will not be able to generate adequate revenue if flights return to pre-pandemic levels without the passengers to fill them. In the United States, airlines have talked to the Transportation Department about consolidating routes to allow multiple airlines to sell tickets for a single flight, but we need to remember that the government used to play a much greater role in regulating air travel.
Before 1978, government officials set airline ticket prices in the United States, requiring them to cover the actual cost of running the airline. That meant prices were higher than they are today, when adjusted for inflation, but ensured direct flights to smaller regional airports. After deregulation, there was significant consolidation in the industry, and the new airline giants focused on flying out of a central hub rather than connecting smaller cities. Airlines were also given the power to set their own prices, but lower ticket prices made it much more difficult to cover the cost of the flight. In many cases, especially at budget airlines, that means ticket sales no longer cover the actual cost of running the airline, requiring them to squeeze more passengers in cabins and adopt an “à la carte” pricing model charging ever-higher fees to make up the difference.
In a post-pandemic world, the government must take a more active role in planning and regulating the transportation system, but it cannot simply try to scale up air travel to pre-pandemic levels. The focus must be reversed, with expanded rail and intercity bus options being the core of the system, and air travel filling in the gaps where those options cannot provide adequate service.
Trains Are the Future
With few people moving in the ways they used to, we now face a rare opportunity to choose how we scale back up, and with the economy facing a depression worse than in the 1930s, the economic stimulus measures taken to put people back to work will determine what our lives look like in the coming decades.
When it comes to transportation, the focus must be on rail. For decades, rail has largely been ignored in favor of new roads and highways, with cars or planes handling long-distance trips. That cannot continue.
Instead, we need a massive reinvestment in rail. One of the signature aspects of a post-pandemic recovery plan must be a nationwide high-speed rail network, making it both easier and more attractive for people to take trains instead of alternatives. High-speed rail is already competitive on a growing number of routes worldwide, and potential fears about infections and fatigue with the hassle of air travel could make it even more attractive to more passengers. California has already started on its own high-speed rail line, and despite running into some issues from a lack of dependable funding and overreliance on consultants, it’s created more than four thousand good jobs in the Central Valley.
But the focus can’t simply be on rail without having a comprehensive, systemic approach. Air France is cutting 40 percent of domestic flights and will not operate on any routes where a train trip is less than two-and-a-half hours because of bailout conditions set by the French government. But it would be much more efficient to take the airlines into public ownership as Italy did with Alitalia and plan them as part of a larger transportation system, winding down service as better, more frequent rail connections are completed.
Trains and planes alone will also not effectively serve everyone’s transportation needs. There will be areas of the country where delivering rail service simply won’t be effective. To fill those gaps and ensure people still have quality intercity transportation options that connect into the larger system, a public bus service should be established with community input on schedules and destinations so it meets their needs.
The best way to ensure the entire system serves the public good instead of profit motives or the electoral considerations of politicians is to have it publicly owned, with democratic inputs from the public. Taking control of our transportation system can be the first step in a larger rethinking of how we structure the economy.
Planning for Better Mobility
Everyone deserves the right to mobility, and access to it should not be mediated based on ability to pay. For the past century, there has been a greater emphasis placed on individualized transportation instead of collective forms of mobility. Billionaires like Elon Musk, a car salesman himself, are trying to maintain that individual focus, but it’s clear that’s failed.
In order to truly address environmental and equity concerns in transportation, we need to shift the emphasis from cars and planes to prioritizing investment in rail and bus services. Meeting those goals will also require those systems to be liberated from the market, with control placed in the hands of the public.
We can build a better transportation system, but that requires being clear on what matters. And when it comes to connecting people with their families and friends, with entertainment and community activities, and with work and other opportunities, it’s clear that turning a profit should be our last priority.