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Plans in the Time of COVID

"The secret of good old-age is none other than an honest pact with solitude."

- Gabriel Garcia Marquez, author, One Hundred Years of Solitude



Dancing in Times Square (REUTERS/Andrew Kelly)

People are writing a lot about the COVID-19 coronavirus now, even as the global pandemic has shaken beliefs in ourselves, our institutions, and our ability to control nature to suit us. The likely truth is that no one really understands just how deep or broad the changes taking place now are likely to be going forward. However, that simple fact has never stopped people from trying to predict the future. Here is another attempt, at least as it pertains to economic stability, transportation, land use, and sustainability.


Transportation Finance. If there is one and only one thing that is certain, it is that the pandemic has highlighted the softness of our chief financing mechanism for transportation projects: the venerable fuel tax. Nearly nine decades after its inaugural run in 1932, the gas tax made sense in an era when average fuel consumption was a lot higher. For years, the real value of this revenue source has been in decline, and relaxing the CAFE (corporate average fuel economy) standard isn't the answer but the continuation of another problem related to this pandemic: global climate change. However, it should also be obvious that congestion pricing, if it had been broadly implemented before the pandemic, would have been equally stricken as vehicle miles of travel (VMT) on roadways have also plummeted. It may be possible that we are witnessing the first great push toward a future that doesn't involve personal cars and high degrees of long-distance mobility. We had been talking about remote meetings taking over for in-person meetings for over 15 years - but now we know that we can do it and work even more efficiently in many professions.


Economics: Still a Dismal Science. Politicians at the federal level are fond of doing things for the working middle class, even though that class has been shrinking as real wages have stayed stagnant. At first glance, COVID did what decades of policy couldn't do: it raised average real wages by about 7% in the U.S. But a slightly closer look reveals an uglier truth: many of those who have found themselves unemployed or reduced in hours are disproportionately poorer and worked in lower-wage jobs. Their departure had the effect of raising the average wage. Mobility for many of these people in their own private cars no longer makes any sense, and it seems likely that shared-ride and other mobility services are going to gain traction, beginning in urban and fringe urban areas. For higher-wage workers, telework is going to happen more often. Public transportation has taken a huge rider and revenue hit, on top of steadily declines for several years pre-COVID. Expect attention to be paid a lot more often to fewer, premium transit services and more innovations getting people to their nearest stop / station. I don't even like to think about what is going to happen to air travel, but I would expect to see further consolidation of carriers initially, perhaps followed by more regional carriers later on.


What Probably Won't Change - Unless Pandemics Become More Commonplace. Climate change is inextricably linked to this pandemic, as generally warming temperatures have fostered better breeding grounds for communicable disease. I wouldn't expect to see nations that aren't already aggressively pursuing carbon and methane reduction strategies to suddenly see the light, however. Most agencies are trying to figure out how to return to their normal, pre-COVID practices as fast as they can, more worried about trade-offs between profits and secondary waves of infection than long-term, structural changes. The surge in bicycle lanes and pedestrian activity has been great to see, and a silver lining for people like me that prefer cleaner air and a healthier population. But as car travel increases again on roadways, it's likely that cyclists and pedestrians will start to decrease (in most places), along with facilities for carrying them safely. That being said, if / when we see a resurgence in this or another coronavirus in the fall of 2020 or in subsequent years, what's being viewed as a "one-off" occurrence will be worked into the warp and woof of the economy. Shorter, simpler supply chains that are less vulnerable to global disruption is one possible outcome - shop local is going to take more of a priority, and that may open some opportunities for local makers, distributors, and farmers. Not a bad thing, but probably translating into some higher prices for consumers.

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