Policymakers Discuss Planning for the Future of Transportation

August 24, 2020 by Kate Michael
The approach to the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge in New York. (Photo by Dan McCue)

WASHINGTON — News website Axios convened a panel of local and national policymakers to discuss the future of transportation in the wake of COVID-19 including how decision-makers are retooling public transit to be safe and sustainable.

“When I think about the top five issues the country is facing at the moment … [the list] includes the future of transportation,” said Rep. G. K. Butterfield, D-N.C. “The American people must be able to be mobile… in a safe, efficient, and quick way.”

Support for climate-friendly transportation options typically has taken the form of public transportation infrastructure, but mass transit is less appealing — or downright unsafe — during a national health crisis. 

Over the last few months, hospital staff, grocery and pharmacy employees, and other essential workers have rebuffed metro systems, favoring rideshare or even seeking safe haven by driving alone. But environmentalists argue that increasing the number of individual vehicles on the road isn’t an acceptable trade-off: emissions and air pollution create dire health concerns that will linger long after the pandemic. 

To plan for the future of transportation, planners and policymakers are rethinking the way Americans get around, attempting to adapt their mindset to the 21st Century.

“We face real risks associated with what we’re used to… mass transit,” said Hoboken Mayor Ravinder Bhalla. “Hoboken is … densely populated, [so] mobility and transportation are critical. We were already thinking about these issues pre-COVID-19, so we tested e-scooters, bike share…” and other innovative ways to provide a future less reliant on both personal vehicles and mass transit.

While the coronavirus pandemic disrupted some of these initiatives, Bhalla insists that city officials are still concentrating on ways to continue building for a sustainable future while managing the shifting realities of the moment.

While he says e-scooters were “polarizing,” Hoboken has responded well to “beef[ing] up the bike portion” of a plan to find environmentally friendly alternatives to driving. About a year ago, in August 2019, Hoboken launched a Vision Zero plan, an attempt to eliminate all traffic-related injuries and deaths by 2030. To ensure the success of that campaign, the city began to dedicate a system of bike lanes. According to Bhalla, 40% of Hoboken streets now have bike lanes. 

And alternative mobility options are welcomed, including autonomous vehicles. 

“I was in Silicon Valley in February and was introduced to Zoox,” said Bhalla. “I got to ride in one and see the tech behind it. [I’d say that] we would welcome [autonomous vehicles like that] for a variety of reasons.”

Butterfield, touting their safety features, agrees. “Autonomous vehicles… [are] new innovation,” he said. “It’s the future of transportation.”

Even in the midst of the pandemic, Butterfield is excited about innovation and promotes seeking investment at the federal level to get people around safely for the moment while still planning for the future. He points to the pending HEROS Act as a mechanism to provide federal grant funding and relief to support local transportation concerns.

“We have to shape our policymaking… to balance a safe and sustainable transportation future… while also improv[ing] interstate highways and mass transportation.”

For Butterfield and Bhalla, this includes building and improving highways — and taking the opportunity at the same time to lay broadband cable fiber for communities to access across the country — while also considering all viable options for safe and efficient movement.

“We cannot continue to ignore the challenge of transportation. We need to be prepared to advance an infrastructure package that includes advances in transportation,” said Butterfield, who predicts transportation investment at the forefront of the first quarter in 2021. “If we don’t have a robust transportation system, then we don’t have a robust economy.”

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