The Covid-19 pandemic has seen two pernicious trends emerge in the way Americans travel around their country: public transit is struggling with a reduced number of paying customers, while there has been a sharp increase deaths in car accidents.
Business closures, increased work from home and fears of contracting the coronavirus have seen public transport use plummet across the US – commuter rail alone reported a 79% drop in ridership over the year to September 2020. Despite a slight resurgence in 2021, trips taken on all modes of public transit are still about half of what they were before the pandemic, according to federal government figures.
Meanwhile, transport officials have also been alarmed by a growing number of car-related deaths.
The first half of 2021 saw more than 20,000 people die in car crashes, according to federal government data, up 18% from a year earlier and the highest since 2006. Pete Buttigieg, U.S. Secretary at Transportation called the death toll, which claims the lives of around 3,000 people a month, “a national crisis” as it unveiled a new road safety strategy last week.
Transportation experts say these trends, while complex and not necessarily related, are slowing progress in road safety while hampering efforts to improve the livability of cities and reduce air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. greenhouse effect of the US transportation system, which is the largest in the country. contributor to dangerous climate change.
“I think in the long term, if we don’t see major changes in transit ridership and road and land use, we’re going to have huge problems,” said Tara Goddard, an expert in Transportation Safety at Texas A&M University. “We will see emissions as horrible as they are now, road safety figures as bad as they are today, inequality and social problems as serious as they are now. If we don’t commit to serious change, we’ll be in a lot of trouble.
The reasons for the increase in road fatalities are not fully understood, but a prevailing theory is that people are speeding more, and therefore involved in more serious crashes, due to roads that have been cleared of congestion when the pandemic hit and people stayed home. Following.
“The highway system in the United States is designed for speed, so when traffic went away when Covid hit, road deaths went off the charts,” said Benito Perez, director of policy at Transportation for America. “People are also spreading out their journeys during the day and more and more people are walking and cycling on roads designed for cars. So you get this constant conflict. It’s a recipe for fatal accidents.
There has also been an “alarming” increase in the number of people dying after being ejected from their cars in crashes for not wearing a seatbelt, Goddard said, as well as a rise in crashes due drug and alcohol use by drivers. This builds on trends seen since before the pandemic, such as the growing popularity of large SUVs that are much more likely to kill pedestrians when they hit them.
“We have big, wide roads, very poor crosswalks, lack of lighting, and we’re buying bigger cars,” Goddard said. “There also seems to be more aggressive and distracted driving now. There is a lot going on in society that Covid has brought to a head. »
The rising road death toll has come as public transportation, long underfunded and politically neglected in the United States, has suffered a sharp drop in ridership that has only partially rebounded when pandemic restrictions were eased last year.
Many bus and train routes across the United States have been curtailed, with the recent rise in Omicron variant infections depriving the system of large numbers of sick drivers and other transit personnel. Six subway lines in New York were suspended in December and January due to a lack of available staff.
Falling fare revenue has put some transit lines at risk. “Unfortunately, transit has to justify its existence by showing a profit margin, when no such question is asked about highway funding,” Perez said.
Although low-wage but essential workers have continued to use public transport during the pandemic out of necessity, many people who could afford to work from home or use other modes of transport have stayed away. trains and subways. “Mass transit is so resource-poor in the United States that it makes it very susceptible to disruption,” Goddard said. “If it’s already not working well for people, it doesn’t take much to dissuade them.”
Goddard said there was a ‘glimmer of hope’ in the Biden administration allocating $109 billion in grants for public transit projects from the bipartisan infrastructure bill – which is the biggest investment in public transportation in the history of the United States – but for the administration to focus more on electric vehicles will not solve the deep-rooted problems in the way American cities are structured.
“We need to focus on land-use solutions so that people don’t have to travel as much because things are closer to them, where driving isn’t the only option,” said she declared. “Electric vehicles certainly have a role to play, but if you get hit at 45mph, it doesn’t matter if it’s an EV or a gas-powered car. We shouldn’t just replicate our existing issues , but with new technologies.”