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Cities Should Take Advantage of Low Car Traffic to Accelerate Transit Construction

Beverly Hills is taking advantage of empty streets by accelerating construction on the Purple Line Subway extension currently cutting its way across Los Angeles. More cities should follow Beverly Hills' lead.

James Brasuell | @CasualBrasuell | April 2, 2020, 12pm PDT
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Coronavirus Streets
James Kirkikis

Drivers are staying off the road at unprecedented rates in California, like the rest of the country, and the air is suddenly clean and clear. Streets, suddenly flushed of car congestion, allow new space for pedestrians and biking. Beverly Hills, however, is the first city in the United States to recognize the opportunity to accelerate construction, on a regional subway project, while drivers are leaving their cars parked.

The forces of pedestrian-friendly and transit-oriented urbanism haven't suddenly prevailed in the ongoing culture war for the future of cities. These changes result from a worldwide crisis, and there is no guarantee that the pendulum won't swing back the other direction after the pandemic, surpassing even the previous status quo. The 2016 election could serve as a model for that kind of pendulum swing. Auto-orientation is already regrouping for a comeback, as evidenced by anti-urban hot takes on density and predictions that the coronavirus will increase demand for single-occupant car trips and suburban-style residential isolation.

Moreover, seeds of an auto-oriented resurgence are already visible in public: transit ridership has been completely gutted, and the drivers remaining on the road are treating the deserted expanses of concrete like the Indianapolis Speedway. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has been busy during this lull of public and media scrutiny, finally succeeding in rolling back fuel efficiency standards for U.S. automakers. The EPA also waved environmental regulations for a large number of polluters, including power plants and factories.

Those moves by the EPA provide a glimpse of the ideology likely to be advanced in the burgeoning debate about a potential federal stimulus bill focusing a large amount of money on infrastructure projects. The Trump administration has been promising (and failing to deliver) a massive infrastructure bill since the 2016 campaign, but has already succeeded in substantially shifting the country's infrastructure spending priorities. Since President Trump took office, federal grant funding from the U.S. Department of Transportation has shifted funding away from transit projects in urban areas and toward car infrastructure for rural areas. The U.S. Department of Transportation has also been extremely reluctant to follow through on funding promises made by Congress. While Republicans in Congress couldn't muster up the promised infrastructure bill while it held both chambers of Congress, the example provided by the 2008 fiscal crisis could provide enough precedent to ease the path for a new federal infrastructure stimulus, albeit one approved this time by a Republican-controlled Senate and a president named Donald Trump.

Amidst all the risk that the country will double down on its destructive and polluting development status quo emerges this example of one city making a quick move to accelerate construction of a public transit project, taking advantage of low car traffic volumes to the advantage of the entire region. Joe Linton first reported the news that the city of Beverly Hills was considering a plan to speed up construction on the Purple Line subway extension. The project is extending the subterranean route of one of L.A.'s two heavy rail lines, down the Wilshire Corridor from Koreatown to the Veterans Administration facility on the city's westside. Give credit to Beverly Hills for identifying a silver lining with the potential to outlast the pandemic among the daily realities of stay-at-home orders.

"In tough times, this is modest good news – a win-win for Metro, for Beverly Hills, and for the region,” writes Linton. “With a lull in tourists, drivers, hotel occupants, etc. Beverly Hills can get construction activity completed with little additional disruption. Metro can save time and money by speeding up the subway project."

A tweet by the city of Beverly Hills on March 31 updates the status of the idea by confirming that it had, in fact, approved the accelerated construction plan. How things change in a crisis. Beverly Hills and its school district have pushed anti-transit animus in the region for years, fighting tooth and nail to reroute the subway extension around the city. Now, cities with fully funded transit projects should follow the example of Beverly Hills, of all places, in quickly building projects that will give people more mobility options as they work to recover from the economic crisis that has followed the public health crisis.

To accelerate construction, Beverly Hills has agreed to completely close Wilshire Boulevard to cars. The staff report, arguing that accelerated construction will "minimize future impacts of the project during the future economic recovery period," is admittedly written from a windshield perspective. But the suggestion of investing now in transportation system that better serves the public opens opens the door for larger, more ambitious arguments about the benefits of public transit in a post-Pandemic economy. With spiking unemployment and unprecedented stress on businesses, renters, and homeowners, automobile travel is likely to decline out of economic necessity, just like it did during the Great Recession.

Public transit will provide a life-line for an increased number of people cutting costs while times are tough in the pandemic recovery—not to mention the millions of people who relied on transit while the economy was booming and while the pandemic forced most Americans to stay at home. Public transit, serving walkable neighborhoods, has always been one of the most effective tools in cultivating social and economic mobility. After the pandemic, public transit can help people and businesses get back on their feet. The economic benefits of a focus on public transit shouldn't be the only reason cities take advantage of this momentary pause in car congestion. There's also the environmental necessity. The incredible improvements in air quality during the pandemic showcases the kind of world we could have with a lot more efficiency, and a lot less auto-dependency, in transportation.

All sorts of non-automobile improvements are fair game in the effort to accelerate construction while fewer cars clog the roads. Bogotá, Columbia, for instance, is significantly expanding its bike network, into space previously devoted to cars. Philadelphia was the first U.S. city to block a major street to car traffic to offer people more space for biking and walking during stay-at-home orders. Even Dan Rather thinks cities should widen sidewalks.

The sooner people have more options outside multiple single-occupant vehicle trips a day, the sooner that the air will resemble the beautiful, clear air gracing cities right now.

Powerful political forces are coalescing to ensure another generational investment in the kinds of infrastructure and economy that will quickly enshroud cities in worsening smog and continue to spew carbon emissions, exacerbating dire climate change timelines by doubling down on the status quo of car-oriented sprawl. President Trump tweeted about his desire for a $2 trillion infrastructure bill as part of a future stage of federal stimulus, lending political viability to an idea that’s been up for debate since the beginning of the crisis. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell pumped the brakes on the idea, but comments by Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin suggest that the idea is more tangible than some of President Trump’s more speculative pronouncements over the course of the crisis.

The idea to build transit while most Americans are hunkered down in self-isolation will require that all construction sites adhere to the strictest of health standards, with regimens for masks, physical distancing, personal protective equipment, and real-time testing and monitoring of coronavirus symptoms. This is no time to rush into construction that is unsafe for workers. Many cities are still working out the details of how construction projects can continue with new public health requirements in place. The city of Los Angeles, for instance, released a "COVID-19 exposure control plan" this week. Cities like Boston, and entire states, like Pennsylvania and New York, have halted all "non-essential" construction projects, so the task of safely building during the height of a pandemic is clearly a challenge.

But with protections in place, Beverly Hills might have identified one solution for the immediate economic crisis that also takes one small step forward in the big environmental crisis waiting for the world after the coronavirus is defeated. Many more cities with funded transit and complete streets projects should follow their lead.

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