As the reality of the coronavirus pandemic sets in, it’s all hands on deck for American policymakers. And no level of government has more hands than our municipalities. Our response to this crisis will reflect the strength of our local governing capacity. It will stress every aspect of local government, from school boards to water authorities. Local transportation officials are no different: They have a role to play in adapting local road assets to the new logistical needs of towns in the midst of a public health crisis. Road space will need to be reallocated, parking rules adjusted, health precautions added to transit, and delivery rules made more liberal.

Reallocate Road Space to Crisis Uses

As the managers of local roads, municipal transportation departments and the officials who oversee them have an outsize role in responding to a crisis like a pandemic. Retail traffic is turned on its head, and deliveries displace more in-person shopping with each passing day. At the same time, ambulance traffic will demand heightened priority on the roads. Meanwhile, social distancing is pushing transit riders to bicycle and walk to work. These newly pressing transportation needs all command road space, but most road space is currently allocated to a combination of passenger car lanes and street parking.

To facilitate faster and more-reliable deliveries, cities and towns could allocate a fraction of the parking space on every block for temporary loading and unloading purposes in places where buildings do not have their own loading docks. While this would likely displace a few parking spots in each neighborhood, more-reliable parking for delivery vehicles would return some lost value to local residents in the form of faster e-commerce deliveries from the postal service and private shippers. But beyond e-commerce, the change could prove to be a lifesaver for local restaurants suddenly forced to shift to delivery. Without experienced drivers who already know where parking is available, the prospect of every government-owned road having some amount of short-term parking could give these retailers confidence that a new delivery-centric business model can carry them through the crisis at hand.

A public health crisis puts a premium on access to hospitals and other healthcare facilities. When traffic delays hospital-bound ambulances and keeps sleepy doctors and nurses on the roads for too long, it may be appropriate to reallocate some traffic lanes near hospitals for through-traffic use instead of individual car parking.

On a similar note, moving forward with existing plans to expand bicycle infrastructure and make pedestrian improvements may be appropriate as commuters try to avoid transit. Adding planned bike lanes to smaller neighborhood streets could draw new commuters from higher-speed arterial roads where added cyclists stand to delay other important trips. Hospitals cannot afford to deal with extra traffic-related injuries during a public health crisis, and stopping constructing of life-saving pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure could prove counterproductive.

Suspend Hours Requirements and Overnight Parking Bans for Public Parking

Any crisis that requires widespread changes to commuting patterns will change the geography of parking demand. With some commuters no longer commuting and new demands for street space for deliveries, transit and ambulances, it could be reasonable to allow cars parked in streets and municipal parking lots and garages to remain in place 24 hours per day for the duration of the crisis. By doing so, officials would keep people from having to move their cars to avoid parking tickets and temporarily free some road space to be used for other crisis needs. New York City is considering suspending its alternate-side street parking rules until the crisis wanes.

This policy has a few benefits outside the transportation space, including fewer contested tickets in traffic court. Fewer trips to avoid government fines would help limit exposure risk, a benefit to the public at large as well as the individual. In a public health crisis, temporarily suspending parking hours and overnight parking rules is a sensible and cheap way to keep people a little bit safer. 

Maintain Public Transit Headways and Change Transit Loading Methods

As COVID-19 continues to spread, lines and crowding in public spaces are a threat to public health. Social distancing requires people in transit to keep themselves spread out. Images of long lines like those in major airports are pictures of policy failure. Front-line transportation employees like bus and train drivers are needed to keep people moving to jobs that must continue through the COVID-19 crisis, and public transit agencies won’t be able to do their job should a disproportionate number of bus and train drivers get sick. There are two policy responses that could limit the risks posed by public transportation systems.

First, transit agencies should maintain headways on buses and trains, rather than reduce transit service in response to plummeting demand. While the sight of empty trains and buses may be disheartening to transit agency bookkeepers, maintaining service at normal levels would allow those who must use transit to spread out. Ensuring people have space to spread out could require a few extra trips on busy bus lines to appropriately-limit exposure risk, especially on lines serving major hospitals that would be ridden by health workers. BART in San Francisco has done well to maintain transit headways; meanwhile, WMATA in the Washington, D.C. region has done the opposite.

Second, transit agencies should consider having passengers change transit loading patterns to limit risk to public transit employees. This could entail allowing passengers to get on and off buses through a vehicle’s rear door where available. While most agencies do not have fare collection equipment in this area, it would limit how many people pass by the vehicle driver. Montgomery County, Maryland has implemented a version of this policy. Seattle has ceased fare enforcement on its transit system, a less-comprehensive but similar policy iteration. Similarly, where viable, train systems could bar riders from the front and rear cars where train operators work. Alternatively, systems that employ automated train control could take the opportunity to remove the driver from the train entirely. All would limit exposure of public employees to the pathogens that could make them sick and better ensure that transit systems keep running until the COVID-19 crisis wanes.

Allow Fuel Delivery in All Zones

In order to move supplies efficiently from factories to warehouses and warehouses to homes, we must protect delivery workers from falling sick and limit how much time they spend doing unrelated tasks. But many delivery drivers have to refuel at retail gas stations, wasting time and exposing them to surfaces many others have been in contact with. Fueling trucks and delivery vehicles overnight at existing warehouses or at newly created supply depots is one way logistics firms can limit the risk of virus exposure at gas stations and limit time lost to ancillary activities.

Yet there are regulatory barriers to fuel delivery that prevent firms from purchasing fuel delivery services, including zoning laws that do not list fuel delivery as an “allowed use” in many industrial or commercial zones. Similarly, individual drivers living in residential areas may increasingly value the ability to have gas delivered to their vehicles at home. Changing these laws to allow citywide fuel delivery would be a simple but valuable fix that would cost local officials nothing to implement.

Image credit:  TTstudio