Covid-19 blurs the picture of future Miami-Dade mobility
Despite all the transportation planning in the world, getting a grip on mobility in Miami has always been like picking up Jello: it slips through your fingers.
Now that the coronavirus has put whipped cream atop the Jello, it’s even harder to get a firm grasp. Because we can’t predict progress in combating the virus, the picture of future transit gets even murkier.
First, how will our battle with Covid-19 alter the way we get around after the spread slows?
Will we rank mass transit less safe and therefore even less desirable than riding in a car? Conversely, does a virus-induced economic slide make cars too costly for more people, forcing them into mass transit?
Would shared bicycles, scooters or mopeds gain traction rather than sitting inside anything where Covid-19 particles could circulate? Or will today’s county ban on shared uses drive the rental vendors from the market?
On the other hand, does working at home get more appealing than going anywhere if high risk of the virus lingers?
Each scenario is possible. All will vary with handling of the pandemic and its economic fallout.
That leads to a second big question: when does money to build transportation dry up?
As Javier Betancourt, Citizens’ Independent Transportation Trust executive director, noted in our pages last week, the tap is about to open wide for federal cash for big projects that add jobs to fight double-digit unemployment. Those funds, he suggests, could build transit legs that the so-called Smart plan promises.
Assuming that it’s sensible for the county to follow those pre-Covid transit pledges into a post-Covid world – a serious question to assess – how much money could we get to build, and how could the county fund operating losses if we actually built that money-losing mass transit?
Mass transit loses money everywhere, but the fares do help offset costs. Depending on assumptions for Miami-Dade mobility in a post-pandemic world, a far larger operating loss burden could fall on the county in a long-term economic slump.
The third puzzle in transit plans therefore is to assess public health and government economics: what does a post-covid world look like for both?
Do we plan for transit based on a totally effective vaccine or on something less? The same is true for a Covid-19 cure or treatment – exactly how effective? Rational commuters will base how they get around in part on how much health risk is involved.
The fourth consideration is how we live after the pandemic: Do we forget it and go back to what we did before, or do we take a lesson from what we are living through and change? Do we merely have to work at home now and rush back to a jobsite as soon as we can, or do many of us discover that we love to work at home and keep doing it no matter what?
As all these elements play out, do we freeze transportation change or accelerate it?
For sure, the transportation map is shifting regardless of whether we want to speed up plans or delay them. Look at news reports – mostly from Miami Today – of just the past week.
For two years those who want to add bus riders – who in May accounted for 76% of all weekday Miami-Dade transit users and as recently as 2016 totaled 65 million – have counted on realigning buses for better service. Now that has all changed.
The Better Bus Project of Transit Alliance Miami, which has geared to serve bus riders better in years ahead, has given way to a resiliency plan just to meet bus rider needs during the pandemic. A plan to get ahead was swapped for a plan to get by.
Also, county transit has been leaning on extra help to allow social distancing on buses even as use plunged – in May 2019 buses had 4.3 million riders versus just 1.7 million this May. That extra help has come from private buses added to the system and county-paid Uber and Lyft rides for night patrons on little-used routes. The county now says the temporary buses will disappear but free Uber and Lyft rides may continue. That’s a new wrinkle in public transit: pay businesses to take the job off your hands.
Something similar was suggested in irony by President Ronald Reagan’s budget director, David Stockman, in 1985. He said Miami-Dade’s Metrorail ridership “is so low it would be cheaper for the federal government to buy everybody who uses it a new car every five years for the next 50 years.”
As bus plans shift, municipal trolleys that are a byproduct of the half-percent county transit tax initiated more than 15 years ago are changing targets: Coral Gables seeks federal funds to run trolleys nights and weekends. They have become more important to transit as bus service changes.
Other changes factor in.
As we reported last week, 2,600 smart traffic signals to speed driving are at the starting line but aren’t all due in use for seven years. If more Miamians use cars rather than mass transit for health reasons, how much slower could traffic get in the interim?
At the same time, hope for Brightline rail dimmed as a partnership with Virgin crumbled. But Brightline hasn’t been rolling since March and who knows when it might. If Brightline isn’t on track, what happens to its deal for public Tri-Rail to come into downtown Miami?
Speaking of longer-distance travel, Miami-Dade is shifting a $5 billion upgrade and expansion at Miami International Airport in light of the global nosedive of air travel, which is the largest single factor in the county’s economy. Demand changes will alter airport development.
Sliding confidence in safe air travel and the demand for passenger aviation – which is linked to the vital hotel and cruise industries – is pivotal in our local economy. All other mobility thus relies on air travel.
These are more than enough added variables in mobility needs and what we should do to meet them. Many readers ask whether far too much transportation planning leads to far too little transportation construction. Now we must factor more issues into that planning.
Just more whipped cream on the hard-to-grasp mobility Jello.