People Are Buying Cars Because of the Pandemic. Cities May Change as a Result.
In Covid mode, a personal vehicle feels like the ultimate PPE
In the eyes of many urbanists, the great global pause of the pandemic has been an opportunity for cities to reshape themselves along more livable lines. Cities from Berlin to Bogotá have been reapportioning road space to accommodate more cyclists and walkers, who were suddenly free to move in cleaner air. Vancouver recently mandated a minimum 11% reallocation of current road space to “people-focused public space.” In my own corner of Brooklyn, certain streets were suddenly designated as “shared,” meaning they were theoretically closed to all but local traffic. As people strolled down the socially distant thoroughfares, they waved to neighbors, wine glasses in hand, sociably arrayed on their stoops, amidst a backdrop of newly audible birdsong. I was not alone in wondering: Wait, why don’t we always do this?
But walkers, bikers, and minglers were not the only ones claiming the streets: increasingly, devout straphangers started asking themselves: Is it time to buy a car?
It’s not hard to imagine why someone might want a car in a pandemic. The automobile, the only way to move in public space yet be in a private environment, provides a protective buffer in a world awash in pathogen aerosolization, like a hazmat suit on wheels. The subway, and even the sidewalks, meanwhile, bristle with hazards real and imagined.
There’s little in our life, it turns out, more habitual than transportation; as an old saw among researchers goes, “the strongest predictor of your trip today is the trip you took yesterday.” And how do you change ingrained habits? Psychologists talk about something called the “habit discontinuity hypothesis,” which means, in essence, that habitual behavior is more likely to be changed when the environment in which that behavior takes place is changed. Moving to a new neighborhood or taking on a new job provide a momentary window for changing commuting behavior — though even then it’s no guarantee.
Usually the role of habit in transportation has been studied as part of an effort to get people out of private cars and onto public transportation. But what happens when the endogenous shock is…