In March, Los Angeles traffic as we know it vanished overnight after safer-at-home orders were issued. With the coronavirus beginning to claim lives, many of us would have welcomed the traffic back, and other signs of normalcy, in a heartbeat.
Then, beginning in late May, city and county officials imposed curfew orders limiting nighttime travel as thousands took to the streets to demonstrate against racism and police brutality following the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis.
While these crises may appear separate, they are deeply bound; and together they have forced a reckoning with what a return to “normal” means. The virus and the push by many for racial justice have renewed focus on the failures of our public systems, the disparate outcomes they produce, and the power structures and privileges that entrench them.
At this time, there is no clear resolution in sight when it comes to the virus or whether our nation can reach the equality to which many aspire. But this much is clear: the choices we make in response to loss of life and livelihood, and in hope for what our community might become, could be generation-defining.
Our transportation system is not immune from inequities. They are many, and they manifest in overt and covert ways. Metro’s Vision 2028 plan clearly states: “Historically, transportation policies and investments in LA County and elsewhere have prioritized single-occupant travel in private passenger vehicles at the expense of providing other high-quality travel alternatives. The result is an inequitable transportation system that exacerbates the divide between those who have the access and means to drive and those who do not, while providing inadequate options for both groups.”
As we reopen our economy and increase our travel, we need to proceed with caution and hope. We know how important travel is to opportunity, quality of life and the economy — people need to get to their jobs, their families and so many other destinations. And for many people, driving is the only practical option at this time. Yet the last few months have also offered our region an unprecedented glimpse in modern times of what the L.A. region is like with less traffic, cleaner air and more time and opportunities — at least for some people — to walk and bike to destinations.
Ultimately, we have to get back to moving around our region much more than we are right now. Our livelihoods and quality of life depend on it. And yet returning to the same traffic, same pollution, and the same inequitable transportation system is far from ideal. We’re not alone in this sentiment.
So the question becomes how do we get to something better than what we had? Transit, carpooling, walking and biking, and even shifting commutes outside of rush hours would help. Infrastructure improvements such as bus-only lanes and slow streets would make buses faster and more attractive — as would shared streets encourage people to walk and bike more. The last few months have shown that people like walking and biking.
None of this is new — all of the above have been discussed ad nauseam for many years by people interested in mobility. If there’s a difference now it’s that we’ve paused “normal” life long enough to actually act promptly and change things.
The advances achieved by the Black Lives Matter movement, at a time when individual movement is restricted, can and should inspire parallel and intersecting change. We’re demanding real action of ourselves and our institutions, from the top down and bottom up. We can improve the mobility problem and the traffic problem and the equity problem and the environmental problem and the safety problem. Rather than “go back to normal,” we must go forward and create a new and better reality. And we should do so sooner rather than later.