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COVID19 Legacy: The Death of the Avoidable Car Trip?

Do you *really* need to drive to the mall just to hang out? Via Creative Commons.

The one-mile drive to the grocery store to pick up a single onion for a recipe. The quick jaunt to the mall to browse the stores just because. The spontaneous trip to the movie theater 10 miles away from home, because even though there is a cinema down the block, the one on the edge of town has reclining seats and caramel popcorn at the snack stand, so why not drive a little further?

In what felt like the blink of an eye, millions of Americans gave up such trips in response to the COVID-19 outbreak. And while social distancers are mourning many aspects of public life, there's one thing many of them miss less than you'd expect: the easily avoidable car trip.

No, we're not just talking about a work commute — though as the outbreak wears on, the evidence is piling up that many more jobs can be performed well from home than previously thought. We're talking about all the other avoidable car travel we do in our daily lives that we're currently going without — many of which we could keep avoiding once the outbreak is over, often relatively painlessly.

And we should — because curbing car travel is a public health necessity every day, not just in the midst of a global pandemic. Cars kill, whether they do it in crashes, by exacerbating our health conditions through pollution, by making us more sedentary, or by contributing to climate change.

But fine: let's say we only committed to cutting back on non-essential car travel, like many Americans are incidentally doing right now as they shelter in place. That would still take a huge bite out of climate change, our non-COVID-19-related healthcare costs, and our household transportation budgets.

Here are a few ways that social-distancing Americans are cutting down on non-essential car travel right now — and a few even better ways that cities could help them do it, now and post-virus.

1. Have a little more foresight

Many of the sub-one-mile car trips we take are simply the result of poor foresight: a rescue mission to pick up a kid's forgotten teddy bear at school, for instance, or a trip to the pharmacy to pick up a single medication rather than stocking up on every drug you need at once. As a nation, we're all getting a crash course in being a little more conscientious when we make our weekly shopping lists, a little more thoughtful as we move through our daily lives. We're doing it now because we're trying to minimize disease-spreading contact with others — but frankly, we could keep doing it to avoid unnecessary car travel later, without a whole lot of inconvenience.

So, sure: Americans can and should remember these skills even after COVID-19 subsides. But that definitely isn't the only thing we should do. [Hint: Keep reading this list.]

2. Get a little less lazy — and a little more comfortable with bad weather

Yes, many short drives are simply the result of laziness, or because driving can seem a little more comfortable than walking or biking when it's not particularly nice outside. Hey, we get it: even the most die-hard cyclist will feel the occasional impulse to hop in a car to go to the bar when the rain is pouring outside, especially if she lives in a town with spotty public transportation.

But that doesn't mean that able-bodied people can't walk and cycle in inclement weather, or simply when they're feeling a little too tired to haul the roadbike down the stairs. And if the scores of stir-crazy social distancers who are taking walks in the rain for exercise and entertainment are any indication, a lot more of us do walk when more car-centric forms of entertainment aren't easily available to us.

It certainly can't hurt that, at this very moment, millions of Americans are discovering that they have a little more mettle than they thought when it comes to traveling outside a car. But honestly? Personal preference is far from the greatest deterrent to choosing a motor vehicle for a short ride. [Hint #2: Keep reading for those.]

3. Learn to enjoy your immediate neighborhood

Yes! Of course! The COVID-19 pandemic is making a lot of us realize how important our neighborhoods are when we can't really leave them — and how great it would be if we could just peek over the fence and say hi to someone from a safe six-foot distance at a time at a time when we can't meet our friends for coffee at that shop across town. And there likely are a lot of ways for the average American to get a little more connected to their immediate surroundings and find a little comfort during this difficult time. Here's a simple one. 

But there's a big asterisk to the "just learn to love your nabe!" narrative during the era of coronavirus. [Hint #3: It's coming up next.]

4. Complete the damn streets

It has to be said: it's hard for people to connect with their neighborhood if they live on a street with no sidewalk.

With indoor entertainment all but shuttered in many cities and even some national parks closed by federal order, a neighborhood walk is one of the few CDC-approved diversions left to Americans outside of their homes. So it's the perfect time for residents of dangerously autocentric neighborhoods to advocate for temporary sidewalks and bikeways, like Bogota is rolling out right now — and make that infrastructure permanent once the virus subsides, so everyone can safely walk or bike when they wish to.

5. Deepen sidewalks and bike paths

But it's not enough just to build any old bike/walk infrastructure if you want to curb non-essential travel and the coronavirus outbreak. You need to build good infrastructure — and especially in the time of COVID-19, that means going big.

The standard width for an American sidewalk is just five feet, and a bike lane is just four. That's nowhere near enough space to maintain a CDC-recommended six-foot distance from your neighbors if you run into even one person when you're out and about — much less a crowd.

We don't just need to advocate for some pedestrian accommodations right now. We need to advocate for reclaiming parking lanes, driving lanes, and even whole streets for walkers and bikers as a matter of public health. Frankly, we should do it all the time.

6. Urbanize, urbanize, urbanize

Here's the thing: no matter how many sidewalks we build and how many streets we close off to cars, as long as we have sprawl, food deserts, healthcare deserts, transit deserts, and other forms of isolation that our land use policies often demand by law, we will still have a lot of car travel — and especially non-essential travel.

In a way we've never seen before, the COVID-19 pandemic is drawing our attention to just how brutally hard it is to live in a car-dependent place where basic human contact all but depends on the automobile. But if we're lucky, it will help us realize something else too: just how urgent it is to build 15-minute neighborhoods.

Pandemic or no, no one should have to walk more than 15 minutes to go to the grocery store, or else resort to a car trip they likely can't afford. Pandemic or no, no one should have to travel a great distance to get access to the most basic forms of healthcare — especially when healthcare is financially already so far out of reach. And certainly no one should have to be stranded in their homes in the midst of a terrifying time simply because they live in a poorly planned place, that was built that way under the constraints of bad policy and worse economic incentives.

So yes: It's time to eliminate mandatory parking minimums nationwide. It's time to strike down restrictive residential-only zoning codes that make it illegal to build something as vital as a grocery store within millions of American neighborhoods. It's time to stop subsidizing huge office parks on the edge of town that functionally demand long car commutes of their workers — and start giving micro-grants to small businesses where people can work right in their neighborhoods.

COVID-19 is requiring us to cut non-essential travel in the short term. It'll be harder to do it in the long term — but it will be worth it.

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