While modes of transportation have changed little in the last century, speeds and efficiency have dramatically improved. Additionally, new, innovative transportation options are on the horizon. Autonomous vehicles and drones are two prominent examples. Yet, planners and elite bureaucrats insist on imposing some utopian vision of urban transportation that ignores the reality of demand and the current spatial distribution of jobs. They pursue inefficient and outdated modes of transportation, often to get other people out of their cars and into trains and buses.

The imposition of utopian urban transport is currently being pursued at the national and local levels. Nationally, the trillion-dollar “Historic Bipartisan Infrastructure Deal” proposes massive sums of money for rail and public transit services that are unmerited by market demands. Most of America’s transportation happens on roads in automobiles, yet the plan disproportionately funds government-operated transportation. Locally, the Regional Transportation Authority of Central Oklahoma persists toward an interurban commuter rail.

In a recent article, former Governor Brad Henry stated that now is the time for Oklahoma “to strike” and do whatever it takes to grab federal money for the sake of transit. Why now? Well, for one, the Biden administration and a bipartisan group of the political elite in Washington D.C. are willing to dole out money for rail transit. Apparently, it is a “good deal” to spend money on rail lines if the federal government is willing to pony up 70 to 80 percent of the funding. This leaves a relatively small balance that municipalities will have to cover by hiking up the sales tax. Regardless of which pot of money it is coming from, taxpayers are going to foot the bill. And taxpayers will have to foot the bill to maintain the boondoggle as well. 

In the same article, several individuals expressed frustration with commuting in the Oklahoma City metro area. For example, one lawyer lamented he had to leave Norman an hour early to appear on time for hearings in downtown Oklahoma City due to the unpredictability of Oklahoma City traffic. A University of Oklahoma (OU) law student complained of the 40-minutes it took to commute from North Oklahoma City to Norman for a 10:30 class. The article goes on to state, “Within a couple of years … [they] may get the chance to vote for an alternative means of transportation; a rail-based regional transit system.” But for whom?

It’s unlikely a lawyer will leave the luxury sedan in the garage to climb on board a train to gain some consistency and avoid highway congestion. It’s certainly not going to save time. He might even have to leave earlier to account for waiting at the departure station, arranging and waiting for another mode of transportation from the destination station to the courthouse, and the high likelihood the actual miles covered (on average) will be slower on a train than in a car. No. In the lawyer’s case, it’s better if someone else takes the train to allow him to leave later and experience lighter traffic on the way to the courthouse. That’s most likely his calculus for supporting transit; others will use it and get out of his way.

It is more plausible for the law student to take the train, especially if his class doesn’t start until 10:30. However, if he is already complaining about a 40-minute commute, let’s just wait and see how much longer it takes to commute by train (I’ve done it elsewhere – it’s not an improvement). Hopefully, he takes advantage of that long commute, though it would be a less-than-ideal study hour.

In both cases, and for most transit supporters, especially those with higher incomes, they hope others will take the train. They would like others to bear the cost of longer and slower commutes to (theoretically) reduce highway congestion. If others can bear the costs of lost time and inconvenience, then transit supporters can reap the benefit – continuing to drive alone, in their car, without others clogging up the interstate.

Nevertheless, let’s assume that a railroad in 2019 made sense (it didn’t – but let’s assume it did). Does it make sense now in a post-pandemic world?

COVID has had a dramatic impact on public policy discussions. Questions are being asked about the legitimate scope of emergency powers. Parents and education advocates have seen the need for and possibility of truly student-centered education. Likewise, the virus deeply impacted the spatial distribution of labor as well as urban transportation. The cities of a post-COVID world might look very different than they did in 2019. COVID-19 accelerated a disruptive technology that could dramatically alter our current understanding of urban transportation – telecommuting.

While we lack the technology to teleport, we can do the next best thing – beam data places. Where the nature of work permits, telecommuting dramatically reduces the time spent commuting and increases the speed of commerce. While the internet in Oklahoma is not great, theoretically, I could virtually commute to work by sending a data packet through fiberoptic cables at speeds exceeding 120,000 miles per second (wirelessly, even faster). That’s slightly faster than my current commute which averages 30 to 40 miles per hour. 

During the pandemic lockdowns, approximately 35 percent of workers who previously commuted into their workplace began telecommuting. By mid-2020, new telecommuters combined with those already telecommuting represented nearly half of the workforce. Will telecommuting, either full- or part-time, stick around? I can’t say with certainty. However, recent data seems to indicate a reluctant return to the old commute.

A Gallup poll revealed that 54% of office workers prefer flexible work time and would leave their job for one that offers the choice for remote work. Additionally, while places like Oklahoma City are open for business, traffic volume remains below pre-COVID levels. Perhaps this is due to employees continuing to work remotely or having been granted more flexible work schedules.

While it’s improbable many employers will switch to an entirely virtual office, even some flexibility and telecommuting could have a notable impact on commuting patterns. How frequently will employees be commuting into the office? On which days? At what times? These questions cannot be answered or anticipated by a central planning office.

Finally, public transit is high-density transportation and is not conducive to social distancing. With new variants of the coronavirus, public transportation presents an ongoing threat to the public health, safety, and welfare. 

Not everyone agrees on what post-pandemic cities will look like or what the transportation needs will be. Modern technology in transportation and telecommuting may render such coveted transit options as railroads and streetcars (more) obsolete. At a minimum, the post-pandemic world should cause planners to question current plans for future transit, maintain an appropriate level of agnosticism, closely monitor transportation trends, and be responsive to actual demand. To do otherwise is a waste of time and money.

Brad Galbraith is Land Use Fellow at 1889 Institute. He can be reached at bgalbraith@1889institute.org.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of 1889 Institute.