Almost exactly a year ago, homebound, stir-crazy Bostonians learned they’d soon get a break from Covid-era isolation. Two months into a state stay-at-home advisory, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker announced that restaurants would be allowed to seat diners again — outdoors.
There was just one problem: In the city’s densely packed neighborhoods and inner-ring suburbs, with people living on top of each other and jostling for every square inch, where could restaurants find outdoor spaces for socially distanced dining?
In Cambridge, across the Charles River from Boston, city traffic officials had an idea. Days after Baker’s announcement, they met with restaurant owners in Inman Square, a tight neighborhood with sidewalks too narrow for tables. They proposed something they’d studied before the pandemic, but never dared to do: Take over two lanes of Cambridge Street, turning parking spaces and a travel lane into space for alfresco dining on asphalt.
Just weeks later, on July 1, socially distanced patio tables belonging to four restaurants — a Mexican cantina, a fried chicken and barbecue spot, a coffeehouse, and an Irish pub — were filled with diners. A concrete barrier and orange barrels set them off from traffic. Other neighborhood restaurants made patios in curbside parking spaces and a city parking lot. Inman Square became one of Cambridge’s few spots of nightlife last summer and fall, attracting a steady stream of well-distanced diners who at last had somewhere to go.
The Covid-19 pandemic has scrambled our lives, our economy, and what we expect from government. Across the country, what we want and need from infrastructure — the transportation and communication networks that keep us moving, talking and working — has changed, and is unlikely to revert to the pre-pandemic status quo.
And in this new way of looking at public systems and spaces, it turns out that lots of things we didn’t previously consider infrastructure, like street space for outdoor dining, have now become critical to the functioning of the economy.
“For a lot of these businesses, this could be the difference between surviving and not surviving,” said Joe Barr, Cambridge’s director of traffic, parking and transportation.
That’s no hypothetical — almost one in four Massachusetts restaurants has closed during the pandemic. Before Covid, “their biggest concern [was] ensuring that there’s still parking on the street,” Barr said. “But I think they realized that in this moment, the parking was less important than just having a place to safely or comfortably serve food.”
We’re used to thinking about the physical systems that undergird our economy primarily in terms of roads and bridges — the proverbial planes, trains and automobiles that move people and goods. But the pandemic showed that most of those things could halt and large sectors of the economy could keep going thanks to other systems that are increasingly critical to our well-being.
During the pandemic, high-speed internet became one of our most economically important infrastructure systems. So did package delivery, which became a lifeline when stores became potential vectors of Covid transmission. The U.S. Postal Service’s role not just in commerce, but in the fabric of our democracy, also became clear: it gave many of us a new, safe way to vote. And as the pandemic eases, transportation systems face a reckoning, as remote work is likely to persist for some workers some of the time and business travel may forever be reduced by the accelerated use of video conferencing.
Many of these changes will be long-lasting, which prompts a new concern: What do we need to do to pandemic-proof, and future-proof, our critical infrastructure systems going forward?
These questions are rising at the same time Washington debates President Joe Biden’s $2 trillion jobs and infrastructure plan and congressional Republicans’ $568 billion alternative. But D.C. thinking about infrastructure can get narrow fast. Debating dictionary definitions — does only transportation count as infrastructure, or is it anything that keeps the economy going? — misses how the pandemic has already inalterably changed the country and our way of life.
Here are four ways the Covid-19 pandemic has changed how Americans use and value the networks that bind us together and keep the economy going — changes that pose important political and policy challenges as we move into the post-pandemic world.
No longer just for cars.
For decades, cities have designed and built streets mostly for vehicles. But during the pandemic, cities across the country remade their main streets to adjust to the new ways people were using them.
Car traffic and auto sales both dropped in 2020, and transit ridership fell by more than half. But U.S. bicycle sales have surged — from 15 million in 2019 to 20 million in 2020, according to the NPD Group, which tracks retail trends — as city dwellers embrace open-air alternatives to cars and transit. People have also been walking more, for exercise, for grocery shopping, and to see friends outdoors. Cities and states have responded by accelerating work on bike lanes and creating pedestrian-friendly intersections.
“Cities and towns control that street space,” said Chris Dempsey, director of the nonprofit coalition Transportation for Massachusetts. “Every single day, they are making a decision to allocate that space to one set of users or one type of transportation or another. For 100 years, most cities and towns have said they’re going to allocate that space to people who want to park their vehicles. The pandemic has spurred them to think differently, and they’re seeing the benefits.”
When Covid-19 hit, Boston sped up a planned expansion of its separated bike lane network, installing 6.5 miles of new lanes in 2020 — a four-fold increase over 2019. City workers marked off miles of temporary bike lanes with orange cones and barrels in mid-July. By fall, the orange barrels came down and permanent bike lanes went in, ringing all of the Public Garden and three sides of Boston Common, one of the nation’s oldest public spaces.
“Things moved quicker during the pandemic than they normally would have,” said Vineet Gupta, chief planner for Boston’s transportation department. Last summer’s temporary lanes offered essential workers a safer commute; medical workers received free two-month bikeshare passes, and the bike station at Massachusetts General Hospital, six blocks north of Boston Common, became the system’s most popular. The new lanes also forge a long-awaited link between downtown and the city’s extensive bike network to the south and west.
“We wanted to respond in a way that set us up for recovery,” Gupta said.
Boston allowed 200 restaurants to construct patios in parking spots, cutting red tape during the Covid emergency. In 2018, the city had released guidelines for how restaurants could take over street parking, but no one applied. Now, Gupta said, the city may make in-street dining a permanent part of Boston summers. “We realize this is a popular program, loved by our residents,” he said.
A similar rethinking of street space is occurring around the country. In Portland, Ore., a business association in a historically Black neighborhood launched the Dream Street Plaza, offering space to 15 vendors and several Black artists on a closed street for most of October. In Durham, N.C., advocates aimed to set up recreational activities on five closed streets — but when residents said they were more interested in slower traffic speeds, the advocates redesigned the program to include curb cuts and traffic circles.
“Throughout the pandemic, we’ve had to think a little bit differently about space, as we’ve had to think about physical distancing,” said Corinne Kisner, executive director of the National Association of City Transportation Officials, which helped fund the Portland and Durham programs. “We’re seeing a lot of really creative thinking in communities.”
Many urban planners learned last year that public feedback is important, even in a crisis, when some changes got pushback. Oakland, Calif., made international headlines with its plan to close more than 20 miles of streets to through traffic, but its “slow streets” program didn’t go over well in some poorer Black neighborhoods, where many residents said they had no say in the closings and that the program hadn’t made streets safer. In response, the city shifted the program to include traffic-calming near grocery stores and Covid-testing sites. “We’re seeing interesting work in cities like Oakland to really engage with the community, and say, ‘Is this meeting your needs? How can we adjust the program?’” Kisner says.
Kisner thinks many new approaches to streets will last beyond the pandemic — and she says they all need to. Covid-19 isn’t the only crisis the U.S. faces, she said: “Climate change, systemic racism, injustice, economic inequality: those are the preexisting conditions and the other crises that have been long-simmering.” Changing how we use our streets can help combat climate change, increase access to jobs, and cut down on police interactions associated with driving.
“We can’t afford to stick with the status quo,” she said. “That really wasn’t working before.”
What comes down must also go up.
The pandemic has proven that high-speed internet service isn’t just nice to have, it’s a need-to-have for participating in today’s economy. After more than a year on Zoom, millions of Americans have come to depend on high-speed internet for their daily needs and responsibilities, including work, school and telemedicine.
“We go into this pandemic, and suddenly, kids are learning at the kitchen counter, somebody’s on their VPN on the couch right next to them, and somebody else is streaming in the basement,” said Shirley Bloomfield, CEO of NTCA–The Rural Broadband Association.
But high-speed internet is still unavailable in large swaths of rural America. Covid-19 has strengthened the case for making broadband access a major government project, a 2020s version of rural electrification in the 1930s. Closing the so-called digital divide could become an economic engine in some communities, as businesses looking for expansion locations and urban dwellers freed by remote work factor good broadband into their moves.
“It became very, very clear that as the society and economy continued to digitize, if you’re on the on the wrong side, you’re going to have a very bad time,” said Roberto Gallardo, director of the Purdue Center for Regional Development, who has worked with rural communities on digital issues for a decade.
The pandemic has also brought a new focus on what kind of broadband technology to install where. Many providers started out as cable TV companies and often have focused on download speeds as their primary metric, figuring users were most interested in streaming entertainment or games.
“Before Covid, providers were advertising download speeds only,” Gallardo said. “During Covid, it became very clear that upload speeds are very important, as well.”
That’s because we’re now coming to the internet as participants, not just entertainment consumers — Zoom, for instance, requires the same amount of upload as download. That puts certain internet technologies at a disadvantage, while strengthening the case for symmetrical fiber broadband, which is capable of equally fast upload and download.
The Federal Communications Commission says about 30 million Americans lack access to high-speed internet, including more than one-third of people in rural and tribal areas. Critics say that’s almost certainly an undercount, since the FCC relies on self-reported figures from telecom companies and counts a census tract as having broadband if only one household has it. (Congress approved $65 million for better FCC broadband maps in December.)
Rural areas, Gallardo says, tend to have either older, slower copper-based DSL technology or fixed-wireless service beamed to homes via radio waves. Many big providers have said they won’t maintain their DSL networks in the long run, and fixed wireless has limitations.
“Physics-wise, there’s only so much data you can pack into that radio wave,” Gallardo said. “If you have a couple of houses here and there, with a line of sight, fixed wireless is phenomenal. It can accomplish decent speeds.” But once more users crowd onto fixed wireless, speed drops. And any area without line of sight to a cell tower, or with trees in the way, is out of luck.
Bloomfield, who represents more than 800 small telecommunications companies, says her members typically use fixed wireless to serve customers at the very ends of their networks until they can afford to extend their fiber networks that far. Long-term, Bloomfield thinks the federal government’s broadband strategy should focus on fiber: “If the government really says, [let’s make a] huge commitment, go big on infrastructure, I think the idea of playing small ball on broadband is so shortsighted, and not the best investment.”
In December, the FCC auctioned off $9.2 billion in rural broadband expansion grants. The auction may preview how the federal government could spend bigger future investments, such as the $100 billion for broadband in Biden’s jobs and infrastructure plan or the $65 billion in congressional Republicans’ proposal.
A look at the map of who won the auctions reveals interesting patterns. Fixed-wireless providers such as LTD Broadband and cable providers such as Charter Communications won major grants.
But click on some of the map’s biggest blocks — remote stretches of states like Utah, Oregon, Colorado and Maine — and the winner is Space Exploration Technologies Corp.: SpaceX for short. Elon Musk’s company is now launching 300 satellites a month into low-Earth orbit to create Starlink, a relay network ringing the globe. Each satellite beams internet access down to the planet when the satellite’s orbit passes over Starlink’s coverage area. The network offers faster signal speeds than satellites in geosynchronous orbits, 22,000 miles up.
Skeptics think satellite broadband will face challenges delivering high speeds, not to mention reliability problems due to weather and geography. “I see it potentially having a niche role to play, in certain parts of the country that are so remote you actually can’t bring infrastructure in,” Bloomfield said. “I think it’s unproven to date.”
Fewer business trips spell trouble.
Waves of cause-and-effect from the pandemic will change how Americans fly, even as the virus’ threat recedes. “We don’t expect business travel to ever return to where it was before the pandemic,” said John Mok, an aviation consultant and former director of the Cleveland and Cincinnati airports. “And it was the business travel that was the profit margin.” Some business executives may still fly occasionally, Mok adds, but many of their clients may have grown comfortable relying more on video conferencing platforms like Zoom.
Ned Hill, an economist at Ohio State University who’s participated in 11 conversations with manufacturing leaders about pandemic challenges, says that going forward, executives are likely to change where and why they travel. “It’s making closing sales more difficult,” said Hill, “but they’ve realized they don’t have to show as much at consumer shows.”
Post-Covid, airlines will have to depend more on leisure travelers, many of whom are price-conscious. That probably means more nonstops to tourist destinations, and fewer nonstops to business destinations —which Hill thinks will push more regional business travelers to drive: “Every time you change [planes], that’s an extra two hours to your trip.”
What does that mean for government? In the U.S., all airports are government-run, owned by cities, counties or regional authorities. Airline mergers and redrawn route patterns might leave some airports behind. “We had already seen, before the pandemic, network carriers pulling down or eliminating service to smaller cities,” said Mok. He expects Covid’s aftereffects to accelerate the trend. In a worst-case scenario, Mok thinks, Congress might have to choose whether to increase Essential Air Service subsidies for the smallest rural airports — or let some close. “Is it the role of the federal government to subsidize those markets?” Mok asks.
Many terminal expansions at cramped airports are on hold during the pandemic, waiting for crowds and the funding they bring to return. When they do, travelers are more likely to be passing through aging, outdated airports.
The average U.S. airport is about 40 years old. “When we designed these airports, there was no 9/11,” said Kevin Burke, president and CEO of Airports Council International – North America. “None of these tragedies of the last 20 years were even thought of.” Burke’s airport group recently estimated that U.S. airports have a $115 billion backlog of infrastructure projects, such as bigger terminals to accommodate larger aircraft, more spacing between gates, and more room for security checkpoints. But to fund expansions, airports rely on landing fees and a passenger facility charge per ticket. “Few airports are able to do big infrastructure right now,” Burke said. (Biden’s infrastructure plan includes $25 billion for airports, including terminal expansions and transit connections to airports; the Republican proposal offers $44 billion.)
Airports would like Congress to increase passenger fees beyond the current $4.50 per flight. But airlines and consumer groups argue that the airports should find more money in revenue streams such as rental cars, parking, on-site hotels, restaurants and shopping. Of course, those revenue sources could also be hurt by a decline in expense-account business travel.
Seth Lehman, an analyst for Fitch Ratings, said airports that spent heavily on future growth and fall short of expectations may be at more financial risk than others. So might smaller regional airports, if airlines turn instead to big-city airports nearby. In July, Fitch downgraded its rating of the busy Terminal 4 at New York’s JFK Airport, where 30 to 40 international airlines flew in and out before the pandemic. Its total flights are still down 60 to 70 percent, said Lehman; the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey scaled back the terminal’s expansion plans this April. For major international airports like JFK, “it’s very difficult to know when recovery will happen, because some [international] governments are still in a difficult situation with their vaccination rollouts, Covid cases and lockdowns.”
U.S. Postal Service
An old service gains new power.
If you don’t think of the U.S. Postal Service as infrastructure, think again. It’s the only nation-building tool written into the Constitution, which gave Congress the power to “establish Post Offices and post Roads.” Its 500,000 career workers staff 31,000 post offices nationwide and a fleet of 230,000 vehicles.
Americans relied on the Postal Service during the pandemic, to vote by mail and to receive packages instead of shopping in stores. What’s more, the Postal Service is America’s most popular government agency, according to Pew Research Center polling, with favorable ratings of 90 percent in November 2019 and 91 percent in the pandemic’s first weeks.
Despite the service’s popularity, the pandemic has heightened concerns about it. Those anxieties peaked before the presidential election, after Louis DeJoy, a major donor to former President Donald Trump, became postmaster general. DeJoy carried out budget and service cuts that critics feared would delay election mail. That led to lawsuits, scrutiny from federal courts, and a rollback of some cuts as Election Day neared. Under pressure, the Postal Service came through: it reported in mid-November that the average mail-in ballot was delivered to election offices in 1.6 days and that 99.89 percent arrived within seven days.
“The Post Office was at its best in terms of mail ballots,” said Mark Dimondstein, president of the American Postal Workers Union. “They made up their mind that mail ballots were going to be given priority. The management, the unions and the workers all worked together to make sure it got done.”
Yet the Postal Service’s performance has suffered since December 2020, when a flood of holiday packages and a wave of postal employees sick with Covid-19 contributed to a massive mail bottleneck. Checks, court notices and credit card payments arrived late. Only 78 percent of first-class mail arrived on time in the first three months of 2021, compared to 92 percent a year earlier.
“The fixation on packages, seen as a growing if not booming business in the future, has undercut the focus on mail delivery,” said Paul Steidler, who analyzes the Postal Service for the Lexington Institute, a conservative think tank. The post office, Steidler notes, still delivers 16 times as much mail as packages and makes more profit from mail. But the amount of mail drops every year, as more Americans go paperless.
That pressures the Postal Service to either shrink or evolve. Congress requires the Postal Service to deliver mail to every address in the U.S. while being self-sustaining — that is, pay for itself with stamp sales, parcel charges, and so forth. In 2006, Congress also saddled the Postal Service with a costly obligation to prepay retired employee health benefits, a requirement applied to no other federal agency. The Postal Service has lost money every year since.
In March, DeJoy released a 10-year plan to reform the Postal Service, to head off projected losses of $160 billion over the next decade. It calls on Congress to abolish the prepay requirement — and there’s growing support on Capitol Hill to do just that. DeJoy’s plan would also raise stamp prices, cut post office hours, and close some post offices in cities. It would bolster the Postal Service’s growing package delivery business but cut its standards for prompt delivery of regular mail: cross-country mail would take up to five days, compared to a three-day goal now.
“I have heard the plan doesn’t go far enough, that we should be shuttering more post offices, shifting to five-day delivery, or slashing our workforce,” DeJoy said this month at a meeting of the Postal Service’s board of governors. “I have also heard the plan goes too far, that we must adhere to standards we cannot meet and services we can’t afford. … What I don’t hear is any viable, comprehensive alternative.”
Not so fast, others say. “The thing I most dislike,” Steidler said about the reform plan, “is the absence of financial information about why the first-class mail standard needs to be degraded.” Steidler thinks the Postal Service should stick to its standards for prompt delivery, even if it has to hike stamp prices substantially to do it — and it should be willing to downsize as mail volume declines.
Thinking of the Postal Service as infrastructure could lead to new roles for the agency.
Dimondstein, the union president, thinks the Postal Service could raise revenue by offering new financial services, such as paycheck cashing, bill paying and electronic money transfers, as post offices in Europe and other countries do. It could also lease space to states for services such as hunting and fishing licenses.
Biden’s infrastructure plan calls for replacing the entire fleet of postal delivery vehicles, which currently average 28 years old and get only 10 miles per gallon, with electric vehicles. Dimondstein sees another opportunity. Post offices, he says, could operate electric vehicle charging stations for postal trucks and the public.
“If someone is traveling from one end of the country to another, or getting in the car and going 600 to 800 miles, you could stop at the local post office, plug in, and pay a small fee,” Dimondstein said. “And the Post Office is everywhere.”
Time for an update
Infrastructure is everywhere too, and outside Washington, the pandemic has altered the way Americans think about it. In some cases, Covid has accelerated trends in how we connect that were already underway; in others, it’s sparked entirely new ways of thinking about our social and economic needs.
Many of those changes may well last for years or decades ahead. So the question for American politics and government isn’t just whether the White House and Capitol Hill can finally agree on a new infrastructure package. It’s also not the difference between $2 trillion and $568 billion in spending or how to pay for it.
It’s whether Congress and the administration can get their minds around the ways the country has already changed — and, whether on the streets, online, in the air, or even on our mail trucks — they’ve updated their thinking and adjusted their strategy to fit a post-pandemic America.