27 Apr Airo Security Stated: Transportation In A “White Swan” Post-COVID World
“The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men…” wrote Robbie Burns, the widely famed bard of Ayrshire. He was writing about how even the most carefully laid plans can meet with disaster. The world is of course seeing this right now, writ large. And it should be noted that COVID-19 is not one of Nassim Taleb’s “black swans”. It’s a white swan, because we knew something like this was coming at some point.
The global economy has tanked. Demand in most sectors has dropped precipitously as consumers stay home and rein in spending with the baleful spectre of unemployment on the horizon. Russia and Saudi Arabia, previous to the pandemic, had flooded the market with oil and for the first time in history we’re seeing negative prices for oil futures.
There is now a sprawling air of gloom that shrouds cities and towns. Many people in my own city seem to try to remain upbeat, and we don’t forget to celebrate our health workers who are putting themselves at risk to help the sick, but behind the masks there are sure to be the faces of struggle, deprivation and anxiety. We are social animals, and we crave and need the warmth of human contact.
Human beings do not respond well to uncertainty. This is why we cling to faint hope and why many will be seduced by prognosticators and cure-all hucksters, who promise security and prosperity, even in the complete absence of evidence. We look to our health experts and leaders to give us some form of scaffolding upon which we can rest our hopes and fears. Structure lent to us from those who appear confident gives us firmer footing.
Historically, trade (and thus transport) was the primary vector for infectious diseases that spread widely, and COVID-19 was no exception. It is also, ironically, an absolutely critical sector during a pandemic. Supply chains must remain operational, and if a population is ordered to shelter at home, supplies must be brought to them. Pandemic or no, we still need to maintain one of the most fundamental functions in society, that of moving objects and people through space. Transportation permits civilization.
While gloom and fear prevail, there remains an unexpected point of brightness. With the significant reduction of fossil fuel use, thanks to far fewer commuters going to and from work or school, and a massive drop in air travel, air pollution has seen a very noticeable reduction. The air is startlingly cleaner, which positively impacts our health, and that of the biosphere. To be fair, this (temporary!) improvement comes at a terrible cost to the population, “on the back of tragic economic slowdown and human distress.”
But, importantly, this change to our biosphere is a herald for what is to come. It has never been clearer that we need a new, different economy, backed by smart, efficient transportation networks that talk to each other. Transforming our infrastructure from fossil fuels to electric could bring about a permanent version of the environmental improvements we’re seeing now. We don’t need wider roads; we need fewer cars, shared ones that are self-driven—the present state of traffic might be what it looks like when we achieve this. We need mass transit that is properly coupled with first- and last-mile solutions. We need delivery systems that can flexibly serve everyone from health care operations requiring special handling to the immunocompromised that must remain at home. This vast space of opportunity also represents an end result that treats both humanity and the planet with more consideration and compassion. We have no excuses to give to not pursue this change. COVID-19 has in its own way made sure of it.