Which is the number one country in the world for transportation? Certainly not the United States. Not even countries in the E.U. No, you have to look farther east, as Marco Polo did in 1271, to find the future — in China. I’m so tired of ignorant Americans chanting “We’re Number 1,” when we are not. Not in healthcare, education and clearly not when it comes to using transportation to bolster our world trade.
Where the heck has the Connecticut legislature been for the past few months? With so many pressing issues, why haven’t they met? Oh, they’ll tell you it’s because of safety that they couldn’t convene. But we know better. Plenty of state legislatures — even the U.S. House of Representatives — have carried on the people’s business virtually or well-masked while our pols went AWOL.
As New York City businesses reopens it’s expected that one million people will get back to work, some of them from Connecticut. But how they get to those jobs is the big question. While I’ve written for weeks that I expect many Nutmeggers will opt first for their personal automobiles, the resulting traffic mess will soon have them reconsidering a return to Metro-North and the city’s subways. The big issue, of course, is keeping everyone safe by maintaining social distancing and requiring face masks for all riders. More Trains and Subways
Metro-North has already expanded rush hour service by 26% over their scaled-back “essential service” levels.
When coronavirus hit us this spring, more than just our normal rail commuting patterns were disrupted. One young entrepreneur’s business simply imploded, but now he’s coming back, stronger than before. Joe Colangelo is founder and CEO of Boxcar, the New Jersey-based company that bills itself as the “Airbnb of parking,” matching commuters with empty parking spots near train stations in Stamford, Darien, New Canaan and Stratford. Before COVID-19, his business was red hot. But by early March he knew it was doomed as people stopped commuting and demand for parking evaporated.
Joe Connolly has been a telecommuter for 20 years. You probably know him from his award-winning business reports on WCBS Newsradio 880 or his Small Business Breakfasts held annually in Stamford. But you might not realize that Connolly lives not in New York City, but in eastern Connecticut. He’s up and working weekdays by 4:30 a.m., driving first to pick up a print copy of the Wall Street Journal before heading to his office/broadcast studio near his home, where he seldom opens the window blinds. “I’m here to work,” he says, “not for the view.”
In his broadcast booth he has a big painting of the New York City skyline to keep him connected with his radio audience.
Post-coronavirus, Gov. Ned Lamont predicts the end of daily commuting as we know it. Lamont told Bloomberg that his New York business buddies tell him they’re saving so much money by having people work from their homes they may cut office space in the city by 30 percent. “The old idea of the commuter going into New York City five days a week may be an idea that’s behind us,” Lamont said. “Maybe you have a great job that seems to be geographically located in New York City, you can do it two-thirds of the time from your home in Stamford.”
Or maybe you don’t need to ever go into the city. Twitter has told its tech workers they can work from home forever, assuming they can stand it. That means more time with the family and a lot less time and money spent on the train.
You know those big brown trucks that are keeping us well-delivered during this time of COVID-19? Well, there’s some interesting history and tech to United Parcel Service, or UPS. Founded as the American Messenger Company in Seattle in 1907, the company made most of its deliveries back then to stores, not customers, and made them on foot or by bicycle. Adding a Model T to their fleet in 1913, the company started serving neighborhoods. By 1930 the company expanded to most cities in the East and Midwest, adding delivery by airline cargo partnerships to their modes of transportation.
In the post-COVID-19 world (whenever that may be) commuters will be asking themselves one question: Is this trip really necessary? Sure, when the quarantining is lifted and the life threatening virus seems to have passed (at least until it returns next fall), we may look forward to getting back on the train and on the crowded highways. But the weeks of not commuting have changed our attitudes toward work and the necessity of travel. Going forward, I think we will be making that daily trek a lot less often and that will have a profound effect on transportation. Sure, plumbers can’t telecommute, but knowledge workers can. And they make up a large portion of southwest Connecticut’s population. They’ve been working from home just fine in recent weeks. So they’ll be asking themselves (and their employers) if a daily schlep into their New York City office is really necessary, or if they can continue to work from home two or three days a week. Being self-employed, I have worked from my home office for over 35 years. I sure don’t miss the daily grind, nor the office politics, and love my work so I end up doing it six or seven days a week: it’s not a job but a passion.
The road ahead for commuters may be less crowded, or maybe more. One theory has it that, as people gradually return to work, they will shun mass transit out of safety concerns and commute, instead, by car. That could create problems on our roads if people try to drive five days a week. The other speculation is that the “new normal” will mean less commuting overall as people have found they can be just as productive from home and will commute less than the normal five days a week. Work hours may also be staggered, asking employees to go to their jobs every other day to avoid crowding in the office.
Our “aw shucks, golly” Governor seems to have a mean streak. While he probably deserves all the credit he’s getting for his handling of the COVID-19 crisis, what he did recently at the Bond Commission seems uncharacteristically mean and vindictive. Somehow a promised $72 million investment in badly needed replacement rail cars for the Danbury and Waterbury branch lines of Metro-North got derailed as the item was deleted from the agenda. Those lines won’t be getting new cars anytime soon. What happened?
Have you ever taken a cruise? According to that industry, something like 28 million people worldwide took to the high seas last year. But that still leave 80% of Americans who have never cruised, enjoying the midnight buffets, spas and casinos at sea. Obviously, cruising has lost its allure since the megaships became epicenters of COVID-19 outbreaks, trapping passengers in their cabins for days as some ships searched for a port that would let them dock with their contagious human cargo. Even before the current pandemic cruise ships were notorious hotspots for simpler bugs like the norovirus which caused “acute gastrointestinal illness.” It’s hard to share a confined space like a ship without touching surfaces that harbor the virus.
I’ll admit it: I love driving fast. I’ve even been known to drive faster than 55 mph on I-95, but who hasn’t? (And I’ve never been given a ticket). When the road’s not crawling along bumper-to-bumper at rush hour, driving the speed limit almost seems unsafe, you’re getting passed so often. A couple of years ago I had a reporter “ride along” on I-95 with a state trooper.
“In my 30 years in the transit business I never thought I’d be asking people NOT to take the bus,” says Doug Holcomb, CEO of Greater Bridgeport Transit, the operator of 57 buses carrying 5 million passengers a year. But not this year. Like most transit agencies, GBT is asking people to stay home and to ride their buses only if it is essential. So ridership on those buses has dropped 65%. On Metro-North the ridership is down 90 to 95%.
When it comes to transportation, Joe McGee is often the smartest guy in the room. If I want a vision of our state’s mobility future, he’s the first man I turn to. McGee served as then Gov. Lowell Weicker’s commissioner of economic development. For years I worked with him on the Connecticut Metro-North Rail Commuter Council. And until recently he was the Fairfield Business Council’s vice president for public policy, specializing in the intertwined issues of transportation and economic development.
My usual beat is writing about transportation. And some of you, faithful readers, often tell me I’m too negative and cynical. That might be true. So how’s this for a change? We all know these are stressful times.