The Enigmas of Transport in COVID-19

Published 7 April 2020 / By John Surico

Back to Articles

Transport, as we know, is essential to mobility. It fosters connectivity within and amongst different communities, offering varying degrees of access to valued items like education, sociability, and employment. It allows for intra-national and inter-national movement, creating seamless travel and, when inaccessible, stiff barriers to entry. And it vastly underlies the other structural systems we rely on in our daily lives.

Those notions have taken on entirely different implications in this era of globalized pandemic that we have entered. They’re not necessarily new ones, of course: during the Black Death, it was the ships that carried the bubonic plague to medieval Europe, along trade routes and, then, by horseback. (“Quarantine” — the undisputed buzzword of 2020 — derives from the number of days ships arriving from infected ports had to stay at anchor: quaranta, or forty.) But each pandemic is unique, as they hit at different developmental moments in humanity’s timeline. And for COVID-19, in particular, a defining characteristic is our hyper-mobility.

As the coronavirus shapes up to be the most far-reaching pandemic in modern history — sprouting what appear to be long-lasting crises along social, economic, and public health fault lines — what can we say about transport in all of this? In the following paragraphs, I’ll describe what I see as three key components of transport in the COVID-19 crisis.

1. Transport as a root cause

Simply put: the reason why myself and whoever’s reading this are in respective national lock downs is because of transport.

It was our transport systems that spread COVID-19 across the globe. A highly infectious disease coupled with unprecedented levels of travel created a scenario where the disease was able to spread to now over 100 countries — and fast. This eerie infographic in The New York Times maps out the routes from the Hubei province that transported the disease to other parts of China, and beyond, via planes, trains, cars, cruise ships, freight ships, and other modes.

In practically every story we read of infection, transport is the mechanism of contagion. Take, for example, the ‘super spreader’ soirée in Connecticut: guests left the party, unknowingly infected, and flew back to Johannesburg, South Africa; took the train to New York; or drove home elsewhere in the state. Researchers believe Italy’s outbreak began when two Chinese tourists tested positive after flying through Milan’s Malpensa, as well as after an Italian citizen visiting China repatriated, arriving from a flight. Now we’re seeing rates skyrocket in New Orleans, where thousands traveled in for Mardi Gras festivities last month.

It demonstrates quite a tidal change from the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918, let alone the Black Death. There were 6.1 million motor vehicles (automobiles, buses, and trucks included) in the United States then; now there are over 273 million. Only a handful of cities had public transport systems then; now it’s difficult to find even a small city that doesn’t. Transport was much slower then; now we’ve grown accustomed to the confined spaces of efficient, fast transport (e.g. high-speed rail; commercial jetliners; express metro services). That last point is crucial when we think about infection: the incubation time for this disease fits perfectly in the window of time it takes to cross the world without feeling any symptoms. This ability frankly hasn’t existed in past pandemics.

By reducing barriers to access in a hyper-connected world — a time of unfettered air travel; of ‘peak car;’ and of mass tourism — our seemingly unbound transport systems have linked us all together cheaper and faster than ever before. And, consequently, it got us all sick.

2. Transport as a vulnerability

A flurry of restrictions and advisories have amassed the most extensive limits placed on international mobility in human history. And this restriction on mobility – something so integral to modern migration — is not without political and humanitarian implications.

The virus has been used by a number of national governments, including the United States and Bosnia, to justify border closures, and horrid encampments. The United Nations has suspended refugee resettlement. Meanwhile, food suppliers in the United Kingdom are now saying that harvest needs will be unmet unless the government charters flights to retrieve migrant labor from closed-off Eastern European countries. And flexing industrial muscle — i.e. China relaxing restrictions on Wuhan; the U.S. (unsuccessfully) promising a ‘return’ by Easter — could be read as reviving mobility.

But now we’re also seeing just how vulnerable our transport systems really are. The switch to ‘essential service’ plans has ravaged the finances of transport systems — both private (airlines; cruise ships; etc.) and public (bus; metro; rail, etc.) within days. As my colleague Weiqiang Liu pointed out earlier this week about aviation, these are not industries that can simply work from home, thereby lifting the costs even higher. Furthermore, less formal actors in surface transport — taxi car drivers, for example — have seen their livelihoods all but evaporate.

In this new coronavirus reality, the more transport-dependent your lifestyle is, the more you have to lose. And when we base our systems more and more heavily on this assumed level of accessibility, the cost of the crash grows that much more staggering.

3. Transport as a weapon

But as hopes for a global apex heighten, transport has deployed its third (and, arguably, most important) role: a system vital to combating the virus.

 First, transport is fostering the frontline. Across the world, transport services continue to run, in order to link ‘essential’ labour to their destinations. In order to treat the rising tide of patients on ventilators, doctors and nurses need to get to hospitals (In many cases, transport providers are even giving them a free ride) and now we’re even seeing the “medicalization” of this infrastructure: in France and India, for example, railcars are being used to house temporary hospitals, or to rapidly transport the critically ill, acting as a roving ICU.

 Secondly, transport is acting as a public health tool. New York has blocked off streets from vehicular traffic citywide to allow easier social distancing. Bogotà has deployed 35 kilometers of temporary bike lanes to encourage alternate travel. Portland has shut down roadways in ten parks. And similar measures are being considered in Seattle, Toronto, and Vancouver.

Transport systems suddenly less burdened by cars are now being seen as potential solutions for people. That touches upon the idea of “mobility assemblage” brought up by Biao Xiang in an earlier post on this forum. Our personal movement isn’t coming to a total stop; rather, it’s largely being reconfigured. (For example: I used to take a fast train to and from London almost every day; now, with more street space, I cycle and walk around my own neighborhood more.)

And finally, transport is allowing for an international response. How will extra face masks and ventilators get from China to the U.S.? Or from New York, to other states? Or to wherever the next hot spot may be in the world? With capitalist structures now kicked into high-gear, freight and cargo routes once relied on for transporting the commodities and products that fuel our globalized economies will now act as a supply chain for disease control.

As we’ve seen, transport was integral in fostering the spread of COVID-19 — taking those strengths mentioned in the introduction, and turning them into weaknesses — but, also, will be integral in the fight against it. Hyper-mobility may have put this pandemic into hyperdrive, yet it may put the world’s response into hyperdrive, too. Needless to say, it seems evident as ever that understanding our transport systems — how they function; how they’re flawed; and what they can, in fact, support — will be a key part of any antidote.


About the author: John Surico is a journalist and researcher of urban issues. He is currently pursuing an MSc in Transport and City planning at University College London. He aids editorial efforts at Oxford Urbanists, and the PEAK Urban programme. Previously, he taught undergraduate journalism at New York University. He is based in Oxford, United Kingdom.