For the last hundred years, oil companies, car companies, airlines, global hotel brands, and the tourism industry have sold us travel as the ultimate elite experience. We are lured to enjoy the open road, the great outdoors, exotic white sand beaches and charming villages, made affordable by colonialism and global capital markets.
In big ways, the pandemic flipped the script. Rather than travel being a luxury, those with wealth and privilege now stay home, while essential workers, the people who stock our warehouses, pick our food, and care for others, are in motion. But patterns of who travels and doesn’t travel were nevel simple. Climate catastrophes, free trade policies, gentrification, and displacement lead to forced migrations. For others of us who can’t access cars, transit or safe routes to walk or roll, travel, even regional travel to a job or community meeting, isn’t possible.
And so in some ways, this pandemic, and the subsequent relaxing of requirements for “in person” participation has been revolutionary. Disabled and chronically ill folks who repeatedly have been denied work from home or school from home accommodations are suddenly seeing such accommodations widely available. Conferences have adopted all-online formats. City Council and other public meetings have found ways to accommodate public comment and participation remotely.
Granted, this is all with a huge caveat–there remain many people without access to reliable high speed internet or smartphones, as we’ve seen as schools have tried to move online. This extends to many disabled adults in group homes or assisted living facilities. At the most basic level, we hope this pandemic helps us make inroads to breaking down the digital divide so that everyone in our state can access online services.
But we also have the opportunity to ask bigger questions about our patterns of travel and participation. First, what would happen if we stopped idealizing the jetsetting lifestyle and questioned the value we’ve allowed capitalism to place on experiencing the exotic and new? What if we didn’t define freedom as travel? What if we defined freedom as community and place? You can ask chronically ill and disabled folks who long before COVID-19 learned how to build communities from home. What would it mean to build a new economy not centered around practices like jet travel that we know have extremely high environmental and public health costs?
But it’s not just about rethinking luxury travel. We need to think about how we configure the travel patterns in our daily routines. We’ve all seen the dramatic improvements in air quality by reducing non-essential travel and allowing more people to work from home. Can we maintain these gains by creating communities where we can get what we need with less travel, and less of us needs cars to get there?
At its core, reducing the number of cars on our streets and the miles they drive is a health equity issue. Air pollution from gasoline, diesel fuel and brake pad dust creates significant health risks to poor people and people of color who are more likely to live near high-traffic roads, industrial sites and airports. The impact of these health disparities have only been amplified by COVID-19. In story after story, we see the “underlying health condition” disclaimers attached the lives of people seriously sickened or killed by COVID-19, as if their lives were somehow more disposable. This was only reinforced when hospitals and medical professionals developed triage plans to ration access to care based on assumptions around the projected length and “quality” of the patient’s life.
We know the high public health costs of our auto-dependent communities. Scientists are finding a connection between exposure to air pollution and an increased risk of dying from COVID-19. And yet, because that cost is borne mostly by poor, disabled, brown and black folks, our elected leaders aren’t willing to challenge the status quo. But now is a moment of possibility. Both the highly visual manifestation of health inequities in COVID-19 deaths, and the radical shifts in travel patterns we’ve seen with the stay-at-home orders are providing an opening to push for more meaningful change.