What If? – How America’s Transportation Industry Will Pave the Road to Recovery

Transportation leaders have seen their share of crises. They understand that their livelihood—not to mention all of ours—depends on the continued movement of essential workers, goods and services. For these leaders to come back stronger, they know the focus cannot be survival alone. Too much has been lost, gained and learned to settle for anything short of progress.

With the world hitting reset and states reopening, this is a seminal moment to ask, “what if?” What if outcomes that once felt far beyond the industry’s reach are now in sight?

1. Transportation as the essential job creator

Federal lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are rallying to include infrastructure spending in the next COVID-19 relief bill. If they succeed, America’s unemployed workers will see immediate gains. But what if lawmakers are inspired to go a step further? What if, between now and Election Day, they introduce a new national jobs plan that embraces transportation as the essential job creator it is?

Critical transportation projects have not stopped during this pandemic. Here, and around the world, the same industry we rely on to build our highways, airways, rails and ports will be the cornerstone for paving the road to economic recovery. Let’s recognize it, support it and put significant investments behind it.

2. An industry going beyond “green”

A lot of progress has been made in the last decade to bring down greenhouse gas emissions and reduce the industry’s environmental footprint. Take rail as an example: companies have introduced zero-emissions cranes, anti-idling systems and new, tech-driven processes to make rail the most environmentally-friendly way to travel over land.

We’ll see a wave of new sustainability commitments in the wake of COVID-19, beyond the short-term measures in place to navigate the pandemic. What if we also see companies coming together and embracing their central role in the transportation ecosystem? What if, in addition to making individual commitments, they work to bring others along with them—other industries, policymakers and everyday Americans?

To be sure, this isn’t the time to take a step back and do the easy thing, but rather to push forward, completely reset and build an infrastructure that isn’t only about trying to be “green” but is simply about being better. This ensures that businesses thrive, our environment improves and Americans are put back to work.

3. Raising the bar on stronger standards

In the wake of COVID-19, we must see stronger—and hopefully more equitable—health and safety standards. Action is underway to create new protocols that reduce the risk of contracting COVID-19 for employees and customers alike. Airlines have been cited for their work in this area but it’s happening across the transportation industry, at every level and in partnership with experts in the medical community.

As America reopens, public transit has inspired important conversations about the equitable application of health and safety standards, including on our public transit systems in cities large and small. From the New York City subway system to local bus routes in communities in every state, riders need the confidence in their mode of transit to truly rebuild our economy. Until a vaccine is discovered, our only option is to demand better standards, everywhere and for everyone, and that is a great thing. What if, in the process, the commitment to more equitable standards finally sticks? Transportation leaders cannot accomplish this alone but given the essentialness of their work, they can set the tone.

Transportation has always shaped the way we live our lives. The industry has moved us—literally and figuratively—to work, to play, to visit places and see people that we perhaps had only heard about or seen in a photograph. While it’s impossible to predict an inevitable outcome under the current circumstance, one thing is certain: we will travel and move again one day, and transportation is one of the most anticipated industries to return. And, if executed well while asking the right “what ifs,” the comeback has the potential to be even greater than the setback.

APCO alumnus Matt Gallagher co-authored this post.