What will Mass Transit and Mobility Look Like in the U.S. After the COVID-19 Crisis?

Pininfarina has a long history of designing urban transportation solutions around Europe, always putting function, form and beauty at the center of every design. We believe that living and commuting are in a constant state of evolution, but America’s dominant mode of transportation has held steady: the personal car. This phenomenon might explain why many states receive failing grades for the quality of their current infrastructure, while public transit options are few and far between outside most major cities. This deteriorating and disconnected situation has only been amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic. As we begin to conceptualize what life after COVID will look like, the future of the country’s transportation and mobility networks has never been more important.

It is often the case that in times of economic crisis, public works projects seem to bear the brunt of budget cuts –– but now is the perfect time to invest in transportation infrastructure, as fewer people are relying on transit services while working from home. In metropolitan cities such as Boston or New York, where peak-virus subway ridership was just 8% and 10% of typical pre-pandemic usage respectively, the loss in revenue made it challenging to justify maintenance and repairs, but it would be far less disruptive to make those upgrades in a time like this. As designers, our charge is to identify solutions –– one of which is creating concepts for not just better, more updated inner-city transit systems, but also for additional options for commuters to experience their cities and towns in new ways, while diluting the wear-and-tear on existing infrastructure.

One such idea from CityRealty CEO Daniel Levy is a proposed high-speed gondola route –– aptly named the East River Skyway –– which would connect Manhattan’s Lower East Side to Brooklyn’s Williamsburg in an effort to alleviate both above-ground and below-ground traffic. Pininfarina teamed up with Skidmore, Owings & Merrill (SOM) to develop a landmark design concept that would be completely silent and pollution-free, offering a scenic alternative mode of transport in New York City. Levy’s proposed gondola would be capable of moving over 5,000 people in each direction per hour at full capacity, but SOM’s configuration for the base stations easily allows for traffic control regulation to maintain social distancing measures. The cable car design’s innovative structural engineering and sleek aesthetic speak to Pininfarina’s commitment to both form and function, while working seamlessly with SOM’s structural components to address the issues of crowding, combatting bridge over usage, and creating a green
alternative to hire cars. Not to mention, the concept takes full advantage of sweeping city views, bringing a fun and exciting experience to the act of commuting. But America’s transportation dilemma extends much further than inner-city transit systems –– and this is where we look to Europe as a model.

Pininfarina is proudly an Italian company at its core, and COVID’s wave from Italy to the United States rattled our team –– but it also provided us with a unique opportunity to learn from our colleagues and anticipate new or modified behaviors as a result of the pandemic. As urbanites quickly fled the bustling cities of Rome and Milan for the countryside, where social distancing is woven into the way of life, we watched as decades of investment in inter-city transportation infrastructure sprung to life. High-speed trains delivered passengers to hyperlocal transit networks in a way that is relatively foreign to Americans, who fled their own major cities by airplane –– a notoriously environmentally unfriendly and cramped way to travel. Around the world, the pandemic has reinforced the importance of an accessible, safe, comfortable, and pleasurable passenger experience, and our concepts for the Goldenpass Express panoramic train and a proposed bridge in Panama came into focus.

Both concepts seek to challenge traditional notions of mobility, bringing high functionality together with organic, elegant shapes that enhance the overall travel experience and embrace the picturesque landscapes surrounding them. The Goldenpass Express and the proposed Panama bridge each uniquely transform the idea of getting from Point A to Point B into an enjoyable and exciting experience, becoming destinations in and of themselves. As major, influential organizations within the U.S. allow employees more flexibility in remote work, some even presenting the option to telecommute permanently, citydwellers have gravitated towards less densely populated areas of the country –– no different than what has taken place in Italy. The difference, however, is that the transportation options are quite limited for Americans hoping to report to the office only once or twice a week from towns that were once out of reach for regular commuters.

This challenge is amplified by the relative unavailability of public transportation in suburban areas. By rejecting the demand for infrastructure and cutting the budget for public works projects year after year, Americans are seemingly trapped in their cities. Even if there’s a viable route by train from the central business district to suburban neighborhoods, residents often have no other choice than to drive and (hopefully) find a place to park. Our concept for the City of Miami Beach’s proposed bus shelters seeks to aid in the development of hyperlocal transit networks by improving the quality and functionality of existing architecture in a way that hopes to reduce the impact of heavy car traffic on the environment, not to mention mental wellbeing.

Similar to the ideals embodied in the Goldenpass Express panoramic train and proposed Panama bridge, our design acknowledges the importance of sustainability through transforming typically drab public transport infrastructure into a functional, aesthetically-pleasing experience that goes beyond its sole purpose as a utilitarian construct. By enhancing the transit experience, our design encourages communities to choose public transport over private or hire cars, helping to minimize the city’s carbon footprint. These reimagined transportation systems address mobility concerns by bringing a human-first approach to the way we get around, while adding immense value and personality to our cities –– all through a scenic, pleasurable experience.

These ideas underscore the notion that the pursuit of better transportation infrastructure is worthwhile. Better yet, you don’t have to look very far for concepts that are accessible, beautiful, comfortable, environmentally friendly, and functional.

Image Credits: SOM, Pininfarina

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