While every economic sector in America has been upended by the coronavirus, few have been hit as hard as the transit and food service industries. It's not so easy to hop on a bus or train when there's a need for increased sanitation and social distancing. It’s equally hard to imagine sitting down in a café next to some strangers and ordering a nice salade niçoise as servers buzz around the dining room. As the country grows more desperate to return to something approaching normalcy, experiences like riding a bus, hailing an Uber, and dining out will soon look very different, with restaurant tables spilling into the roads, and the roads themselves closed to cars.
This week on Gadget Lab, WIRED transportation writer Aarian Marshall joins us to talk about how the coronavirus is poised to change the design of city life.
Read Aarian’s story about how cities are embracing outdoor spaces here. Catch up with Elon Musk’s Tesla tweetstorm here. Read more from WIRED about the state of transportation here. Follow all of our coronavirus coverage here.
Aaarian recommends buying subscriptions to some print magazines, so you’re not just staring at a screen all the time. Lauren recommends Billions on Showtime. Mike recommends Questlove Quarantine Live From the Qibbutz on YouTube (aka #QuestosWreckaStow).
Aarian Marshall can be found on Twitter @AarianMarshall. Lauren Goode is @LaurenGoode. Michael Calore is @snackfight. Bling the main hotline at @GadgetLab. The show is produced by Boone Ashworth (@booneashworth). Our executive producer is Alex Kapelman (@alexkapelman). Our theme music is by Solar Keys.
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Michael Calore: Hi everyone, welcome to Gadget Lab. I am Michael Calore, a senior editor at WIRED, and I'm joined remotely by my cohost, WIRED senior writer Lauren Goode.
Lauren Goode: Hello.
MC: And we are also joined by WIRED transportation writer Aarian Marshall.
Aarian Marshall: Hi there.
MC: Thanks for coming back on the show from the remote location.
AM: Thanks for having me.
MC: Of course. We're having you on today because we're going to talk about the future of transportation. Later in the show, we'll look at how the coronavirus is changing the ways that we get around. But first we're going to talk about how cities are adjusting to accommodate social distancing and slow down the pandemic. Now, Aarian, you wrote a story this week on WIRED about how some cities are reconfiguring to prioritize outdoor gatherings. Tell us about it.
AM: Yeah, so this is, I think, an especially appropriate time to start thinking about how people are dealing with this pandemic in cities, because it's starting to get really nice out in a lot of the country. So something that a lot of city officials have seen during this pandemic, which is really no surprise, is that there has been a huge dip in traffic on all sorts of roads. I talked to a city official last week who told me that it's basically a Saturday morning every day, throughout the day. And then at the same time you have people who are in these small apartments. I am currently in a two-room apartment, which feels very small. And people are really looking for a chance to get outside, safely, and not feel trapped.
So something that a lot of cities have done—Denver, Oakland was really the leader here, San Francisco, and finally, finally New York is slowly getting in on the act—is opening up some of those now empty streets to people on foot and people on bikes. And saying, "No, cars can't go on here right now. This is a space for people to, at safe social distances, be able to get outside and enjoy the outdoors." Now we're seeing another step, another sort of experiment going on in cities like Tampa, in Louisiana, in cities in Georgia, where restaurants that have really suffered because of the pandemic are trying to open up. And thinking, "Hey look, there's some space on streets. There's some space in parking lots for us to spread out and have service in a socially distanced way." And a few restaurants are going forward with that and opening "dining rooms" in their parking lots or on sidewalks. And for me, talking to people who are getting into this, it was just such a nice idea for the summer. Wouldn't it be lovely if we could all enjoy a glass of wine outside right now?
LG: Aarian, what do we know so far about how the virus spreads outdoors versus indoors, and how is that informing some of these decisions?
AM: Yeah, that's a huge part of the decisionmaking process here. The science, if you read WIRED every day as you should be, it's clear that the science is moving quickly here. And there's still a ton about this virus that we don't understand, but based on the latest research, it's looking more and more like outdoor transmissions are very rare. There was just last week a new paper out of Hong Kong that shows that out of 300 outbreaks that they studied, just one was outdoors. So outdoor transmission seems like it's rare. There's wind that disperses the virus. There's sunlight, which breaks down the virus. So there's good reason to believe that you're actually safer outdoors than you might be trapped indoors with an infected person and being constantly exposed in close quarters to the virus.
MC: So let me ask what this looks like. I mean, because we think about outdoor dining, and we think about like, Oh the Parisian café, you know, like the two tops along the sidewalk with people walking by. I'm imagining it's something quite different.
AM: Yeah, I don't actually think it would look super different from that. I've been talking to folks who are really excited for the US to kind of move towards this European model of outdoor dining. A big thing here is that the cities that are implementing this, at least in the US, are making sure that tables are at least 6 feet apart, and that can be challenging on skinny little sidewalks. So that's why some are talking about moving into the street, maybe moving into places where street parking used to be. So definitely being more spaced out than perhaps we're used to. But when you think of a European square where folks are drinking wine, enjoying pasta, that's what they do in Europe, right? I think it would look a lot like that. And they're actually starting to pull this off in Lithuania. They're really turning the city into this sort of open market café.
LG: And what kind of resistance, if any, do these businesses face as they try to expand, basically unfurl their restaurants so that they just spill out into the streets and therefore cut off some pedestrian pathways or prevent cars from going down the streets. Are there any people who are very opposed to this idea?
AM: Yeah, there's definitely a lot of challenges here. One challenge is that in many places you're required to have X number of parking spots to go along with your restaurant. So if you're putting tables in your parking spots, you're cutting down on parking. So they're going to need permission from the city to do that. Obviously public health departments play a part here. This might not be a good fit for New York City right now, because there are still many cases of the virus, and it might not be a good time to really start reopening the economy in any way. There's also a question of liquor laws. You're not allowed to drink outside in a lot of the US, tragically, in my opinion. So they're going to need to get state liquor boards involved. There's probably a lot of red tape that's going to go along with making this idea a reality in a lot of places. But it's different in every city.
MC: I mean, it sounds amazing, right? It sounds like something that we've always wanted, outdoor dining, make it easy for people to sit, stay a little bit longer, order that third glass of wine, enjoy themselves. So what are the chances that once we get to the point where we can fully reopen society, that this sticks around, that people have grown so fond of it and restaurants really enjoy it as part of their business? That we will allow people to continue this way of, I don't know, this leisure activity into the future?
AM: I think that's something that the people who are advocating for cities to reorder their space during this pandemic, allowing people more space to walk, more space to a bicycle, they're hoping those changes stick around after the pandemic as well. But of course it's going to come up against the realities of whatever the new normal ends up being. There's not a lot of traffic right now, but there's reason to believe that people aren't going to be so willing to get on public transit after this. It'll really freak them out. So then maybe you're going to actually see a ton more traffic, once people start getting back to work, because they're going to want to go in their own personal cars, they're going to want to go in an Uber or Lyft. So it's a real open question.
LG: We're going to talk about public transit after the break, but I wanted to ask each of you, would you go sit at an outdoor café right now and wine and dine with your friends?
AM: If it were appropriately spaced and I was hanging out with the one person I've been hanging out with in quarantine, which is my husband, I think I would do it. I'd obviously want to hear from my local public health department, but I was surprised while reporting on this story how open to the idea the virologists I spoke to were. They seemed to think this was a good idea, and those sorts of people tend to be on the side of caution. So it made me feel better about it.
MC: I'm of the same mind. I mean, right now in San Francisco I can go to the corner with my wife, get a takeout, and then walk with it two blocks to the park, and then sit in the park and enjoy the takeout in the open air. And if I could do that with a table and a glass of wine, with just her—because that seems like the safest thing to do, since we live together—then yeah, I would totally take advantage of it. It would feel weird at first, but I think we'd get used to it pretty quickly, because it also sounds pretty pleasant. What about you Lauren?
LG: I think I would be in that situation where it becomes this vetting process of your friends, even if you don't mean it to be where you would be asking everybody or sort of judging everybody based on how seriously they're taking social distancing and I would feel comfortable doing it with a friend who was on the same page as me, but if I had a friend who was interacting a lot with the quote unquote outside world and then wanted to grab dinner at an outdoor cafe, I might hesitate. I would also wonder what happens when you have to use the restroom of course, and you're using the same restroom facilities that everybody else is using.
You're not in there for very long, hopefully, hopefully. And you're washing your hands and all of that stuff. But I would just wonder how cafes and restaurants would do that. Would there, would there be wipes and hand sanitizer everywhere? Some restaurants have attendants who work there and like wipe down surfaces. Yeah, I think that might be the thing for me is just knowing that at some point, even if you're feeling relatively safe with the person that you're dining with, you're still interacting with people in a way and they could be asymptomatic and you could be asymptomatic.
MC: Yeah, that's a good point. I hadn't thought about the bathroom equation.
AM: Yeah. And I think it really points to this thing I saw when talking to the people who own restaurants this week, which is in places like Georgia that have technically opened up these restaurateurs are this weird position where they're taking it upon themselves to figure out how to sanitize their restaurants, how to make people comfortable because they're not really receiving any instructions from the government. So that's the kind of thing I'd love to see some sort of guideline as to how to do this as safely as possible.
LG: And I would love to be in a position where I could support local restaurants and support the business owners who feel an incredible amount of pressure to try to reopen their businesses right now. But there are just so many unknowns. Yeah, it might still be enjoying my, my own little chair and patio out here for a while longer before I venture out into the world again.
MC: All right. On that note, let's take a quick break and then when we come back, we're going to talk about how transportation is changing.
MC: Welcome back. The coronavirus has caused us all to rethink how we do some very basic things, how we interact with people, how we stay clean, and how we move around. Transportation has changed drastically since this quarantine started. And even when we returned to some form of normalcy, the way that we get from here to there will look very different. Aarian, I want to ask you, since you're the expert here, what kinds of changes should we expect as we begin to open up?
AM: Oh man, it's unclear to me right now and obviously it's going to look different everywhere. But based on some kind of like preliminary data out of China, which seems to be a few months ahead of the US and all this, it seems like the immediate period after we get this pandemic more under control might be a time when private cars get a little more in vogue. They've seen in China more people buying vehicles. I think part of that is just sort of a pent up demand, no one was buying cars for two months and maybe they didn't need it, a new car anyway. But also part of that might be that people feel it's the safest way to get around right now.
So I think there might be sort of a move towards that. But I also think this could be a big opportunity for bicycles. In a lot of places, bike repair shops and bicycle shops were actually classified as essential businesses and those places have reported seeing huge uptakes in people who are interested in getting around on bike, especially not, there's not a lot of traffic and it feels a little less scary. So I think for those places, they really hope that that's going to stick and that people that start biking during the pandemic really stick with it because they don't have to get too close to anyone while they're on their bike.
LG: Aarian, you started to address countries that have started to reopen again such as parts of China or in South Korea. And I'm wondering if we're seeing people back to taking public transit in places like that and if so, what safety precautions are being put in place to ensure that public transit is safe?
AM: Yeah, so I haven't been paying as close attention to South Korea as I probably should have, but my understanding is that levels are not back to what they were, but that life is certainly getting a little more normal there. Somethings that you're seeing in transit is little decals on the ground that are reminding people to stand as far apart as possible. Even before they get into the station reminders to stay apart. You're also seeing more testing of staff members.
This is even happening in New York, they have what they called a temperature brigade where they just basically arm folks with thermometers and send them into staff break rooms to make sure that the people driving trains and the people who are driving buses are staying safe because not only are they at risk of the virus, but also there's a real possibility that they could become vectors for the virus because they're coming in contact with so many people as they do their jobs. But yeah, I think that the picture of public transit in North America and Europe is, is a little dire right now. There's a real questions about funding, how they will continue to operate. It's a really a big question mark for me.
MC: Yeah. Here in San Francisco, they've cut bus lines to only the lines that see the highest number of riders. And those are mostly ones that go from like the city center to places like the major hospitals, right? Because people who work in the hospital still need to be able to get to and from work. Ridership is down something around 80%. I know that in New York and Boston, it's down around 90% on buses and subways. And once we start to loosen the stay at home orders a lot of people are not going to feel comfortable riding the buses and the subways. So they're going to stay off of them, that means there's no fares. We may be in a situation where we're going to have to be, like governments are going to have to be pouring tons of additional money into transit in order to keep it running.
AM: Yeah, definitely. And it's something that I've actually spent the week talking to a few transit agencies and I just talked with the director of operations at LA Metro, Jim Gallagher, who explained to me that there's a little bit of sort of a chicken and the egg problem where they're trying to follow the lead of businesses. They're trying to kind of suss out who's opening and where. Is there a bus line that goes to this Walmart that's still operating? Maybe we have to run that more frequently.
But also businesses are sort of looking to Metro and saying, when are you guys going to have a service so that we know that our workers can get to work. So it's, it's this real sort of circular issue here that that agencies have to really look to their community and keep having conversations with them and keep having conversations with their riders about what they're comfortable with. I will say a lot of them are finding these little sort of cleanliness fixtures. I talked to BART last week, the Bay Area Rapid Transit in the Bay Area, and they mentioned to me that they have these little nylon straps that people hold on to when they're on the train. They might take those off and give you your own little personalized nylon strap that you can use, so they're starting to get creative about ways they can make people comfortable, but they're not sure when that's going to be.
LG: Aarian, I have to ask you, what is this doing to the scooter economy? Because I can tell you the one thing I would not do right now is if I saw an idol scooter on the side of the road, just go hop on it and give it a ride.
AM: Oh man. Well, a lot of scooter companies responded to this virus by actually just kind of pulling out and shutting down service in some cities. Now we're seeing a few start to come back. Bird just restarted service in a few cities. But there's also kind of from a business perspective, there's been some talk for maybe a year or so about, oh, when is the big consolidation in the sweeter business going to happen? And it looks like it's happening. Just this week Uber announced that it's investing $170 million in Lime. But the sort of second thing that's happening there that I think has gotten less attention is that Uber is offloading Jump, it's bike and scooter share service to Lime. So Uber is just like getting out of bikes and scooters right now.
And my big question is, but how does that transform cities? How does that transform city contracts? Those companies right now when I talk to them are saying, oh, this is a great time for us because people don't want to be on public transit and they might not have cars, so they should be, they should be getting on bikes and should be getting on scooters. But I think a lot of people have your concerns, Lauren, which is like, oh, I don't want to touch that. I don't know who touched that.
LG: Yeah, it seems like it would be a great opportunity for personal scooter ownership, but not necessarily shared scooters.
AM: Yeah. There's also some, like there's one a company called Wheels that starting to put the special kind of coating on their handlebars. They say it sort of repels the virus in some way or doesn't like allow things to stick to it. I don't know the science of all that, but I do know they're trying to sort of innovate and figure out, again, ways to make people comfortable using the product.
MC: You can still catch an Uber or Lyft now in most places. It's pretty easy to find a driver who's driving around looking for somebody to pick up. No more pool rides anymore though. No more Lyft Line. I'm really curious because this was such a big thing for us in the cities over the last few years. Getting into a car with strangers sitting right next to each other and then getting dropped off and saving a few dollars. I wonder if this is ever going to come back or if it does, is it going to come back to this year? Are we going to be able to do pools and Lyft Lines before the holiday party season?
AM: Yeah. I'm not sure. I will say that the pooled rides for Uber and Lyft we're not huge moneymakers so I don't know how sad they are to lose that line of business. They were very cheap rides. They were inefficient rides because they're constantly working on those algorithms, but you still sometimes found yourself in a situation where you got on an Uber and then you drove for a mile and then it like somehow for some reason turned around and went back to near your house and picked up someone else. So it was sort of a fraught business. So I really am not sure if that's going to come back. But those companies do you face a big problem on the horizon, which is this question of whether people will be able to afford to take ride hail in the way that they used to.
I know for me it was sort of like a splurge thing I did. If I was running late to something and in the future I might think twice about making that kind of splurge, just because the way the economy is looking. So they have to figure out a way to capitalize on the fact that people might not want to get on public transit, but also keep it cheap enough so that people can afford to take it, even as they're trying to become profitable, which is something a Lyft for example, said they'd be able to do next year. And now they're saying, we don't know anymore, it's going to happen, but we don't know when.
MC: One last thing that we have to ask you about because you're on the show this week and this is the week that Tesla CEO, Elon Musk announced that his eighth child? Is that right?
MC: Seventh child is now in the world. How do you pronounce this kid's name?
AM: Okay, so Elon Musk was just on Joe Rogan's podcast again. I was of the mind that he was trolling all of us and that this wasn't actually the kid's name, but it sounds like it is. So it's X-Ash-A-12 [lit. X Æ A-12] is his name, which is named after his partner Grimes, the mother of this child tweeted something about it. Ash is an Elven pronunciation of AI, A-12 has something to do with their favorite fighter jet. Anyway, that's how you pronounce it. I suspect the kid's just going to go by Ash, but who knows.
LG: Wow. What I mean, what else is going on in the world of Elon Musk, Aarian?
AM: Oh man. Well Tesla reported last week that they had made a slim profit in the first quarter of 2020 which is always good news for them. It's their third in a row, which they've never done before, but you know they are also suffering from the virus. Their assembly plant in Fremont has been closed down since March, so they haven't been able to make cars, which is how they make money.
And Elon Musk is really upset about this and he's gone on a rant both on Twitter, which is his favorite medium, but also on an earnings call with investors, which are usually these like incredibly boring calls where they talk about gross profit margins, but he went on this rant about freeing America last week. He wants to free America from shelter and place orders. He thinks he doesn't think coronavirus is a hoax. I definitely, he wouldn't go that far, but he does think shelter and place orders are an overreaction.
LG: But I guess if we do head out to outdoor cafes anytime soon, we'll see Elon Musk there.
AM: Yes, Elon will be there with all of his children.
MC: Well, let's take another break and when we come back we will go through our recommendations.
MC: All right, Aarian, you get to go first, what's your recommendation?
AM: Okay. Every time I come on here, my recommendations get lamer and lamer. I don't mean for this to be a plug, but it is. I just recently just signed up for a ton of magazine subscriptions. I already had a WIRED subscription, but I'm finding it's such a lovely break now that my life is totally revolving around screens. I wake up, I sometimes exercise in front of a screen. I then open my work computer and start working and then after work it's just basically like, well, what are we going to watch on TV today? It's so nice to have something you've been holding your hand and read. Just go and read some magazines folks.
MC: What are some of the titles that you subscribe to if you're at liberty to say?
AM: Sure. I subscribed to the New Yorker, which I've subscribed to and canceled in the past and now it's back in my life as a magazine. Really great. Definitely get it and then also with my New Yorker subscription, we got a Vanity Fair subscription. Condé Nast, what a great producer of magazines.
MC: Lauren, what is your recommendation?
LG: My recommendation is Billions on Showtime. I had never watched Billions before. It is now in its fifth season. I am still on season number one. I am totally sucked into the world of pre-COVID, unfettered capitalism that this show offers. It's great. Starts off with a bang. You're totally sucked into the characters right away. I really liked Damian Lewis as an actor. Paul Giamatti and he's great. Yeah, it's really good. I'm enjoying it. I recommend Billions.
MC: I'm on season four right now. I'm also watching it currently.
LG: Mike, what's your recommendation this week?
MC: All right, so I'm going to recommend a piece of streaming media. It's called QuestosWreckaStow also known as the Questlove Quarantine Live From The Qibbutz. Questlove, who you may know as the drummer for The Roots and the musical director for the late night television show that The Roots is the house band for, the Jimmy Fallon show. Questlove is a very accomplished DJ and he is just a font of knowledge. He goes online on all the platforms, Instagram, Twitch, YouTube. I've been watching it on YouTube. It's great because I can just put it up on my TV screen and play it through my soundbar. He does like a four hour DJ set streamed live on the internet, maybe like three nights a week, four nights a week. He's on there playing tracks live, talking about them. He puts his laptop screen on part of the part of the frame so that you can see the songs that he's playing.
You know you have Shazam open, you're like taking notes. It's really just amazing and it's great to tune in live because he responds to people on the live chat, which you can see on the side of the screen. But also they're usually archived so you can go back and you can watch the ones from about the last week or so. It's just fun. It's lighthearted, it's a good time, it's dance music. You can put it on while you're cooking or you can put it on while you're eating. It kind of makes you feel like you're part of this little club with Questlove talking to you and helping you out through the evening. So highly recommended.
LG: Great recommendation. Thank you, Mike.
MC: Of course. You're welcome. All right, well that's our show. Thank you everybody for listening and thank you, Aarian for being here.
AM: Thanks for having me.
MC: Of course. Great to see you on the little postage stamp on my screen. If any of you have feedback, you can find this on Twitter. Just check the show notes. The show is produced by Boone Ashworth and our executive producer is Alex Kapelman, and until next week so long.
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