Frozen in place.

Fear + uncertainty and how they impact commuters and travelers in the era of COVID.

I am very fortunate. I live in a modest home on Nantucket Island. I can go to the beach any time I like. I have a nice detached studio in which I work, work out and play my guitars. I have the world’s nicest outdoor shower. I have a wood stove that warms the house when the ocean winds drop below 40 degrees. I have two wifi networks from which to choose. A well-equipped kitchen. A warm bed. A mahogany-decked back porch that my wife and I sit on when we drink our morning coffee. As a result, I remain at home a lot. In fact, I only venture out to shop for food or walk Hazel, our dog.

Our current situation is in stark contrast to the previous 24 years when I had been constantly on the move.

“Constantly on the move,” you question? Surely, that’s an exaggeration. Well, here’s a quick back-of-the-envelope accounting of my travel experiences in that time:

  • Over 670 ferry rides between Nantucket and the mainland.
  • 1,320 plane flights, most of which were in a 10-seat Cessna with my 6’4″ frame stuffed into the copilot’s seat.
  • Over 530 car rentals. (After spending $3,000 a month for 12 years for rental cars, I finally wised up, bought a car, and rented a parking space on the Cape.)
  • I listened to 471 books on tape. Approximately 3,200 hours.
  • Spent over 1,350 nights in hotels. I still have one or two dozen little bottles of shampoo stashed around the house.
  • I spent 10,275 hours in transit, to the best of my ability to estimate.
  • left the island 1,083 times and returned 1,083 times. Thank goodness.(Coming back was always easier than leaving, for some reason.)

So it’s safe to say I was comfortable with traveling. But COVID has changed that for me and for a lot of people. (How many people did I come in contact with over those 24 years? How many surfaces did I touch? *Shudder.*) Commuting has become one of the riskiest actions you can take in an era of over 200,000 people dead and more than 6 million afflicted in the US alone. Few people see this with more clarity than I do. 18 months ago, I started a strategy and communications firm that specializes in meeting the needs of public and personal transportation organizations. So I’ve had a ring-side seat to the mayhem.

According to the Gleam Project, most people are only 80–85% as mobile as they once were, and are making around 50% of the physical contacts they did in January, which is big jump over April. Commuting-to-work levels nationwide are at 50% and climbing very slowly. As of this writing, commuting levels in New York City, by contrast, are still only 25% of what they were in January of 2020.

A few months back in June, I did some informal research with my friends on social media (Facebook plus LinkedIn where I have more than a few contacts in the public transit space) regarding attitudes around public transportation of all kinds. One third of respondents were not willing to trust any form of public transportation including bike share and commuter ferries where they would essentially be outdoors during the trip. Of those that didn’t dismiss public transit out of hand, subways, buses and trains ranked at the bottom of the trusted scale. I will likely do a follow-up this fall to see if attitudes have shifted. But I suspect that fear is still a factor.

It’s not just that people are fearful of this virus. The problem goes well beyond fear. Psychologically, and physically, the uncertainty that comes with the Coronavirus makes the fear doubly paralyzing.

Let me explain that last sentence. A few years ago, when I was part of a great team working on the launch of a new Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system in Connecticut called CTfastrak, we did some research on the impact of uncertainty. In a focus group, we found that people loved driving in their cars and that very little would get them out of those cars. But we also discovered something very surprising. Some people (not all) hated uncertainty even more than they loved their cars. By highlighting the reliability of the CTfastrak BRT schedule in contrast with sitting on I-84 for an uncertain amount of time, we were able to convince more than a few folks that taking the bus was a better idea than driving.

I wondered why this was true. And then I read some of the existing research on uncertainty and learned that uncertainty actually lives in the same place in the brain as pain. To the brain, it was theorized by more than a few researchers, uncertainty actually hurts. And people will avoid uncertainty in the same way they avoid pain, even if the reward of overcoming that uncertainty is great.

Fear is powerful. Uncertainty is its cousin. Together they keep people from doing the things they want to do.

This hit home a few weeks ago when I volunteered to help my son move from an apartment in Queens to one in Manhattan. When he accepted my offer, I then had to plan my trip and I was struck by the pain of uncertainty on a visceral level. How was I going to actually get there?

Normally leaving the island and going to my son’s NYC apartment was a true multi-modal experience. Boat, car, parking garage, train, subway, Uber. Well, that was completely out of the question. Taking that route, albeit less expensive, exposed me (and therefore my wife when I returned) to five or six high-risk environments for COVID, both coming and going.

Instead, I decided to fly. I took JetBlue from our little airport while wearing two masks and taking advantage of every opportunity to load up on hand sanitizer that the airline provided. They did their best to offer social distancing on the plane, despite the fact that the plane was as full as they could pack it and still maintain some empty seats for safety. I did my best not to touch anything. Including my two masks. When I landed at Laguardia, I had four options. Take a taxi/uber, take the bus, spend 45 minutes on the subway, or walk. I know what you’re thinking: “What kind of freak walks across 1/3 of NYC after landing at Laguardia?”

This freak does. Fear and uncertainty make us do weird stuff.

Fortunately, it was a beautiful weekend and walking was ideal. I was able to give my personal trainer the weekend off as I ended up lifting about 16 tons of my son’s books, technology, kitchenware, and furniture up a very steep and narrow set of stairs. As well as walking over three hours (calories were burned). The day after the move, my son rewarded me with a pastrami sandwich the size of my head from Katz’s (calories were consumed) and I walked back to the airport.

The flight back to Nantucket had, maybe, 15 people on it, so I felt a little safer. Despite all of the precautions I took, my wife (who has taken a year-long sabbatical from teaching due to COVID because she is a borderline high-risk case) still made me sleep in my studio until I was able to get a negative COVID test. Which I got. All is well.

But here’s the point. I was willing to pay more and jump through some unusual hoops to limit my uncertainty and maximize the parts of my trip over which I could be in complete control.

What this all means for commuters and travelers is profound. In a COVID-free world, helping commuters and travelers overcome inertia and garden-variety uncertainty was difficult enough. Add to that the fear and uncertainty that comes with an invisible disease that has afflicted millions and killed nearly a million worldwide and it’s amazing anyone ever leaves their homes.

Yet, I hasten to add, some people have no choice. First responders, hospital and food workers, people who need to be out in public just to keep their families fed are literally living with and swallowing their fear and uncertainty every day. And people who work in transportation are in the same boat. Of the top 50 occupations with the most risk, bus drivers and transit operators are listed at №30 and flight attendants are at №21. With estimates for a vaccine around a year away, the only certain thing transportation organizations can do to attract travelers and calm employees is to follow state health guidelines and assure everyone that they are doing everything they can by being extra visible about keeping equipment and facilities sterilized.

How will this all shake out? The answer to that question is uncertain, I fear.

This post was first published on Grant’s blog, Okay Here’s the Thing on Medium

Abstract photo created by freepik —