Cecilia Menjívar, a UCLA professor of sociology who is one of the faculty experts affiliated with the Latino Policy and Politics Initiative at UCLA Luskin, is a co-author of a recent opinion piece for CNN that contends that society would be better served by using the phrase “physical distancing” instead of “social distancing.” In the effort to combat the spread of COVID-19, “what health experts are really promoting are practices that temporarily increase our physical distance from one another in order to slow the spread of the virus. They are not recommending social disconnection, social exclusion or rampant individualism,” wrote Menjívar and co-authors Jacob G. Foster and Jennie E. Brand, who are also sociology faculty members at UCLA. “We must be physically distant now — our health depends on it. But we should redouble our efforts to be socially close. Our health depends on that, too.”
Experts from the Institute of Transportation Studies (ITS) at UCLA Luskin are weighing in on the financial burden that the COVID-19 health crisis is placing on public transit agencies. “The virtues of public transit are precisely at odds with coping with the pandemic. … We now have essentially a mandate to not move, to not have a lot of people together anywhere,” ITS Director Brian Taylor told the Hill. The article also quoted Emeritus Professor Martin Wachs, who leads research into transportation finance at ITS. Both ridership and sales tax revenues are down, Wachs said, but transit is “a public service that we must keep operating during the crisis because people who have no option other than transit need to shop for food and get to doctors’ offices and hospitals.” On Curbed LA, ITS Deputy Director Juan Matute said Los Angeles’ Metro system may be forced to cut service dramatically or delay work on key projects. He also noted that, once the health crisis has lifted, “if there’s a severe recession, people who are out of work but still need to get around will become reliant on Metro.”
Daniel J.B. Mitchell, professor emeritus of public policy and management, spoke with the San Francisco Chronicle about COVID-19’s impact on the California economy. In January, Gov. Gavin Newsom unveiled a budget proposal that projected a multibillion-dollar surplus and new programs for housing, health care and wildfire prevention. A revised 2020-21 spending plan, due in May, will need to account for the widespread shutdown of the state’s economy due to concerns about the spread of the novel coronavirus. The economy has already suffered a “tremendous shock,” Mitchell said, and the period of rebuilding could last years. “If you create enough disruption, it’s not so easy to go back,” he said. “So you could be looking at a very prolonged period here in California where the underlying economy is not good.”
Associate Professor of Urban Planning Michael Manville spoke to the Guardian about Angelenos’ road habits during the time of coronavirus. Even when just a few businesses asked workers to stay home, congestion was down quite a bit, demonstrating how relatively small reductions in cars can generate big increases in road performance, Manville said. “That has lessons for us, because it does remind us that when things get back to normal, policies that nudge just a few people away from a trip at a busy time can have a huge impact,” he said. However, Manville doubted the current health emergency would reshape Angelenos’ long-term relationship to the road. “It would be one thing if we were under an order to still go to places, but not in cars — some of us would find we like walking or biking,” he said. “But there’s no reason to think we will develop a different travel habit while we’re sitting on our couches.”
Associate Professor of Public Policy Randall Akee spoke to CNN about a proposal to send economic stimulus checks to Americans to help them weather the financial impact of COVID-19. As part of a broader economic stabilization plan, the direct government payments to millions of people are seen as a move that could provide quick relief, if not full insulation from the economic shock of the coronavirus. Akee said the payments are especially urgent in households struggling to buy groceries, pay rent and cover car payments, to provide stability untilthe crisis is over and Americans can return to work. “There are household expenses that people are very concerned about,” he said. “That’s why this cash payment is crucial.”
Urban Planning Professor Chris Tilly spoke with KQED about the disparities in benefits that contract workers experience compared to full-time workers — a gap that has been put into sharp focus by the coronavirus outbreak. At big tech firms, in particular, a significant number of workers are contractors who receive vastly different benefits and pay packages. In the current pandemic, offers to allow employees to work from home may not apply to contractors, for example. Tilly said that white-collar contracting, which is also on the rise in a number of industries beyond tech, creates a “fissuring” of the workplace. “These fissures undermine the U.S. safety net, which depends crucially on employment status, since contractors are considered self-employed and generally receive no benefits at all,” he said. “An emergency situation like the current one worsens the impact of the inequities, and intensifies confusion and the complexities of mounting an effective response.”
Juan Matute, deputy director of the Institute of Transportation Studies at UCLA Luskin, spoke to the Los Angeles Times about the COVID-19 outbreak’s effect on L.A. freeway traffic. As reported cases of COVID-19 surge in Los Angeles County, residents are following recommendations to stay at home and avoid public spaces, resulting in strangely empty freeways. Urban planning experts explain that reducing the number of vehicles on the road by a small amount can greatly reduce freeway traffic. “Pretty much every freeway lane in L.A. experiences some degree of this phenomenon: Everything is going fine, then suddenly it all slows down,” said Matute, an urban planning lecturer at the Luskin School. Freeway lanes have the capacity to support between 2,000 and 2,400 vehicles per lane per hour, but traffic grinds to a halt when lanes hit their capacity. On some freeways, reducing the number of cars by 5% could cut rush hour travel time in half, experts say.
Michael Manville, associate professor of urban planning, was featured in a New York Times article discussing the factors responsible for a nationwide decline in bus ridership. Urban planning experts point to suburbanization, increasing levels of car ownership and new rideshare services as partially responsible. Manville added that the rise of Craigslist has “altered the market for used cars, making them easier to find and cheaper to buy.” In addition, declining immigration rates in general could shrink the pool of potential bus riders. Manville argued that the best solution is to “make the true costs of driving more apparent” by implementing congestion pricing, higher parking rates and higher gas taxes. “At the end of the day, we may never know what’s driving this decline,” he said. “But I guarantee you that if you took a lane of Vermont Avenue in Los Angeles and gave it only to the bus, ridership would go up.”
Martin Wachs, distinguished professor emeritus of urban planning, was featured in a Los Angeles Times article discussing the potential long-term impact of COVID-19 on Los Angeles residents. Commonly crowded public spaces and freeways have been unusually empty due to the spread of COVID-19 in accordance with public health experts’ recommendations to stay home and practice social distancing. Wachs expressed hope that this temporary situation will have positive long-term effects, including lowering the volume of cars on the road even after the crisis passes if workers are able to permanently switch to telecommuting. Instead of spending billions of dollars on transportation projects that take years to complete, Wachs recommends “using [that money] to incentivize companies and people to allow more telecommuting.” While some employers don’t trust the efficiency of telecommuting and some workers, such as restaurant employees, are unable to telecommute, Wachs explained that even “small changes in traffic volumes can make large changes in travel times.”
Michael Manville, associate professor of urban planning, spoke to Curbed LA about measures being taken to combat traffic congestion in Los Angeles. According to a newly released index on congestion and mobility, the typical Los Angeles driver logged 103 hours of traffic in 2019. The index also found that the metro area is home to the two most congested stretches of road in the country, on sections of the 5 and 134 freeways. Among other strategies to lighten traffic, transit agencies plan to expand rail lines. While this would provide an alternative to driving, it may not reduce traffic, Manville cautioned. “It basically allows people to avoid exposure to congestion. But if you want to actually improve congestion on the 405, the unfortunate truth is that you have to toll the 405,” he said.
Associate Professor of Public Policy Randall Akee was featured in a New Republic article on the impact that universal basic income has on families. The Stockton Economic Empowerment Demonstration (SEED) project is providing $500 a month to a group of Stockton residents for 18 months to better understand the effectiveness of universal basic income. Preliminary data show that recipients spend a majority of the money on daily expenses. Many also report having more breathing room and more free time to spend with their children. A similar experiment that gave a portion of casino revenue to every tribal citizen in the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina found improvements in relationships between parents and children. Akee explained that “extra money allows for more consistency and covering of basic living expenses, and people aren’t perhaps nearly as stressed with each other.” He said reducing a family’s stress “may have an intergenerational impact on the kids.”
Brian Taylor, professor of urban planning and public policy, spoke to Public Source about the prospect of universal free public transportation. In December, Kansas City, Missouri, became the first major U.S. city to eliminate all public transit fares. Proponents of the move argue that doing so increases ridership, simplifies the experience of riding and benefits low-income riders. However, experts worry that eliminating transit fares is not a universal solution, especially for cities like Pittsburgh, which dwarfs Kansas City in ridership and fare revenue. “By offering free transit service for all trips, you run the risk of actually incurring a very high marginal cost to accommodate where your peak demand is,” Taylor said. He argued that there are better ways to increase ridership and serve the needs of those dependent on transit. Instead of eliminating fares, Taylor recommended spending fare revenue on services and programs that make transit more reliable and accessible.
Public Policy Professor Mark Peterson was cited in a New York Times article discussing the prospects for Sen. Bernie Sanders’ “Medicare for All” proposal. Even if elected president, Sanders would probably not have sufficient support in Congress to achieve universal health coverage, the article noted. In the past 70 years, no legislation to advance universal health care has succeeded without Democratic control of all three branches of government and a supermajority in the Senate, which Sanders would be unlikely to have. Peterson pointed out that even if the rules were changed to require a simple majority to pass the legislation, “there is not any guarantee that the 51st Democrat would be willing to support Medicare for All or anything close to it.” Many Democrats in the House and Senate oppose Medicare for All, advocating instead for improving the Affordable Care Act or pursuing a new government-run “public option” that would compete with private insurance.
UCLA Luskin faculty and students were well represented at January’s Transportation Research Board annual meeting in Washington, D.C., and much of their research was highlighted on Streetsblog USA’s Talking Headways podcast. Brian Taylor, professor of urban planning and director of the Institute of Transportation Studies (ITS), and MURP student Yu Hong Hwang presented an updated analysis of the standard for setting speed limits, which has been in place for decades. MURP student Cassie Halls spoke about her research on the impact of a bus-only lane on Los Angeles’ Flower Street; Halls’ work won “Best Master’s Student Poster Presentation” at the annual meeting. ITS postdoctoral fellow Andrew Schouten discussed his research showing a decrease in public transit use among immigrant communities, possibly due to settlement patterns and an increase in car ownership. In the first Talking Headways episode, Taylor and Hwang’s comments begin at the 1:45 minute mark and Hall’s at the 18:16 minute mark. In the second episode, Schouten’s comments begin at the 23:28 minute mark.
Social Welfare Professor Ron Avi Astor spoke to Education Dive about the importance of recognizing military culture in schools and supporting military children. If former Vice President Joe Biden is elected president in November, his wife, Jill Biden, would have a national platform to pursue her work on behalf of children from military families. Astor’s research has found that children of active-duty service members were more likely than non-military-connected peers to carry weapons to school, to drink alcohol or use other substances, and to be the victims of bullying. After working with Jill Biden on a federally funded program to improve school climate and mental health services in military-connected schools, Astor said she understood “the experiences of military kids going from place to place and worrying about their parents.” He said schools should recognize military culture to make children feel more connected and to educate their civilian peers on the contributions of the military.
Michael Lens and Shane Phillips of the Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies spoke to Curbed LA about the housing vacancy rate in Los Angeles amid talk of levying a tax on homes that stand empty. Phillips, the center’s housing initiative project manager, noted that Los Angeles “consistently ranks among the places with the lowest vacancy rates.” This creates a landlord’s market, with more competition for available homes and, therefore, higher rents, the article noted. Condo owners may leave property vacant to wait for a higher sales price, but renting out the unit would be a wiser investment, Phillips said. Lens, associate professor of urban planning and public policy, said it is difficult to determine whether owners are deliberately leaving units vacant. He added that focusing on the vacancy rate can distract from proven solutions to the affordable housing crisis, such as building more units and providing subsidies and tenant protections.