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CDC Now Recommends Driving Alone. But What If You Don't Have A Car?


The CDC recently took the unusual step of recommending people avoid public transportation or carpooling and travel to work alone. Now, this is the opposite of what cities have been urging people to do for years. The coronavirus pandemic means new risks on mass transit, tough decisions for those who don't want to drive and a dilemma for those who can't afford a car. NPR's Camila Domonoske reports.

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: Doug Gordon is the co-host of a podcast called "The War On Cars."

DOUG GORDON: Cars have really ruined our urban spaces, and they make life less pleasant.

DOMONOSKE: Less pleasant and more dangerous, more polluted - they're bad for the climate. So yeah, Gordon's family doesn't own a car. They live in New York City, where that's common. And they bike, take buses and ride the subway. But because of the pandemic, Gordon and his wife are thinking of renting a car for a month as a sort of trial run of car ownership.

GORDON: Look; if someone like me is thinking of getting a car, then I can't blame people who don't live and breathe this stuff.

DOMONOSKE: The pandemic is making a lot of people rethink their decisions about transit and driving. But for most people who don't have a car, it's not a choice at all.

SYDNEY LEDWITH-JENSEN: I think it would be nice to have a car, but there's just not any money to be had for me to own a car, pay gas, pay insurance.

DOMONOSKE: Sydney Ledwith-Jensen helps other people maintain their cars. She had a customer service job at a Jiffy Lube in Portland, Ore. She was laid off more than 11 weeks ago but is still waiting for an unemployment check. Her unpaid rent is piling up, and she's worried she might get evicted. She needs her job. And when she gets called back to work...

LEDWITH-JENSEN: I would still be taking the bus. I'd still be around people. And I just - I got to do what I got to do.

DOMONOSKE: Jamila Allen has kept commuting through the pandemic. She works at a Freddy's Frozen Custard & Steakburgers in Durham, N.C. She has a long bus ride - more than an hour. And when it comes to the coronavirus...

JAMILA ALLEN: From my experience, it'll be a higher risk on the bus than at my job.

DOMONOSKE: At work, she's behind a counter. On the bus, there's no separation. Even masked and trying not to sit next to anyone, it's a small space, and it's easy to bump into people. Cars are expensive, and she makes 9.35 an hour. That's one reason why she's joined other fast food workers to call for higher pay.

ALLEN: So I can get $15 an hour and I can afford a car.

DOMONOSKE: This is another way the pandemic is exacerbating inequality. Many people with high-paid jobs can afford cars and can work from home. So some cars sit unused in driveways while many low-paid essential workers, disproportionately people of color, cannot afford cars. And they have to keep going in to work. So safer transit is essential. Rio Oxas is a mobility justice advocate and co-founder of the consultancy RAHOK.

RIO OXAS: Our social structure has made it so that for some people, it's OK for them to risk their lives in the name of other people. Right?

DOMONOSKE: Oxas dreams of more bikeable, walkable cities where people live where they work and shop. But right now, cars open up access to better jobs, health care and other opportunities. And in this pandemic, they've become a kind of personal protective equipment that many people can't afford to have and cities can't afford for everyone to use.

Camila Domonoske, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Camila Flamiano Domonoske covers cars, energy and the future of mobility for NPR's Business Desk.