It Would Be Nice to Have a Car During a Pandemic

Back in 2007 I sold my car just one year to the day after I moved to Seattle. The COVID-19 pandemic marks the closest I’ve come to regretting that decision.

As of earlier tonight, in King County, there are 3,886 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 258 people have died from the disease. The University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) projects that Washington passed its peak death rate 3 days ago and that deaths will likely cease in May, although the model assumes that current social distancing measures will continue through the end of that month.

Shared transportation resources like public transit, Uber, and Lyft are now perceived as more dangerous and are likely to get cut back even further. The only short-term car rental service left in town is Zipcar, and I’m a bit reluctant to use a shared car. Although there’s a lot of things I don’t miss about car ownership — the maintenance and the expenses, to name two — there’s a certain comfort that comes with knowing that I can get into a vehicle parked right outside and go anywhere I like without checking a schedule or asking anyone for permission. Although I have full confidence that at least public transit will make a comeback soon, for the time being I am urged to use it for only vital trips. Privately-owned transportation companies, which are already considering deactivating accounts of riders and drivers exposed to COVID-19, may shut down entirely if too many of their customers stay away.

Some coronavirus countermeasures are built firmly atop car culture. Drive-through testing has come to Washington, but many of the places that accept driver-patients have no provision for people with neither a car nor a driver. Some of the cafes and restaurants that have closed their dining rooms have shifted to a drive-through-only model. Without a car and with many local restaurants shut down entirely, I’ve been supporting Seattle restaurants through third-party delivery services that charge high fees, exert control over restaurants, and can take a long time to deliver a meal to me. It used to seem frivolous to, as Jeff Bezos liked to say, drive a 2,000-pound vehicle to pick up 5 pounds of stuff at a store, but now even Amazon Prime orders show delivery dates weeks in the future for “non-essential” products. I’m encouraged to shop for groceries once a week or less, but without a car I’m limited to buying as much as I can carry home. The shared resources I depend on are strained like never before and I, without a car of my own, feel just a bit more helpless than I did before.

Even some charities have adopted a car-centric model. I put in my first volunteer shift at the Ballard Food Bank, which historically has operated like a small supermarket: clients would walk in and collect a certain number of items from each shelf or bin. That model has been put aside and instead, items are loaded into trucks and minibuses for delivery to some clients and other clients drive up to collect prepared bags of products. The people running this are making changes quickly, but there’s a sense that keeping clients in the driver’s seat will enable them to get food without even laying a finger on it themselves, thus protecting both food bank volunteers and clients from infection. Nonetheless, some clients still turned up at the Food Bank during my shift expecting to pick out their own groceries. Everyone’s routine, rich and poor, has been disrupted by the present situation. Everyone all of a sudden has less autonomy than they had a month ago.

It did cross my mind back in 2007 that without a car I’d be on my own in case of a major disaster. I really did think that I’d be unable to get out of the city without a car of my own, but I rationalized that with so few routes out of our skinny population center, most car owners wouldn’t get out quickly in case of a mass evacuation. I have friends and family who could perhaps give me a lift, but in the present crisis I don’t know where I would go. I have a good job and a good home. My current plan is to stay in both.