COVID-19 has taken away so many things. Thousands of lives. Millions of livelihoods. Our freedom to be with those we care about.

But we’ve also lost some things that we shouldn’t be anxious to get back. Smoggy skies. Congested roadways. Poor air quality.

For example: Los Angeles – a city infamous for its smoggy skies – recently had the cleanest air in the world amid the coronavirus shutdown, according to a company that tracks global air quality. For a city whose residents endured 156 days of elevated exposure in 2018 to pollutants known to cause lung disease and even premature death, that’s a big deal. And for Maine, the “tailpipe” of the U.S., and a state tied for the highest adult asthma rate in the country, that’s a very big deal.

Our nation’s first priorities during the COVID-19 crisis must be to prevent the spread of disease, heal the sick and provide help to those who are struggling financially. But with local, state and federal policymakers deciding how to address the economic ramifications of COVID-19, it’s important to make sure that the post-pandemic “new normal” includes clearer skies and healthier lives.

Here are five ways we can start:

• Give biking and walking a chance. With people spending more time at home, many Americans are rediscovering bicycling and walking. Cities across the country – from Philadelphia to Denver – have carved out more space for people to walk and bike on otherwise empty streets, easing the pressure on crowded parks and trails. Cities should continue that trend once the pandemic is over. That step can not only reduce car traffic but also give more of us a chance for healthy exercise outdoors.


• Keep trains and buses running. Essential workers still need public transportation to serve our communities. The rest of us will need public transportation again – whenever it becomes safe to be close to others – to provide clean, accessible travel options. Yet transit agencies are in financial jeopardy. During the last recession, many agencies were forced to slash service, some of which never returned. The federal government has helped with $25 billion to keep transit running during the pandemic, but more support may be needed to provide the quality transit service Americans deserve.

• Give more people access to teleservices. Even before COVID-19, one out of every 20 American workers worked from home. That percentage has skyrocketed during the crisis. Enabling some new telecommuters to continue working from home could prevent a rush of cars back onto the streets. For decades, employer-based “transportation demand management” programs have provided workers with alternatives to daily solo commutes, including telecommuting, compressed workweeks, van pooling and more. Reinvesting in those programs, and broadening them to include online access to health care and education, can provide more people with the option to obtain critical services without getting in a car.

• Go electric. After the 2008 financial crisis, carmakers agreed to stronger tailpipe emissions standards as a condition of a government bailout. Then most of the industry reversed course and pushed President Trump to roll back clean car standards. This time, Americans should demand that any financial assistance to the auto industry be tied to rapidly transitioning to clean electric vehicles. Investing in electric school buses, transit buses and trucks can also help to clear our air now and for years to come.

• Put a price on carbon and invest in clean transportation. With gas prices at their lowest point in real terms in nearly two decades, now is a good time to get used to the idea of paying a small fee for the global warming impact of the fossil fuels we use. A coalition of Northeastern and mid-Atlantic states are developing the Transportation and Climate Initiative, which will use the revenue generated from those carbon fees to build the clean transportation system of the future. Maine should sign on to the initiative.

COVID-19 is the most serious public health crisis in a century. But air pollution is a severe public health crisis in its own right, claiming more than 100,000 lives every year in the United States.

America will beat coronavirus. As we do, let’s work toward beating air pollution as well, making the clean air and clear skies we experienced during the COVID-19 crisis ours for good.

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