Carless in North America: Pandemic Edition
Illustration by Marlee Jennings
“Just come by and pick it up.” “Curbside delivery.” “Just wait in your car.” How many times have you heard those phrases over the past two and a half years? A lot? So have I.
In North America, it’s assumed that everyone has easy access to a vehicle. Being without a car in Canada or the USA puts you at a distinct disadvantage, and this has only been magnified during the COVID-19 pandemic.
I don’t have a car. I’ve never had a driver’s license. I have medical conditions that affect my vision and ability to stay awake and alert, so it would be extremely dangerous for me to even attempt to get behind the wheel. I’m not alone: a 2018 study found that between 28 percent and 55 percent of Toronto households, depending on the neighbourhood, don’t have a vehicle. In Canada as a whole, 83 percent of respondents to a Turo survey reported having or leasing a vehicle but only using it 5 percent of the time. In the USA only 8.7 percent of the population does not own a car, but that percentage rises to 54.4 percent in New York and more than 30 percent in metropolitan areas such Chicago, San Francisco and Philadelphia. The percentage of people without cars is also far higher for disabled and low-income%20between%20those%20two%20years.) individuals and families.
Ironically, the beginning of the pandemic brought a few helpful changes. As virtual contact became the norm, people without cars often found they could work, attend school and participate in conferences, support groups and events from home, without worrying about transportation. Health insurance companies in the USA also increased coverage of telehealth, allowing people to receive medical care from home by video or phone.
Alas, most of these changes have been scaled back or eliminated as pandemic safety measures have ebbed. Some employers have heavily pressured their employees to return to the office in person, schools have refused to allow professors to teach virtually and have cut back on virtual options for students, and the number of online events has greatly decreased. In many ways, being carless in North America has become even more difficult during the pandemic.
1. Less, and more dangerous, public transportation
As pandemic lockdowns brought cities to a standstill, most public transit authorities responded to reduced ridership and staff shortages by greatly reducing service. Those who still needed to take mass transit –– such as the many people employed in supermarkets, healthcare facilities and other frontline jobs –– endured longer waits for their buses and trains, more transfers, and sometimes, no service at all. In some cases full service was never restored, even when lockdowns ended.
In addition, using mass transit has become far riskier for anyone who is high-risk for COVID, such as disabled and chronically ill people. Even when mask mandates have existed on public transit, they have not always been enforced or respected. People without cars have been faced with financially untenable choices: staying home, hiring rideshares or boarding a crowded train or bus with people who may or may not be wearing masks, and may or may not currently be infected with COVID-19.
2. Less access to COVID-19 testing and vaccines
Back in spring 2020, I was scheduled for a laryngoscopy. There’s no real way to wear a mask during the procedure because it involves accessing the larynx through the nose (let’s leave it there, in case anyone’s squeamish). A negative COVID test was required beforehand. Unfortunately for me, the hospital would only accept tests performed at their own testing site, which was drive-through only with no exceptions. With no way to access a test, I ended up having to postpone my procedure for several months, until the testing protocols changed and became more accessible.
Many COVID-19 testing sites have been drive-through only, leaving those without cars out in the cold. In the USA, this extends even to home test kits. The government currently requires insurance companies to cover eight home tests per month, and many pharmacies will send them out. However, those on government insurance, such as Medicare or Medicaid, can only obtain their free tests by going to a pharmacy in person. For those without a car, this means the tests are far more difficult to access.
When COVID-19 vaccines became available in the winter and spring of 2021, many large drive-through testing sites transitioned to vaccine distribution. The dilemma remained the same: if you didn’t have a car, your options for obtaining a vaccine were limited even further.
3. Food access has become more difficult
At the beginning of the pandemic, many public schools throughout the United States offered free “grab and go” lunches for students. These pre-prepared meals were intended to replace the free lunches students would normally be offered in schools. The issue? It was difficult for some families to get there to pick up the food. Some areas sent school buses to neighbourhoods to deliver meals, and some states, such as California, eventually added more SNAP (food stamps) benefits for families with children, allowing them to buy more food. However, not every region responded so proactively. .
Additionally, more people began using the delivery services that carless and disabled people relied on, to the point where delivery slots were often completely unavailable. I have vivid memories of setting my alarm for midnight so I could try to score one of the delivery slots for my supermarket when they released a new batch for the day. Even when deliveries have been available, they have often been expensive and contained inappropriate substitutions for out-of-stock items. In the USA, some states do not allow grocery delivery with SNAP benefits; others only have one or two supermarket chains enrolled in the program.
Other services have become more difficult to access. For example, in late 2020, one of my cats had an urgent medical issue. The veterinarian’s COVID protocol was to keep all customers outside. I was told to drop off my cat and come back later. Trouble was, I didn’t have a car and couldn’t afford a second round trip on Lyft, so I spent the next three hours sitting awkwardly on a planter in the veterinary office’s parking lot.
4. “No bag” policies have become worse
In the wake of the pandemic, several sporting and concert venues, such as Staples Center in Los Angeles and Ball Arena in Colorado, adjusted their policies to ban all bags and wallets, admonishing guests to only bring what they could fit in their pockets. Such policies are clearly unreasonable, especially for people who need to carry medical, childcare or menstrual supplies. They also assume that everyone can leave their personal belongings in a car if they aren’t allowed into the venue (and that all clothes are made with pockets, and a lot of us can tell you, they’re not. They’re so not). That poses a real problem to those who take mass transit or rideshares and carry everything they need on their person.
5. There’s been no way to “get away” safely
If you’ve owned a car during the pandemic –– or the license and finances to rent one –– you may have been able to actually visit with family or friends by driving to see them. At the nadir of the pandemic, when everything was locked down, some of my friends blew off steam by taking long drives on the weekends. The roads were still open, they had plenty of gas, and even if they stayed safely in their vehicles, they had amazing views. Some cities in my area began offering drive-in movies and comedy shows. None of these things have been possible for people without cars. The pandemic has been especially isolating to many of us because we simply don’t have the means to easily go anywhere.
Retaining some of the early pandemic advances –– virtual events, work, school and medical visits –– would go a long way toward facilitating access to services and helping those of us who can’t drive feel less marginalized and more connected to our communities. Ensuring that public transport is safe and reliable for high-risk populations would further contribute to access. Unfortunately, we’re a long way from making things easier for the carless in North America.
About the author: Denise Reich (she/her) has contributed to Shameless for many years, with interests in disability/chronic illness advocacy, baseball and classic media. She has danced since she was small.