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IDEAS

Let’s get back together

Boosting transit and rethinking housing after the pandemic can address America’s chronic loneliness problem — and help the economy, too.

A lone bicyclist peddled though an empty Dewey Square Plaza outside South Station at rush hour on March 26.
A lone bicyclist peddled though an empty Dewey Square Plaza outside South Station at rush hour on March 26.David Goldman/Associated Press

Matthew Dezii was halfway to his vehicle when he spotted another person stalking across the near-empty parking garage in Boston. “I had that funny experience where you’re walking toward your car, they’re walking toward their car, and it’s right next to yours,” says Dezii, a videographer who manages media equipment at a local university. “I spent, like, 30 seconds thinking about something innocent I could say to disarm them, without having them thinking I’m gonna murder them. I’m lucky that I was able to say ‘What are the odds?’ instead of ‘Our cars are best friends.’”

These moments when we suddenly find ourselves presented with an opportunity to be social with a stranger, in a shared space, can yield many things — laughter, a burst of energy, or even an idea that blooms into something bigger. For nearly a year, the pandemic has deprived us of these opportunities. It has been a marathon of social isolation for those who’ve taken COVID seriously. And this has exacerbated an affliction that has been raging in America for years.

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Consider two cornerstones of American life — the home and the commute. Most of us drive to work alone, and we recharge in homes that have become increasingly disconnected from their neighborhoods. These living spaces might be shared with other people, such as family or roommates, but who lives next door? A 2019 Pew Research study found that only 26 percent of Americans can attest to knowing most of their neighbors. But then, you really didn’t need the data to know this. One of the most heavily trodden themes in American literature and film is loneliness, from the postwar suburbs of “Revolutionary Road” to the ghostly Los Angeles cityscape of “Drive.”

Mental-health experts like Dr. Jessi Gold, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Washington University in St. Louis, worry about depression and other slow-burn problems being exacerbated if pandemic-era social habits, from remote work to solo car trips, stay with us too. “There’s a reason why isolation is a torture technique,” she says.

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It’s time to start thinking about how to bring Americans back together again, in the most literal sense — using the power of government to make two particular shared spaces, public transportation and housing, far more inviting, accessible, and sociable.

A driver walked to catch the train toward Boston on March 18 in South Attleboro.
A driver walked to catch the train toward Boston on March 18 in South Attleboro.David Goldman/Associated Press

RIDERSHIP ON THE MBTA has plummeted during the pandemic, but there’s still a core of commuters who rely on the subway and bus system to get to work. Nonetheless, the public transit agency is pursuing a series of budget cuts that would include running fewer buses and trains, shutting off the commuter rail at 9 p.m., and cutting ferry service altogether. Transit austerity is being considered in many other US cities, too.

This is backwards — a failure of logic and imagination. What state agencies and governments should be thinking about right now is how to coax more people back aboard the bus or subway. This will necessitate investments that make transit riders feel safer again, such as running more buses and trains, or replacing ventilation systems on aging transit vehicles. But there might be an even simpler way to start rebuilding ridership. What if, after the pandemic, Massachusetts made the MBTA and its regional transit authorities free? Or next-to-free? This idea is already being tested in Worcester, where buses have been running fare-free since the pandemic began. Leaders like Boston City Councilor Michelle Wu have advanced the same idea for the MBTA. Expanding current transit routes to more neighborhoods — while offering more frequent buses and subways at no cost or an extremely low cost — could get more people out of cars and sharing subway cars, and feeling good about it.

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If better transit could help us restore physical closeness after the pandemic, then better housing is a potential gateway to relational closeness. Meghan DeJong, a pastor based in Waltham, has been thinking about this lately. After years of living in an apartment with her husband and kids, DeJong and a few friends are looking to go in on a multifamily house together. “The pandemic opened our minds to doing this,” DeJong says. The search process has forced DeJong and her friends to be unusually candid with each other about their financial situations and their feelings about each property they investigate. But for DeJong, that vulnerability is kind of the point. “It’s bearing each other’s burden,” she says. “It’s saying, ‘We’re better together than we are on our own.’ When you operate on your own strengths, you’ll inevitably come to the end of yourself.”

DeJong’s ideal multifamily home would include four apartments (one of which would be rented to a Section 8-eligible tenant) and a shared coworking space. This is one example of cohousing: a community of private homes built around spaces that are shared by the residents. Cohousing communities, which took root in Denmark during the 1960s, typically engage in a multitude of group activities, such as preparing and eating meals, sharing cars, and managing the facilities together. I saw this in February when I visited Vienna to write a story about the city’s network of public and city-assisted housing. One of the places I visited, a stained-wood apartment tower called the Wohnprojekt Wien, is a striking example of cohousing. The building is co-owned and run by its resident founders. Thanks to subsidies from Vienna’s government, the Wohnprojekt co-owners are able to rent the remaining apartments at rates so low that they would make heads explode in Boston.

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The advantages of cohousing after the pandemic would be twofold. You get your own dwelling, but steps away, you also have a community of neighbors with whom you’re sharing a significant portion of your life. This is very different from America’s version of cohabitation with people other than family members. That generally involves people crowding into shared apartments or houses due to a scarcity of affordable housing. That scarcity is manufactured, however. Imagine if state and city governments had spent the last few decades investing in socially owned housing models like Roxbury’s Dudley Neighbors community land trust, where 200 private units are owned by the residents and are permanently affordable, thanks to a patchwork of city and foundation funds. What if Boston had more intentional European-style communities like Jamaica Plain Cohousing, where the residents emerge from their apartments to trim the gardens and grounds, hold movie screenings, and attend club meetings together? Imagine, after nearly a year of deep pandemic solitude, having living options like this within reach: being able to choose closeness with other people, while also having the security and privacy of your own low-cost living space.

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OVERHAULING TRANSIT AND housing like this — to facilitate closeness after a public health crisis — will require a lot of public money, of course. If Congress keeps sitting on stimulus money for states and cities, maybe Massachusetts could take advantage of the Fed’s low interest rates and take out a bond or two to fund projects like these. Or perhaps we could recommit to passing the Fair Share Amendment — aka the “millionaire tax” — and funnel the new revenue toward transit and housing. (Our wealthiest residents have done pretty well for themselves during the pandemic.)

These would be investments in our economy, too. As the sociologist Mark S. Granovetter wrote in his groundbreaking 1973 paper “The Strength of Weak Ties,” casual acquaintances and random connections are often better leads for jobs and innovation opportunities than closer friends who share one’s own proclivities and networks. Denser cities with more modes of shared transit and community housing make it easier for people to cross-pollinate: a potential boon for not just city residents and businesses but for state economies too.

Far more important than the question of “how do we pay for this?” is recognizing that we need this. We need a release from the silos that kept us isolated before COVID tightened the screws. We need more spaces where we can reacquaint ourselves with one another when this crisis is over, and where we can learn how to be close again. Isolation, itself, is an American epidemic that’s gnawed away at our health and happiness. There’s no vaccine for it, but there are cures.

Miles Howard is a journalist based in Boston.