It’s a stunning irony that our dense and dynamic downtowns, so revered as centers of culture, ingenuity and wealth creation have generated the perfect conditions for the spread of a deadly respiratory virus.
As we are learning on a near daily basis, COVID-19 is changing our lives in ways we could not have imagined only a few months ago. Indeed, the last few decades may come to be seen as a metropolitan Golden Age, an era when burgeoning cities fostered a distinct and vibrant urban culture, and public officials dreamed big, nurtured density, and promoted large-scale infrastructure. Is it possible that this global pandemic – and fears of the next one – could bring all this to a screeching halt?
Contagious diseases have always generated urban transformation. Late 19th and early 20th century health scares focused blame on crowded, inner-city low-income neighborhoods. At the same time, better transportation options (electric streetcars and trains) provided the opportunity for less density and more parkland — and the suburbs were born. But in the second half of the 20th century when density and mass transit were vaunted as the key to economic and cultural lift-off, new transit networks worldwide allowed enough people-moving capacity and speed to create super-office clusters supported by hundreds of thousands of daily commuters — the very circumstances that make contagion distancing so difficult today.
When the world eventually emerges from its lockdown, how will pandemic-wary urban dwellers choose to live, work and travel the city? And how will governments assess their obligations?
The gurus have been predicting the work-from-home revolution for decades, but the last two months have supercharged the home office trend. While it’s unlikely this will be a permanent wholesale shift (many can’t work at home or don’t want to), the current experience will force inevitable changes.
As video conferencing apps replace a portion of live meetings and in-person interactions, and commuting and business trips become ever less essential, companies will discover that home offices are efficient and moneysaving. And many employees will find they prefer their desk at home.
City dwellers are also increasingly shopping from home. COVID-19 has made ordering online the most practical and responsible way of obtaining the necessities of life, and even some of the pleasures. An already expanding on-demand culture has gone into hyper-drive, and the dependence on delivery during the pandemic shutdown will accelerate this shift. While people will enjoy returning to some retail therapy, we can expect fewer trips for this by individuals. This will be offset by an increase in delivery vehicle trips, trips that already represent 25% or more of day-time traffic. This package-on-the-porch surge will need new urban design accommodation.
Out-of-home excursions to see family and friends will still be important, but it is possible that fear, reduced finances, and altered work patterns will mean people spend less total time moving around cities — a reduced need for mobility that is going to leave its mark.
If proximity to one’s job is no longer a significant factor in deciding where to live, then there might be a greater appreciation, not for the lonely suburbs with their customary lack of hubs, but for far-flung “villages’’, lively but small-scale. We could be heading towards a world in which existing city centers and these newfound mini-metropolises rise in prominence, while traditional commuter belts fade away as daily commutes become less necessary. Transit systems built with the peak hour in mind, may not only see an immediate drop in ridership due to an economic contraction, but a loss of riders in the long term as people make fewer overall trips, many of these not conforming to the traditional 9-5 work day.
Active transport like walking, biking and micromobility (e-scooters, etc.) will likely grab a larger share of the pie in the post-pandemic world.
Even if treatments and a vaccine for COVID-19 are developed, it’s a good bet that many won’t feel safe in the packed confines of rush-hour on transit for some time, and will experiment with developing alternative mobility habits.
While better sanitary practices (a requirement that all passengers wear masks, and regular disinfection) will likely become standard, some percentage of riders will shift to other modes of travel, as we are seeing in early evidence from Wuhan where more people have turned to cars.
Providing enough transit service for everyone to maintain a minimum one-meter separation is just not cost-effectively or operationally possible in the long run. Perhaps the desire for smaller vehicles with fewer seats will accelerate autonomous vehicle development as a cheaper and safer way of providing transit service, but this is still some time from being commercially available.
Active transport like walking, biking and micromobility (e-scooters, etc.) will likely grab a larger share of the pie in the post-pandemic world. This could be the direction cities have been looking for, but it will require changes in road space (Italy and New Zealand are examples of places this is already planned for post lockdown and more are coming everyday) allocation to allow for non-automobile modes if they are to really flourish. Their success will mostly come at the expense of transit.
It’s not just formal public or mass transit that is at risk. The ride-sharing companies of the world have been growing mostly at the expense of transit in recent years, and to a lesser extent the private car, but users may no longer be comfortable with ride-share vehicles that cannot separate riders, or be fully sanitized after each ride.
Ride-sharing’s overall higher cost, and the difficult economic times coming, may mean that some of these companies that have never actually been profitable (including Uber and Lyft) could find attracting additional investment impossible. We might even see shut-downs. This is especially true if features like pool (multiple people in one car going to different locations), which are cheaper and drive growth, are no longer allowed or viewed as acceptable.
The combined effects of working from home, a reduced labor force courtesy of the expected recession (one that the IMF says will be the worst since the Depression), and a shift to online entertainment, communication, and shopping could create the perfect storm for public transit. Look for the possible erosion of these systems for multiple reasons over several years, after short-term COVID emergency funding is exhausted.
While there will be a return to some sort of “normal” in the coming months, how normal the new normal is will be critical in determining the long term issues. Even a 3-5% shift to working from home, all or part of the time, could reduce transit revenue by hundreds of millions of dollars across the country for systems already struggling with operating budget pressures.
As well, a long-lasting recession with its high unemployment and cuts to disposable income will reduce both transit work trips, and discretionary rides, adding to the budget misery. This will also lower immigration and visits due to travel restrictions and the country’s lack of economic appeal. It’s not hard to imagine a catastrophic drop of ridership, like the one that occurred in the 1989 global recession and free trade reorientation of the economy that took more than a decade to recover from.
Fewer riders will take the pressure off an already overcrowded system, and reduce the perceived urgency of improving our rapid transit network. Unhappily this will coincide with government budget constraints leading to long-term reductions in spending. The long list of new lines in capital plans may end up remaining as only lines on the map, as the billions allocated are reallocated or eliminated.
Large-scale epidemics have for years shaped how societies evolve, and how the cities they construct take form. Still, no pandemic, plague, or natural disaster has killed off humanity’s need to live and work in deep relationship to others. Our desire for proximity, for interdependence, for shared experiences, even among strangers, means we are destined to find co-existing at close range an ever-pleasing experience. What the current pandemic tells us, though, is that we are likely at the crossroads of some major re-structuring of the cities we so deeply care for and their transportation networks.
By: Adam Giambrone
Adam Giambrone is a dedicated senior transportation professional and manager with over 18 years of experience working in transit agencies around the world and on transit expansion projects. His areas of experience include, planning, strategy, public communications, multi-modal operations and executive transit leadership.
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