Cities, Streets, and COVID-19

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues and our memories of the “before time” feel ever more distant, some have begun to wonder how this crisis and its aftermath could change how and where people live. Will people abandon expensive and dense major cities for smaller cities, suburbs or even small towns? On the one hand, I’ll admit that living in a small city like Ann Arbor has made weathering the lock down rather easy, which could lead credence to these ideas. Personally, I’ve had no issues finding supplies, or taking a walk without running into too many other people (though my apartment building’s shared laundry rooms are now a fraught location). Of course, Ann Arbor, a wealthy, educated college town with excellent access to medical care has a lot of resources other cities do not, so it may not be the best example.

Alternatively, there are those who argue our cities won’t actually change that much post-COVID-19, and there are even ways that the outbreak could make cities better (with the proper investment). Cities have survived disease outbreaks for millennia, and given that so much of our economy, culture, and infrastructure is built around cities it would be hard to seismically shift to some other model of living. Yet the economic upheaval that the pandemic has ushered in will no doubt influence where and how people live, and could last a good deal longer than the disease itself.

So what changes are well already seeing in cities, and what could that indicate about where we’re heading? In a number of cities, including New York, Seattle, and Oakland, are closing streets to open up more space for pedestrians and cyclists. Streets could also be closed to provide more outdoor space for restaurants, to help them reopen while preserving some measure of social distancing. New Zealand has gone as far as to make such street alterations national policy. Cities and towns in that nation are able to apply for funding to immediately expand sidewalks and modify streets, with the national government covering 90% of the cost. Some suggest these closures and modifications should be permanent – that we should take this opportunity to create more walkable and bikeable cities now, when we have the chance. In many ways these modified streets are similar to proposals for automated vehicle (“AV”) dominated cities. Supporters believe that wide adoption and deployment of AVs would mean more streets could have one lane of traffic in each direction, with the extra space turned over to alternative uses. The current demands of social distancing dovetail with those ideas – could cities use the current crisis to prepare themselves for an autonomous future? Given the difficulty of building new infrastructure, it may not be a bad idea to get ahead of the curve.

As noted by Phillip in a post earlier in the crisis, another effect of the global lockdown has been improved environmental conditions in cities around the globe. In India, for example, where cities have significant pollution problems, massive reductions in travel have led to clear skies. For the first time, we are seeing clear examples of what cleaner energy production could bring (pun intended). Such improvements could lead residents to demand continued reductions in emissions even after this crisis passes. These and other changes made to cities in the short term to cope with lockdowns and social distancing could dictate the future of urban design, but only if governments and citizens are willing to adopt them and protect them from being undone once the crisis passes.

P.S. Those of you who are interested in buying a bike to help navigate the new socially-distanced world may run into an issue – just like masks, cleaning supplies, and toilet paper, bikes are now becoming a scarce resource in some places.