Saturday, March 14, 2020

Structural Change to Watch from Social Distancing in the Pandemic

The requirements of social distancing right now have just wiped out our lives of public association. They strike at the heart of what makes urban life worthwhile.

Delivery, distancing, and retreat from public space
But a number of actions and qualities that we might bemoan in normal circumstances - or at least things about which we are critical here - are helpful right now. Some of them may stick, and even apart from any of these in particular, it is nearly certain that this pandemic crisis will crystallize into place some structural changes that had seemed slow-moving or uncertain.

Waggish takes on autoism and social distancing
Here are some things to watch, many of them in response to pieces in the paper today. No conclusions, but just trends to watch, or things we'll be watching here anyway, particularly that touch on transport and the urban form.

Delivery services seem useful, but threaten to accelerate the erosion of brick-and-mortar stores and restaurants. They also shift to contractors and lower-wage, lower-benefit employment, and in our current circumstances erode the safety net.

As people avoid transit, there are concerns the reduction in farebox revenue will cause reductions in service that could persist. Cherriots' consultant Jarrett Walker notes, "Preliminary and unpublished numbers shared with me by two US West Coast agencies showed ridership losses of 30-50% from pre-crisis levels." That's alarming.

Hiking depends on autoism
The allure of the outdoors and open space offers consolation and refreshment, but it requires a car to get there.

It will be interesting to read what Strong Towns finally has to say. They have flirted over the years with austerity and the gold standard, been wary of Keynesianism. But right now is a time for stimulus and the expansion of the safety net. This is when we need a big and strong government - like a fully funded CDC. (See "Running out of Options," "When Money Dies," "Financial Deformation," and "Understanding Growth," for example. If city budgets are more like household budgets with regard to debt, national budgets are somewhat different, but the tendency at Strong Towns is to treat them with the same deficit hawk approach as if they operated the same way. This crisis may clarify some things for a Strong Town approach.)

Historical note
Here are some notes on the local impacts:


Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

Here's more from Strong Towns, including a couple of February notes I missed.

On Keynesiansism, "The Financial Experiment at the Foundation of the Green New Deal" (Feb 11)

Their first note on the prospect of a pandemic, "Coronavirus, Traffic Deaths, and Building a Strong Town" (Feb 3) And today on the pandemic, "We're about to witness the best humans have to offer" (March 16)

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

The Architecture Critic at the NY Times offers "Can City Life Survive Coronavirus?"

"The very notion of streets, shared housing and public spaces stemmed from and fostered a kind of collective affirmation, a sense that people are all in this together.

Pandemics prey on this relentlessly. They are anti-urban. They exploit our impulse to congregate. And our response so far — social distancing — not only runs up against our fundamental desires to interact, but also against the way we have built our cities and plazas, subways and skyscrapers. They are all designed to be occupied and animated collectively. For many urban systems to work properly, density is the goal, not the enemy.

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

A defense of cities from Strong Towns, "Let's Not Forget What We Build Cities For."

"It’s not clear, therefore, that suburban dwellers really have a leg up on social distancing. Consider the crowds and long lines encountered at Walmart and Costco stores this week. Suburbanites go to coffee shops and gyms too. They go to music festivals and political rallies. They go to school and work. When they buy food and medicine, someone has to staff the grocery stores and pharmacies. Someone has to manufacture and deliver those products. Nursing homes and hospitals need caregivers.

And there are ways in which spread-out living arrangements might even speed contagion, because our lives are less local than ever, for both better and worse. In the traditional city, a larger percentage of your interactions might take place close to home, resulting in geographic clusters of disease that can be tracked and contained. But we've normalized long-distance travel in modern America, not just for tourism but for everyday purposes. When you work 30 miles from where you live—and your coworkers in turn live all over a large metropolitan region, attend different places of worship and send their kids to different schools—tracing and containing transmission chains becomes almost impossible very quickly.