At some point, the situation involving COVID-19 will be brought under control. While that might seem like a bold statement, humanity has endured pandemics that were worse, and done so with a fraction of the technological might we now possess.
So what then?
I’ve come up with a few ideas, and I’ve grouped them as follows: Things we need to re-think. Things we need to start doing. What we need to stop doing. Now, I want to make clear one caveat – this applies to the United States. The reasons for this will be apparent as we go through the various ideas.
Although I’d rather be living in a rural area than a dense city, I’ve lived in European cities and understand the intrinsic appeal of New Urbanism. Your residence and your work are connected by a walkable distance, or perhaps via convenient mass transit. When you’re done with work, it’s easy to walk to shopping or dining, which is likely to involve a nice pedestrian zone. Having experienced the organic version of this that exists in Europe, it’s hard to argue with.
Then COVID-19 hit.
Suddenly it doesn’t matter how close your work is, because you’re working from home. It doesn’t matter how easy it is to go shopping, because the stores are closed. The restaurants too. The population density is higher, with more common area type places, and of course you can’t make use of those.
Now, this is all a temporary situation. Things will go back to normal – but not the old normal. A new normal.
If you’ve discovered you can work from home most (or all) of the time, how important is it to be close to your work?
If you’ve decided to do all your shopping online, how important is it to be near the shops?
And how do the shops that continue justify paying the higher rents for the prime retail spots in the highest density areas?
And about those restaurants. Those are the businesses most likely to close. While new restaurants will pop up, how many people will want to start a business that depends upon dining in for its survival?
Finally, a lot of the success of New Urbanism depends on one thing that also needs fixing.
Let’s start with the positive. Mass transit is great for moving large quantities of people on a relatively fixed schedule, from one fixed terminus to another, with stops in between that allows some customization of the journey.
But mass transit isn’t pleasant. It can be more pleasant than being stuck in traffic in a car, but that’s a comparison. It might allow you to get work done, but you could also get work done in the back of a car when someone else is driving. As a novelty experience, like the Cable Cars in San Francisco, it can be enjoyable, but as your everyday form of transportation it requires compromise on the part of its users. On top of all of that, once COVID-19 hit, the last thing that most people wanted to do was to pack themselves tightly into a sealed container with dozens of strangers in close proximity.
The ideal form of mass transit would: 1) enable me to begin my journey at a time of my choosing, without waiting for a fixed timetable; 2) allow me to choose my final destination, subject to a very short potential walk of less than 5 minutes; 3) transport me within the confines of an enclosed space that is either totally private, or inclusive of trusted individuals; 4) not introduce significant stoppages due to peak transit times.
Of all those criteria, mass transit does well on the fourth, and fails the other criteria. Meanwhile, private automobiles do well on the first three criteria, while failing the fourth.
So why don’t we combine the two modes?
You might be thinking that this would involve driving to mass transit, and then using mass transit to complete the journey, but that still doesn’t meet the criteria.
What we really need is a reinvention of both the commuter car and of mass transit. Essentially, what we need are private pods (for lack of a better term) that are able to travel freely and under the control of the operator until they reach high density areas, at which point they will enter a dedicated infrastructure where control will be centralized. At that point, they will travel along the corridors until they reach the other side, or certain pre-determined exit points where they can resume some degree of self-directed travel.
Essentially think of it as being along the lines of being able to drive your car into the subway tunnels, emerging like you were in the Italian Job (the original with Michael Caine, naturally).
Granted, this requires someone to actually invent the components and oodles of money. On the off chance that Elon Musk is reading this, I’m on LinkedIn – send me an invite and we’ll get this sorted.
This might not be something that can be retrofitted onto every existing urban landscape, which then leads us to ...
In the immortal words of Moses Harry Horwitz, more commonly known as Moe Howard, “Spread out!”
The United States is incredibly big. Montana, for example, is the size of Germany, a country of over 80 million people, and yet it is home to the equivalent of just over twice the population of Staten Island.
There is little justification to cramming everyone into coastal metropolises. Our economy isn’t based solely on deep sea fishing or oceanic transportation of goods and services. If you assume that we will have rising sea levels and storm activity as a result of climate change, wouldn’t you want to move a bit inland anyways?
Our large coastal cities are really expensive. Expensive for residents, expensive for businesses. Meanwhile, we have more than enough space to house people and businesses in an affordable manner. Instead of spending outrageous sums on subpar affordable housing in high density areas, why don’t we use some of that to create nice housing for less money elsewhere, and create economic opportunity for more people?
I’m not saying everyone needs to leave, and that New York City will resemble the movie I Am Legend, but it could probably stand to shed some people and businesses to other parts of the country. If we start decentralizing things like the tech industry and financial services, we’ll be more resilient to localized disruptions. It’ll also have the effect of reducing geographic wealth disparities, as well as make our existing urban areas more affordable for the low- and moderate-income people who are struggling to keep their heads above water.
Normalize remote working during periods where we don’t have a pandemic
Remote working isn’t perfect. Then again, neither is working in an office.
There are plenty of people who want to continue working from home, and there are plenty of people who want to work in an office surrounded by people. As long as people are getting their work done, why not embrace both approaches?
Does it require some adaptation? Certainly, but here’s a bigger question: you’ve had your employees working at home for months, and now you tell them they have to return to the office – how do you respond to the simple question of “Why?” Employee retention is going to be a nightmare for companies that insist on people returning to campus. Meanwhile, employers that embrace working remotely as a permanent feature will be better positioned to retain employees. They’ll also have access to employees beyond the local commuting area, as their potential pool of employees will expand to everywhere there are educated people with internet access and people with the ability to align themselves with the HQ’s time zone.
Broadband everything – and improve cell service while you’re at it
Have you noticed that even in remote areas, there are houses that have electricity, telephone service, and the issue of running water has been solved?
We need to do that for broad band internet access and cell phone service. Frankly, using micro cells, you can just piggyback the cell service onto the internet access issue if you like – or build cell towers (I’m flexible).
Rural electrification was essential to bringing remote areas into the 20th Century. As long as we have pockets where connectivity doesn’t exist, we’re leaving people behind. More importantly, we’re missing out on the ability to start generating economic activity in places where there are few options.
This one is actually pretty easy. We need to stop holding on to preconceived notions as to how our society and economy need to be structured. We need to let loose the idea that “the big city” is where all the economic opportunity is, and that our rural areas have nothing to offer. We need to stop thinking that geography tells us everything we need to know about a person.
I’ve been to 43 states plus the District of Columbia, and have resided in DC and eight states. I’m tempted to round it to nine states, given the sheer length of time I’ve spent visiting family in North Carolina over the years. One thing has become really apparent: everywhere is starting to become a lot more alike, and regional differences aren’t what they were 40 years ago.
It’s probably the result of media consumption and nationwide retailers and restaurant chains, but aside from the scenery when you look out the door, the average American has far more in common with someone a thousand miles away than they realize.
The best way to move past this is to travel to somewhere new and different. Meet people who are different than you, and have conversations. This may not be the time you want to do this sort of thing, but eventually we’ll stabilize into a new normal, and you’ll be able to hit the road…although maybe bring some face masks and hand sanitizer just in case.
Garrett A. Hartzog is a Director of Public Policy & Industry Relations at MGIC, the company the founded modern private mortgage insurance in 1957, helping millions of families to achieve sustainable homeownership. Previously, Garrett worked at the Federal Housing Finance Agency, Bank of America, and PMI Mortgage Insurance. He has a Master’s of International Business Studies from the University of South Carolina, and is a graduate of Georgetown University, majoring in finance with minors in computer science and theology.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this editorial are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of any other person or entity.
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