COVID-19 and Our Futures

By Evan King

When speaking about the role of public transportation in modern society, I often bring up this article published by the Foundation for Economic Education. In it, the author essentially argues that the proliferation of telecommuting has removed all need for public transportation. If you take this line of thought to its logical, extreme conclusion, then we must be on an unstoppable trajectory towards a post-spatial society, where the only reason to leave your home is outdoor recreation or sex. In this scenario, not only will public transportation be rendered pointless by the internet—so will transportation in general. Of course, this all relies on the assumption that you are able to work from a computer. Those working in the service, retail, and medical industries will still need to travel across actual space, by increasingly expensive means no longer subsidized by the telecommuting class. 

Recently, this pandemic has seemed like the most well-timed acceleration of this suggested new order. It seems that nearly everything can now be delivered to your doorstep, and though these deliveries still provide jobs, eventually they may not in the face of drones or self-driving cars. Either way, society doesn’t need to think about the transportation needs of delivery services, right? We only need to consider the needs of the suburban 9-5 telecommuter.

I have contemplated for years how virtually the only upside of America’s suburban sprawl and resulting anti-social culture is relative insulation from disease (Except Lyme disease, which is badly exacerbated by suburban sprawl. Increased contact with other similar animal disease vectors may eventually prove to be another side effect of suburbanization.) Even in the early stages of this crisis in the United States, I hypothesized that even with such a blundered government response to this crisis, we may still be better off than Italy, owing simply to our dispersed, generationally-segregated way of life that is terrible for everything else. But now, it is clear that the US will be hit the hardest by far; so what good are these suburbs if they can’t even hold off a disease?

My classmates, and those all across the planning profession, have been writing extensively on this issue. There is a tone of despair in conversations so far; how can we generate the political will for more compact, efficient cities when this is all over? How can we possibly encourage people to use transit or live in dense environments, normally environmentally and socially worthy goals, when those activities helped to accelerate a pandemic? One thing that seems certain is that when the spread of disease ends, we will only have begun experiencing the economic impacts. A tanking economy means limited urban growth and little work for planning (or anyone). 

However, I can envision two possible positive consequences for planning. The first one is complicated, though. As we have seen over the past month, an outbreak of this scale requires a strong, well-studied government response to avoid disaster. Both a strong state that can support all its people, and a healthcare system designed to do more than just make money are not just beneficial to society, but a necessity. I’ve observed a plethora of stories on the internet over the past few weeks of deathbed conversions from libertarianism and similar political opinions. Suddenly, in the face of something that cannot be shot at, racially discriminated against, or even debated on, people have frantically realized that they need experts they can trust. 

Planning and expertise have a fraught history, but knowledge and practice in the field have come a long way from the dark days of urban renewal. Planners bemoan the idea that they were trusted when they didn’t know what they were doing and are not trusted now when they do. Maybe this is a chance for planners to apply their better developed, more democratic science in a more accepting society.

The other possible good news for planning is that we are being reminded of the value of public space, and how much we rely on social interactions. After only a few days of social distancing, it seems that even celebrities in their mansions are apparently losing their minds. We have gotten a close look at the post-spatial society the American upper and middle classes are hurtling towards and are realizing it might be more than we bargained for. Several have speculated a grand reunion when this is over, people deliriously happy to see each other; some are even predicting a mini baby boom. People may really want to escape the isolation of their subdivisions!

I won’t be participating in the baby boom, but I certainly never needed this outbreak to remind me that I am a social animal. Our response to this pandemic has consisted of irrational extremes: at the most fearful and destructive with panicked grocery shopping, at the most reckless and overconfident with the Miami spring breakers. While it’s difficult to be optimistic about the future of American cities at a time like this, we should remember that there is more than one social force at work here. And as long as people are willing to risk their lives (and others’) just to be around each other, we ought to have some hope for cities.

Featured Image: A nearly empty subway platform is seen at the 42nd Street station during the coronavirus outbreak in New York City. Credit: Mike Segar/Reuters via The Washington Post.

About the Author: Evan King is a first year masters student in city and regional planning. His interests include transportation policy in the developing world, light rail, and freight movement on inland waterways. He can found in his free time trying to kayak long distances and making hand-drawn maps. Evan hails from central Connecticut and completed an undergraduate degree in Maryland. Opinions are his own.