Who knows what the post-Covid-19 world will look like. We can all speculate about what will be done with the unused road and parking space as companies transition more employees to full or part time home employment. We can talk about how brick-and-mortar establishments will cater to take out rather than dine in. We can argue whether or not urban dwellers will continue their hunger for the city vibe, or whether the fear of present or future outbreaks will drive them to seek the embrace of suburban or rural America.
Want to know what I think? Of course you don’t. There are people far smarter than me that are using complex social models to predict how the future will shape itself.
That being said, I have a hope. My belief is that a large percentage of our country will seek an environment that is slightly less dense than what they previously enjoyed. More first-ring suburban residents will seek third-ring suburbs. Small city residents will seek a little more space and head for the first-ring suburbs. Big city residents will seek a slower, less dense environment that still gives them a city feel, but with more space and close proximity to nature… a sort of “scalable” urban experience.
One of the most important things in any urban setting, big or small, is how we traverse it. Is this a city that prioritizes pedestrians or one that acquiesces to the automobile? Is it bike friendly or is the movement of cars so fierce that biking is dangerous? Is there a commitment to public transportation or is the city in question doomed to continue the “car-first” prioritization that has dominated our American culture and gutted our urban cores?
My hope is that urban-dwellers will continue to embrace their love for urbanity, and that Covid-19 helps residents see how much city space has been allocated for driving, and how little has been portioned for people to actually live, move about and interact. For cities to remain safe and relevant places in a post-pandemic world, we as a society will have to start redistributing the most egregious hoarder of space. It’s time to rethink our urban environments around forms of transportation that mimic the dimensions of the physical human profile.
The best selling car in the United states for an amazing 22 out of the last 23 years is the Toyota Camry. The latest version of the Camry turns a single person (76.4% of Americans commute alone by car) into a 96-square-foot space. Furthermore, 70% of Americans in 2019 bought an SUV or a pickup, which makes the square footage translation even more absurd. As automobile sizes increase, it appears as if Americans are engaged in sort of futile arms race, hoping to inflict damage instead of receive it in a potential crash. And as Americans have moved farther away from centers of density, the distance that the average family must travel for jobs, daycare, groceries, recreational activities for children (and adults!) and a myriad of other destinations has generated a sense of “need” for capacity. We, as a nation, have justified spending astronomical amounts of additional income to own multiple vehicles with massive amounts of passenger and cargo space that is seldom used.
Accommodating this mindset with wider roads, more lanes and a never-ending sea of parking in our urban areas has led to the hollowing-out of our communities, with our cities suffering the most. The efficiency that density naturally fosters is negated when automobile infrastructure “pushes” everything outward. And the reality is, most of this allocated road and parking space is due to the fact that the vast majority of Americans use 50-100 times his or her square footage profile just to get from point A to point B.
But as the future will likely see more Americans working from home, using takeout services instead of dining in, and a greater comfort with online learning, this is the time to start thinking about taking the massive space we have allocated to the automobile and giving it back to the people.
With this, our cities have the opportunity to fully embrace forms of transportation that more accurately mimic the human profile while still keeping mobility an “individual” event. Bikes, electric bicycles, cargo bikes, scooters and even skateboards allow people to navigate their surroundings with less square footage, which is better for our infrastructure, our health, our communities and our planet. Now more than ever, our cities will have legitimate grounds to redistribute our glutinous road and parking capacities and build safe and inviting space for people to navigate their communities on a human scale.
Public transportation will still be one of the most important pieces of economic vitality and equitable mobility in our cities… but in the new-normal where the understandable and valid fear of public closeness will likely favor an individualized transportation model going forward, human scale transportation is the key to maintaining urban density while still allowing city dwellers enough space to feel comfortable and safe.
While Covid-19 will be one of the most negatively transformative events in our modern history, the byproduct could be an America that thinks twice about how we allocate space, especially in our urban areas. Let’s rethink personal mobility and minimize the scale of our transportation options in an effort to stay safe, stay flexible and stay healthy!