Will Mobility Become More About Choice Than Necessity?

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Americans are slowly going back to work. Back to the physical offices and places of business that have been barren sanctuaries of silence for months. And yet, one can’t help but wonder how long office buildings, cubicles and boardrooms will exist in a post-Covid world, where technology will increasingly allow more Americans to work from home.

And it’s not just work… school and college may have some element of remote engagement going forward. Online retail continues to gain momentum as malls and shopping centers fade to into the realm of irrelevance. And when Amazon or Instacart can deliver your groceries, who needs to physically go to the store?

What do all these engagements and responsibilities have in common? With the exception of college and school (though there’s an element here too), most Americans facilitate these weekly obligations by car.

But in a future where the growth of remote work, delivery service and internet technology will be accelerated by the pandemic at hand, car trips may become more of a choice than necessity.

Let’s unpack this for a moment on a personal scale. For kicks, say you’re an account manager at a payroll company. While you used to work in the office, your company has determined that, in a post-Covid world, it doesn’t make sense for you to come into the office anymore. The company doesn’t renew their lease on the building you used to occupy, ultimately saving money, and now you work from home. The same is true for your spouse. Because you both now work from home, you realize that you can save a boatload of money keeping your 3-year-old at home instead of sending her to daycare. Sure it’s hard work, but for two years you can save an astronomical amount of money by keeping the little one at home before she enters kindergarten.

And with all the stress of having a kid or two at home while working, you replace one trip to the grocery store every month with an Instacart delivery. And maybe you replace a couple trips to major retailers with an online purchase or 6.

Now think of how many car trips per month you just replaced with remote work and at-home delivery? Twenty round trips to work, daycare pickups and drop-offs, a grocery store trip here and there and almost no physical retail shopping… that changes a lot of our mobility habits.

The narrative behind this scenario is that a greater percentage of American car trips will be by choice rather than necessity. With the proliferation of remote work and the ability to have almost everything delivered to your door, the “have to” car trip will give way to the “want to” adventure. With this in mind, we need to think differently about how we appropriate space in our communities. If car speed and convenience become less of necessity, and the need for human scale space in our cities and neighborhoods becomes more important than the ever, road space will increasingly become expendable. The repurposing of this space will determine the future of urban America.

While initially we thought that Covid-19 would be a huge hit to the strength of our cities (and it has been) the long term effect may actually be positive. As roads become more of a facilitator of choice trips rather than life maintenance necessities, our cities can finally justify the re-allocation of road space from speed and efficiency to right-of-ways that yield to street level walkability, bike infrastructure and a streamlined form of public transit. Park spaces and residential hubs may replace the sprawling lanes of some of our unnecessary street and highways. The justification for the re-allocation of space in our dense urban cores has new life in a time when more space for people to roam means greater societal health.

And as we rethink space, the hope is that we may rethink how we move about that space. If car travel is restricted and the resulting re-allocation of space creates a vibrant atmosphere that everyone wants to be a part of, accessing that space via means other than driving will be tolerated and maybe even embraced. If safely engaging in a “good time” in what used to be a city street means parking half a mile away and walking or biking, or parking in a garage and hopping on a convenient circulator, people may just buy in given a post-pandemic world.

The future of our cities is very much uncertain, but we do know that cities have the opportunity to embrace the collective need for more space in a world where car travel may become less necessary and more gratuitous. The pandemic that has brought our cities to their knees may actually do what few have been able to… force Americans to rethink how space in our urban cores and community centers are allocated, creating the desire for more vibrant spaces in our American cities.