Equality, not density is responsible for the spread of COVID-19 says UBC Professor of Architecture Patrick Condon.
“The issue of transfer of this disease doesn’t seem to be density itself, it tends to be the inequalities that are associated with living in a major metropolitan area … both in terms of the jobs that [poorer] people are working and the additional need they have to use public transit to get around,” he told CBC Radio’s Spark (April 24, 2020).
In New York, for example, the hardest-hit neighbourhoods were not wealthy Manhattan but poorer boroughs like Queens, Brooklyn and the Bronx. In Canada, condo buildings in central Toronto or Vancouver aren’t COVID-19 hotspots because the people who occupy these higher-end rentals have the “luxury of jobs that can be done from home,” says Professor Condon.
Others in the service industry such as grocery store workers aren’t so lucky. They have to work in public spaces and need to take public transit to get to work.
Commute times have increased over the last decades as affordable housing is pushed further away from where people work. Longer commute times increases the exposure to pathogens.
Environmentalists, such as David Suzuki, have indentified some solutions to urban planning but miss one important one. Suzuki says:
“During the COVID-19 pandemic, cities worldwide have been repurposing streets to create more room for walking and cycling. In some, temporary measures to help people maintain physical distancing, like lower speed limits and limited car access, are providing impetus for permanent changes that prioritize healthy mobility choices over cars (armchairmayor.ca, June 17, 2020).”
What Suzuki misses is the fact that most people don’t live where they work. Walking and bicycling is great for getting around near where you live but many workers live in distant suburbs and rely on public transit.
However, the use of public transit has declined during the pandemic and its future is in doubt because people have found other ways to get to work.
Money spent on public transit could be better spent elsewhere, like affordable housing near where people work.
Public transit has long been promoted as a reasonable alternative to cars. However, that’s only true when busses are full. Mass transit vehicles use up roughly the same energy whether they are full or empty, and for much of the time, they’re more empty than full.
“Subsidized transit is not sustainable by definition,” says Wendell Cox, a transport policy consultant in St. Louis, and former L.A. County Transportation commissioner. “The potential of public transit has been so overblown it’s almost scandalous.”
Professor Condon’s alternative to public transit is to move people closer to work rather than have them commute long distances. Once workers don’t have to sit in cars and public transit, they can get around in the ideal communities that Suzuki imagines.
Condon agrees with Suzuki on one point: city streets take up a lot a space and would be better used purposes suitable to humans.
Post-pandemic urban planning that has people living closer to work meets the goals of reduced commute times, less pollution, and the avoidance of future pathogens.