In defence of the city and of public transit during (and after) the COVID-19 pandemic

British Museum Underground Station, London, 1937

The entire world has been rattled by the coronavirus pandemic (aka COVID-19) making it the most disruptive event experienced in recent history, and one that I fear threatens to reverse decades of effort to make cities more equitable and sustainable. As we collectively scramble to discern what the future might look like a three-pronged attack on urbanism has emerged. Relying on ideas that all have well established foundations in modern thinking, the arguments being put forward are naturally tempting for the public to agree with.

First, the re-valourization of car culture. You may have noticed news anchors and journalists recently talking about how drive in movie theatres are back and drive in church services along with them. Even the Sunday Drive itself, an anachronistic activity popularized in the 1950s as automobile culture became truly ascendant, is apparently back. Lord help us.

And what was one of the first sports to begin broadcasting to homes during the pandemic? You guessed it, NASCAR, North American Sports Car racing*.

*Editors note: not a real sport.

Meanwhile, in a more utopian/dystopian vein, others have begun talking about how coronavirus is accelerating a future with autonomous vehicles.

As these stories have come out data is emerging showing that years of work to reduce automobile usage in urban areas is being undone as a result of the pandemic. More on this later.

Secondly, there's the smart, passionate urbanists, elected leaders, senior policymakers, and respected planners who promote a future after the pandemic where we work from home and everything we need is within a 15 minute walk. Well meaning, but concerning to me, as this is a very privileged take on where we go from here.

Like the May 20th piece in McLean's Magazine from respected Toronto planner Jennifer Keesmaat, Should our lives be centred around our neighbourhoods post coronavirus?

Or the May 4th piece in the Atlantic, Work From Home is Here to Stay

And lastly, there's those voices who blame the city itself for the pandemic, like New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, or others who have suggested that dense urban communities are more likely to facilitate spread of the virus. Evoking William Blake's dark satanic mills of England circa 1808, Cuomo's reasoning was quickly and heartily rebuked by a host of organizations and individuals for spreading "medieval myths" as The Urbanist put it.

So to summarize our three pronged attack on urbanism: cities are dirty, cars are freedom, and everything you need should be right in your neighbourhood as you work conveniently from home.

I know that last one's a bit of an outlier as it really has become an increasingly popular opinion in the past decade among planners, architects and other urbanists, but I'm thinking about the city through an equity lens with this piece, and few innovations have done more to make the city a more equitable place than public transit.

I feel strongly that urbanists need to push back on all three of these modes of thinking in defence of urban density and in defence of public transit, lest we undo decades of work to imagine urban futures that are less car dependent and more equitable at the same time.

Firstly, in defence of density

Despite what Governor Andrew Cuomo might say, some of the most effective responses to the pandemic have been in dense urban regions in China, South Korea, and what are effectively quasi city-states of Taiwan, Hong-Kong, and Singapore .

To bring in a North American example I can cite Vancouver, where one of the earliest cases of the novel coronavirus was identified. The city of Vancouver, the core of an urban region with over 2.5 million people, has the highest population density of any municipality in Canada. The city, and the region, where about 90% of all cases in the Province have occurred, has proven itself one of the most successful jurisdictions in North America, and the world, at bending the curve of the pandemic and preventing deaths, and it didn't even introduce full lockdown measures like many other cities and regions experienced.

Where was one of Canada's worst community outbreaks of COVID-19? The small town of Brooks Alberta, where workers at a local meat processing plant became infected, spreading it through the community.

As of the writing of this blog post, May 24th 2020, more people have tested positive for COVID-19 in this Alberta town of 15,000 than in the entire Vancouver Coastal Health region, which includes 600,000 people in the City of Vancouver.

The density of a city doesn't guaranteeĀ  rapid and extensive spread of an infection, but delaying public health measures or a lack of coordination between levels of government sure might, just like working somewhere where you don't have sick-pay, or fear losing your job for being sick might too.

This pandemic has shown more than anything that racial inequality, income inequality, work, and family living conditions, all of which are often intertwined, determines who is more likely to become infected whether they live in a suburban bungalow or urban apartment tower.

Pushing back on the 15 Minute City

Promoting walkable, complete communities, is a reasonable response in the face of such disruption, but it's one that is rooted in a very privileged perspective. It hasn't take long for studies to show that those who can work from home are among the most educated and highly paid in the workforce. The data also shows they are largely white. I struggle to see these well paid, largely white, largely home owning professionals welcoming a meat packing plant or waste sorting facility on their block. This is kind of why the concept of zoning was created.

While we can try and make sure more amenities are available to people in communities of all income levels, the millions of people who work in agriculture, manufacturing, healthcare and other care services, cleaning and janitorial services, retail, restaurants, and other lines of work that can't be done from home don't deserve to have compromised public transit during this pandemic, nor should our visions of urbanism after the pandemic privilege the possibilities of wealthy communities that are more able to work from home over the needs of communities who are less able to.


Holding our ground against the resurgence of automobile culture

For the future of our cities and urban regions I hope and pray this trend of valourizing the automobile as a remedy to the hard inconveniences of COVID-19 is only temporary.

As the World Health Organization warns, automobile accidents are the leading killer globally for people aged 5-29 and one of the top ten causes of death in the world overall. Automobiles are of course also one of the leading causes of air pollution worldwide. A recent article in the Canadian Medical Association Journal emphasizes that Canada experiences 9 times the amount of premature deaths yearly from air pollution than car accidents. Not only this, but the stress of daily commuter driving has been shown to have seriously negative impacts on mental, emotional and physical health.

With Amazon and other logistics delivery services increasingly taking up space on our streets, we simply can't turn to Lyft, Uber, taxis, and carpooling to get us from point A to point B after the pandemic.

Cars and trucks are dangerous and unhealthy for us no matter how you slice it. Whether they are electric or gas powered, more cars on the road is a recipe for disaster in this century.

Why we need champions for urbanism and for transit now more than ever

We need to be clear that the reasons for spread of the coronavirus are less about density or the size of a city and more about the social determinants of health in communities, including levels of income, types of work people do, and underlying health conditions that are often apparent along racial divides. It is also about the responsiveness of governments, and the trust and willingness of the publics they serve to comply with Orders and recommendations to protect their health and safety.

Once we see the pandemic through this lens of equity, responsiveness, and trust, we see why investments in transit and staying the course on smart urbanism are both key to combating the spread of disease, not just COVID-19 but a whole range of others that a century of automobile culture and car-centric cities have fostered.

In Canada it's shameful that major airlines qualified for wage subsidies but transit authorities like Translink, here in BC, did not. It stings even more once you know that the Trump Administration, that bastion of progressive policy, gave an additional 25 billion dollars to support public transit in the United States as part of its COVID-19 pandemic response. A response that by most measures has been one of the worst of any country in the world.

This lack of attention for transit in Canadian cities and regions speaks to the absence of any kind of discernible urban agenda at the federal level of Canadian government. In a country whose urbanization rate is above 80% this needs to change, yesterday, and transit needs to be a pillar of that vision.

As the debate around what the future of cities will look like after the pandemic continues to develop, I encourage urbanists to embrace transit as the way forward, not something to be avoided, and a public good that will require government funding to maintain and expand in the public's interest as the Canadian Urban Transit Association has emphasized.

Transit is definitely full of high-touch surfaces and people do get crammed together during rush hour commutes, it's natural that transit usage plummeted as various public health measures were put in place, but as community transmission in BC and other jurisdictions continues to decline we need to find our confidence in transit again. Thankfully coalitions like Moving in a Livable Region, where I occasionally represent Vancouver Coastal Health in discussions, or BEST, provide a shared table for those types of champions to organize and amplify messages of support. There are many others in regions around the world. I encourage all of you to keep the faith and keep on pushing.

The newly release Safe Operating Action Plan from Translink gives champions for transit in Vancouver and the Lower Mainland of BC something to feel encouraged by. It does exactly this by thoughtfully implementing a range of infection control measures without compromising service.

Transit authorities can't do this alone though. We need governments at all level recommitting to the needs of transit during the remainder of the pandemic and beyond, to support enhanced sanitation, spacing and other engineered and administrative controls, and quite likely a public relations effort to promote transit as safe, healthy, and reliable. Restaurants and others in the private sector have already begun doing this, why not transit?

Am I encouraging us all to get out there and start using transit with reckless abandon? No. But given the mobility needs of Canadians on a daily basis, I would hope all levels of government will take seriously the need to help transit systems weather the storm and emerge from the pandemic as strong as they can.

Given that so much of our workforce requires transit to get from home to work, any economic recovery without a robust and dependable public transit system will be seriously hampered. Any efforts to tackle urban affordability, chronic and preventable disease, social isolation, and climate change will be similarly hampered.

We can promote walkable 15 minute neighbourhoods, and getting from one side of the city to the other in 15 minutes thanks to world-class transit in the same discussion. We have to, if we are to build a vision of a diverse and equitable city.

We can't wait until after the pandemic to be champions for cities and urbanism and for transit, we have to be there for these things now, even if many of us are working from home in a social cocoon.

We owe it to the others who can't work from home, whose labour we depend on whether we see it in our immediate neighbourhood or not, who we will share the post-pandemic future of urban life with.