The Future of Cities

It seems every vested interest and every campaigner is busy explaining that when Covid-19 is over, we'll need to adopt their particular hobby-horse. Widen pavements, or pedestrianise city centres; create more open spaces, re-configure unwanted offices, build lots of garden villages, or towns...

Meanwhile, apart from walking and cycling, demand has collapsed across all the transport modes; light rail and metros might be mothballed because they were overlooked in the protection provided to bus and rail systems. But emergency vehicles travel streets with minimal traffic; buses and trains run to time, indeed run ahead of time. It is an extraordinary re-set from which a return to normal will need to be fashioned.

Across the transport sector there are divergent views on what the future holds, and whether this is or isn't a chance for our national transport arrangements to be shifted away from accustomed norms that are inefficient at best and unsafe – for us and for nature – at worst.

In one camp are neo-realists who, to be frank, expect people in the post-Covid-19 world to be fearful, avoiding crowded spaces if possible. Quietly, they believe this 'reality' provides a helpful counter to those who would want to restrict, banish or impose charges for car use. Because cars, they think, will be uniquely safe spaces for travel. Yes, all will be well again, and wide-aisle out-of-town retail centres will blossom and boom.

In a rival camp are those who believe we can do better than that. Pre-virus this camp bought into the climate extinction discourse. They like to think beyond the brash instincts of the individual, and they see bad health outcomes ahead. But this 'we-can-do-better-than-that' camp has a problem. Large cities may offer the best carbon outcomes, energy efficiencies, and avoid private car ownership dependency. But high-density living makes virus transmission much easier. People may vote with their feet if virus fears continue.

Two recent articles in the New York Times point this way. On April 15th Craig Smith wrote about how Venture Capital firms were moving out of Silicon Valley, New York and Boston to inland states. Mark Zuckerberg told a conference in Utah that these days he wouldn't locate a start-up in Silicon Valley. Housing costs are simply too high. And with cloud computing, location really doesn't matter, at least for VC businesses. On April 19th, two NYT journalists wrote of young professionals seeking to leave the Big Apple and head for the suburbs and smaller cities. The largest metropolitan areas are losing population, a trend that could accelerate, they wrote. Incentives are available to attract people (example given: artists) to places like Tulsa, Oklahoma.

These decentralising patterns visible in the US could be copied here, post-Covid-19. The same factors, the problem of sky-high rents and the feasibility of working remotely in the digital economy, will apply here too, especially for London.

And yet, hasn't it always been the case that the young and hopeful move to big cities for the opportunities and contacts they provide and quite often leave later in life as the attractions fade? And isn't this just a professional middle-class phenomenon? As Ed Glaeser (author of the Triumph of the City) asks, what will happen to low-wage workers, say those employed in the restaurant trade?

Nobody knows how this will turn out. But the better off, and those who can work successfully remotely, may well increasingly leave cities. But as the economy restarts, those in the service sector that rely on customer contact will surely remain. Cities may lose part of their income base, but those on low-incomes or those who find it hard to get back into employment – as has happened in our post-industrial areas – will stay. And the tourists will still come. And the suburbanites will stay too, although commuting less and needing reassurance to travel into city centres. Usable public transport will remain essential.

As Sir Peter Hendy explained to Sarah Smith on BBC R4's Today programme a week ago, rail is well-placed to accommodate travel in an interim (amber) stage post full lock-down. We can use seat reservation systems to prevent overcrowding (easily on longer distance services) and allow people to maintain social distance when on-board. Turn-up-and-go intercity rail travel needn't be abandoned if we can get last-minute reservation systems operational.

The truth is, rail has had an easy time of it attracting customers through an era of strong growth, pre-Covid (although handling the resulting crowding has been problematic). Marketing effort has been minimal. Post-Covid-19, passengers are going to need coaxing and reassurance. It requires simplified 'honest' (and targeted) pricing. Here is an extraordinary opportunity to give rail much broader appeal, with the usual angst over short-term revenue losses, for once having little traction (there's none to lose). You were warned about hobbyhorses.