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“The Great Localization” COVID-19 and Opportunities for Communities

August 26, 2020 by Ted Knowlton
Policy/Legislative

COVID-19 could permanently change the future of our cities

 

COVID-19 is an important moment in the history of cities.  Even as we continue to battle the public health emergency of COVID-19, and are grappling with the economic emergency, we are beginning to understand that living with a pandemic may forever alter people’s lifestyles and decisions.  Change happened quickly for example to levels of telecommuting.  Yet unlike other emergencies, COVID-19 has not quickly subsided.  Enduring habits are being created.  For COVID-19 shifts include e-living, forms of recreation, how people use living and working spaces, shifts in industry and potential alterations to how people get around.

 

Enduring changes in lifestyle like these can affect the physical form and function of cities.  This happened when automobile use boomed after World War II, affecting the form and location of homes and businesses.  Drive-thrus, the subdivision, and off-street parking were all adaptations.  Our transportation systems were modified as well: freeways and cul-de-sacs are two examples.

 

While we need to understand how the shifts we are experiencing in COVID-19 might lead to changes that last generations, note that we are not a passive audience to these changes.  Decision-makers at each level of government, working with the citizens they represent, can shape these shifts through policy and investments to create better outcomes.  

Significant shifts have occurred to communities and transportation

 

What kind of shifts are we talking about?  Much of the data comes from cell phones, that helps us understand the kinds of trips people are making.  Compared to before the onset of the pandemic we have seen: 

  • Open Space: The use of parks and open space has approximately doubled straining space both at in-town parks and in remote recreational locations. 
  • Bike trips have increased as much as 90% year over year.  This usage is both in cities and on remote trails. Bike sale data indicates that about half of this bike usage is coming from new riders, not just those who own bikes and have increased their rate of riding.
  • Work trips in the aggregate have reduced by about 40% year over year.  The 40% shift accounts for all industry types: industrial, retail, office, health care, education.  If we focus on industries that typically rely on office space, the shift is much more significant.  
  • Telework: A broad-based Utah-based survey led by UCAIR with 7,500 respondents shows that 97% are doing some sort of telework during the pandemic and 55% of organizations surveyed began exclusive telework.

 

Some of Utah’s growth challenges take a breather — but not for long

We are seeing a “Great Localization” of activity

 

In the aggregate, we are seeing residents focus more of their lives in and near their home.  Beyond telework, this includes a reorganization of activities to be closer to home as we see from increased bike and open space usage.  Life has been revolving more around our neighborhoods.  This is a “great localization” of life and activity. In other words, many aspects of life are being selected because they are in or close to home.

 

This great localization has of course been caused by the external force of COVID-19.  Despite being forced upon us, we have learned that localization of activity can work positively for many households, businesses and the economy.  

 

Again from the UCAIR survey we see.

 

  1. 72% of those working from home have increased time with loved ones
  2. 93% maintained or increased productivity working from home.
  3. 68% of employers reported cost savings as an organization (utilities, travel, etc.)

 

Despite being initially forced upon us, we have learned that a great localization creates multiple advantages.  

Challenges to confront

The shift in lifestyles has been so significant and successful that there is little chance we will simply revert to life as it was before the pandemic.  95% of respondents from the UCAIR survey want to continue to telework in the future.  Despite the benefits of these shifts, there are some potential challenges that may occur as we look ahead.

 

  • Transit use: Transit thrives by getting people to and from jobs during the most congested part of the day.  Will transit use decline then as people opt to telework?  If transit use declines it could mean households drive more when they have to.  This increases the cost of transportation, especially problematic for households of limited means.  Increased auto use could also mean more air pollutants.
  • Non-work trips: Historically 60% of auto trips are non-work.  How (auto, bike, walk) and where (close to home, far from home) will households choose to take these trips (like the grocery store, kids to school, the park)?
  • Remote living: If more people telework, does that mean over time they are more likely to buy homes that are a long distance from major and weekly destinations?  Will these locations increase the distance traveled for non-work trips?
  • How these three things unfold will affect the level of benefits we experience.

 

Community-level decisions enable the great localization

While these are significant challenges.  We need not be a passive audience to how these changes might unfold.  For community leaders, what actions can be taken to support a healthy localization of activities?

 

In the age of telework, economic development will be even more driven by a community’s quality of life. The benefit for a community of housing a teleworker is that for the online retail purchases that she makes, the “point of sale” for tax revenue calculations will be her home address.  Where one lives and shops online will be where lots of tax revenue lands.

 

So what community will the teleworker choose?  If patterns of activity are centered more around home, that doesn’t mean people will be content never leaving their home.  They want to get out and be part of the community.  More time at home means the teleworker actually has more demand for a complete community that complements their having home and office collocated.  This means many teleworkers will pick communities that are highly amenitized to meet their weekly wants and needs.  

 

Residents will need to get to a variety of destinations even more over the course of the week precisely because they are at home more of the week.  Grocery stores, restaurants, parks, haircuts, pharmacies, the post office.  Quality of life oriented retail and services.  Having these destinations nearby will be part of the recipe.  But making these destinations feel like amenities in and of themselves will be the other part.  Are these weekly destinations organized into walkable destinations that provide a sense of place?  Picture stores perhaps mixed with plazas and townhouses that front inviting sidewalks with glass, porches, and doorways.  The collection of these streets, buildings and plazas taken together becomes a welcoming town center.  Here are a few local examples of town centers that have been created just in the last 10 years that complement many other historical main streets and downtowns that we love:

 

  • Daybreak’s Soda Row
  • Holladay Town Center
  • Herriman Town Center
  • Centerville’s Legacy Crossing  

 

Part of the amenity package for the teleworker is not just having a town center near their home, but being able to safely reach it on foot or by bike.  How valuable would it be to a teleworker to be able to let their 10 year-old bicycle to the store themselves?

Town Center benefits are amplified near regional transportation

In the last 10 years Utah was the fastest growing state, and growth continues with or without COVID-19.  In the face of this rapid growth, identifying strategic locations to allow town centers to grow will help us maintain our quality of life.

 

Centers support the great localization of activities.  Yet allowing centers in areas of regional transportation significance — near TRAX and FrontRunner, bus rapid transit, near freeway interchanges, and near the intersection of major roadways — creates additional benefits. Centers near regional transportation help more residents easily reach a large variety of jobs and destinations; the transportation system is better able to do its job of connecting us to where we need to go.  As we travel, more would also have the viable choice to go by train, bus, bike, as well as driving.  And using lower cost transportation choices like these means more of us can also benefit from lower transportation expenses to further help ends meet.  Up to about 10% of household expenses can be reduced when transportation choices are viable (https://htaindex.cnt.org/).  

 

This all adds up.  Strategically located centers enable more travel activity to be localized, more people to ride bike or transit, and in the aggregate we can maintain a benefit we are now seeing in COVID-19: fewer miles of driving, less congestion and cleaner air.

 

Wasatch Choice coordinates centers with regional transportation

 

Through the collaborative Wasatch Choice regional visioning process, community leaders across the greater Wasatch Front have identified the location of new or expanded centers that they want to further explore with their residents.  They did this while simultaneously thinking about the regional transportation system that exists and is planned to be built in the next 30 years through Utah’s Unified Transportation Plan.  In fact this locally driven vision for centers and community growth is the basis for Utah’s Unified Transportation Plan

 

Overall, the Wasatch Choice Vision was based on a broad collaboration between local governments, WFRC, MAG, UDOT, UTA, ULCT, UAC, Envision Utah, Chambers of Commerce, and the University of Utah.  

 

With the Wasatch Choice vision for the next 30 years of transportation coordinated with town center development, by 2050 36% of residents would have the choice to take high capacity transit, up from 21% today.

 

Transit is an element of the Unified Plan.  In the midst of COVID-19, transit use is down 70% from the previous year.  This has left some wondering: “should we still invest in transit, given covid and teleworking?”

 

The answer is yes. Our pre-pandemic plans had us significantly enhancing transit capacity, and even with that, road congestion and travel delay was projected to increase by X from now to 2050, and average travel time was still projected to increase from 59 minutes to an hour and ten minutes (WFRC only). This is because Utah is the fastest-growing state in the nation, and that is predicted to continue with Utah’s high birth rate and in-migration as people seek relative stability and quality of life. What the pandemic has shown us is that teleworking is a possibility for a significant segment of workers. We already planned for more teleworking, but the pandemic has been a significant accelerator to this trend. This creates the possibility that by making the investments that had been planned already in road and transit AND increasing teleworking and also active transportation, we could actually avoid what before had seemed inevitable — the increase in traffic congestion and delay. But this is only possible if we continue to have an “all of the above” strategy: roadway improvements, transit that works for more people, safe bikeways, teleworking, and land use that allows people to live more of their life and meet more of their needs within their neighborhood, the “centering” strategy. So, while transit use is down significantly during the pandemic, we have to keep the long view, and plan and invest for continued growth and for the future of our communities. 

Policy shifts to explore

 

If your community is interested in town centers, where do you begin?  Here are some questions and topics to consider as you address policy questions in your community.

 

  1. Where does it make sense to have a center in your community?  Are there commercially zoned areas in strategic locations, such as near transit, that could change over time to a town center?  Are there commercial areas that would improve your community if they became more walkable?

 

  1. If you are in the Wasatch Front, have a community conversation about the centers you’ve identified in the Wasatch Choice.

 

  1. Do more now with parks and open space. 

 

  1. Allow housing in your commercial areas.  This fits with the idea of “the great localization” helping people easily meet their needs by mixing land uses.  More housing doesn’t come at the expense of retail, it actually means more buying power to support more retail.

 

  1. Ensure all development in your desired “centers” will be walkable and help create a sense of community.  Basic standards help like “ensure windows and doors face the street,” and “put the parking to the side or rear of a building”

 

  1. Take a fresh look at parking requirements.  Parking isn’t needed as much in the great localization and has been falling for years with the spread of Uber/ Lyft.  Frequently unused parking detracts from walkability and is a missed opportunity for a park or another building.

 

  1. Build safe, family friendly bike and walking infrastructure connecting major destinations in your community.

 

A crisis like COVID-19 creates a natural opening, a time of reflection, to ask structural questions like these.  While being sensitive to your community’s willingness to look ahead, this is an appropriate time for communities to ask “where do we go now.”  Growth keeps coming and we shouldn’t waste the opportunity for reflection and potential course correction now that is presented by the current circumstances. Let’s use this time to be ready.