The Future of Work & Commuting: COVID and 15 Minute Cities
Scott Shepard is the VP Global Public Sector of Iomob. He is a digital mobility expert, startup advisor and thought leader who understands and is passionate about the intersection of cities, movement, policy and technology.
We have witnessed more significant changes to urban travel patterns in the past 12 months than over the past half century. This is of course attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the resulting travel bans, lockdowns, confinements, and curfews. Beginning in early 2020, these actions essentially froze our cities into a state of mobility statis, relative to normal work and leisure travel patterns.
While the impacts were most acute and dramatic to our most vulnerable populations, such as elderly and infirmed, each and every person has had their lives disrupted in some shape or form. And of course this has taken a logical toll on society and the economy.
Yet, as seen in times of crisis, resiliency and invention are common themes being applied across the spectrum to better manage our lives and point to a more sustainable future. This is because our previous ways of doing business were simply harmful to ourselves, ecosystems, and the planet as a whole.
Many of these interventions came to us at astounding speed, such as pop up bike lanes, open streets, pedestrian paths, and outdoor dining. Each and every one of these tactical urbanist schemes were introduced as a countermeasure to social distancing, and to ensure people had a means to travel that was active and sustainable, during lockdowns and confinements.
What was more pronounced was the fact that large sectors of our digital economies completely shifted to remote based work. As was to be expected, this had an immediate impact on our travel patterns throughout cities, from car usage, to public transport.
Not only our dual peak commuting patterns had been flattened, but the distance to the office had been shorted from miles across the city to feet across the room. This meant that each and every previous business commute or work trip had a shift from global / national / regional, to basically neighborhood-based.
Now that vaccine distributions are starting to roll out at an effective pace and many countries and regions are seeing a re-emergence of their economies and societies from previous lockdowns, where do we go from here?
The fear that many urbanists (such as myself) hold is that we will simply revert back to our unsustainable auto-centric commuting habits. However, something else is to be considered, as we emerge in a post-COVID world. That is, teleworking is here to stay, and the standard dual peak commutes have been disrupted permanently.
Between teleworking and more neighborhood-focused work and leisure travel patterns, we see an emergence on many different levels of the “15 Minute City”. That is, all essential daily activities can be conducted within a 15 minute walking radius of your home.
However, there are risks to this approach from all angles, such as 1.) an overreliance on personal automobiles for journeys, 2.) lack of funding or support for public transport, and 3) urban policies that favor highway building over multimodal infrastructure improvements. This is why it is key to seize the opportunity to put in place urban policy strategies that will ensure we do not return to the old “normal”.
Stakeholders across the mobility ecosystem are realizing that single modality and over-reliance of automobile usage is not sustainable and negatively impacted our cities and the global in multiple ways. COVID provided an opportunity to hit the pause button and reflect on our daily travel habits and provide the support to introduce new measures to support active transportation. The path forward now is to ensure multimodality, neighborhood-centric activities, and opportunities to blend office and telework now and into the future.
This contribution is also available on Medium