By David Krogh

Urbanism Next, the University of Oregon program, sponsored a virtual forum on May 14. The primary topic was COVID-19 and its impact on cities, primarily related to the effects on transportation and commerce.

Nico Larco, Director of the Urbanism Next Center, summarized the steps cities are going through including the length of time needed for the re-opening, fears of how to address future pandemics (or the resurgence of this one) and the magnitude of economic impacts.

Ron Milam, Program Director, and Eric Womeldorff, Principal, both from Fehr & Peers, and Laura Schewel, CEO of Streetlight Data, discussed trends developing from the virus and its impacts.

It was suggested that COVID-19 may throw current thinking about long range planning and its densification philosophy “out the window.”

Speculations were provided (including survey results) that people in larger cities will be motivated by the virus to relocate to smaller, less dense cities and that public gatherings won’t ever be the same again.

Local governments will not be able to realistically maintain their pre-pandemic agendas and changes will be necessary. As an example, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal occurred in response to the Great Depression and no less of a response will be required now.

Seleta Reynalds, General Manager from the Los Angeles Department of Transportation, shared data that showed public transit will not be able to meet the needs of all citizens. More transportation alternatives are needed, including the use of cars as part of the solution.

In Los Angeles, you can get to many parts of the city quicker and easier than by riding the bus. With many people unwilling or unable to utilize bicycles and/or scooters, increases in ride sharing are an encouraged transportation alternative. Much of this is simply because the economy is such that people cannot necessarily afford to live near where they work or have the time and ability to utilize transit for commuting.

This is especially relevant to the Portland metro area where housing is largely unaffordable while the City has tended to ignore traffic congestion in favor of promoting biking and busing.

According to the conference speakers, this kind of thinking should be reconsidered to look for alternative solutions where all residents are appropriately served with meaningful transportation alternatives.

Laura Bliss, Journalist with CityLab-Bloomberg News, indicated that transit use is currently down at least 30 percent nationwide (and to a greater extent in the Portland area).

Alex Pazuchanics, Mobility Solutions Manager with the Seattle Department of Transportation, chimed in saying that even with transit declines, transit is still a necessary service and an important part of the overall transportation equation.

At the same time transit use is down, telecommuting from home and virtual meeting attendance have increased substantially. In all likelihood this will become part of our everyday lives once the pandemic is over and may result in a positive influence for traffic reduction.

Shin-pei Tsay, Policy Director with Uber, discussed how Uber is expanding its operations to meet public needs imposed by the pandemic. Besides individual transportation services, Uber has expanded into delivery operations for goods and groceries. This use will likely continue.

Garrick Brown, Vice President with Cushman & Wakefield, and Sucharita Kodali, Vice President with Forrester Research, spoke to e-commerce and retail trends. Many businesses have resorted to online ordering and home delivery or curbside pickup and will likely continue beyond the pandemic.

It is estimated that as many as 30-50 percent of all businesses (mostly small ones but some big box types) will close for good. Since the retail industry doesn’t have a lobby in Washington, DC many of the smaller retail-oriented businesses were not able to get aid from the CARES Act. Cities will have to shoulder a bigger burden to support small businesses and to encourage the re-occupation of storefronts.

Tamika Butler, Director of Planning with Toole Design, talked about the adequacy of medical supplies. She said the powers that be did not look far enough as to mitigation efforts. Besides shortages in protective gowns and gloves, masks, testing kits and ventilators, there should have been greater effort to provide other devices including HEPA filtration and UV lights.

Equity has become a buzz word Butler said. It has to be addressed seriously and include discussion about race and safety in order to be meaningful. Cities, states and the federal government need to establish discussion groups not dominated by special interests and encourage transparency to help resolve inequities.

Harriet Tregoning, Director of the New Urban Mobility Alliance, and Jeffrey Tumlin, Executive Director of the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency, wrapped up the forum discussion.

It is not enough to focus on the use expansion of just buses and bikes, Tumlin said. Cities must deal with congestion easing or transportation inequities will not be resolved.

There should be no preferences given to privilege. Purposes must be clearly established and include a more thorough consideration of impacts and opportunities.

More private and public partnerships will be required in dealing with the multitude of issues continuing to affect all of us. Finally, lawmakers need to start looking at issues from a big picture perspective.

Change is inevitable and is now being thrust upon us. It’s up to us to make the best of it.

For more information about the Urbanism Next program, visit urbanismnext.org.