Coronavirus

Three lessons our city should learn from COVID-19

The novel coronavirus is extracting a terrible toll from our society, replete with mind-boggling statistics: A death toll of more than 100,000, 40 million people unemployed, a 95% plunge in airline passengers and so many more.

The losses are immense. Grief is immeasurable. It’s still unclear how far-reaching and deep the economic pain we’re facing will run. 

Amidst that, however, the pandemic offers lessons and opportunities for change that might not come again. Here are three lessons surfaced by COVID-19 that we should not let fade after the virus is under control.

A renewed focus on disparities

The virus hasn’t created new inequalities in our society, but it has worsened those which already existed and forced us to look at them. 

“COVID-19  is shining a bright light on longstanding inequalities we have in healthcare,” Gov. Roy Cooper said last week, pointing to the disproportionate numbers of minority deaths and illness.

Those inequalities were already glaring in Charlotte. Whether you have easy access to a pharmacy is often determined by your zip code. In some neighborhoods east, north and west of uptown — historically black areas — residents’ average age of death is in the low 60s or even high 50s. In other, more predominantly white neighborhoods southeast of uptown and in northern Mecklenburg County, average age of death is in the high 70s or 80s. 

The abrupt switch to remote learning has thrown a spotlight on our digital divide and unequal access to the Internet and computers; the closure of schools has highlighted how desperately many students need free food schools provide; the shattering impact of job losses on low-wage workers shows how many are struggling in an unequal labor market; and the crisis has forced a moratorium on evictions and utility cutoffs, the end of which looms over thousands of households.

The focus on racial disparities has only strengthened in the wake of the killings of unarmed black people, including Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd in recent months. 

The temptation for many to go back to accepting these inequalities as normal will be strong when the virus is controlled will doubtless be strong. But these disparities will, if anything, only be worse than they were before. 

A window of opportunity to fix our commutes

For many office workers, the dreaded morning and evening commute is  a distant memory. Gridlock on I-77, frantic swearing at the bumper-to-bumper slowdown on Wilkinson, the agony of Independence Boulevard at 5:45 pm on a Thursday have been replaced by a stroll to the kitchen table. 

A recent study from MIT estimated that fully half of the US workforce is now working from home, including more than 34 percent of people who switched to remote work since the pandemic began. Compare that to figures in Mecklenburg County: only about 9 percent of people worked from home last year, according to Census estimates.

Such a mass shift is unprecedented — and it’s unclear how much longer it will last. 

States, including North Carolina, are preparing to reopen. Major Charlotte employers like Bank of America are considering phased reopening plans, gradually calling employees back to work. Schools, from K-12 systems like CMS through higher education institutions like UNC Charlotte, are preparing to welcome students, staff and teachers back before the fall. 

So, more traffic is coming. Or, more accurately, coming back. But it’s still difficult to say whether things will return to the way they were, with ever-growing congestion on Charlotte roads. There are signs that could point either way. 

For one, not that many employees might want to return to work. In surveys, more than half say they’d like to keep working from home longer — a solution some tech companies have embraced, with Twitter and Facebook saying they expect many of their employees to work remotely forever. And even in companies that do return, social distancing restrictions might mean staggered schedules, A/B days or relaxed work-from-home rules — all of which could have a profound impact on rush hour. 

On the other hand, transit use has plunged — a staggering 67 percent in Charlotte — and it might be a long time before people feel comfortable coming back. The CDC is advising people to commute alone via car if they can, and urging companies to incentivize and subsidize solo driving. Such trends would be a radical reversal from previous guidance, and could take the sting out of paying thousands of dollars a year to park in an uptown office tower — making people more likely to drive. 

Still, whichever way things go, it’s clear that we have a rare opportunity to think about reshaping our work and commuting patterns. That opportunity could be fleeting, however. 

A chance to change our streets

In Charlotte, years of talk about closing a street to vehicles and giving pedestrians more space floated around town halls and planning forums without going anywhere. The pandemic changed all that: Charlotte has closed three streets near parks, totalling two miles, to through traffic and opened them to give pedestrians and bicyclists more space to safely be outside.

It’s a pilot program, not a permanent change. But some officials have said they’re interested in expanding “shared streets” to other neighborhoods throughout the city. The pattern has been repeated in cities across the world, with ambitious plans to close hundreds of miles streets to cars and put cafe tables, parks and other pedestrian-friendly infrastructure in their place. 

The movement to give more outdoor space to people instead of cars comes as US pedestrian fatalities have been rising sharply, in Charlotte and other cities. About 6,100 pedestrians died nationwide last year, up from about 4,000 in 2009.

“When 40,000 people are killed each year on our streets—including a three-decade high in the number of people killed while walking—it’s a drag on our economy,” wrote Smart Growth America in a recent policy paper. 

Of course, in many places like Charlotte, the changes are only temporary, so far. City officials could reverse them, especially if we return to our cars with a gusto once this interruption to our daily routine subsides.

But especially in Charlotte, persistently ranked low on park space and facing  unequal access to green space and sidewalks, changing the way we use our greatest chunk of public space could offer an opportunity to change some of the longstanding problems we’ve faced.