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Column: Coronavirus is dark side of an urban interconnected world

LONDON (Reuters) - Like earlier pandemics, the coronavirus is the dark side of a highly productive, urbanised, interconnected and increasingly prosperous world.

People wearing face masks are seen at Hongqiao International Airport in Shanghai, following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, China May 21, 2020. REUTERS/Aly Song

Yet urbanisation has persisted, in spite of all the problems it creates, including pollution, disease and high living costs.

Now some commentators have begun to wonder if coronavirus and lockdowns employed to suppress it will mean profound changes in transportation and living patterns.

Will the popularity of megacities diminish? Will public transport systems be redesigned? Will supply chains move closer to home? And will international leisure travel shrink?

The answer is mostly no. Cities and transport systems are shaped by social and economic influences that will mostly force a return to the pre-pandemic status quo.

“Crises usually accelerate real trends in society and technology, they don’t create or refute them. Don’t expect revolutionary changes. Work from home is here faster. Globalism isn’t going anywhere,” chess champion Gary Kasparov predicts.

BLACK DEATH

As with plague, influenza and other communicable diseases, coronavirus is a social disease which has travelled furthest and fastest along the transport routes carrying people and freight.

“In medieval times, ship transport was by far the most efficient and rapid way of transporting goods and disseminating disease at a distance,” historian Ole Benedictow wrote.

In his 2004 study “The Black Death 1346-1353”, Benedictow points out that epidemics first invaded seaports, cities and commercial hubs along the coasts of the Mediterranean and the western coasts of Europe or situated on large navigable rivers.

They would spread to local towns, and then further into the countryside by horse and carriage or by pack horses, eventually blanketing entire regions.

Today’s large, densely populated cities with mass transit systems, international connections and population groups with the most intensive face-to-face interactions for work, leisure and travel have proved ideal for transmission.

In the early 21st century, the passenger airliner has replaced the ship, while mass transit and private cars have replaced the horse and carriage.

But the coronavirus is spreading through the transport system in just the same way, exploiting business meetings, conferences, family get-togethers, holidays and social functions.

Influenza and plague often spared isolated communities in parts of Africa during the 1918 influenza and Iceland during the Black Death. So sparsely populated, less connected areas with more reliance on private transport may escape the worst of the coronavirus.

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UNHEALTHY CITIES

Great cities have often been able to achieve much higher levels of economic output per capita, and hence income and wealth, than smaller secondary cities and rural areas.

Their exceptional productivity and incomes is what has made them attractive to migrants, nationally and internationally, but they have always been unhealthy places.

Late medieval and early modern London was full of dirt and disease, with life expectancy significantly lower and mortality higher than in the rest of England.

Deaths routinely outnumbered live births, yet London’s population still grew, faster than the rest of the kingdom, as a result of net immigration, mostly from more healthy rural areas.

London’s social and economic pull was more than enough to offset the squalor, disease and death in the original Big Smoke (“The smoke of London”, Cavert, 2016).

Early modern London was an extreme example but it has more recent parallels in the air pollution of Los Angeles, Shanghai, Beijing and New Delhi.

Yet the success of large international cities, measured in terms of population growth and rising incomes, demonstrates many residents are prepared to tolerate the downsides, at least for a time, moving out later in life.

TERRIBLE PRICE

Large densely populated and overcrowded cities have been highly successful despite the costs, including the higher burden of communicable diseases.

Researchers had already identified London’s overcrowded and underground network as a major transmission route for seasonal influenza (“Mobility and contagion in the London underground”, Gosce and Johansson, 2018).

The city’s overloaded subway, buses and trains likely contributed to its early and rapid spread of the coronavirus, while the high-volume of passenger flights to every part of the world ensured it would be an early gateway.

Policymakers have sought to interrupt transmission and suppress the coronavirus through social distancing – including lockdowns, business closures, flight restrictions, entertainment curbs and restrictions on transit system use.

While this has reduced the transmission rate, cutting new cases and fatalities, it has brought much of the city and its economy to a standstill.

Now the challenge in London and elsewhere is how to restart urban economies and international mobility while maintaining strict social distancing and suppressing virus transmission.

The problem is policies that increase average social distance, such as limits on the number of people using trains, planes and restaurants, also undermine the high capacity utilisation these systems need to be financially viable.

Trains, buses, airlines, restaurants, schools, hospitals, shops and offices are affordable because they operate at high load factors, to use the phrase employed by airlines and transport planners.

If their capacity utilisation is suddenly cut, the financial model for many will no longer be viable, meaning stringent social distancing is unlikely to be sustainable in either the medium or long run.

INERTIA

Dense urban cities and crowded transportation systems embody a complex and inter-related set of choices, trade-offs and constraints over affordability, energy use and spatial planning.

Aircraft seating densities could be reduced but that would make travel more expensive and restrict access.

Train and transit system overcrowding could be cut, but that would increase fares and limit usage.

Urban economies and transportation systems are characterised by inertia which makes them resistant to change, even when confronted by an enormous shock like coronavirus.

Some aspects of urban living, public transport and international aviation may evolve, but most are likely to stay much the same.

As the initial shock wears off, the underlying social and economic forces which have shaped cities and transport systems will reassert themselves.

John Kemp is a Reuters market analyst. The views expressed are his own.

Related column:

- Coronavirus confronts decision-makers with a terrible trade off (Reuters, March 18)

Editing by Alexander Smith

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