Sunday, August 22, 2021

The people who had no reason to leave the city

If you read some accounts of the COVID-19 pandemic, you'll come across the idea that people "fled the cities" en masse - that the cities were seething pits of disease and death, that everyone who could leave did, and that they were justified in doing so. I'm really sick of hearing this, because it's largely false, and it's interfered with our ability to respond effectively to climate change, resource depletion, carnage and social injustice.

When I discussed this on Twitter, a few people raised important caveats. Shabazz Stuart noted that anyone who was living in an unsafe situation was justified in getting away from it. In particular, low income Black, Latinx and Asian people tend to live in crowded apartments and houses where they can't distance from people who might carry the disease.

Jake Saltzman pointed out that some people who might be white and relatively privileged still had an economic-related health incentive to leave the city. Many people who could work remotely but didn't have housemates they could trust were better off moving in with family outside the city, or finding a cheaper place where they could have room to themselves.

The people I'm focusing on here are the people in situations like mine or better. Every member of my family has a room to work remotely, and every family member or couple has their own bedroom. The working adults have steady, remote work. Our neighbors are generally conscientious and cooperative.

The crazy thing about this past year is that I live in one of the hardest-hit zip codes in the country, but I only knew a couple of people who died of COVID-19, and they were relatively low-income acquaintances who weren't white. Several of my friends had the disease, but fortunately they all survived. At this point I have seen no data that suggests that people with the privilege to work remotely and live in a place where everyone has their own room were in any greater danger in the city than in the country or the suburbs. We need to put that myth to bed.

Last Spring we were swimming in a sea of misinformation. President Trump was flailing around for anything that would minimize the effect of the pandemic on his wealth and power, from denial to misdirection to scapegoating. Epidemiologists, nationalists and economic elitists were stuck in ideological traps that to this day make them downplay the need for masks, quarantines and ventilation.

All this misinformation created a knowledge vacuum, which was filled with the simplistic reasoning and prejudices that people have used throughout history when confronted with plagues: attack the people who already have the disease, attack the weak, run away from the places where people have the disease, run away from crowds and poor people.

Some of us pointed this out at the time. We noted that none of the science supported the idea that there was any safety to be gained for well-off white people with their own apartments and bedrooms by relocating to the suburbs or the country. That just disappeared into the sea of misinformation.

At this point we don't really know the impact of this migration, but I can make some guesses. Let's imagine a family with two adults and two kids living in an apartment in Manhattan. And for comparison's sake let's say they own a car. Now let's say this family rents a house in the hills outside of Stone Ridge, NY.

Let's imagine that this family is the most obnoxious car-driving Manhattanites possible. They insist that the only way to get their kids to their private schools is by driving, so it only makes sense that one parent drive to work after dropping the kids off. They spend every weekend driving to Costco, to the Alley Pond Environmental Center, to day and overnight trips in the Poconos and the Hamptons.

Even this family would at least double their driving if they moved to Stone Ridge. All the little trips that they did on foot in Manhattan - to the corner deli, to the cafe, to the park for daily walks, runs and playground fun - would require a car.

They might replace the playground trips with recreation in the backyard and the woods, but to replicate the social interaction that kids get in a neighborhood playground requires coordinating with other parents to drive kids to the same backyard. Even with town Facebook groups this is not easy, especially for newcomers.

Similarly, our hypothetical family might find a house that's walking distance from one restaurant or shop, or a small cluster of shops at best, but it wouldn't be walking distance from any others. It probably wouldn't be walking distance from a bus or train to the city.

If they're lucky (and willing to spend a lot), they might get a house with places to walk in the woods, on the property attached to the house or on adjacent public or private land, or maybe on nice quiet roads. If they're unlucky they'll be stuck on a small plot off a busy road with no shoulders and have to drive somewhere just to take a walk.

All these things add up to a dramatic increase in driving, even for our family that was already driving much more than the average Manhattan household. They had one car, they might buy or lease another car so that both adults could drive to different places, even if they're working from home.

Now imagine a family that previously had no car. They went from a lifestyle that was exclusively transit and walking, with maybe the occasional taxi trip, to one that requires driving everywhere.

Some people have gone for a more moderate increase in car use, moving to towns like New Paltz or Beacon where they can get to some shops and restaurants and the city without driving, but use a car for other shopping and socializing. But even though that's less of an increase it's not tiny.

This is an explosion in the vehicle miles traveled by our hypothetical families, and it's bad for all the reasons why cars are bad: pollution, especially global warming; waste of land, fuel and other resources; carnage. But in the aggregate how much of an increase are we talking about? If we're only going by anecdote it would be huge. Last year the papers and blogs were full of stories of people "fleeing" the city, and this year there's a bunch of stories about how the housing markets upstate have gone crazy.

It's important not to read too much into these stories. Just as it only takes a small number of cars to tip Manhattan's crowded streets into gridlock, it only takes a small number of wealthy buyers and renters to overwhelm the heavily-zoned housing stock of Ulster County. And it only takes a small number of influential people doing something to give the impression that "everybody's" doing it.

As I've written before, there are also limits to how much damage people can do to the region and the climate in a short timeframe. We're already seeing stories about people who tried "fleeing" and discovered that driving sucks and the country can be boring.

The real damage may be to the Cycle. This is where we really make a difference in transportation. The vicious cycle in transportation over the twentieth century involved people moving housing, jobs and shopping further apart, buying cars to drive between them, then lobbying for roads and parking to make driving easier. The easier it is to drive, the more people will buy cars and lobby to make driving easier.

For the past few decades, at least here in New York City, the Cycle has been running the opposite way, in the virtuous direction. People have been selling their cars, moving to the city and demanding better transit and sidewalks, and telling everyone how great it is. The movement to the suburbs has slowed.

My biggest concern about these "flight to the country" stories (in combination with the "contaminated city" stories) is the extent to which they've shifted the narrative and pushed the Cycle more in the vicious direction. Already we've heard our incoming Governor point to the "flight to the country" as a reason to "reexamine" implementing the congestion pricing law that was passed a few years ago.

I don't think this will last. I think rural living is unsustainable for people who aren't actively involved in rural activities, and people will eventually move back to the city. My fear is that the "flight to the country" narrative will cost us precious years or even decades where we exacerbate global warming and make the planet less habitable for our grandchildren.

So everybody, please stop repeating myths about the city being safer. And please stop acting like the wealthy, influential people who left the city are representative of the general population, or of any trend. And do what you can to stop subsidizing wasteful sprawl.