A Pandemic Portal – A Glimpse into the Environmental Future of our Megacities

Geoff Miller - Science and Technology

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Are we the witnessing future of our megacities or is this just an anomaly?

It is no secret that in the face of a global pandemic residents of major cities worldwide have found some solace in the clear blue skies they have been experiencing over the past few months. Among the endless flow of COVID-19 content have been shocking images of a smog-less Los Angeles, an unrecognisable New Delhi and a bright sunny New York City. Millions of citizens the world over are taking deep, pure breaths of fresh air while it lasts, others are stopping to think: ‘Could this be our future? Could it really be this easy to breathe in a ‘normal’ New York City?’

To those people, I say ‘It could’.

Compared to pre-pandemic levels, nitrogen dioxide pollution is down 30% across the Northeast U.S according to NASA. For those living in that region, it feels like more. Naturally, when you order millions of Americans to stay-at-home, transport grinds to a halt, car pollution slows dramatically and of course, you have less economic activity. So it’s no real surprise that March 2020 'shows the lowest monthly atmospheric nitrogen dioxide levels of any March during the OMI data record (from NASA’s Ozone Monitoring Instrument which indicates total ozone levels and other atmospheric parameters), which spans 2005 to the present’ according to NASA.

Air pollution in the Northeast region before and after lockdowns. Source: Gizmodo

 The result is a glimpse into a possible future for megacities; clean air, clear roads and public spaces reclaimed from inner-city drivers. A future that isn’t just aesthetically pleasing but with vastly improved public health in cities. According to researchers from EcoWatch, air pollution is linked to between 90,000 and 360,000 deaths per year in the U.S. Researchers at the Harvard University T.H. Chan School of Public Health have found that ‘higher levels of the tiny, dangerous particles in air known as PM 2.5 were associated with higher death rates from the (coronavirus) disease’.

Air Pollution is a Virus Risk Factor

If you’re one of those who has found themselves asking why New York City has been so severely hit by the current pandemic, there’s no denying the role of the city’s air quality in affecting the severity of cases. In the Bronx region, one of the hardest hit in the nation, asthma hospitalization rates are 21 times higher annually on average than other regions in the state and five times higher than the national average. We know that this virus is significantly more deadly for immuno-compromised people and we know that years of exposure to air pollution is a major cause of many immuno-compromising illnesses. So not only is lower air pollution a far more enjoyable experience, its one of the most promising opportunities to unilaterally improve public health.

But of course, many will say ‘flip the switch and air quality will go right back to where it was. It’s just a temporary blip.’

New Dehli before and after national lockdowns. Source: NY Post

You could say that if it were feasible to flip a switch to begin with. In hard hit states in the U.S., it has become abundantly clear that there is no return to a previous normalcy. NY Governor Andrew Cuomo mirrors this sentiment with his rhetoric ‘Build back better’. I, like many others, saw this lockdown as an opportunity to step back, reconsider the way I live and plan future lifestyle changes. I know that I am not alone in doing so. I don’t plan on returning to a previous normalcy and neither do thousands of Americans.

Temporary Restrictions are Driving Permanent Changes

Early in the lockdown, a NY market research company Gallup found that 60% of people working from home would prefer to work from home ‘as much as possible’ even once restrictions are lifted. A few weeks ago, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced that he would permanently allow all Twitter employees to work from home if they wish. Facebook CEO, Mark Zuckerburg has since followed suit to a slightly lesser extent . Companies are finding out that not only is it possible to run a business remotely, it can often result in increased employee productivity and satisfaction. On top of that, many of the people I have spoken to have since realised that they don’t really need 40 hours a week in an office with stuffy, recycled air and up to three-hour daily commutes.

Not a single business in New York City will be able to reopen without making changes. For some offices, that means strict sanitation procedures and mandatory masks, but for others it will be a relaxation of mandatory office hours or even an eradication of them. Consider a large company with an office in Manhattan’s Financial District. If 80% of the company’s employees don’t need to be in an office to work productively, or 80% of each employee's job can be done from home, what sense could it possibly make to require every employee to come into an already cramped office five days a week? Equally nonsensical is the idea that a company should rent an office for 200 employees when only 40 of them need it. When compounded with the risk of virus transmission, it becomes harder and harder to see any logic in large offices in major cities.

Not only are companies faced with remote work decisions, there has been comparatively little exploration of staggering office hours to ease pressure on roads, public transport and lower density. In 1918, New York City responded to the Spanish Flu epidemic by leaning on shift staggering, in which employees start and finish work at different times throughout the day, throughout the reopening process. If adopted, shift staggering could have its own positive effect on air pollution throughout the city. Car pollution is exacerbated by dense traffic, so by giving workers the opportunity to drive to and from the office outside of peak times, policymakers could also permanently alleviate the prevalence of car pollution.

Of course, major cities will not necessarily be able to maintain these record-low pollution levels in a post-lockdown world. Nor should we expect them to. The very same millions of cars that were driving around NYC in December have not gone anywhere, nor have they suddenly all become electric. Climate change was never a short-term problem, so it is not exactly going to be addressed by a few months of not driving to work. Yet, there are signs that people and companies are seizing the opportunity to make changes for the future.

In New York City, these signs come in the form of skyrocketing Citi Bike memberships (a bike sharing company with docking stations) and the closing of streets throughout the city to cars. Residents throughout the densely populated city have been starved for adequate public spaces for years, particularly in lower income areas and in public housing. Finally, the city is responding by closing streets to cars, which begs the question, could we see some of these streets never open up again? In a city where each square foot is precious and residents are struggling to social distance in parks, could cars become the odd man out?

Will pedestrian-only streets be the norm in 2040? Source: NY Daily News

In a new normal where commutes are two days a week rather than five and visiting a nearby friend is a cycle rather than a drive, should we really expect to return to pre-pandemic air pollution levels?

Accelerating the Inevitable

Under the current circumstances, one could point out that nothing about the way electricity is created and used has changed in recent months, which is true. However, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to light just how fragile our fossil fuel industries have become. Oil markets, which have been traditionally rigid and stable, given the prevalence of supply manipulation, saw the price of oil drop below zero for the first time ever on April 21. In one month of stay-at-home orders, the demand for oil fell apart and investors are taking note.

For those who believe in science, fossil fuel divestment has been the ‘right thing’ to do for years if not decades, but for many investors, the moral compulsion was often offset by the financial opportunity in fossil fuels. Among those who have recently announced some level of divestment are BlackRock, Standard Chartered, JPMorgan and the Norwegian Sovereign Wealth Fund. Mounting public pressure may be slow, but it continues to be effective. In response to public scrutiny, Harvard has recently voted to divest its $41 billion endowment fund from fossil fuels.

It is becoming increasingly clear that there is no longer a clear-cut financial opportunity in fossil fuels. In environmental economics, resource transitions occur with the presence of a ‘switch point’, being the point at which the new resource becomes an objectively better financial decision and transition accelerates. Guardian Journalists Jonathan Watts and Jillian Ambrose argue that the COVID-19 Crisis has brought that switch point forward. Citing coal plants closures and significantly reduced production, the journalists argue that we have entered the acceleration phase of the transition; fossil fuels are out, and renewables are in for good, they say.

So, what can this pandemic tell us about the future of our major cities? In January 2019, the MTA Board approved the purchase of 15 all-electric public buses with the goal of the entire bus fleet being electric by 2040. The first all-electric bus was deployed in December 2019. That’s a strong start, but buses don’t account for every vehicle in NYC. Will every car driving in the city be electric by 2040? Will they even let cars into Manhattan by 2040? The Mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo has become strong advocate of car-free cities  Could we see Bill de Blasio follow suit? In October last year, the city banned all 21,000 daily car trips on 14th Street in Manhattan to make way for buses. Will we see the list of car-free streets continue to grow? If the forces of this pandemic are harnessed by legislators in the right way, tourists in 2040 may be able to retire the infamous pastime of yelling ‘Hey I’m walking here!’ at cars passing by. There may be none left in Manhattan to yell at.

A car-free 14th Street in Manhattan. Source: Gothamist

Long-Term Policy Objectives are Aligned

The good news is that so many of the actions we need to take to ensure the liveability of our major cities in a climate-changed world are also actions that we need to take to respond to the Coronavirus pandemic and minimise the risks of future public health crises. Shift staggering and reducing office hour requirements can not only reduce the risk of infection transmission, but can permanently improve traffic flow, reduce exhaust pollution, and improve public health in the city. Buying (and using) a bicycle is not only a good transport option to ensure social distancing, but better for your help and the city’s air quality. Large public infrastructure to prevent climate crisis damage such as flood walls are not just a way to create jobs for the 38.6 million unemployed Americans but a way to ensure the long-term liveability of major cities.

Ultimately, the choices we make in the coming months will shape the future of the world’s megacities for decades to come. If we return as fast as possible to a pre-pandemic normalcy, we’ll see pollution levels spring right back to where it was, as we’re seeing in China as regions start to reopen. If we take this opportunity to make crucial structural changes to the way our megacities function, in the workplace, on the road and in our day-to-day choices, we may look back on 2020 as the year we took the right steps and made the right choices to improve the environmental future of our megacities for decades to come.

Written by Geoffrey Miller

Geoff graduated from The University of Technology Sydney last year with a Bachelor of Business with Honours in Economics. He's curious about the nature of economic and social systems, an unapologetic Utopian idealist and, as a self-proclaimed Minimalist, desperate to tackle overconsumption at its core.

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