By John Hood
A decade ago, in the aftermath of the Great Recession, business analysts and policymakers thought they saw a turn toward a new urbanism. Downtown lofts and dense developments were the vogue. There was an uptick in transit use. Old-style suburbs and market-bubble exurbs were supposedly yesterday’s news.
The results didn’t fully match the hype. Transit use soon fell back to very low levels. As the economy improved, people went back to buying cars — and, as their families grew, larger houses with larger lots.
Still, some demand for the new-urbanist lifestyle remained, in North Carolina as well as elsewhere. It wasn’t entirely ephemeral. But will it survive the COVID-19 crisis?
As many transit-skeptics like me have long argued, it is far more efficient to alleviate traffic congestion — and carbon-dioxide emissions! — by telecommuting than by running half-empty trains and buses at the taxpayers’ expense. Now that employers in Charlotte, the Triangle, the Triad and other communities across our state have had months of experience with large-scale telework, many are reportedly planning to keep large swaths of their employees working from home, at least for part of each week, until sometime in 2021. Some employers may make it a permanent practice.
If the change proves lasting, the effects on North Carolina’s most congested highway corridors could be surprising. Cellphone data shows North Carolinians were traveling nearly 50% less in early April than they were in mid-March. Mobility has increased a bit since then, of course, but even after Gov. Roy Cooper lifts the stay-at-home order in the coming days, traffic is unlikely to return to pre-COVID levels for some time.
Even a sustained 10% drop from the baseline, reflecting increased telecommuting, would be significant. And it would come without a massive expenditure of public funds.
It would come with some private expense, though, at least in the long run, because I believe that as people spend more time at home, they will want more home to spend it in.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that homebuyers are starting to seek more square footage and acreage than they were before. And in a new survey, real estate agents across the country reported a small but noticeable increase in the share of buyers wanting to move away from downtowns and toward suburbs.
If that change persists and intensifies, I suspect it won’t be only because of space considerations. Americans can readily see that COVID-19 has struck harder in dense, transit-dependent metropolitan areas such as New York City than in smaller cities, suburbs and rural areas.
Consider this: if Texas, Florida, California and North Carolina were separate countries, each would rank lower in COVID deaths per capita than Germany, which is widely considered to have responded relatively well to the pandemic.
Are the differences in epidemic severity we see across America really about density and transit use? Could be it climate, or quality of health care, or differences in governance, or just sheer luck? It’s impossible to know yet. But I believe people are already looking at the simple correlation, drawing conclusions and making plans.
Some of those plans may take them out of urban cores and into the suburbs and exurbs surrounding them. And some of those plans may take people out of Northeastern and Midwest states altogether, accentuating the preexisting flow of people to the less-dense communities of the Sunbelt.
If telecommuting expands its share of the market in North Carolina’s fastest-growing areas, the consequences will extend beyond transportation. There may be a push to liberalize zoning restrictions and to invest more in broadband infrastructure. There may be changes in how families educate their children.
I don’t pretend to know all the answers. Heck, I’m not even sure we’re asking the right questions yet. But I’m willing to venture out on the limb a bit more with this prediction: The Great Suppression of 2020 will have at least as large an effect on housing patterns as the Great Recession did. It may not be massive, but it’ll be noticeable.
John Hood (@JohnHoodNC) is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on “N.C. Spin,” broadcast statewide Fridays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 12:30 p.m. on UNC-TV.