A city of homebodies? How coronavirus will change Sydney

Andrew Taylor at the Fairfax newspapers wrote a piece: A city of homebodies? How coronavirus will change Sydney. I had some quotes:

Professor of transport engineering at the University of Sydney David Levinson said public transport services may be cut because more people work at home or are reluctant to board buses and trains. “Constructing protected lanes for bikes, e-bikes, scooters is likely to be accelerated to help serve the markets that were previously served by public transport,” he said.


Levinson said consumers were also becoming more accustomed to delivery: “This returns in many ways to how life was 100 years ago, when delivery and door-to-door sales were much more common.”

His questions in bold. My fuller comments below:

– I read that Sydney and Melbourne will be particularly hard hit by the shutdown of tourism, education, entertainment and hospitality. Do you agree these industries will be the hardest hit and how will that affect Sydney?

These sectors will obviously be hard hit, I don’t know about “hardest” without doing an analysis of the full economy.

Universities will lose many international students (who pay much more in tuition and fees than domestic students and thus help cross-subsidise the education of Australians) for a year, and perhaps longer if the reputational damage or air travel barriers sustain. No one is going to pay full tuition for an online experience, and we will see a race-to-the-bottom if we think we can sell our education product as online only, diminishing the great selling point which is the location within Australia.

China already sees this as an opportunity to retain more students domestically, and other countries are competing with Australia for these students.

– How will social distancing influence urban and building design? How we shop, go out, work?

Advocates are already pushing for wider footpaths, particularly in dense urban areas, especially near bus stops where people congregate. Similarly, because of the likely reticence to use public transport and increased work at home that will emerge in the aftermath, there may be some cutbacks to public transport service. Constructing protected lanes for bikes, e-bikes, scooters, etc. is likely to be (and should be) accelerated to help serve the markets that were previously served by public transport.

– Will the pandemic accelerate moves towards online retail and the death of brick and mortar shopping?

Yes. Some stores won’t survive the crisis and won’t be replaced. Consumer shopping patterns will become even more accustomed to delivery. This returns in many ways to how life was 100 years ago, when delivery and door-to-door sales were much more common.

– Property prices are the no 1 topic in Sydney. Will they fall sufficiently to make the city more affordable? Will apartment construction slow down?

To the extent that Australia constrains immigration through additional border protection, one of the major forces driving up the prices of new construction, the international market using property ownership in Australia as a way of securing capital away from their home governments and earning points towards immigration, will be tempered. This will happen with recession in any case, but travel controls will further reduce demand pressures.

– Will the city’s population growth slow?  Will the push towards more medium and high density continue? [Dense cities such as New York seem to have been affected more by coronavirus]

As above, at least a years worth of international growth will be forgone.

– Do you think ridership on public transport will drop and be replaced by cars, bicycles or less movement around the city?

Yes, yes, yes.


A broken Reddy-Go
A broken Reddy-Go


– How will increased surveillance affect city life?

– Will it lead to increased discrimination? And calls for less migration?

The tools of surveillance are historically the tools of oppression, and it can now be automated to a degree never before possible with cameras, face identification, and everyone carrying smartphones radiating bluetooth signals. Opening up the surveillance to the general public, not just selected state-appointed guardians, the idea David Brin refers to as Sousveillance or reciprocal accountability in his book The Transparent Society is one way of addressing the problem:  Who will guard the guards themselves?

– An increased focus on hygiene will surely occur. How will this manifest itself? Past pandemics saw slum areas cleared in inner-city Sydney for example.

I hope that people will now smell cleaner air and see bluer skies as evidence that current industrial and automobile-oriented social patterns have real consequences for public health, and what life could be like if actually cared about those things. People will probably wash their hands more too.

– Despite the high death toll, the Spanish flu did not appear to have a lasting effect on people’s lives. Why do you think the coronavirus will have a greater impact?

I don’t know that it will, and I wouldn’t assume the premise. The 1957-1958 pandemic (“Asian flu”)  was quickly forgotten in popular culture despite lots of deaths globally and a sharp recession. But those million deaths (more than covid-19 probably, and a much greater share of the population) greatly affected the lives of the friends and families.

– Will manufacturing make a comeback and what affect will this have?

I think most countries will try to build and maintain larger stockpiles of general purpose medicines, PPEs, etc. There might be selected demonstrations of doing domestic manufacture which is good for photo ops and newspaper articles, but it would have to be really significant to show up in the statistics. However to the extent that the world has become extremely dependent on China-based supply chains, I think there will be efforts to spatially diversify manufacturing, particularly to other low-income countries, or anywhere when it is robotics based.

The more general trend I think is the movement away from just-in-time economy and towards a more inventory-based system to improve reliability (at the expense of short-run efficiency). I think a lot of the shortages we have seen in markets to date has been the first thrust of that. If you lack confidence the stores will be open in a week or two, because of confusing messages from public officials, you will logically stockpile.

– The federal minister for regional health told me he thought regional areas might weather the pandemic better because they have less density and industries such as agriculture and mining are not as greatly affected. What do you think?

One really significant outbreaks in the US has been in South Dakota (pretty rural as US states go)  at a meat-packing plant. Most people in “rural” areas are not lone farmers milking cows and riding tractors.