The New New Normal: Mobility and Activity in the `After Times’

We may be nearing “peak city”. This shift undermines all of the place-based strategies that economic development organisations have been promoting for decades. It’s a topic David Levinson will be addressing at the Festival of Urbanism 13-26 November. This article was originally published in The Fifth Estate, November 2, 2020.

The Dot-Com boom and Y2K crisis compressed a decade of technological investment into a two-year period. As a bubble, it was naturally followed by a stock market crash, but the Internet is bigger and more important than before. Since Y2K we have seen the advent of smartphones (the Internet in our pocket), social media, Wikipedia, ride-hailing (mobility on demand in our pocket) and a major refactoring of many if not most businesses around the new information reality.

COVID-19 has initiated as profound a transformation, acculturating the population to videoconferencing and  work from home and virtual conferences and webinars and distance learning and online shopping (for everything) and remote medicine and  Zoom weddings and funerals and many other activities that once would have been experienced in person. This transformation did not begin from scratch, all of these changes had already begun, but they were accelerated by events.  The home has at least temporarily returned to its historic pre-urban role of being the restaurant, the workplace, the schoolhouse, the theatre — making it more crowded and more intense.

Eventually, like Y2K, COVID-19 will cease to be an issue and we will enter the `After Times’. The fear of others will dissipate but not disappear.  Its effects on society will linger. 

Many people who previously stood all day at a hot-desked, open plan, office in the CBD  have discovered they like working at home at least some of the time, so long as they also don’t need to supervise children.  Couple that with finding that 37% of all jobs in the US can be done entirely at home, 39% in Australia, a greater share of those in metro areas, and a greater share still in Central Business Districts. Many more jobs can be engaged with at least part-time at home. Thus, many firms  have discovered they don’t need to pay for expensive CBD real estate. Soon governments and universities will discover the same. Many shoppers and eaters like getting deliveries rather than going out, and distribution infrastructures have scaled up to enable this. Dark kitchens designing meals for delivery will ensure they are no longer mere allusions to tasty food.  Many students find they like attending class from home, which may be China, and now they are able to.

It’s not that some of the people don’t miss some of the ways of the `Before Times’ — commuting at least some times provides a spatial and mental separation between home and the workplace. In a study we conducted during the Sydney lockdown (Aoustin 2020), almost everyone was traveling less, and respondents were asked how they experienced the decrease in time spent in transport. On a scale of 1 to 7, 51% said they missed this time little or not at all, 17% were indifferent, but 32%  did miss it. Travel to work does not need to take place at 8:00 am five days a week, 50 weeks a year, packed into a shiny metal box.

This prospective future no doubt would come as a disappointment to Urban Triumphalists, who insist the value of cities is due to economies of agglomeration resulting from face-to-face interaction, as well as organisations like the Property Council. While historically in-person contact has driven economies of agglomeration, and why be in cities but to be near other people, the question remains: Must it always be so? Mega cities were largely non-existent in the pre-Industrial Revolution period when the economies of agglomeration were often outweighed by the diseconomies. Cities will not be abandoned quickly, transitions are long, but we may be nearing `peak city’. This shift undermines all of the place-based strategies that economic development organisations have been promoting for decades. 

Face-to-face encounters will remain important for a few sectors, those with high trust issues like politics, or requiring hands-on physical interactions, it is clearly being abstracted away. The risk we as a civilisation face is that of the explore/exploit trade-off – if the urban triumphalists are correct that new ideas emerge more from in-person interaction, while we can continue to exploit existing ideas, we will generate fewer of them and the rate of progress will slow. 

I am not convinced this is true, certainly not to the degree it once was. Perhaps more ideas can be generated from the vast increase of total interactions online, even if those interactions are intermediated electronically, than the serendipitous in-person encounters traditional place-based thinking privileges. This is not necessarily Zoom meetings, certainly not group meetings, but may instead be real-time (or nearly so) text-based interactions, bulletin boards, messaging, Slack, Twitter, Miro, and the like.

The implications of these changes on physical places are several. 

If more is to be done at home for more of the day, the demand for more space per person at home will increase, and the demand for person space in offices will diminish. While physical distancing requirements may remain at offices, giving those in the office building more space as well, it also drives up costs of offices, further inducing firms to increase their virtuality. The demand for new office construction will be permanently reduced, and we may see buildings or sites retrofit for other purposes, perhaps residential, as they run through their lifecycle. The demand for housing in contrast will tend toward the larger, with in-home offices for every member of the household becoming standard for those who can afford it. This of course drives houses to places where land is cheaper, the edge of the metropolitan sphere, or beyond, rather than the center, as the commute to the center, which may once have been daily, is now reduced to weekly. The challenge will be to make good suburbs and desirable small towns, where people can still engage in meaningful out-of-home activity, while accommodating their demands for larger structures.

Daily travel changes are already visible: though vehicle miles traveled in the US are largely back to normal (with more rural and less urban travel), public transport levels are not. It will be a while before, if ever, public transport returns to the pre-virus normal, even in places like Sydney which were not nearly as severely hit as China, the US, and Europe. Work-from-home, fear of exposure on public transport (and not just personal fear, official fear being promulgated by governments), and just a general economic downturn and unemployment are all factors to date.  

Substitutes like walking and biking (and especially the newly cost-effective e-biking) are likely to pick up some of the slack for those who continue to travel to work in the CBD, though more needs to be done to facilitate safe bicycling, in particular instituting a much larger network of separated and protected bike lanes. Even auto travel will change though, while total vehicle travel may remain stable or drop only a small amount compared with the Before Times, the nature of that travel differs so it is less peaked. This implies less demand for new road infrastructure, as the usage of roads is more balanced across the day. 

The After Times are post-post industrial. The industrial districts that were fashionably converted to urban office precincts will now get reconverted, perhaps to residential, which the market will always demand – people have to live somewhere, even if they can work anywhere.

If we will indeed interact primarily intermediated by the Internet, we will have finally moved to the next stage of human development, that of spaceless places. The flip side of spaceless places are placeless spaces. We will abandon spaces we no longer need. The CBD office building is the first target. New and expensive transport links to connect to the central city, or relieve peak congestion, will also be seen as white elephants.

Fig 4. Tract-to-Tract Commutes of 80km/50 miles or less in Minneapolis-St. Paul.
Fig 4. Tract-to-Tract Commutes of 80km/50 miles or less in Minneapolis-St. Paul.
Covid-19 virus. Source wikipedia
Covid-19 virus. Source wikipedia

Virus loading as a queue

Science could use more interdisciplinarity. Models from disparate disciplines can be transferred and may give insights, at least by analogy, if not direct mathematical application.

Queueing models are common in transport. A queue forms when the inputs exceed the outputs. For instance think of cars at a bottleneck. Imagine cars arrive at 1 per second, but can be served (move through the bottleneck) at 2 per second, in this case there is no queue. Instead imagine cars arrive at 4 per second, but can be served at 2 per second, here the queue grows in length by 2 cars per second. At the end of an hour, the queue is 7200 cars in length.

This same logic could be applied to viruses, though the math is a bit more complicated since viruses and antibodies have doubling rates rather than arrival and server capacity or departure rates. Your body is exposed to a single copy of a virus, it doubles at some rate and causes damage as discussed below. If all is going well, your body produces antibodies [and cytotoxic T lymphocytes (CTLs)] in response, which serve (kill) the virus and its production system.

Lev Osherovich, biologist friend of mine, notes:

Covid-19 virus. Source wikipedia
Covid-19 virus. Source wikipedia

There’s a lot more to a successful immune response against SARS-CoV-2 than just antibody production — for example, there is a strong component of cellular (cytotoxic) immunity that goes after infected cells before they can churn out more virus. However, it’s a matter of time and chance for the immune system to figure out how to make the right combination of antibodies and cytotoxic T lymphocytes (CTLs) that can quell the virus — in some patients that happens quickly, before the virus penetrates deep into the lungs to cause acute respiratory distress syndrome, but in many patients (particularlly elderly and immunocompromised) the virus gets there first. In general, once an effective immune response is launched, the immune system can rapidly scale up production of the right plasma cells (antibody factories) and CTLs — the bottleneck is in finding a winning combination through random chance. We hope (but are not certain) that once an effective immune response occurs, it will rapidly clear the virus and will prevent re-infection — at its best, anti-viral immunity is an all-or-nothing process.


Antibody and CTL production varies by individual, older individuals and those who are immune-compromised may produce less effectively than young adults.

For someone newly exposed, the virus has a head start, so the antibody and CTL doubling rate has to be shorter (it doubles more quickly) to catch up. If the virus lead is too great, your body is overwhelmed not just by viremia (high viral titres) but cytokine release syndrome (CRS) — “when large numbers of white blood cells are activated and release inflammatory cytokines, which in turn activate yet more white blood cells.” There is a maximum queue length (number of un-dealt with viruses and cytokenes ) in the body, at which point you die. As you approach this maximum, you get sicker.

Lev writes:

The typical cause of death is not viremia (high viral titres) but cytokine release syndrome (CRS), an inflammatory over-reaction triggered by too much virus in the lung but exacerbated by pre-exisiting conditions and susceptibilitiies. There are evidently many patients who experience high viral titre (and are very ill) but do not progress to CRS, ARDS and death, and likewise there are some patients who progress rapidly to CRS and death without high viral titres. In the context of your queuing model, in the some cases the virus (or the immune system) jumps the queue and kills the patient. While presumably having high viral titre increases the odds of such an event, there seems to be some element of bad luck as well as predisposition.


In the figure below, viruses start doubling at time 1 (first exposure), while antibodies (and CTLs) don’t start until time 16, but they double twice as fast. By time period 28, they start to noticeably slow the growth of viruses, and due to the power of compound interest, effectively destroy them by time period 30. Assuming the patient can survive a load of 10 million viruses in their body, everything is fine. But there is a threshold, and if the antibodies aren’t fast enough (start too late, double too slowly), the patient won’t make it.

Virus input (demand or arrival rate) varies by location, e.g. cruise ships or nursing homes with recirculated air and exposure to many other infected people increases loading, so it is not a single virus that infects the subject, but many, thereby giving the virus an even longer head start, and making the job of eradication that much more difficult.

Antibody production (capacity) can be stimulated with vaccines or with previous exposure.


While obviously the body is more complex than a queueing model, so is traffic. The aim of a model is to give us a way of thinking, which might suggest solutions (reducing viral intake (defense), speeding response (offense), and so on).

First do no harm: Cities and infrastructure as living systems |

Cross-posted from First do no harm: Cities and infrastructure as living systems 

First do no harm: Cities and infrastructure as living systems

Cities, and the infrastructure networks that bind them, are alive.Wikipedia says:

Life (cf. biota) is a characteristic that distinguishes objects that have signaling and self-sustaining processes from those that do not, either because such functions have ceased (death), or else because they lack such functions and are classified as inanimate. Biology is the science concerned with the study of life.

Any contiguous living system is called an organism. Organisms undergo metabolism, maintain homeostasis, possess a capacity to grow, respond to stimuli, reproduce and, through natural selection, adapt to their environment in successive generations. More complex living organisms can communicate through various means.

The city has often been likened to an organism, with downtown representing the control functions of the brain. Scientists have examined the city’s metabolism, and ask what nature teaches about cities.

The better analogy is probably that of the superorganism. Like an ant colony, a city (which obviously contain lots of individual organisms, us) and its infrastructure persists over time, taking in and sending out resources. The city grows (or dies) and occasionally sends off spores to form a new metropole.

Money in the urban economy is then analogous to the energy and food supplies needed by more conventional life forms. The more trade, the larger the city can grow. And like a tree which grows up and out, with a rotted out core, the same often happens to cities. Interaction with the outside world, the source of energy or economic resources, takes place at the boundaries of an organism. The super-organism may eventually decide it doesn’t need the inside or finds that is best used for storage. Or it may rediscover its abandoned areas. The tension between agglomeration and external trade is resolved in different ways in different places.

We also talk about the lifecycle of technologies, from birth, to growth, to maturity, to decline, analogizing technologies to living organisms. Individual deployments of those technologies may follow similar lifecycles.

The “production function” of living systems combines fixed and variable costs. As a homeowner we may plant a tree. But if we don’t take care of the tree, its likelihood of long-term success is low. We maintain it. We prune it. We water it. We protect from bugs, and so on. We don’t “set it and forget it” about trees, nor should we about infrastructure. We need to think about the lifecycle of buildings and infrastructures. Eventually they fail or we realize they are going to fail, or we might want to replace them because they are functionally obsolete. To keep them alive we need to monitor, maintain, repair, and eventually rebuild these systems, alternatively we might just abandon them.

Epidemiology studies the state of human health, as measured by the presence or absence of disease, as well as the causes of those diseases, whether genetic, behavioral, or environment. Someone should similarly be responsible for studying and treating the state of urban health, focusing upon the city’s circulatory system, and looking at causes including human behavior and the urban environment (which is usually taken as fixed) in which humans interact. As knowledge from epidemiology leads to treatments by doctors prescribing medicine, nutritionists telling the patient to change his habits, or regulators changing environmental standards, knowledge from transportation leads to treatments by traffic engineers prescribing angioplasty for the hardened arterials of our city, planners building bypasses, or gurus telling us to change our behavior or urban environment.


There is at least one useful lesson from medicine: First do no harm. We would not want a doctor to chop off our arm, and leave a gaping hole for a few decades while he figured out what to do next. We should consider why we permit destruction of functional if not optimal parts of cities well before we have any plan or resources to close the gaping wound with something else functional. The equivalent of a city’s doctors need to require replacement by something other than a vacant lot or surface parking before they permit demolition.

The point is that instead of viewing cities as inorganic discrete objects, we should think about the city as a holistic super organism: where changes to one component have effects on many others, and where decisions now shape the choices available later.

Brains mapped with network analysis


From KurzweilAI: ‘Rain Man’-like brains mapped with network analysis:

“Agenesis of the corpus callosum can arise if individuals are born missing DNA from chromosome 16 and often leads to autism.
Scientists have long puzzled over what the link is between this disorder and the autistic brain, said co-senior author of the paper Elliott Sherr, MD, PhD, professor of neurology and genetics especially since not all people with this malformation develop autism.
Doctors believe this is because the brain has a rich capacity for rewiring in alternative ways.
Pursuing this question, Mukherjee and Sherr turned to MRI and the mathematical technique of network analysis, which has long supported fields like civil engineering, helping urban planners optimize the timing of traffic lights to speed traffic. This is the first time network analysis has been applied to brain mapping for a genetic cause of autism.
The brain offers a significantly complicated challenge for analysis because, unlike the streets of a given city, the brain has hundreds of billions of neurons, many of which make tens of thousands of connections to each other, making its level of connectivity highly complex.”

StarTrib on Gender and Driving, and the Oh-so-timely Death of “Woman Driver” Jokes – Network Distance

Jessica Schoner @ Network Distance on: StarTrib on Gender and Driving, and the Oh-so-timely Death of “Woman Driver” Jokes

She writes

“Given all these external forces that influence travel needs and choices, my conclusion is that there is likely no inherent physiological difference causing the difference in travel behavior; or if a biological difference exists, it is marginal and unmeasurable relative to these larger forces. These social, economic, and cultural forces shape the stereotypes of male and female drivers that we are so familiar with.”

I agree culture is important. I disagree that physiological differences don’t have effects. In particular, I think culture has a large biological component (culture and biology are mutually co-evolving systems). Risk taking has clear biological elements to it, and obviously drives a lot of traffic safety issues.

How memory load leaves us ‘blind’ to new visual information


KurzweilAI: How memory load leaves us ‘blind’ to new visual information

“Professor Nilli Lavie from UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, who led the study, explains: ‘An example of where this is relevant in the real world is when people are following directions on a sat nav [GPS receiver] while driving.
‘Our research would suggest that focusing on remembering the directions we’ve just seen on the screen means that we’re more likely to fail to observe other hazards around us on the road, for example an approaching motorbike or a pedestrian on a crossing, even though we may be ‘looking’ at where we’re going.’”

Linklist: May 30, 2012

Reason: Lessons From the United Fruit Company – discusses the new book by Rich Cohen, The Fish That Ate The Whale: The Life And Times Of America’s Banana King.:

“There is the efficiency. Zemurray got started in the banana business by figuring out how to distribute ‘ripes,’ the freckled bananas that were thrown away as useless discards before Zemurray figured out the logistics of fast-moving rail distribution.”

[United Fruit was also one of the early investors in RCA, as they held key radio patents, which were crucial for banana distribution.]

NY Times: As Apps Move Into Cars, So Do More Distractions

[All the more reason to take the driver out of the loop]

Tim Lee @ Ars: Four signs America’s broadband policy is failing

[He discovers networks with high fixed costs are not inherently competitive]

Bryan Caplan @ Econlog: A Signaling Theory of Suboptimal Telecommuting, :

“A fascinating senior paper by Georgetown undergraduate Alexander Clark suggests that the answer is yes.  Clark’s story: Workers physically commute for signaling reasons.  Employers can monitor your productivity better when you actually come to the office.  Workers who telecommute put themselves on the slow track to success – if they can even get hired in the first place.  To bolster this thesis, Clark analyzes the American Time Use Survey using the employer learning-statistical discrimination (EL-SD) framework.  He finds that the labor market does indeed take longer to reward telecommuters for their hard-to-observe abilities.  “

[Not only does telecommuting signal sloth, there is at least one survey cited which shows telecommuters don’t work as many hours per day.]

The Monorail Anthropomorphic


K.L writes:

I know from reading your blog that you are a bit keen on anthropomorphized transportation. This week I stumbled upon an old cartoon celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Wuppertal Schwebebahn from 1951. The “Laughing Schwebebahn” is not only smiling, but it also has wings. It’s from Das Beste von der Schwebebahn in 50 Jahren (

See wikipedia for more.
I am guessing this category (anthropomorphic monorails) is smaller than others, but please send in any other examples.

The rent is cheep.

The picture is sort of difficult to see, but a bird family seems to think this traffic light (Franklin and Seymour) is a good nest site. This is not an unknown phenomenon. I would think the lights going on and off 24 hours a day would be annoying, but the rent is cheep.