Take One Car and Call Me in the Morning

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How the daily commute may end up saving lives

By Jeremy Zuker

We’re now in the “new normal” phase of the COVID-19 pandemic, which as we all know, is anything but normal. Some states are reopening parks and beaches, while others are closing them again. Sports seasons may be played in tight “bubbles” where the players and officials have no contact with the outside world. Universities are making contingency plans for fall semesters that may not even happen (other than online). But the one question that everyone is asking is, “when can we go back to work?” It’s an important question because the answer affects the livelihoods of hundreds of millions of people.

But it’s the wrong question.

Instead, we should be asking how we will go back to work. That’s because there is no “all clear” signal coming in the next few months, so any attempts to go back to offices need to be seen through the lens of COVID still being a very real problem. As a result, HR departments are getting very creative about balancing productivity with safety. So far, we’re seeing options ranging from “shifts” of workers on alternate weeks to having people only come in one or two days a week. Whichever approaches companies decide to take, the only certainty is that we’re not going back to the way life was on March 10 for quite some time — if ever. 

Simply put: companies need to keep in-office headcount down and enforce social distancing rules to keep their teams safe.

Needless to say, this is going to have a profound effect on urban life. How will city restaurants survive if only 40 percent of the pre-COVID workforce is coming into the downtown core? How will luxury retailers make ends meet if people are too frightened to even walk into stores?  How will local producers survive without seasonal markets? There are so many unknowns that it’s impossible to predict what cities will even be like in two months, let alone a year.

One of the major factors that needs to be considered when we talk about how to contain COVID — especially the second wave that most experts predict will hit North America this fall —  is commuting. Until a few months ago, the standard arrangement was for employees to either take public transit or to get a monthly parking spot. Today, both of those options are far from ideal because crowded subways and buses are a recipe for virus spread, and the idea of a monthly pass doesn’t make sense in an era of staggered work schedules. We need better options that support workers coming back to their jobs while also limiting the effects of the pandemic.

Drive Time

Every time a plane crashes, we are inevitably reminded that “flying is safer than driving” or how driving to and from the airport might be the most dangerous part of your vacation. Of course, as teenagers, our parents told us the cautionary tales about the dangers of getting behind the wheel. There are few things more dangerous than being in a car. Thanks to the pandemic, commutes may actually be the safest part of our day, because we are hermetically sealed in self-contained pods that are impervious to viruses.

Here’s the reality: cars are one of the few places where people are safe from the virus. I’m not talking about taxis and ride-share companies (that’s a whole other conversation) but people who drive their own vehicles have a very low risk of contracting COVID. As a result, it’s reasonable to expect even more cars on the road — not fewer — because it’s the only safe option for most office workers. That is going to fundamentally affect how our cities work in the decade ahead and it will be an important factor in how we weather the next year of our lives.

All of this comes back to a basic question: where are we going to put all of those cars? The obvious answer isn’t actually that obvious, because as we all know city parking spaces are at a premium, and it’s not like they’re building more parking lots; in fact, many open lots in cities have disappeared as new towers have been constructed. This is where property owners need to get creative and start renting out unused parking spaces. People returning to work are leaving behind spaces in their buildings, which means condos and apartments in urban centers have plenty of spots open during work days. This is how a shared parking model will be what keeps us safe as we move into our “new normal”. By allowing commuters to share spots that are already sitting empty, we can solve the need for more parking while helping to minimize the spread of the virus. 

Jeremy Zuker is the co-founder of WhereiPark, a technology company that enables multifamily residential and commercial property owners to discover new revenue sources through innovative solutions that leverage unused parking spaces.

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