Density Debate is Shifting Ground Because of the Pandemic

Joel Fox
Editor and Co-Publisher of Fox and Hounds Daily

Despite Sen. Scott Wiener’s failure to put across his plans for denser housing along transportation routes, the movement still was gathering steam and Wiener and his supporters continue to push ahead. However, the pandemic crisis throws up a formidable roadblock.

Density is the opposite of distancing which health experts assert is the way to reduce the threat of the COVID-19 spread. Since there is talk of a virus second wave, and the uncertainty of how long and how stubborn the virus will remain as a major health concern, coronavirus consequences will be part of the density debate for quite a while.

In his Los Angeles Times opinion piece, urban specialist Joel Kotkin wrote Los Angeles’ design as a sprawling city may be a life-saver. By living in less packed space and relying less on public transportation, residents of Los Angeles probably avoided a more severe situation that was experienced in New York.

Kotkin pointed out that “in 2012, Slate predicted Los Angeles would become the nation’s “next great mass-transit city.” Yet since then the Greater Los Angeles metropolitan area has seen trips by commuters driving alone to work increase by 770,000 daily, while transit commuting declined by 75,000.”

While Kotkin noted that the drop off in use of public transit was due to the nature and design of Los Angeles and the lack of efficiency in using public transportation to get where you want to go, the idea of close quarters on trains and buses is sure to raise doubts in commuters minds in using public modes of transportation under the virus threat.

Supporters of Wiener’s efforts will argue that denser housing and transportation are the answer to reducing greenhouse gases, a prime goal of California policymakers. They will point to the pollution reduction when cars were off the roads as people followed the stay-at-home mandate.

Yet, once the business world opens up and Californians have the choice to move about, awareness of the science surrounding coronavirus– and science is the measuring stick government officials tell us we must respect in dealing with the crisis–dictates that people should stay away from crowds.

Close quarters in New York, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the United States, is acknowledged as a problem by New Yorkers themselves. The Empire State’s governor, Andrew Cuomo said at a press conference that coronavirus “is very contagious. The dense environments are its feeding grounds.” New York Times columnist Bret Stephens wrote, “I don’t see why people living in a Nashville suburb should not be allowed to return to their jobs because people like me choose to live, travel and work in urban sardine cans.”

The relationship between contagious disease and dense population has been known for a long time.  As I mentioned in a previous piece, Alan Greenspan and Adrian Wooldridge wrote in their book, Capitalism in America, in pointing out the longer life spans of Americans compared to Europeans in early America, “diseases found it harder to spread than in Europe’s dense cities.”

The efforts to produce denser communities especially in California’s famous single-family zoned neighborhoods will continue. But the awareness that nearness encourages disease spread in the era of a coronavirus pandemic is going to change the parameters of that debate to the detriment of denser city proponents.

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