Demographer Joel Kotkin writes (“Coronavirus and the Future of Living and Working in America”) that by spring we may begin to see signs that some of the most corrosive effects of coronavirus are in decline.  

But our experience with the coronavirus could lead to the acceleration of a trend that has been developing for quite a while: what Kotkin calls “the rise of dispersed work and living arrangements.” 

From ancient times, pandemics have been more severe in cities. This is also the case with the current coronavirus outbreak. It could boost the current trend of moving away from crowded uran areas. Kotkin writes:

The current pandemic is likely to accelerate pre-existing conditions driving the dispersion of both people and jobs. Just look at the already existing declining share for transit and the shift to home-based work; since 2005 telecommuting has grown 140 percent. Working at home, according to the census, now exceeds transit usage nationwide. This is also true in California and the greater Los Angeles area.

Telecommuting will not work for everyone, but, thanks to COVID-19, it is now getting ready for its close-up. Even before the current pandemic, the benefits of working remotely were apparent in terms of productivity, innovation and lower turnover. Telecommuting is also particularly attractive to both seniors and educated millennials.

Sometimes in the midst of a dramatic historical event, we think we will be more permanently changed than it turns out. But the coronavirus does look like it may help revolutionize the way we work for a large segment of American workers.

Kotkin points out that, even before the pandemic, young people were opting for less inexpensive, less crowded places to live.  But policy makers refuse to recognize the trend. Kotkin writes about how this plays out in his state of California:

Sadly, most planners and government officials are not only unprepared for a more dispersed future but seek to forestall it by limiting dispersion of homes and businesses. Over the past few years nearly all population growth takes place in suburbs and exurbs. This includes California. Between 2010 and 2018, 75 percent of Bay Area population growth and 85 percent of that in the greater Los Angeles area took place far from the urban core. In the other four major metropolitan areas — Riverside-San Bernardino, San Diego, Sacramento and San Jose — suburban and exurban growth exceeded 97 percent.

Unfortunately, our leaders believe that ecological nirvana lies in blocking what people want, which are more affordable residences on the periphery. Instead they treat the hoi polloi like cattle to be forcibly driven to the dense parts of the Bay Area and Los Angeles, precisely those now experiencing rising outmigration and diminished growth.

Indeed, against all logic, the state embraces the 19th century model of cities based around mass transit, something not popular to start with and not too appealing in a contagion-centered environment. Even before COVID-19, the vast majority of Californians drive alone to work, two million more today than in 2010. Meanwhile, the Southern California Association of Governments region lost 72 million transit rides annually from 2012 to 2016.

When the pandemic subsides—and it will—the U.S. will be forced into a debate on how we work, where we live, the red tape that slowed the number of test kits available, and our stance vis a vis China.

An election year is a good time to talk about all these issues.