Covid-19 reshaped the way we use our cities

The lengthy Covid-19 lockdowns of 2020 and 2021 reduced activity in the CBD here in Melbourne. Those of us who live here will clearly recall the alien streetscapes and a bizarre silence, punctuated only by pedestrian crossings ticking mechanically away to the benefit of exactly no pedestrians. The experience seems to have escaped the annals of memory and impacted the city itself in an ongoing way. Melbourne is hardly a ghost town, but compared with the city of 2019, something of that haunted character lingers.

If you feel that way, you’re not alone—and the numbers agree. Fewer people are coming to the city, and trade has been significantly impacted.

The CBD has recently undergone a reduction of on-street parking—of less than 2%—to make room for bicycle lanes and outdoor dining. The move has provoked thoroughly mixed responses from local businesses and commentators.

But it doesn’t appear that bicycle lanes are what’s affecting the city traffic. We are informed that activity during the weekday evenings and weekends has bounced right back. Rather, it is the Monday-to-Friday 9—5 hours that have not recovered. A number of factors contribute to the changing face of movement in the city: fewer 9—5 commuters are the result of the more flexible working arrangements required by pandemic lockdowns (a trend that looks set to continue into the future), as well as the lingering impacts of one crisis after another.

It’s not for a lack of economic activity that there are fewer workers in the CBD, of course. The current labour shortage is representative of a job market unlike any we’ve seen for fifty years or more. The unemployment rate is hovering around 4.0%, and underemployment continues to drop.

It’s clear that there’s plenty of economic activity.

This big reshuffling of how we use city space is not unique to Melbourne—or even to Australia.

The BBC recently reported that inner-city offices across North America are being converted to apartments in the wake of a mass exodus of office workers from the CBD.

EY’s recent research in the greater Sydney area found that 38% of Sydneysiders said the Sydney CBD held less charm than before the pandemic. 59% of respondents said that they just had no compelling reason to go there.

But people have not stopped using cars in general—or at least their purchasing behaviour doesn’t indicate it. Despite a drop in travel by motor vehicle, owing to lockdowns, the latest motor vehicle use survey indicates that Australians still love our cars. A year into the pandemic, we continued to purchase more of them, undaunted.

So activity continues, and people are still buying and presumably driving motor vehicles. They’re just using them somewhere else.

Where? Well, locally, it seems.

A late 2021 report from Mastercard indicated that businesses across the 19 markets studied were recovering from the depredations of 2020’s lockdowns—and that, although there’s been a big decline in spending in small and medium businesses in CBDs, it’s been accompanied by a rise in spending outside the city limits.

The shift isn’t away from activity, driving and work: it’s away from the CBD and into residential areas, focusing on large suburban shopping and entertainment precincts and local retail and hospitality venues.

A core goal of smart cities is to maximise the use of data in optimising allocation of scarce resources to best effect. As we serve rising populations in shrinking spaces—with a growing understanding of our ethical obligation to reduce the resources we use in doing so—such efficiencies are more important than ever.

As always, for the smart cities perspective, data is king. The Covid-19 crisis has left us with a new perspective, new limitations, and a new understanding of what can be accomplished in a decentralised economy. The way we work has already begun to change permanently, and so therefore will the way we use our cities.

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