Metropolis

We’re Not Going Back to the Way Life Was Before

Thanks to the coronavirus, the future may arrive earlier than expected.

Empty highways, ominous.
This is us.
Omer Rana/Unsplash

A few years ago I interviewed Tyler Morse, the developer working to restore Eero Saarinen’s TWA terminal at JFK Airport into a hotel. A large chunk of the business, he told me, would be hidden from the travelers who came to sip cocktails and gawk at the soaring central atrium. This was the conference center: a subterranean zone of banquet halls and offices that would provide a crucial revenue stream. “A big part of airport hotel business is the 12- to 15-person meeting,” Morse went on. “People fly in, you just need to meet, then they fly out.” You didn’t need a city to do that, just an airport and a conference room. Suits were already meeting near hubs in Dallas or Chicago; American executives with partners from Europe, the Middle East, or Africa could meet at his hotel. And fly right back home again.

It seems insane, but that’s the way things go in the corporate world. For businesses that trade primarily in ideas, study after study has shown enormous benefits associated with being in one place. Economists call this the “agglomeration effect”; it explains why firms keep clustering in places like Silicon Valley despite the expense.

I thought of Morse last week after a single biotech leadership meeting at a Boston hotel was found responsible for 77 of Massachusetts’ 95 COVID-19 cases. I thought about all the corporate gathering that ultimately doesn’t seem all that necessary. If there is any sign of our future in Italy, where everything but groceries and pharmacies has been shut down, a once-in-a-lifetime break with normalcy is ahead of us.

Virtually every activity that entails or facilitates in-person human interaction seems to be in the midst of a total meltdown as the coronavirus outbreak erases Americans’ desire to travel. The NBA, NHL, and MLB have suspended their seasons. Austin’s South by Southwest canceled this year’s festival and laid off a third of its staff. Amtrak says bookings are down 50 percent and cancellations are up 300 percent; its CEO is asking workers to take unpaid time off. Hotels in San Francisco are experiencing vacancy rates between 70 and 80 percent. Broadway goes dark on Thursday night. The CEOs of Southwest and JetBlue have both compared the impact of COVID-19 on air travel to 9/11. (That was before President Donald Trump banned air travel from Europe on Wednesday night.) Universities, now emptying their campuses, have never tried online learning on this scale. White-collar companies like Amazon, Apple, and the New York Times (and Slate!) are asking employees to work from home for the foreseeable future.

But what happens after the coronavirus?

In some ways, the answer is: all the old normal stuff. The pandemic will take lives and throttle economies and scuttle routines, but it will pass. Americans will never stop going to basketball games. They won’t stop going on vacation. They’ll meet to do business. No decentralizing technology so far—not telegrams, not telephones, not television, and not the internet—has dented that human desire to shake hands, despite technologists’ predictions to the contrary.

Yet there are real reasons to think that things will not revert to the way they were last week. Small disruptions create small societal shifts; big ones change things for good. The O.J. Simpson trial helped tank the popularity of daytime soap operas. The New York transit strike of 1980 is credited with prompting several long-term changes in the city, including bus and bike lanes, dollar vans, and women wearing sneakers to work. The 1918 flu pandemic prompted the development of national health care in Europe.

Here and now, this might not even be a question of preference. It’s not clear that South by Southwest, for example, will be around next year. Or that the cruise industry will survive—Princess and Viking have now suspended all of their operations, with more lines sure to follow. Or that public transit won’t go broke without federal assistance. The infrastructure might not even be in place to do what we were doing in 2019.

But even with federal aid to hard-hit industries and employees, institutions might find they like parts of the new, more remote status quo—especially those that build on earlier trends. Political campaigns may decide they need fewer events and fewer live audiences, while businesses may double down on smaller workplaces and more remote workers. Paid sick leave might become a national right—Democrats are already pushing for that this week. Companies might emerge with a revised, stricter sense of what kind of travel is really essential to business. Perhaps we’ll build more resilient, local supply chains. “That is not only going to change the entire structure of things within China, but also the global fabric connecting China to the rest of the world,” a Chinese economic analyst told the Washington Post, arguing the disruption would push foreign companies to “decouple” from China.

None of this will have anything to do with public health. Instead, these changes will emerge from the total reappraisal of the modus operandi that is already taking place.

People might stick with the disruptions to their lives, too: More deliveries taking the place of personal trips. More cooking, and less eating out. More driving in solitude—or, optimistically, biking—and less reliance on Uber, Lyft, and transit. Therapy, yoga, and medical advice online. More video games; less live entertainment. The social fabric that breaks might not be repaired.

All these changes point in one direction: away from being together, whether that means meetings of multinational VPs or concerts at the local dive bar. They all suggest ways of business and life in which people travel much less than they do now. Maybe the only thing that sticks is virtual yoga. Let’s hope so.

In China, at least, the public health disaster has had one silver lining: According to NASA, nitrogen dioxide pollution (associated with cars, trucks, factories, and power plants) has fallen by as much as 30 percent in heavily industrialized eastern China. It seems inevitable that something similar is about to happen in the United States, where transportation is our largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. For a few weeks, at least, we’ll live in one of our possible futures, a greener world, a lonelier world, a world with more video games.

Adaptation to climate change has always rested on two divergent scenarios. In one, our lives go on as they did until recently, with technology like electric vehicles, carbon capture, and battery storage deployed to clean up the loose ends and stave off catastrophic warming.

In the other, a higher cost to movement helps tamp down the miles we travel, and society makes sacrifices as a result. Global carriers like Maersk did a version of this to save fuel during the Great Recession, practicing “slow steaming” to deliver goods more slowly and cheaply. For us, a transportation tax might mean living closer together and using smaller vehicles. Or it might mean something like what we’re doing now: retreat from commutes, community, and the conference at the airport hotel.