Podcast: Can We ‘Schedule’ Our Cities Post-COVID-19

Carlo Ratti Laura Schewel Podcast on Talking Headways

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Jeff Wood of the Overheard Wire interviews StreetLight CEO Laura Schewel and Carlo Ratti, founding partner of CRA-Carlo Ratti Associati and director of MIT’s Senseable City Lab in this Talking Headways podcast.

Listen to the full podcast for pandemic insights on how we get around, how we work and how we live post-2020. From transportation data to Biden’s American Jobs Plan to on-the-ground observations from the U.S., U.K. and Holland, Laura and Carlo share their perspectives on where next.

Would you rather read than listen? Below are transcript highlights from the first 20 minutes of Laura and Carlo’s podcast discussion.

Martin Morzynski StreetLight NPR Podcast

Podcast transcript:

On the concept of weak and strong interpersonal ties as a result of the pandemic:

Carlo Ratti: If we only connect digitally, our “strong ties” get even stronger, with people we [already know well].  But our “weak ties,” or ties with the people we bump into when we are on campus, in the office, or when we’re in a public space – are getting even weaker. So somehow that’s troublesome because weak ties bring a lot of value, there is a lot of creativity from these random encounters, and it turns out that physical space is one of the best catalysts for that.

Laura Schewel: We see more people moving around, and the vehicle miles traveled are now very similar in the United States to where we were before the pandemic – because people are still moving around, but they’re moving around more in the outer parts of our cities. They’re “in the [outer] rings” and not going to the denser parts of downtown at the same level. So that does not bode well for connectivity, but also if we talk about post-pandemic life, if the future stays as we are one year into the pandemic, it’s not great for a lot of the things we want out of cities, which is densification, the loose connections you between people, transit ridership. We really need to embrace the end of the pandemic, if and when it comes, as a time to push ourselves to re-emerge better than we were before.

“Cities are only 2% of the surface of the planet, but they’re 50% of the population, 75% of energy consumption, and 80% of CO2 emissions. So if we can do something to make our cities a little bit more sustainable, that could be a big deal globally.”

— Carlo Ratti

On “rescheduling” our cities:

Carlo Ratti: We will go back to physical space more and more, we will go back to our offices (whether it’s one or two or three days per week), and so far we haven’t found a good alternative to physical space for creating those serendipitous encounters that are so important for our social networks.

 If we just change the pattern over the course of the day, you can flatten the curve of transportation and use our cities and our infrastructure better. One of the tragedies of the 20th century was people doing exactly the same thing at the same time. That means rush hour twice a day, which means suffering because of traffic jams. But if we were able to be more flexible with our lives – maybe digitally work from home in the morning and then go to the office, with others doing this at different hours, the impact on the infrastructure could be huge.

Laura Schewel: What has happened during the pandemic is really an infrastructure optimization [as we don’t all try to head into downtown at the same time] but it has also reduced our incentives to use transit and to live a little bit more densely. Congestion is a very strong counterincentive to driving alone, so when we talk about coming back from the pandemic “better” the idea of this smart re-scheduling needs to [help us avoid] just relaxing and driving our car everywhere [because the roads are less congested]. If I had to drive to the office in San Francisco at 5 in the morning, which occasionally I did [before the pandemic], I could drive because it took me 15 minutes. We don’t want that to become the norm for everything. So we have to do some thoughtful policy implementation around this concept as well.

On examples of what we’ve learned that we can re-think after the pandemic:

Laura Schewel: First, how quickly pedestrian zones and outdoor dining zones were set up. If you’d ever been part of a city planning process to get a parking spot removed, or to get outdoor seating at a restaurant, it is brutal and can take years, and the fact that [the pandemic] made us realize we can do it overnight [makes me hopeful] we can continue with that.

The other thing we actually saw was the usage of StreetLight’s transportation measurement software by existing customers doubled during the first few weeks of the pandemic because, all of a sudden, customers realized that if you have to manage a transportation system from home, new and modern digital tools are the only way. So I think it’s helped accelerate other smart-governments technologies, and I’ve heard this from other “gov tech” software providers [that it helped] get over the hurdle of adopting something new, which we hope will stick.

Carlo Ratti: It’s about being able to innovate faster.  It’s more about a new approach to cities. I would say it’s more similar to natural evolution, where we gradually see what works and what doesn’t. What we now see in cities is trial and error: We couldn’t any more perpetuate models from the past, the conditions changed, and we didn’t have any reference, and so we really had to start innovating at a much faster rate, and I do hope this will stay much longer with us after the pandemic.

On how building design and architecture are being affected:

Carlo Ratti: We need to look at different ways for offices and homes. For offices, there is a good opportunity to downsize (many companies have begun to do this) and then design the office so that it will promote some of the same serendipitous encounters we discussed before in the creation of “weak ties” and move of some of the square footage to residential [with the pandemic showing a new need for additional room, for those not living alone, to connect digital to work or education digitally]. And there we need to redefine the essential qualities [of residential space], such as access to green space, nature, daylight, more flexibility, such as the ability to create a [separated spaces] where we can actually have multiple zoom calls happening at the same time. Maybe we can also find ways to open more of our homes to friends. All examples of new ways of thinking for architects and designers to rethink the “existence minimum” following COVID.

On what surprised Laura and Carlo the most about new trends in cities:

Laura Schewel: For me the biggest surprise was how little working from home reduced VMT (Vehicle Miles Traveled). It underlined to me that when it comes to transportation behavior, we don’t have a good handle on cause and effect, or a deep understanding of transportation behavior and our reaction to certain interventions, and the pandemic just made it glaringly evident. This made me excited to take on a new era of studying what policies really can work to do drastic VMT reductions that we need to meet our carbon goals.

Carlo Ratti: Last Summer when many countries in Europe opened up, how fast people really went back to big cities wanting to be together, and somehow how strong this force that binds us together in cities is and how fast it rebounds as soon as you remove social distancing. So I think what we’ll see over the next few months will be a lot of that, coming together in physical space.

On what we can do to come back with smarter transportation:

Laura Schewel: Keep in mind that [the Biden administration’s bill] is the American Jobs act, and classically it is much simpler to explain the connection of auto manufacturing and concrete infrastructure to jobs. But I also think there is jobs potential in the silicon part – the software, the infrastructure and the decision support – is also immense. And that creating bike lanes also creates a lot of jobs. One of the challenges we’ve had in people trying to make “government” transportation smarter is money is so entailed: There could be a billion dollars available to expand a highway, but the (transportation) agency is literally not allowed to spend 50 or 75K to do the analytics to figure out if they should expand the highway at all. So, allowing more flexibility and allowing infrastructure decision support – such as before and after studies – is just so critical.

Carlo Ratti: When you think about infrastructure, people often think about best practices, but basically “best practices” locks the future to the past. You’re looking at the past and asking, “What worked well?” And then you use that in order to design for a future. And I believe that here, you know, going back to your point about mobility and looking more at people, we have many new technologies. Micro-mobility, for example, actually makes mass transit much more competitive because you can jump off the subway and then jump on a scooter to the last mile. There are other innovations that are happening now in the space of delivery and logistics, for example, that can lead to smaller vehicles. Otherwise our cities are just going to be congested because of all the delivery trucks moving around.

Listen to the full podcast for more insights from the U.S., U.K. and Holland on where new trends are emerging- and how the Biden Administration’s Jobs Act can support them post-pandemic.

Martin Morzynski StreetLight NPR Podcast