Work-from-home has always represented an option to both reduce emissions and promote family time. However, work-from-home’s potential has never been fully realized in terms of actual practice, as long-standing practices and cultures in Asia and the Pacific often prioritize physical time in the office.
New information technologies have meant that work-from-home does not have to substantially reduce the quality of workplace interactions. A plethora of software apps, such as Google Hangout, Skype, Cisco Webex, MS Teams, and Zoom, are now available to give a visual space for sharing information and facilitating decision-making. We are moving away from mere tele-conferencing to lifelike virtual interaction. While work-from-home may never fully replace workplace presence, the new technologies at least offer the potential to reduce the need for everyday commuting.
Lockdowns across many cities and countries has meant that a unique global experiment is underway. The World Health Organization estimates that 7 million persons suffer premature deaths each year from air pollution, and that 1.3 million persons perish in car crashes. For cities with air quality problems, such as Beijing, Delhi, and Manila, the lockdowns have visibly brought pristine skies, as also evidenced by satellite imagery. In addition, the University of California at Davis has been tracking reductions in car crashes in California during the state’s partial lockdown conditions. Serious injuries and fatalities in the past week have been halved from 400 to just 200 per day.
None of this is to minimize the appalling human tragedy of COVID-19’s trail of death and illness. The social and economic cost of the pandemic is staggering. But these types of comparisons do indicate what could be achieved if we adopted sustainable energy and transport practices once the pandemic has passed.
Of course, the virus also hits certain forms of sustainable personal mobility quite hard. Buses and trains place passengers in close proximity, heightening disease transmission risk. During this time of crisis, to the extent persons have options, passengers do appear to be avoiding public transport, and many cities have closed public transport in its entirety. Most likely, governments will need to step forward with financial support to public transport operators for both short-term and long-term viability.
Conversely, this situation does represent a large potential opportunity for walking and cycling. Already, in the early days of the virus, New York City is recording record levels of cyclists. The city’s Department of Transport reports a 50 percent increase in cycling over the same period last year, and a 67 percent increase in usage of New York’s CitiBike bicycle sharing system.
Home delivery services also appear to be experiencing a significant increase in the wake of virus lockdowns. Such services hold the potential to reduce overall transport congestion and emissions by effectively achieving economies of scales in urban delivery logistics.
With streets now operating under dramatically reduced traffic levels, an opportunity exists to quickly address long-standing needs that are difficult to implement under day-to-day realities. Upgrading footpaths and developing cycleways is the type of quick win that can utilize the economic stimulus spending being deployed to shore up falling economies. These investments can be done quickly and create jobs at a time when it is most needed.
The pandemic is a change event like few others. The dramatic break in personal mobility from past habits represents an opportunity to view cities in a new way. From this moment, we could embrace the future of work-from-home and the greater adoption of walking and cycling. Perhaps there is yet a small silver lining from this unfolding tragedy.