After the United States entered World War I in 1917, there was a huge push to get men and particularly equipment overseas to Europe, and it was challenging because the systems couldn't handle it. At that time, the standard way to send anything any kind of distance was by train. But the rail system was overwhelmed. Trains were backed up hundreds of miles from the major ports in and around New York City.
In desperation, those in charge tried something novel: motorized trucks, still a new technology then. Even with the era's lousy, sometimes unpaved roads, it worked much better than expected. A new industry was born: intercity trucking. And the railroads found they had a competitor. Without the pressure of war, who knows if and when this would have happened?
The crisis the United States and the world face now with the novel coronavirus and its associated disease, COVID-19, brings this to mind. Wars change things. Trends are solidified or stopped. New patterns are formed and old ones are swept away. And fighting a pandemic is a kind of war, with society mobilized toward a central task in a similar way.
When this disease is somehow brought under control in three, six, 12 months or more, what will society look like? What's pretty certain is that it will be changed, in ways both predictable and less so. This includes our infrastructure systems, speaking broadly.
Some predictions are easy to make. With every sort of school switching to online learning, the systems for this kind of teaching will be improved, the kinks found and ironed out. Like it or not, there will be more online learning after the coronavirus than before.
Much the same could happen with urban transportation. As the number of coronavirus cases began to build, New York, Chicago and some other cities saw a surge of bicycling, including people using the cities' public bike-share systems. This is happening, of course, because people want to "social distance" and avoid the close quarters of trains and buses. It's reasonable to predict that increased use of two-wheel transport will continue after the crisis as new people discover that bicycling is easier and more enjoyable than they thought.
Other changes are harder to predict. I doubt anyone went into World War I expecting to see a new domestic intercity trucking industry emerge. Similarly, unexpected changes will happen around the coronavirus crisis. Perhaps delivery by drones will finally turn from a novelty to a practicality as today's delivery methods, including the much-taxed last-mile systems, are overwhelmed.
All over the world, theaters, restaurants and bars have been closed. Will this lead to a revival of them when those that survive reopen? Or will there be even more of a permanent shift to watching movies at home and ordering in? Will online commerce grow even more than it has, increasing the threat to neighborhood retailers?
As with most trends, these will play out first and more intensively in cities and metropolitan regions. Around the world, the last few decades have been the modern age of cities. But the very things that make cities so economically productive — transportation hubs, the free interchange of ideas and information largely through face-to-face contact, the variety and use of public spaces — also make them fertile grounds for the spread of diseases. Venice, Italy, for centuries a great hub of trade as well as innovation, also suffered from and helped spread some of the plagues that ravaged Europe.
So will the coronavirus crisis help end or change or mute the age of cities? I doubt it. What's the alternative? And new systems that we haven't even imagined may emerge to help safeguard everyone, including those in cities. After all, getting through a period of self-quarantining is very different today from the way it played out in 1350 or 1900. A good book or a card game were probably the top options until quite recently. Now, there is Netflix, video conferencing and every sort of online interaction. And just about anything can be delivered.
Moving to less physical effects, will the pandemic accentuate, diminish or mutate the red/blue, rural/urban divide that has become such a feature of our political life? Rural people can say, once again, that cities have served as the principal portal for a disease. On the other hand, fighting a war against a common enemy sometimes blurs differences and unites people. And there's no question that COVID-19 is a common enemy.
Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing editors or management.