Tom Vanderbilt: The pandemic shows what cars have done to cities
These visions of an urban ice age have been buttressed by another recent prediction: that office work will no longer require physically going into an office. Employers that had resisted remote work have been forced to figure out the kinks, and now they’re under pressure to keep that option available even as states begin to reopen. Google, Facebook, and Twitter have extended work-from-home directives for their staffs into 2021 or made the option permanent, fueling the fantasy that former apartment dwellers in expensive cities will soon be able to take conference calls while far away, from a lounge chair next to their very own pool.
As coronavirus case counts begin to tick back up across the country and the specter of a second spike in infections looms, people in major American cities who can afford to may be tempted to pack up their apartment and get out. But fleeing cities is a bigger gamble than many white-collar workers might realize. Those who panic-move could soon find that the future of work and cities is far different from what they expected.
When we talk about people leaving America’s biggest cities right now, people largely means the rich. In The New York Times’ analysis of cellphone location data, 420,000 people fled New York City for some period of time from March 1 to May 1. Those who left were heavily concentrated in the city’s wealthiest zip codes, especially those in Manhattan. A similar phenomenon was found in the city’s trash-collection patterns, in which the amount of garbage dropped most sharply where rich people had vanished.
That snapshot of movement reflects long-standing trends in who is able to move from place to place in the U.S. “The ability to move is really concentrated among the higher-earning people,” says Samantha Friedman, the head of the Center for Social and Demographic Analysis at the State University of New York at Albany. Poorer people change dwellings much more frequently than their affluent counterparts, she told me, but their moves are almost always within the same area; they tend to bounce between rentals and the homes of friends or relatives.
The middle- and high-income people who could leave the city this year can be divided into two basic groups. First, there are the panic-movers, who hadn’t previously considered leaving before the pandemic hit. In one private Facebook group for panic-movers that I snooped around in for several weeks, the few thousand members looked for advice on how to persuade their New York–loving spouses to leave or asked for recommendations of small towns that are, somehow, very similar to the country’s biggest, densest city.
Molly Jong-Fast: The New New York Will Be Better
The second group of movers makes for less exciting trend stories: people who are taking part in normal attrition, of which New York City has plenty—tens of thousands of its residents move away every year. The city is expensive and cramped, and lots of people plan their exit to coincide with the predictable needs of their family or career, or just because they want something different. The pandemic may have accelerated these movers’ timelines by a few months or a year, but the decision to leave was already made.