COVID-19 reduced our range of motion in many ways. Based on GPS data from mobile devices, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) reports that work-related travel dropped by more than 50% in April 2020 and currently hovers around 70% of normal activity.
“Since mobility and economic health are correlated, the decline in the former has led some to predict the hollowing out of our cities,” said GMA Research Manager Holger Loewendorf. “Prior to the paralyzing effects of the pandemic, most Georgians moved around quite a bit during the day. Cities should hope and plan for a time when they will do so again.”
American Community Survey data from 2019 shows that the daytime population in Georgia’s cities increased by 27.5% due to commuting. Looking beyond this aggregate value, 286 cities gained a total daytime population of about 1.4 million (or an average of 4,922) commuters, while 251 cities lost about 142,000 commuters (or 567 on average).
Why does this data matter?
According to Loewendorf, cities deliver services—such as water, sewer, fire and police protection—to both daytime and resident populations and need to have the capacity to accommodate fluctuating demands. But more importantly, cities can provide a service to commuters that is not only measurable in fiscal terms.
Thirty years ago, the sociologist Ray Oldenburg described “third places” as public spaces where people can gather and interact. Unlike “first places” (home) and “second places” (work), third places facilitate “regular, voluntary, informal, and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals.” By convening and welcoming people from all backgrounds, Oldenburg explained that main streets, restaurants, bars, post offices and similar sites determine a community’s social vitality, promote equity, create habits of public association, and support a vibrant democracy.
“The pandemic has made the availability of ‘third places’ more challenging by relocating many of our interactions to the virtual realm. But cities have several options to prepare for a different and possibly better normality,” Loewendorf said.
Loewendorf encouraged city leaders to consider these questions: Does your zoning accommodate mixed-use functions in residential areas to create more third places? Are your third places accessible via different modes of transportation? Do you provide free Wi-Fi to attract people in an otherwise unlikely meeting location? Can you retrofit public places and make other design changes to encourage interactions between groups?
“To paraphrase a seasonally appropriate movie, if you build any of these things, the commuters will come—and stay for a while,” he said.
This story originally appeared in the May/June 2021 edition of Georgia’s Cities magazine.