Could the Bay Area Emerge Stronger After COVID-19?

he threat of the coronavirus has brought the normally rapid pace of Bay Area life to a grinding halt. With a growing number of confirmed cases, a state of emergency in effect, and a directive to shelter in place for the next three weeks, the virus is affecting life from all angles. Our normally lively streets are empty, our roads less congested.

The urgent call for people to social distance has resulted in school cancellations, events being called off, and regulations limiting restaurants and bar operations. COVID-19 has also caused Bay Area’s tech titans — which usually favor face-to-face contact among staff, even busing people from all over the region at a cost of hundreds of millions per year to achieve that — to close and tell people to work from home. Even companies that are usually starkly against telework have been forced to embrace it, including Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and Google.

The result: Tens of thousands fewer people are out in the Bay Area than during normal times. I’m doing my best to stay home and social distance, which is incredibly important, but in the moments I have ventured out when necessary, I’ve witnessed a rare and fascinating place — a Bay Area with far fewer people. In many ways, the roads and streets are a throwback to what I imagine the region was like before the rise of Silicon Valley.

Since 2010, the Bay Area’s population has grown by more than 600,000 people. That’s an 8.5% increase for an area that’s fairly dense to begin with. More than 7 million people now live in the nine counties that surround the bay. This rapid growth has bred all manner of evils and inconveniences. Real estate prices in the Bay Area have more than doubled since 1997 in real terms. Constrained by inelastic supply, the median home price in the region is now above $1 million.

And then there’s just the dense, constant presence of people. Especially in the city, crowds are everywhere. Don’t get me wrong, I love living in the Bay Area and feel that life here is totally worth it. The crowds, rapid growth, and even the traffic contribute to the exciting, chaotic, frenetic energy of the place, which has been constantly disrupting and reinventing itself for more than a century. It’s a wonderful place to live. But in normal times, it’s undeniably crowded.

In effect, the entire tech industry is forced into a massive experiment at once.

Today, even the Bay Area’s legendary traffic, now (normally) the second-worst in the nation behind only car-obsessed Los Angeles. Bay Area drivers waste 3.3 billion gallons of fuel every year while waiting in traffic delays. A recent rush hour drive from the East Bay into San Francisco for an essential doctor’s appointment — which normally takes me two hours from San Ramon — was showing as one hour and seven minutes on Google Maps.

I arrived here in 2013, when the tech boom was already in full swing, so it was a new experience to see the Bay Area as a calmer and emptier place.

Traffic is a relatively minor example. But in several far more significant ways, the Bay Area has already changed dramatically as a result of the unfolding COVID-19 crisis. Of course, there’s no guarantee that any of this will persist. As the threat of the virus (hopefully) abates, life in the Bay Area could go right back to normal.

Or it could not. Big changes to lives and economies — even those caused by disasters and other shocks — have a tendency to be sticky. After September 11, companies reduced business travel and realized much of it wasn’t actually necessary. They invested in technologies like teleconferencing and found that these worked surprisingly well. Even after the original shock had dissipated, a lot of companies kept their travel budgets lean once they found a new way to operate that tested previous conventional wisdom.

With the sudden, unavoidable shift to telework in the Bay Area under the threat of COVID-19, this dynamic may apply. Big tech companies may realize that the constant, coveted face time isn’t so important for productivity and innovation after all.

The all-encompassing nature of the outbreak could be a major factor here. For a giant like Facebook, testing a new telework scheme across the entire company all at once would be unacceptably risky in normal times. If it failed — and if rivals’ policies of encouraging in-person interactions continued to succeed — the company could fall behind the competition in an irreversible way.

But now that everyone is forced into this setup, the risk drops dramatically. There’s no longer a first-mover disadvantage. In effect, the entire tech industry is forced into a massive experiment at once. And the results of that experiment could lead to broad and lasting shifts in the work environment for Big Tech. It could encourage more remote work in the Bay Area or push tech companies toward hiring remote workers in less expensive regions if they find that telework is just as productive as the in-person kind.

Likewise, the current shock will likely have major impacts on housing prices, especially given they were cooling off before the outbreak. The current shock could send them dramatically lower overnight. A recession isn’t something to celebrate, to be sure, but it could be a new landscape that creates buying opportunities that young people and lower-income workers haven’t seen in decades.

COVID-19 may also have a lasting impact on the region’s homeless population. We’ve seen cities step up and treat homelessness like the emergency it is. San Francisco is committing $5 million to support the city’s homeless. This includes funds for supportive housing and shelters. The city has also halted evictions, which will help to prevent more residents affected by the crisis’ economic fallout to slip into homelessness. The reality was that our homelessness crisis was just as much of an emergency before this crisis and should have been treated as such, but the pandemic has forced the issue.

If the crisis moves more of San Francisco’s homeless into housing, it could make a major dent in the city’s homelessness problem and provide a better quality of life for thousands of the city’s most vulnerable residents. At the very least, it shows that the city was capable of more than what it was doing previously and should be held to that standard moving forward.

We could also see a lasting effect on the Bay Area’s gig economy workers. Home to the headquarters of Uber, DoorDash, and myriad other companies that rely on a labor force of on-demand workers — classified as independent contractors rather than employees — who are not provided health insurance or paid sick leave. As the current crisis has unfolded, tech companies have started to provide such benefits to their workforce, whether employees or not. Both Uber and Lyft now offer paid leave to most drivers; others, like DoorDash and Instacart, have followed suit.

Some have argued that what the companies are doing isn’t enough, and it’s likely that officials will continue to step up measures as the pandemic gets worse before it gets better. We could see that once COVID-19 passes, gig economy companies may see the merits of classifying their workers as employees so that the benefits they’re providing anyway are easier to administrate (and to avoid the cost of California’s new gig economy AB 5 law, which they’re in the middle of fighting). No matter what, it’s clear that how we’re functioning now — with absolutely no safety net for a huge swath of workers — is not how we should move forward.

Even disasters can breed lasting, powerful changes. That is especially true for the Bay Area.

Beyond these concrete changes, we’ve seen the Bay Area change in recent weeks when it comes to a sense of community, shared purpose, and connection among many of our residents. Deserved or not, the Bay Area has a reputation for workaholic citizens who rarely take the time to engage with their local communities or neighbors. In normal times, my Nextdoor feed is a mix of complaints about the actions of local drivers and vaguely racist messages.

With the current crisis, things have changed. Now I mostly see messages about residents bringing food to seniors, sharing tips on entertaining their kids while sheltering at home, and otherwise helping each other through these challenging times. When grocery shelves were empty this weekend due to the added strain on the supply chain (stop panic buying and hoarding), I took a brief walk around my neighborhood and saw a basket of homegrown lemons next to our mailboxes, with a handwritten note reading, “Neighbors, please help yourself.”

As people find unexpected sources of support among their neighbors and community members, the crisis may foster a stronger sense of place and draw Bay Area residents closer together in a lasting way.

The pandemic has brought all of our area’s problems into sharp focus: the high cost of living, homelessness, the gig economy, the need for renter protections, and the way we treat our neighbors.

Make no mistake, COVID-19 is a major threat and a potential disaster of epic proportions for our health, our economy, and our local businesses. It’s not something to take lightly. But even disasters can breed lasting, powerful changes. And that is especially true for the Bay Area.

Our region has a long history of emerging, phoenixlike, from major shocks. San Francisco’s infamous 1906 earthquake led to the splendor of the 1915 Panama Pacific Exposition, massive changes in patterns of land use, and the creation of entirely new regions of the city, which has been booming for a century. Again, in 1989, our communities worked together to rebuild.

Recovery and regrowth are deeply ingrained in our DNA. I’m confident the Bay Area can make it through this current crisis. Maybe, just maybe, we’ll even emerge stronger.

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