For years, a model of the future envisioned concentrated housing development and mass transit. The central idea was that workers would live close to their employment and/or near mass transportation systems that would whisk them to a workplace even if many miles away. In accordance with this, extensive construction has concentrated on massive apartment and condominium/townhouse complexes, resulting in exorbitant pricing, advertised as close to transportation and services.
Many who have been priced out of the housing market are forced to commute for hours, often spending a huge portion of their waking hours on the road in traffic amid clouds of noxious fumes. The insanity of this lifestyle has supported a call for more housing, more transportation and more condensed living. Large, high tech factories have concentrated their facilities to take advantage of synergistic relationships but often fail to acknowledge the human factor of overcrowding, shifting employment requirements and quality of life.
The “normal” state of affairs for business, government and family life combined a vision of a future filled with happy workers without need for personal transportation, living in huge honeycombed edifices that adjoined rail service and all personal services required including basic needs, leisure and recreation. A construct of this model can be seen near the Warm Springs and newly opened Milpitas BART stations. With the recent extension of BART to Berryessa (San Jose), a decades-long dream of connecting work and living locations in the South Bay with East Bay and San Francisco has become reality.
There is, however, a small matter of Murphy’s Law (“Anything that can go wrong will go wrong”) that is usually ignored, but present in almost everything devised by mankind. As communications have expanded and matured through internet capacity, methods of commuting to work have changed as well. Experiments of work at home, progressing in fits and starts, are now commonplace as the COVID-19 pandemic mandated change. Stay-at-home directives propelled the process, but with faster connectivity the transformation was in the works anyway. The question at the foundation of our bright and happy future envisioned by past and present planners is whether the infrastructure of mass living and transportation is relevant to a post pandemic world. If many employees are not constricted to everyday life near mass transit or their workplace, will the costs – environmental, health, transportation, housing – outweigh the benefits? When and where are remote work models appropriate?
A useful exercise for our local authorities is to use this period of upheaval as an opportunity for change. With a crisis of epic proportions, comes a moment when prospects for significant reorganization and reevaluation arise. Questions of policing and legislative priorities ask fundamental questions that need answers. How are departments organized? For example, why is the Tri-City Animal Shelter administered under the auspices of the Fremont Police Department requiring police employees and volunteers subject to a security background check? Are citizen commissions and boards active and performing oversight responsibilities? Have they identified and fulfilled their role as venues for civic transparency? Is telecommuting an efficient alternative to large workplace environments? Can and should many civic and business transactions be handled remotely?
Just as an engineer may be asked to go back to the drawing board if glitches appear in previous work, so too can our local civic leaders examine the foundational beliefs that organize departments, compensation and direction. Health and economic crises do not necessarily have to lead to a crisis of confidence in our leadership.