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The resilient city and road pricing

Joe Berridge’s recent opinion piece in the Globe and Mail is a good reminder — in the face of a whole lot of uncertainty — about the resiliency of our cities.

Those previous decades saw a surge of people and jobs locating downtown, with consequent escalation in rents and prices of offices and housing. Why? Partly demographic, as the well-educated children of the baby boom reached adulthood, and partly lifestyle and work style. Young people go to big cities not just to work and live, but for sex, style, money and power. For ambition and anonymity. And for risk. All in the petri dish of downtown density. These drives have always been as powerful as their subsequent search for suburban security and community.

The structure of the modern megalopolis is not an accident – the dramatic rise of tech employment, two-earner families, the decline of manufacturing, the later date of marriage, smaller households, lifestyle consumerism, teamwork cultures, serial re-education and training – none of these societal trends looks to be diminished by COVID-19. All of them seem to prefer high-density, high-interaction environments.

For those of us in Toronto, it’s also important to remember just how quickly this city region was growing pre-COVID-19. That is unlikely to change on the other side of this.

But Berridge does also point out some of the potential fallouts from this pandemic. The economics of urban transit, for example, could remain a problem for quite some time. This will strain public purses. (Car usage rebounded quickly, but transit ridership has not.)

We are also likely to see increased traffic congestion as a result of people eschewing transit (and probably a bunch of other factors). Like Berridge, I am a supporter of road/congestion pricing, and have been writing about that on this blog for many years.

The best things to tax/price are things that are generally viewed as bad and where demand is largely inelastic. That is, even if you increase the price, many or most people will probably still do it anyway. Think of things like smoking.

Up until now, Toronto hasn’t had the moxie to make difficult (political) decisions like this one. Perhaps this pandemic will leave us no other choice.

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