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Vehicles travel along highway 401 as the number of COVID-19 cases continue to grow in Toronto, on April 6, 2020.

CARLOS OSORIO/Reuters

If you watch cities plan their adjustments to COVID-19, you might be led to believe it’s all about the bicycle. City councils and newspapers have been dominated by the voices of shut-in downtown residents demanding more bike lanes to give them space to travel during an isolation period that has made subways and Uber cars untrustworthy.

Indeed, bike stores in cities are reporting record sales. I’m one of those downtowners who doesn’t own a car and prefers to cycle to work, so I’m pleased to see so many cities respond by carving out new pathways and lanes; they’re always welcome enhancements to a city’s health and quality of life. Some bike enthusiasts have gone a step further, claiming that this marks a permanent shift away from powered transportation.

But the truth is that the big priority for cities as their citizens return to work in the next weeks and months is not going to be bicycles or pedestrians. Rather, it’s going to be a large-scale shift from public transit to private automobiles.

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And that’s because the people whose lives will change the most are not the fortunate downtown minority who can afford to live within a half-hour’s cycling distance of work and shopping and child care. We may dominate the conversation, but the biggest challenge involves the far larger number of employed citizens who live farther out and are too vulnerable or frightened to get back on their crowded buses or commuter trains.

This is a pandemic of the suburbs. The places with the highest infection and death rates aren’t the big cities but the residential areas far outside them. Paris and Stockholm have seen relatively little infection, while their apartment suburbs have been badly hit. Even in New York City, the virus has largely spared Manhattan, but Queens and Long Island and especially bedroom communities such as New Rochelle and Rockland County have been devastated. It is the low-density places where death and fear have generally been the highest.

That’s why automakers, despite a near-total collapse in sales in March and April, are surprisingly optimistic, their shares recovering. “We definitely do see a return to what I’ll call personal transportation and trust,” Volkswagen’s U.S. chief executive Scott Keogh told Bloomberg. Cars, he said, are being pitched as sources of public safety.

If you spend time with employed people in their late 20s and 30s these days – especially those with children, in any country – you’ve likely had several tell you they’re reluctantly planning to buy a car for the first time in their lives. People like me, who are sufficiently old and employed to have been able to get housing close to work and amenities, can distance ourselves on pedals and feet. Millennials are more likely to be forced to live beyond bike-lane range, so the recovery will mean bigger changes if transit isn’t trusted.

Likewise, if you spend time in the immigrant-heavy, low-income apartment suburbs of Canada and Europe – as I’ve been doing, in several countries, for my current research – you’ll hear families struggling with the realization that a car, and the debt and trouble it entails, is often the only way out of danger and insecurity. Poverty and immigration are now both largely suburban phenomena in most parts of the Western world, and the low-density inner suburbs are often places of crowded apartment lobbies, elevators and buses to faraway jobs and schools. In places such as Surrey, B.C., or Malton, Ont., a car has suddenly become an expensive necessity of life for many.

There are several ways cities could respond to this big shift – ideally, by ensuring that it’s temporary. The last thing cities need now is more cars on the road. The infrastructure to support them wastes outrageous sums of tax dollars, they lower the quality of life and devastate the environment, and they make life stressful and expensive for people forced to use them.

To rebuild trust in public transit and trains, cities need to increase their appeal by investing in a lot more rolling stock, buses and streetcars so there’s plenty of personal space during rush hour. They need to make driving single-occupant cars downtown a rarity with road tolls – a London-style automatic fee of, say, $20 a day should be the norm in Canadian cities, if it’s used to support more routes and capacity.

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And they need to slash the need for long commutes by ensuring that bedroom communities contain a greater mix of industry and retail and have a higher population density. That way, people in every part of town – not just us downtown types – can enjoy the luxury and safety of riding a bicycle to work.

Doug Saunders, The Globe and Mail’s international affairs columnist, is currently a Richard von Weizsaecker Fellow of the Robert Bosch Academy in Berlin.

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