As I've discussed throughout this series (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3), the COVID-19 pandemic will have long-term implications for municipalities and how they plan, design and deliver municipal services. Most especially, it will change future operational and infrastructure needs, and ultimately municipal spending priorities. Welcome to the coming "new reality."
For now, there is no shortage of speculation about how the pandemic will have impacted the way we live, work and play after it is technically behind us. This will have some real influence on the demands placed on existing infrastructure, as well as on how we plan for and design new assets. While many questions still need to be answered, some common themes and questions have emerged that should be top of mind for municipalities and their leaders as they plan for public infrastructure investment:
- The workplace: While the need for physical distancing has changed how physical space is used, at least in the medium-term, our work-from-home experiment has shown that many functions can be delivered remotely without significantly impacting service quality. What types of workspaces will we need to make the best use of existing facilities? How will this change the business case for building new facilities?
- Mobility and transportation: Changing business and social norms will redefine what it means to "go to" work, and growing acceptance of work-from-home arrangements could reduce peak traffic flows on major routes. Meanwhile, changing user preference and other measures could significantly shift demands and expectations on transportation networks. What modifications to systems and services will make the most of these shifts? What about fleet vehicles and infrastructure?
- Public facilities and places: Both real and perceived risks will change demands and expectations for group recreation programs and team sports. Some precautions will impact the number and ways in which participants are accommodated. How can facilities, sites, and equipment be adapted to meet these needs?
- Maintenance and construction: Safety precautions will have been incorporated into many of our traditional maintenance and construction activities, potentially impacting the layout of worksites and the timelines and costs of getting work done. How will these changes impact the economics surrounding different infrastructure programs? What will be the impact on delivery models and supply chains? What will this mean for already budgeted works? And how can business cases and the priorities of future work accommodate and be accommodated?
No matter which way you cut it, the pandemic's long-term impacts to municipal operations and infrastructure will be significant and will require broad transformation to traditional municipal policies, practices, and tools. The associated costs will be substantial and will drive municipal budgets and spending for years to come. But while it won't be easy, asking key questions based on honest reflection can provide municipal leaders with the clarity and insight needed to successfully navigate the COVID-19 challenge in ways that anticipate and prepare for whatever's next.