City leaders could redesign cities to save lives in two ways. First, they could clamp down on automotive traffic. While that may seem far afield from the current pandemic, long-term exposure to pollution from cars and trucks causes more than 50,000 premature deaths a year in the United States, according to a 2013 study. Respiratory conditions aggravated by pollution can increase vulnerability to other illnesses, including infectious ones. The pandemic shutdowns have shown us what an alternative urban future might look like. Cities could remove most cars from downtown areas and give these streets back to the people. In the short term, this would serve our pandemic-fighting efforts by giving restaurants and bars more outdoor space. In the long term, it would transform cities for the better—adding significantly more room for walkers and bicycle lanes, and making the urban way of life more healthy and attractive.
Second, cities could fundamentally rethink the design and uses of modern buildings. Future pandemics caused by airborne viruses are inevitable—East Asia has had several this century, already—yet too many modern buildings achieve energy efficiency by sealing off outside air, thus creating the perfect petri dish for any disease that thrives in unventilated interiors. Local governments should update ventilation standards to make offices less dangerous. Further, as more Americans work remotely to avoid crowded trains and poorly ventilated offices, local governments should also encourage developers to turn vacant buildings into apartment complexes, through new zoning laws and tax credits. Converting empty offices into apartments would add more housing in rich cities with a shortage of affordable places to live, expand the tax base, and further reduce driving by letting more families make their homes downtown.