Cities, mass transit, car prices all changed by the pandemic

WASHINGTON – As vaccination rates rise and the country emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic, there are a lot of questions about what “normal” is going to look like.

Social distancing and masking will ease and “days at the office” will return to normal, but getting back to old routines and patterns may be a bit more complicated. Data surrounding housing and transportation suggests that our daily lives may be affected in more long-term, meaningful ways, such as the choices about where people live. A comparison of home sale prices in April of 2021 to April 2020 shows some clear winners.

The top five metro areas by price increases suggest a desire for more open space, or at least smaller cities. Boise, Idaho and Austin, Texas both saw increases of more than 30 percent. Stamford, Connecticut, outside New York City, saw an increase of 23 percent and Provo, Utah saw an increase of more than 20 percent.

But number 5 on that list, Greater San Francisco, suggests that all talk of emptying American cities may be a little too much. The country’s big cities are not going to shrink anytime soon; People seem to be reaching beyond them, and in some cases even farther.

And all those population moves suggest big impacts beyond housing prices on how we live. For more than a year, social distancing concerns may change how people stand shoulder to shoulder on the morning train.

The nation’s most used mass transit system, the New York City subway, is still far below where it was for pre-pandemic riders.

On most days, the number of riders on the metro is less than half what it was on the same day before the pandemic. A lot of that decline is likely due to people not going to the office for work. Currently, weekend ridership numbers are close to pre-Covid-19 numbers, but even those figures are sharply down by more than 40 percent from pre-pandemic levels.

Another sign that keeping one’s personal space is highly desirable after the pandemic is that people are interested in buying a car again. Comparing the first quarter of 2021 with the first quarter of 2020, there has been an increase of about 9 percent in the sales of new cars.

Hyundai and Toyota lead the 2020 numbers with 28 and 22 percent growth, but all major carmakers have seen bumps. And those numbers may be higher, but for many automakers to supply chain problems, especially the lack of computer chips that are needed to build modern cars.

When the pandemic first hit, many automakers drastically reduced their production, anticipating a drop in new car sales. They also canceled orders for parts. Now that car sales are on the rise, they are playing catch-up. The message is hard to miss, however, that as the economy heats up, Americans are finding they want or need a vehicle.

Another way to look at it is the desire for wheels that drives intense interest in buying older cars, which is evident from the huge increase in those prices.

In the last 12 months, the consumer price index for used vehicles has increased by about 30 per cent. In the last month alone it increased by 7 per cent.

They are massive growths and there are many possible reasons behind them. It could be the lack of new cars available that pushed people into the market for older vehicles. It could also be that, with the country slowly returning to normal and office trips drawing near, families have decided they need a car, especially if people are concerned about mass transit.

Whatever the reason, however, inflation in used vehicles is driving broader inflationary pressures in the economy as a whole. This is probably a short-term blip, but other effects will increase in the future.

The true nature of post-pandemic America is of course unknown. Beyond the health concerns, the real impact of COVID-19 was the way it shook the world. Just imagine what a different place the United States was in last July 4.

But these numbers – along with others from a long list of industries like food service – suggest that people are not expecting things to go back the way they were. A lot of dramatic changes have happened in the past 15 months and at least many Americans think they will live differently in the months ahead.

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