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Capital Comments: Rents, Telecommuting and Harry Potter


Rents are falling in San Francisco. Keep that in mind as this column wanders along.

The wizards in Harry Potter’s Britain use many forms of transportation. Brooms, but also floo powder, portkeys, flying vehicles, the Night Bus. Perhaps the most frequently used form of transportation, and certainly the most convenient, is disapparating and apparating. Disappear from one place, reappear someplace else. Many employees of the Ministry of Magic commute to work that way, suddenly apparating into the Atrium each morning.

They live all over Britain. They don’t need to cluster near their place of employment. This is good for wizard security because they can live in small groups hidden inside Muggle cities or out in the country.

So there are no wizard cities. There is one all-wizard village, though, Hogsmeade. Why is there even one? Well, J.K. Rowling needed it for her story (and Universal needs it for their theme park). But there’s a good reason within the story. Hogsmeade is within walking distance of a large group of wizards who cannot apparate. Most Hogwarts students are too young to have a license. They have money to spend, though, so there must be retail businesses close by, and wizards to run them. Like magic, an all-wizard village.

Harry Potter is fiction, but the form that cities take is influenced by the ways that people travel.  The United States built the interstate highway system to improve transportation between cities. But it also let people live on the outskirts of a city and commute to work in their cars.

An economist named Nathaniel Baum-Snow, writing in the Quarterly Journal of Economics in 2007, looked at the effect of highways on U.S. cities from 1950 and 1990. City populations dropped by 17 percent even as the population in metropolitan areas grew 72 percent. Population dispersed, and one reason was the new roads. Baum-Snow estimated that one new highway built through a city reduced its population by 18 percent.

All roads lead to Rome, but all roads lead out of Rome, too.

We’re all dealing with the immediate consequences of the coronavirus pandemic. Life is very different as students return to campus, with masks, social distancing, restricted gatherings and no football.  My classroom is now equipped with a plexiglass shield on wheels, so I can roll it with me as I pace during lectures.

One thing we wonder, though, is which changes will last, even after the virus goes away. I’ll probably abandon my shield, but I like some of the online assignments I’ve worked out.

For five months, I’ve been working at home, online, and attending meetings and giving talks over Zoom and other meeting apps. This has been the experience of a lot of fortunate people who can work at home to escape some of the threat of the virus. I know how lucky I am.

It works. I taught my class in the spring and got a lot of work done this summer. Once the virus is gone, I know I’ll work from home at least part of the time. It may be that lots of businesses and employees will embrace work-at-home. They won’t need as much office space, and employees won’t have to live downtown or even in the suburbs. Employees might live anywhere in the world.

They’ll just apparate into work each morning, virtually.

Which (finally) leads us back to rents in San Francisco. Rents are high, and commutes are long in that city, but people endure it because of the high-paying tech jobs. Now, in an August 14th article, the Wall Street Journal reports an exodus from San Francisco as businesses offer employees the chance to telecommute. Lower demand for city apartments has reduced rents 11 percent from last year.

Maybe people will flock back to the city once the pandemic is over. There are benefits to living in a big city beyond high-paying jobs. But there are benefits to living in a small city, or in the rural countryside, too. This might present an opportunity for cities and rural places in Indiana—as long as we’ve got the broadband infrastructure to support telecommuters.

Which must be reason 112 to make broadband available everywhere.

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