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ITHACA, N.Y. — Long commutes to the office may increase the odds that someone will suffer a coronavirus infection, a new study reveals. Researchers from Cornell University say a person’s commute time and the amount of crowding there is in their home can serve as good predictors for infection during the pandemic.

Specifically, the team finds neighborhoods where people travel for 40 to 60 minutes just to get to work are more likely to be COVID hotspots. The results may lead to a rethinking of how urban planners lay out cities in the post-pandemic era.

“We are trying to determine how the built environment influences coronavirus propagation,” says senior author Timur Dogan, an assistant professor of architecture in the College of Architecture, Art and Planning, in a university release.

“We found that high residential density and high percentage of people commuting by public transit do not relate to a higher COVID-19 case rate,” Dogan continues. “Household overcrowding and longer commute times appears to impair the pandemic resilience of individual families, medically vulnerable communities and cities, as a whole.”

Crowded cities aren’t necessarily a bad thing

The team says highly-populated urban areas and in-home crowding (or many people living under one roof) are also problems which have a connection to virus resilience. Despite that, the study finds crowded areas like New York City actually have other factors which counter all the overcrowding.

Study authors say people in metropolises like New York, which have tremendous population density, benefit from typically living closer to their places of work. The team adds a shorter commute boosts the concept of pandemic resilience. These kinds of neighborhoods generally allow residents to walk or commute to work and do their daily errands in just a few minutes.

“High-density neighborhoods aren’t necessarily bad from a disease transmission perspective,” Dogan explains. “A well-mixed neighborhood in a city could be beneficial.”

Building the ’20-minute city’

Researchers used ZIP code data and combined it with information on urban areas to determine the link between population density and COVID infection rates. A computer-aided design software utility called Urbano also looked at this information, examining the distances between local grocery stores, parks, and shopping centers and COVID rates in those areas.

“The Urbano software assists with collecting, simulating, and analyzing urban mobility data,” explains lead author Yang Yang. “It allows mobility-aware decision-making for designers and planners in building a sustainable and resilient city.”

“This is where we start the idea of the 20-minute city, a concept where a person can fulfill all the daily errands, work and daily needs within a 20-minute walk or bike ride,” Dogan adds.

“This kind of urban design paradigm promises benefits that make our cities more livable, sustainable and resilient,” Dogan concludes. “Professional urban planners say that active mobility is a healthy thing to do. If we can reduce vehicle traffic, we can reduce pollution and reduce energy demand, we can get a healthier population.”

The findings appear in the journal Buildings and Cities.

About Chris Melore

Chris Melore has been a writer, researcher, editor, and producer in the New York-area since 2006. He won a local Emmy award for his work in sports television in 2011.

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