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New York City Snow as a Test of Urban Resilience

Tuesday, March 14, 2017 7:09
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Two years ago, I was chatting with one of the current editors of one of the “top 5″ economics journals. I sketched my climate change adaptation arguments and he grudgingly agreed with my optimism (this occurs quite often in private discussions).  He then said that a major challenge that cities will face will be disruptive storms that will lower urban productivity.  Is he right?  I don’t think so.

Today’s major snowstorm in the Northeast offers a natural experiment.  In this Internet connected age, does severe weather lower or raise our productivity?

point #1;  most jobs do not feature a key need for face to face contact.  Yes, a dentist must treat a patient face to face. Yes, a teacher must be face to face with students.  Yes, a starbucks worker must hand you the coffee.  Snowdays will affect their production.  But, there are many other jobs where people will be more productive on snowdays because there will be peace and quiet and because there will be no commuting on that day.  More and  more firms are allowing workers to work from home.  This conserves on commercial real estate and the firm can pay the worker less.  Team production does not need to take place in a face to face setting. Most workers are not assembling a final manufacturing product.

point #2  Any lost output on a snowy day will represent “harvesting” that can be offset on the next day when the snow melts.   Yes, if you have  a major delivery of perishable berries delivered to your store, you may not be able to sell them on a bad weather day.

point #3  Due to our physical real estate (think of shopping malls), our cities are insulated from heat and snow.  Connection to the Internet may be the ultimate adaptation technology as people have real time forecasts of when they can go outside and what spatial and temporal risks they face.   Access to Uber means that people are not “trapped in their homes”.

Imagine what Uber could achieve in a region that is experiencing a flood (such as New Orleans in Katrina).  Yes , the company might engage in price gouging but this would mobilize tens of thousands of drivers to come to the rescue (the elastic supply curve).

A more interesting resilience question would study heterogeneity. If you are 10 years old, 30 years old, 50 years old 70 years old, 90 years old, how is your day affected by extreme weather? Are you as an urbanite equally productive as you would be if the weather had been average?

What quantitative metrics could be constructed so that an academic could judge this?  We can’t just do a survey of people’s stated valuations.


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