How Will Americans Commute After Lockdowns End?

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More than zero, fewer than 45, ideally 16: Those are the number of minutes that workers would prefer to spend commuting, according to various studies. Research on travel behavior has consistently shown that people value the time it takes to get from their homes to their jobs — for solitary thinking, catching up on email, or just putting some distance, in time and space, between work and home lives.

Those preferences have been put to the test during the coronavirus pandemic, with millions of global office workers commuting between rooms or pieces of bedroom furniture rather than neighborhoods. Now, as coronavirus lockdowns loosen in parts of the world, a divergent picture of the post-pandemic commute is emerging. Peak rush-hour traffic in Shenzhen is roughly 10% over its 2019 baseline, while congestion in Auckland, New Zealand, is creeping up every day. In North America, gasoline demand is rising and cars are retaking the streets, while mass transit ridership remains low and working from home is the status quo for 2020 (and possibly onwards) at tech-forward employers such as Google, Facebook and Twitter. Meanwhile, many cities are encouraging active commuting, opening emergency routes for walking and biking during the pandemic; those concerned about rising vehicle congestion, emissions, and fatalities are seeking ways to make those changes permanent.

What will commutes look and feel like as offices reopen? Emerging research offers a few hints.

Few commuters miss driving their cars

Given a taste of the work-from-home life, how many commuters will choose to stay put? One online survey conducted in April and led by the University of Amsterdam urban planning researcher Ori Rubin explored that and other questions among workers who commuted regularly before the pandemic but are now toiling in their abodes. Of the 1,014 surveyed, roughly half lived in the Netherlands; the rest were split between France, Germany, the U.K. and the United States. Some 70% of respondents had a master’s degree or higher, and they were evenly split by gender.

The results reaffirm old findings about the value of commutes, but they also indicate that some people might shift to new travel modes if given the chance. About 69% of respondents said that they missed some element of their commute, but their answers varied dramatically depending on how — and how long — they traveled: The longer it took to get to their jobs, the less people missed it. While 55% of car commuters said that they didn’t miss their work journeys at all, 91% of bike commuters said that they miss at least some parts of theirs.

Those feelings were connected to whether people planned to continue to work from home as economies reopen. Some 69% of those who did miss their commutes want to return to normal, while 72% of people who didn’t miss commuting at all want to work from home more often. But 18% of that latter group, who mainly used cars, expected that their employers would require their return to the office.

A majority of drivers admitted they don’t miss their commutes at all; only 9% of bike commuters agreed. (Rubin, O., Nikolaeva, A., Nello-Deakin, S., & te Brömmelstroet, M., (2020). What can we learn from the COVID-19 pandemic about how people experience working from home and commuting? Centre for Urban Studies, University of Amsterdam)

According to Rubin, this subset of commute-hating drivers should draw the attention of employers and urban planners concerned about congestion. “These are the most eligible candidates for a mode shift,” he said. “If given the option, that’s a substantial group that could shift to less commuting or a different adjustment” — perhaps to biking, the most loved of all commuting modes. While responses mostly came from the famously bike-friendly Netherlands, Rubin said that there were not significant differences between respondents from other countries.

However, with its heavy skew towards graduate-degree-holders, this survey did not reflect a representative swath of commuters. Additionally, feelings about working from home are likely influenced by school closures and other pandemic-related stressors, and could change under more normal times.

Some commuters hope to bike and walk more often

Another survey conducted in April also points to the possibility of less driving among a certain subset. Led by Arizona State University urban planning professor Deborah Salon, this questionnaire probed 800 workers across the U.S., many of them concentrated in Arizona and other western states.

Since it was largely distributed through ASU’s professional networks, Salon’s survey attracted a disproportionate number of people with graduate degrees, and transportation researchers specifically. Readers beware: “These people are weird,” said Salon, who is continuing the survey in hopes of attracting a nationally representative sample. Any U.S. resident can take it here.

Yet the initial responses may be telling. Compared to the 50% of respondents who said that they sometimes worked from home in the past, 68% said they foresaw working from home more often after lockdowns ease, at least part of the time. While that doesn’t reflect actual employer policy changes that might be coming, that 18% change could indicate that a significant number of people will be getting off the road, Salon said. She also believes it probably undercounts the size of the shift that could be coming.

Expected change in daily travel among respondents. (D. Salon, Deborah Salon, School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, Arizona State University, 2020)

Overall, the desire for “normalcy” is strong: Most respondents said they expected to see no change in their post-pandemic travel habits, no matter the modes. That included driving, which is how the vast majority of respondents previously got to work. Yet there were also signs of change: About 15% said they expected to rely less on shared modes such as public transit and ride-hailing, less than 10% said they expected to spend more time in the car, and about 20% said that they wanted to bike and walk more often.

Salon sees that as a promising sign for sustainability-minded planners. “A lot of cities are converting their streets to bike and pedestrian space as an emergency measure,” she said. “Maybe cities could take this as an opportunity to say hey, if we want to have more non-motorized travel, then maybe we could make some of those conversions permanent.”

Prepare for hellish traffic jams

City planning interventions like those might be all the more urgent for the U.S. if one non-peer-reviewed analysis led by Dan Work, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Vanderbilt University, is any indication.

Work and his colleagues measured what might happen to vehicle travel times, should the widely held assumption that people move away from public transit and shared rides come true. Using data from the American Community Survey for metropolitan areas where more than 5% of commuters ride transit, they plotted the historic relationship between average travel times and the number of vehicles on the road. They then projected how travel times would change depending on the number of people who shift to single-occupancy cars.  

Unsurprisingly, the basic law of traffic — the more people on the road, the more drawn-out the drive — held true, and to stunning effect for some areas. Dense cities such as New York and San Francisco that are more reliant on public transit and have lower capacity for vehicle traffic were much more sensitive to added cars, compared to more auto-oriented cities such as Los Angeles and Atlanta. For example, if just one in four transit and carpool commuters start to drive alone, San Francisco could witness a 20-minute increase in daily vehicle travel times. That shoots up to a 40-minute increase if three in four of those commuters switch.

Cities with strong transit usage are most at risk of travel-time spikes, which are shown as one-way commute times. (Y. Hu, W. Barbour, S. Samaranayake, D. Work, 2020. Impacts of Covid-19 mode shift on road traffic, Work Research Group.)

The analysis vividly illustrates the traffic-taming function that public transit provides in cities, as well as the importance of keeping buses and trains safe and available to riders in the future, Work said. Transit, as well as bicycling and walking, allows large numbers of people to move in a limited amount of space, unlike the alternative: “Road-building is an expensive proposition that doesn’t solve the underlying issue of high commute times in the long term,” he said.

Yet because this study was based on historic data alone, it does not account for two major coronavirus-era considerations: the possibility that large shares of commuters will now work from home, and that many millions of newly unemployed U.S. residents no longer have jobs to commute to. For them, the journey back to work could take longer than ever.