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.
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