A Little More Remote Work Could Change Rush Hour a Lot

A train at the Embarcadero station in San Francisco on July 1, 2020.  (Jim Wilson/The New York Times)
A train at the Embarcadero station in San Francisco on July 1, 2020. (Jim Wilson/The New York Times)

There is something uniquely awful about that time of day when there is no good way to get around. The car horns sound nastier as downtown traffic snarls. The elbows feel sharper on a jammed subway. The sight of red brake lights is soul-crushing when they lead on a highway all the way to the horizon.

Mere mention of it makes the body tense up: rush hour.

But for much of the pandemic, it vanished. Not only did people travel less over the past year, with schools closed, restaurants off-limits, and millions of workers unemployed or at home; they also traveled less in a very particular way. Rush hour peaks flattened, smoothing travel demand around cities across the country into a low-grade continuous flow, a Tuesday morning not so different from a Saturday afternoon.

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Traffic has begun to return as the economy has revived. But planners, transit agencies and researchers are now considering the remarkable possibility that in many places it won’t revert to its old shape amid newfound work flexibility.

About a third of workers in the U.S. hold jobs that economists say could be done remotely. Suppose many of them worked from home one day a week, or opted occasionally to read email in their bathrobes before heading in. Overall, we’d be talking on a given day about a decline of a few percentage points in peak commuting trips — a small number, but a big deal during the most painful parts of the day.

At this stage of the pandemic, it can feel as if much of life is hurtling back to old form — many of us will still be in the same job, the same city, the same home at the other end of all this. But the pandemic doesn’t have to radically change the future of work to make the decades-old problem of the peak commute perceptibly less miserable; a modest number of people working from home on a Thursday might do it.

That’s because roadway congestion is nonlinear. Each additional car doesn’t necessarily contribute equally to making traffic worse. Approaching a tipping point, a few more cars can strangle a highway. Similarly, removing a small share can unclog congestion.

Your discomfort on transit is nonlinear, too: Until all the seats are gone, more passengers don’t affect you much. But once the aisle starts to fill up, every new body erodes your personal space and compounds chaos at the boarding door.

Transportation researchers have observed the benefits of marginal changes in commute behavior on Jewish holidays, when most employers remain open but a small share of commuters stays home. In Washington, D.C., compressed schedules and telework policies for federal workers had created noticeably saner traffic on Friday mornings. On the region’s Metrorail, peak ridership before the pandemic was consistently 10% to 15% lower on Fridays than midweek.

New routines emerging from the pandemic could re-create this dynamic on a broader scale.

Fundamentally, rush hour is the constraint around which many people have structured their lives: where to live, which job to take, what grocery store to use, when to eat family dinner. Deborah Salon, professor at Arizona State University, remembers how it shaped her father’s choices in suburban New York.

“He organized his whole life around this,” she said. “He had chosen his home location specifically so that it was an uncongested drive to an express train to New York. I didn’t appreciate until I started studying transportation how genius this was.” He had a clear 15-minute drive to the origin station of the shortest express line into Manhattan. So he always had a seat. “It’s crazy how good that was for him,” Salon said.

But consider a universe where more people don’t have to time their lives to the rhythm of rush hour — and where whole cities aren’t so preoccupied by what to do about it.

The peak is the point

Rush hour is the principal obsession of transportation planning in America. We widen highways to accommodate it, and measure whether those highways are worth their vast expense by the minutes and seconds saved in peak travel time. We buy rail cars and buses for the busiest times of day, then run them empty in the opposite direction and leave many unused in off-hours.

“So much of the central paradigm of transportation planning for the last two to three generations has been, ‘How do we make the peak of the peak suck less?’” said Christopher Forinash, principal with transportation planning firm Nelson\Nygaard.

Americans have effectively built whole transportation systems around the 1%, he said — not the 1% of the rich, but the 1% of time when travel is at its worst.

Although, to be clear, these are related: Systems designed for peak travel are really designed for the more affluent, said Charles T. Brown, CEO of Equitable Cities, a planning and research firm. It’s disproportionately white-collar office workers, working in the central city and living in outlying neighborhoods or suburbs, who travel at these times.

If peak demand does ease in a lasting way, that could affect how we build infrastructure and how transit agencies spend money — two provocative possibilities as Congress considers this summer a major infrastructure bill and the reauthorization of federal transportation programs.

Lower peaks could mean more space on city streets for bike lanes and more equitable bus service, with more off-hours resources available for essential workers. It could mean improved traffic in urban cores, even as afternoon traffic worsens in suburbia.

Around metro Dallas, Los Angeles, Chicago and New York, data from smartphones and navigation devices collected by the company StreetLight Data has shown a pronounced drop in the morning peak, and then a spreading of the old afternoon peak as remote workers trade traditional commutes for more local trips to the coffee shop or grocery store.

Among car trips in, out and around cities — excluding travel within the suburbs — rush hour peaks have notably shifted around Washington, Atlanta and Seattle, even as they have inched back to normal in some other cities, according to anonymized GPS data from INRIX, analyzed for The New York Times by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Most miles driven in personal vehicles aren’t work commutes; nor are most trips on transit. But that travel has dominated transportation planning precisely because it has made for such unyielding demand spikes.

“They’ve been recession-proof, they’ve been congestion-proof, they’ve even been weatherproof,” said Lynn Bowersox, a senior vice president with the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. Even when the federal government has late starts or early closings for snowstorms, “people don’t stagger their travel,” she said. “The peak just moves.”

Many big ideas in transportation involve trying to dislodge people from the peak. That’s the premise of congestion pricing, variable-priced toll lanes and higher peak-hour transit fares. It’s why local governments have “transportation demand management” programs that try to coax commuters to take up bike-share or varied work hours.

Telework has long been a tantalizing part of this picture, and there have been moments when it seemed to help. Patricia Mokhtarian was hired as a planner in the early 1980s by the Southern California Association of Governments to see if telework could help the region unstrangle itself for the 1984 Olympics. A coordinated effort to keep people off the roads did calm traffic during the Games.

Mokhtarian, now a professor at Georgia Tech who has studied telecommuting ever since, has watched as workers have responded to all kinds of disruptions: earthquakes, bridge collapses, Sept. 11, the Beltway Sniper, the SARS pandemic in Asia. “But after more or less each one,” she said, “it was back to normal.”

People revert to their routines (or the ones their bosses want from them). And induced demand kicks in: Commuters see a newly uncongested highway, and they shift back their behavior — from transit to cars, from off-peak hours to peak, from local roads to expressways — and fill it right back up again.

Mokhtarian expects that her own 3-mile commute through Atlanta to Georgia Tech — 15 minutes during calm times; twice that at rush hour — will look different after the pandemic. She’ll work from home maybe one day a week, perhaps spend mornings there and afternoons in the office. But she suspects within two years she may be back to her old five-day-a-week drive.

“In the long run, or the medium run,” she said, “I’m betting on congestion.”

Is telework different this time?

The coronavirus pandemic, however, is no two-week Olympics, no localized earthquake. It has lasted so long that people have discovered new preferences and lost the muscle memory of old routines.

We know that the longer disruption lasts, the more likely it is that long-term changes in society follow, said Giovanni Circella, a transportation researcher at the University of California, Davis. Disruption can also prove more lasting, he said, when it intensifies existing trends than when it creates entirely new ones. And the most notable trend in commuting for the last generation has been the steady rise of telework.

“Transportation historically has changed very slowly,” said Steven Polzin, a former senior adviser for research and technology at the federal Department of Transportation. What we’re talking about now “is dramatic relative to the pace of change we’ve seen.”

In 1980, about 2.3% of workers said they usually telecommuted, according to census data. By 2018, it was 5.7% . Now researchers are projecting that share could double or more effectively overnight.

Salon, who has conducted national surveys over the past year with colleagues at Arizona State and the University of Illinois at Chicago, finds that the share of workers who expect to telecommute at least a few times each week is double what it was pre-pandemic. That’s a large increase in telecommuting, she said, without a large increase in people doing it full time.

Researchers at the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México, Stanford and the University of Chicago predict that 20% of post-pandemic workdays will be done at home. Much has changed to encourage that shift, they say: The stigma of remote work has disappeared; workers and employers have sunk major investments into it; and the technology that enables it keeps improving.

Still, it’s not as if teleworkers will vanish from transportation networks. Some who drive to work only part of the week may move farther out, resulting in fewer but longer commutes. Part-time telework preferences may mean that Monday and Friday congestion eases, but that midweek still looks the same.

In cities where a larger share of workers once relied on transit, there’s a greater chance of transit riders shifting to cars, offsetting some of the gains on roadways from telework. That’s a fear in Chicago, said Erin Aleman, executive director of the Metropolitan Agency for Planning there.

Teleworkers who used to commute by transit are also likely to find that small side trips they once took by foot or transit downtown — to lunch, to a meeting, to the pharmacy — require car trips in the suburbs. Or it’s possible some teleworkers will decide they don’t like having to get in the car for every errand, creating demand for more suburban amenities within walking distance. As David King, a professor at Arizona State, put it: “If I’m spending more time in my neighborhood, I’m going to demand a better neighborhood.”

Even if we’ll all be back to pre-pandemic behavior within two years, the interim offers an opportunity to rethink how we invest in transportation, Circelli suggested.

“The cost of serving peak demand is very, very high, both in the roadway business, and in the transit business,” said Ellen Greenberg, deputy director for sustainability at the California Department of Transportation.

“If the peak really shifts, and there really is a flattening of the curve,” she said, “from my perspective that would warrant reexamination of many of our projects.”

Every hour is rush hour for someone

The most obvious beneficiaries of all this would be telecommuters liberated from rush hour. That’s not hourly restaurant workers, late-shift janitors or nursing aides.

But the full promise of less spiky travel is that it could help them, too. That would happen if transit agencies were more focused on all-day service, or if infrastructure dollars weren’t heavily spent on highways that pollute poorer neighborhoods so rush-hour commuters can pass through.

“We should not design a system around the most privileged of our populations,” said Brown, of Equitable Cities. “If we are truly about servicing demand, COVID-19 showed who demanded it most.”

Early in the pandemic in San Francisco, transit officials scrapped service on many lines to focus on where essential workers travel. In Washington, the transit authority has begun to restore late-night service on many bus routes well before old schedules return on rush-hour trains.

In New York, subway ridership during the worst days of the pandemic last April effectively had no peak at all. “It was just almost a straight line, a depressing kind of straight line,” recalled Patrick Foye, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority chairman. But demand never fell as much among bus riders, a reflection of passengers with essential jobs who often have odd hours and few alternatives to get around.

“Those who are most reliant also are the folks who are trying to literally go to their dialysis appointments,” said Stephanie Gidigbi Jenkins, who works on federal policy at the Natural Resources Defense Council and is a member of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority’s board. “We totally forget who really is most dependent on our transit system.”

In Cleveland, the transit authority cut downtown rush hour service early in the pandemic and halted express bus routes from suburban park-and-rides. But it didn’t cut service through neighborhoods where officials believed more workers, including hospital staff, had in-person duties.

“Do we have the heart to say after they’ve worked 12 hours to serve the community that now when they walk out to their bus, they’re going to have to wait almost an hour before the bus can pick them up?” said Joel B. Freilich, director of service management for the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority.

In 2019, the agency planned improvements to off-peak service, now rolling out this month. The pandemic further confirmed for officials, Freilich said, that every hour is rush hour for someone.

In larger regional transit agencies, these decisions will be more fraught.

“Inside almost every transit agency, inside its politics, inside its decision-making, there’s this inevitable conflict between the suburban commuter interest who’s trying to get out of congestion, who’s very focused on the problem of peak congestion, and then there’s the interest of people trying to get around all day,” said Jarrett Walker, a transportation consultant who led the planning for the Cleveland changes.

But there are other ways in which everyone’s interests better align in a world where travel peaks aren’t so sharp. Less congested city streets could mean faster bus travel, more space for cyclists, and more humane commutes for the people who still drive.

And if all of this means some lower-income transit riders shift to driving on roads that are no longer quite so terrible?

“You know what?” said Forinash, the Nelson\Nygaard planner. “That’s OK.”

That might improve their lives, too.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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