Will the Work-From-Home Period During Covid-19 Change our Commutes Forever?

Published Apr 27, 2020

My working station at home

My wonderful working station at home

An Unprecedented Field Experiment

When I am writing this post, I’ve been working from home for over a month and half. The Covid-19 pandemic led to an unprecedented large-scale field experiment — remote work for all. Many people, including our CEO, were wary about the potential productivity hit, especially for companies like ours that had little remote work experience. However, we are pleasantly surprised that we’ve been even more productive than before. It turned out that when working with a group of motivated and responsible people with a sense of purpose, you don’t need to worry about where they work, when they work, and how they work.

Work from home

I also hear from friends and from the news that many companies went through a similar process and came to realize that remote work was not such a bad idea at all. As a result, many people started to raise this question: Would it change our working mode forever? Further, what does it mean for our daily commutes and urban mobility in general?

All-In for One Mode

Although remote work is new for companies like ours, many people have adopted it for years with great results. One common theme, however, is that a mixture of on-site and remote within a same team won’t work. The async nature of remote communication often implicitly push people to work closer to the ones in the same physical space, who communicate in a synchronous mode. It’s hard to get the mixed mode right.

I do think that a fair amount of companies will learn from the lessons that many remote companies have gone through, and return to the normal on-site mode. On the other hand, we can also expect some companies to start shifting towards a permanent remote mode.

Hooray! This means that our daily commutes could be better since some people will travel less. Let’s assume that 50% of companies will allow their workers to spend 50% of their time remotely. This means only 75% of daily commuters will go to their offices, so we can expect 25% of traffic reduction in the future. Big relief!

Less traffic

Will our future traffic look like this?

Induced Demand

I am hopeful as well, but we are going to run into induced demand, which is our old friend mentioned in the last post. Once traffic becomes better, more people can afford to live further from work. As it stands today, there is no lack of desire to come to the bay area for work, but the sky-high cost of living is inhibiting the inflow of talents. If traffic becomes better, people can live a little further from work with similar amount of commute time. That means lower rents or mortgage payments. Gradually, more people will come, and the traffic will come back to its normal level.

The net effect? More people will be able to come to the area if many people are allowed to work from home. If 50% of all commuters can work from home, we can accommodate twice as many people to work here with similar commute time. And I bet we won’t have any trouble finding that many people who want to move here. The conclusion: do not expect our commutes to get any better in the long term, but enjoy having more talents from all over the US and the world to work alongside with you. Still very exciting, right?

Bird view of SF

SF, please come back to life soon!
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  • urban-mobility
  • induced-demand