The remote work mystery deepens—traffic is worse than ever but offices are sitting empty

It’s hard to ignore the fact that almost no one is in their office as much as they used to be. Indeed, just 5% of workers worked entirely from home before the pandemic. For over two years, offices can’t really outperform half fullAnd more than a third workers who can work from home do so at any time. One of the most commonly cited benefits of working outside the office is that it avoids commuting, which can be extremely costly at times. financially and in terms of time.

But in a Wednesday blog posteconomic blogger Kevin Drum, formerly of Mother Jones, digging into a new mystery: Somehow, commuter traffic is just as bad as it was before the pandemic. With empty offices and millions fewer people commuting during work hours, how is this possible?

Last year, Axios analyzed 2021 TomTom Traffic Index and determined that commuter congestion was building month over month after dropping when the pandemic first hit. A researcher behind the traffic index, which mines hundreds of millions of GPS signals, said that despite remote working, rush hour would “slowly return”.

This slow drip has become inevitable. Drum pointed to traffic data from 2021 – the era of remote work – in a notoriously auto-centric Los Angeles; it was down just 6% from 2019, according to the state Department of Transportation. Things are not much better in other major cities. According to TomTom Traffic Index data, the time spent in traffic jams in the morning and evening is rushing Atlanta, ChicagoAnd Miami all increased between 2021 and 2022, along with fuel prices and tolls.

This follows, given that traffic jams worsen in 2022, although it remains below pre-pandemic levels. This trend continued this year; Drum cited national data from the Office of Highway Policy Information, which shows that interstate urban travel has roughly doubled since 2020, exactly where it was in 2019.

Naturally, this is confusing. “Despite empty offices, rush hour traffic jams are back, with key streets leading in and out of our city centers clogged again,” says Martin Morzynski, senior vice president of marketing at the business analytics firm. Streetlight traffic, in the preface to the company’s 2023 report.Downtown Congestion Post-COVID» trend report. This rush hour congestion is a little different in the post-pandemic world.

Rush hour becomes rush hour hours

Streetlight’s report found that the share of peak-hour traffic fell from 10.3% at the start of 2019 to 9.8% at the start of 2022, but the authors question why the drop is not greater. As they point out, post-pandemic car travel is now much closer to home, away from city centers. “Miles traveled are still down about 27% in the downtown areas of our largest cities,” the report reads, and some data suggests that congestion in large city centers is “returning faster than kilometers traveled in certain cities, and that rush hours could change. as part of our new normal.

Despite the unexplained resurgence of rush-hour congestion, according to their research, it has flattened slightly as people’s schedules have become more flexible and they have been given more leeway in their schedules – traffic accumulates later than before and returns more quickly during off-peak hours. .

Indeed, Axios’ Analysis of TomTom data found that, rather than “killing” rush hour in America, remote working actually ended up spreading traffic throughout the day. In some cities, this looked like a “late morning congestion peak” around 11 a.m., and an early evening congestion peak around 4 p.m.

“Congestion is not caused by overall traffic volumes, but by peak hour volumes,” read a recent National Library of Medicine article. report entitled “Rush hour and a half: traffic expands after confinement”. It found that even if traffic matches pre-pandemic levels – which, based on all the data above, it essentially does – the “distribution differences” are what’s key. “Traffic flow is highly non-linear. A slight reduction in peak demand on a congested road can result in a considerable reduction in traffic congestion.

“Volatility and variability”

Whether drivers will once again find themselves wasting hundreds of hours a year behind the wheel is “a considerable mystery,” as Drum puts it, and it will only make them even more perplexing. Some experts say that offices never reaches 60% capacity again. While fully remote work is in decline, it has fallen to a minimum of 26% last month, but the prevailing approach in most companies is still to allow out-of-office work at least a few days a week. (The best approach is “curated hybrid,” experts say, which ensures workers don’t rush through a commute to show up for an appointment. empty office.)

But hybrid schedules can actually make traveling easier longer than traditional work configurations, hence the shift in peak hours.

Last year, David Schrank, a senior research scientist at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, say it Washington Post that commuters could expect to see “volatility and variability” on the road until the country comes to some sort of agreement on how and when they will make their trips. “We’re all going to face increased variability in our travel because we don’t know if it’s a day where everyone else is going too,” he said.

The irritating mystery recalls a recent comment from Jake Wood, CEO of corporate philanthropy company Groundswell, on having to work in an office. “I can understand the employee’s point of view, but I think something critical is missing: It’s not just about you,” Wood wrote on LinkedIn, referring to workers who insist on working from home. “You may be able to complete your work on time and to standard in a remote environment. But what about your colleagues? In the absence of your presence, leadership and mentoring, can they thrive? »

Now the question could be reversed: coming to the office isn’t just about you either, but also about other motorists who can’t work remotely praying you choose to stay home.

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