As more companies weigh reopening workplaces around the country following shutdowns due to the COVID-19 pandemic, another question arises: how will workers get to their offices? Ridership on public transportation is down around the country: Illinois’ Metra train system has seen a 97% decline since the crisis began; New York City ridership increased in the middle of June, but is still down 74%; and in San Francisco, the SFMTA stopped all rail service due to a significant decrease in ridership since March. Looking ahead, people fear getting back on crowded trains and buses will transmit the disease. As a result many employees [paywall] are expressing a preference to work in remote locations or suburban offices.
In a recent Salesforce interview with Alexander Quinn, director of research for Northern California at commercial real estate company Jones Lang Lasalle (JLL), he noted ridership is down because more than 50% of the population is uncomfortable with the commute. Quinn, who specializes in real estate development, economic forecasting, and urban regeneration, says that's going to curtail the amount of employees that can come back until we have a meaningful vaccine. Companies, too, don't want to be associated with creating additional employee risk.
A recent global survey, conducted by Salesforce, where 1,012 respondents from the U.S., working across a range of industries like healthcare, manufacturing, retail, and financial services were polled, supports Quinn’s point. Nearly one-third of all polled across four age groups said they had major concerns about commuting, while a third had moderate concerns.
Quinn noted suburban office environments are a nice solution because you don't have the elevator constraints you do in the city, adding that suburban office buildings tend to have fewer floors, so people can walk upstairs instead of waiting for an elevator.
Population density is also lower in suburban areas and people often drive or bike to work, reducing the fear of being stuck in a crowded environment on the way to work. Interestingly, pre-COVID, three-fourths of all U.S. respondents to Salesforce’s survey, of which more than half of millennials and Gen Z workers and 44% of Gen X live in urban areas where parking can be scarce, commuted to work alone by car, versus about 11% on public transportation. Post pandemic, those numbers drop slightly with three-quarters planning to commute by car and just less than 10% by public transit. Almost half of the Americans surveyed say their proximity between home and work will be an important factor in their willingness to brave the commute to get back into an office. Just a few more data points supporting the fact that getting back to work in a suburban area is going to be a lot more attractive in the near term.
Will crowded subways become a thing of the past?
[Photo: Flickr/R1ku Exposures]
The rise in bicycle ownership across the country and in Europe will also be a determinant to consider when gauging the viability of urban office work. London, for example, is making a massive investment in bicycle infrastructure so people can arrive to work by bicycle versus public transportation. And there are other places like San Francisco that have rolled out "slow streets" programs, allowing for less vehicle traffic and more space for people to walk and bike.
While there’s intention to put more bikes on the road, Salesforce’s survey shows ridership remaining flat with 1% of commuters using bikes pre- and post-pandemic. It’s safe to assume that if cities invest more in creating a friendly infrastructure for bike commutes, it could have a positive impact on the viability of urban office work in the immediate future.
That said, 14% of U.S. respondents — up from 10% pre-COVID — say they’ll carpool or use a rideshare to return to work. There’s more comfort in traveling with fewer people versus using crowded public transportation. Employers that are able to coordinate ride sharing of some sort will have an advantage in the immediate future. However, when looking even further down the line as more people stay closer to home, city planners look to widening sidewalks and adding more protected bike lanes to accommodate for more people biking and walking.
Quinn also sees professionals bifurcating on their eagerness to return to office spaces based on the exact style of work they do. Professional business services, like accounting, marketing and design, and technology firms, don’t necessarily need to be back into the office as readily. However, those dealing primarily with clients like sales, or legal teams working on a case together, likely want to be in the office. Quinn adds that to reduce intellectual property theft, people will want to gather in offices to help shield innovation.
Regardless of industry, according to the survey, the majority of the workforce doesn’t want to return to full-time office life. A little over half of the workforce says it wants to return to office at least part time and almost one-third of those surveyed are seeking out a hybrid model between work from home (WFH) and being in an office.
So, as workers start to return to offices, no matter how slowly that may happen, people have made it clear they aren’t yet willing to pack into crowded buses and trains. And to combat congestion on highways and city streets, we may start seeing an increase in bike commuting, which will force cities to create more efficient and safe roads we will all have to share.
COVID-19 may reframe where we work
[Photo: Flickr/Steve Lange]
“People are declaring the death of the office,” says Quinn. “And this reminds me of the period after 9/11, when a lot of people said, ‘We're not going to build tall buildings anymore.’”
He adds there’s a human tendency to make radical statements about the changes we foresee in our built environment based on traumatic experiences like 9/11 and this pandemic we are all going through.
The reality is probably somewhere in the middle. There will be some folks willing to accept a suburban office environment in the long term. On the flip side, over the last decade we've seen increased congestion in urban settings, because these are considered knowledge centers. Knowledge centers are really what's important in the new economy. How do you replicate that in a suburban environment? It's very difficult. [Many tech companies] moved into San Francisco because that's where the knowledge sector wanted to live. They wanted to meet their best skill set in San Francisco.
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Thumbnail [Photo: Flickr/John]