Guest Op-Ed: Preparing Transit for the Future of Work

The scale and speed of the transformation in the nature of work caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented. Remote work, which has existed in some form or another since at least the 1950s, grew rather slowly over recent decades, defying the optimistic predictions of academics and professionals. In retrospect, the only thing missing was a catalyst, which finally arrived in 2020. Just 5 percent of worked hours in the United States were remote in 2018, but this share is expected to be 28 percent of all worked hours after the pandemic subsides, a remarkable fourfold increase in a very short time.

For these trends can only be estimated, not observed; despite widespread vaccination in the United States, the pandemic remains a public health concern. While there are indications that office-based work is returning in some sectors, many employers have yet to do so. Indeed, we are in a rare liminal moment between two different eras with a brief opportunity to ensure that the so-called “Future of Work” is also the future of sustainable and equitable mobility. Public transit is the backbone of a sustainable and equitable mobility system, therefore adapting transit policies and practices to accommodate the societal shift towards flexible work should be one of the main priorities for the transportation community.

Challenges are plentiful, however. This societal shift is not a simple magnification of existing trends, with a bit less traffic during rush hour and a few more virtual meetings, but rather a wholesale reconfiguration of the mobility ecosystem. Moreover, the long-term direction and magnitude of remote work impacts on travel demand are entirely uncertain. Unfortunately, modern transit systems, many of which are designed primarily to serve stable commuting trips, are accustomed to gradual and predictable ridership fluctuations and therefore need to rethink their approach to transit planning.

First, public transit agencies must embrace uncertainty. The academic community has focused (justifiably) on estimating the overall levels of remote work, but it remains unclear where and with whom people will spend their remote working hours. “Remote work” has become synonymous with “working from home” due to pandemic-related restrictions and concerns about sharing space with other people, but there are plenty of compelling alternatives, each with their own implications for transportation. Why sit at home alone when you could work from a friend’s house and catch up over lunch? Or perhaps your professional association will host a remote work drop-in event at a local co-working space to encourage networking and collective problem solving. Ongoing monthly surveys conducted by our lab at MIT and collaborators from Stanford, the University of Chicago, and ITAM suggest that workers would prefer to spend a third of their remote working hours at a “third place”, e.g. a non-work, non-home location (see Figure 1). How these dynamics will manifest in the demand for public transit in different urban areas, and how the dynamics will evolve over time, is uncertain.

Figure 1: Remote work location preferences among employed U.S. adults

Source: Survey of Workplace Arrangements and Attitudes (n = 12,958)

As many agencies begin to restore service that was cancelled during the pandemic, emphasis should be placed on delivering routes and schedules that can be adjusted quickly to capture the new demand patterns of remote workers. Peak-hour demand for service to the central business district is likely to be reduced, which will allow resources to be diverted to other locations and time periods. Pilot routes should be introduced to connect residential areas with one another, encouraging remote workers to use transit for social trips or third spaces rather than driving. Sections of certain routes may show a sustained lack of demand due to shifts in commuting patterns; opportunities for short-turning or stop-skipping to deliver more frequent service along high-demand corridors should be identified in advance. Roadway congestion may emerge in locations where it did not previously exist; agencies should track running times closely and be prepared to install transit priority measures quickly to ensure that headway reductions due to rising delays are avoided.

Transit agencies must also embrace variability. Many employers have enacted hybrid work policies, where employees work from home two or three days per week. Since remote work is generally more popular on Mondays and Fridays, there could be significant variation in travel demand across weekdays. Transit planners should explore the possibility of implementing daily schedules for improved alignment with supply with demand, and how to communicate differences to the public and their operators.

Uncertainty and variability are not easily managed. New approaches will require additional resources, strong leadership, and organizational flexibility. The White House has spent much of its first year in office promoting a “Build Back Better” framework. What better way to build back better after a global pandemic than to seize this unique opportunity—a disruption in commuting patterns across much of society—to promote transit as the best option for hybrid and remote workers ?

The views expressed above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Eno Center for Transportation. 

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