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Getting To the Office Is the First Step In Going Back

How can we protect commuters and rebuild trust in our transportation systems?

News of promising vaccines means that sometime in 2021, workers will be headed back to the office. First they need to get there. Conversations around a return work must start with dialogue around commuting. Asking employees to give part of their day to travel to and from work will be a bigger ask than ever before. Keeping commuting safe and sustainable will be an even bigger challenge. 

Prior to the pandemic, the average American worker was spending 54 minutes commuting each day. Then there’s time spent getting ready for work, which is harder to define. Suffice to say, primping for a Zoom call is less time consuming than dressing out for a boardroom meeting. With no commute, workers are saving time and spending it working more. Americans’ commuting time dropped by 62.5 million hours each work day, amounting to 9 billion hours from March to September, according to a study published by the Becker Friedman Institute for Economics at the University of Chicago. Those hours saved commuting are enriching people’s lives and the companies they work for. Roughly 35 percent of time saved commuting is spent on primary jobs, The Wall Street Journal reports. In total, roughly 60 percent of the time saved is being spent on non-leisure activities like work, chores and childcare. Asking people to give back that time to the car or some form of mass transit will not be easy. 

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“During the pandemic, most customers are adopting the smartest commute possible; the one that doesn’t happen, ” RideAmigos Director of Customer Success Kathryn Hagerman said.

From an environmental perspective, working from home has been a boon. Data is still coming over the course of the year, varying by region and severity of lockdown. For example, the decline in daily CO2 emissions peaked at less than 20 percent in the largest economies during the period of sheltering and the cumulative reduction in global emissions was about 7 percent from January through April 2020, according to a study published in the leading scientific journal Nature. Experts caution that the reductions are only temporary. In fact, when normal work life returns, commuting could feasibly generate more emissions than before as workers seek safety in single occupancy vehicles avoiding the crowds of mass transit. That’s why it’s important to engage commuters now, so they have time to understand and adapt to new commuting routines. 

“There’s something called the fresh start effect. It’s the idea that when you’re in a moment of total change, it gives you an opportunity to rethink the way you do things,” Hagerman said. 

COVID has every industry rethinking operations from the ground up. Regaining public trust in commuting is the most important first step in workers returning to the office. Landlords and property managers will need to work closely with tenants to create a system for employees to return to offices safely.

Park Office’s recently released COVID Employee Transportation Playbook indicates property managers can start by increasing the availability of car parking facilities. Those two goals are at odds with each other. Increasing parking for bikes typically means removing spaces for cars if expanding the garage isn’t an option. Parking management software will be a short term solution for many. Some programs can increase parking availability by up to 40 percent, reducing carbon footprints with real-time availability trackers so drivers don’t have to circle for a spot. That same software can also help building owners and managers understand how their tenants’ new commuting habits, providing valuable data points regarding who is arriving or departing at what time. Single occupancy vehicle commuting will increase in popularity, threatening decades of hard fought gains in carpooling and other forms of more environmentally friendly forms of commuting. How much more parking will be needed will be a case by case basis for most landlords, depending on their tenant mix and location. Fewer workers will be coming into the office but a higher percentage will commute via single occupancy cars, creating conflicting impacts that facility managers will need to keep a close eye on. 

Getting To the Office

Other forms of commuter transit will play an important role but just how they’re going to be impacted isn’t as clear. 

Closed spaces, crowds and close contact inherent in mass public transit has raised questions during an airborne pandemic, but sophisticated contact-tracing efforts in countries like France, Austria, and Japan have failed to link any COVID-19 clusters to public transit, according to research from MIT Medical. There’s three important factors that contribute to the risk of infection on public transit: usage time, the amount of talking, and the level of ventilation. Though your morning commute can feel endless at times, being on public transit only represents a small portion of the average worker’s day. They’ll spend far more time at the office, at the gym or in a restaurant eating. Commuting isn’t exactly a social activity either, riders typically sit or stand quietly, engaged on their phone, with a book or in their thoughts. Thirdly, commuter cars tend to be better ventilated than most people imagine, continuously introducing fresh air into circulation. 

Still, the safest precaution to take is to wear a mask. Almost every major metropolitan mass transit system mandates riders wear facial covering, some, like NYC, have implemented fines for not wearing one. Public health messaging is now prominent across major transit networks, promoting good hygiene, social distance and mask usage. During a pandemic, nothing in public could be dubbed ‘safe’. That’s a relative term. Mass transit likely isn’t as safe as commuting by foot or by bike, but it likely is safer than other activities, like eating at a restaurant, according to experts. Public perception is likely to be the biggest challenge. A recent McKinsey report shows that less than 10 percent of people believe that shared micro-mobility, public transport, car sharing or ride sharing are safe methods of transport in a world with COVID. 

The short-term prospects for public transit remain bleak. Studies from Asian countries that have returned to a somewhat normal routine show cities can expect public transport demand to return to 60 to 80 percent of pre- lockdown volumes in the short- term. In the medium-term, most experts agree that staggered commuting will become more widespread. Long term, public transit will depend on how much of the workforce permanently shifts to working from home. 

Carpooling is the form of commuting that will likely see the biggest impact from COVID-19. Carpool operators report an 85 percent drop in activities. Hesitation towards carpooling may be misplaced. Unlike a taxi, rideshare or public transit, where you have no control over who you ride with or who they rode with, carpooling limits your pool of close contacts. Much like the ‘bubbles’ or ‘pods’ some families have formed with classmates and friends, a carpool can be a known risk, much easier to manage with people you trust. 

Commuting experts are hoping a cycling boom will make commuting by bike more popular. Bike sales are up so much that even the world’s largest manufacturer of bikes, Giant, is struggling to keep up. In response, cities around the world have renewed efforts to add hundreds of miles of bike lanes and cycling infrastructure. Many bike lanes, like extended dining in the street, may not be permanent. Some nations, like Italy and France, have even begun subsiding the cost of purchases and tune-ups. It’s still far too early to tell if a critical mass of Americans will see cycling as anything more than a pandemic leisure activity. Bike sharing and e-scooters will likely play a small role over short distances. The proliferation of e-bikes is an interesting opportunity for facility managers. E-bikes use electricity to go further and faster, increasing the commuting range for cyclists dramatically. A 5-mile ride on an e-bike is a breeze, allowing the rider to show up to work hardly breaking a sweat. E-bikes will likely need charging stations near bike racks. Unlike large infrastructure investments like e-car charging stations, e-bike stations are inexpensive, user friendly and easy to incorporate into existing cycling infrastructure. 

Also Read: Electricity 4.0 Will Change Buildings Forever

Getting To the Office

Every form of commuting will adapt to the pandemic, encouraging workers to take the first step towards coming back to the office. Office landlords, managers and occupants must have a clear understanding of how getting to and from work will mitigate risk. How many of the temporary changes to our commute will be permanent is a question only time can answer. 

“Transportation history is full of stories where something that was done temporarily turned out to be permanent, because people didn’t want to go back,” Jarrett Walker, an international transit consultant and author of Human Transit: How Clearer Thinking about Public Transit Can Enrich Our Communities and Our Lives, told National Geographic. 

A post-COVID world is the rapidly approaching light at the end of the tunnel. When the world returns to normal, our commute doesn’t have to. Rethinking commuting, if it’s even necessary at all, will ensure our new normal is better than the old normal.

Associate Editor

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