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Stantec survey: How will commuting patterns change due to COVID-19?

July 09, 2020

By Rick Gobeille and Emily Raque

We asked our colleagues and our clients how they view their future commute. Here’s what they said:

It’s becoming increasingly clear that the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic will likely continue to be felt for a very, very long time. Some are saying there are aspects of the way we live that may never go back to the way they were.

One of the disruptions we are watching most closely is the change in travel and commute patterns. More people are able to work remotely than ever before—particularly those who work in professional services. Despite the ongoing digital divide in our society, many of us have (thankfully) been able to continue working while we stay safe and stay home. This raises the question: Will we keep doing this in the future? How often does our physical location matter in the work we do?

The answer varies by profession, location, employer preference, and a myriad of other factors that we’ll be looking at for months to come. But to start finding out where this trend might be headed, we asked our colleagues and our clients how their commutes might change in the future.

We had 3,552 people respond to our 5-minute travel behavior survey over a 5-week period between April 6th, 2020 and May 8th, 2020. To be clear, over 90% of responses were from Stantec employees, and the external responses were mostly from other professional services firms. In addition to being mostly office workers, the vast majority of respondents were also based in the United States.

While this isn’t a comprehensive societal sampling, it provides a snapshot of the segment of the population we belong to. Here’s what we learned about ourselves (and our clients).

Attitudes about working from home are shifting

One of the key things we looked at in our survey was work from home frequency before COVID-19, after the pandemic escalated, and how often respondents estimate they will work from home after a return to ‘normal’.

More than 90% of respondents indicated that they are working from home more than four days a week, which is no surprise. At Stantec, we mandated remote work for all of our employees before any North American government issued Stay at Home orders. That meant moving more than 19,000 people to remote work within a week to keep our staff safe and to reduce the spread of the virus.

It might not be surprising to hear that as more people work from home, they are becoming more open to continuing that behavior after the pandemic. Taking into account the self-reported frequencies in our survey, the average respondent may work from home about one additional day per week compared to their pre-COVID-19 behavior.

A valuable comparison in our data is between individuals’ pre-COVID-19 work from home frequency and their estimated post-COVID-19 work from home frequency. This indicates the general magnitude of long-lasting behavioral changes that impact commuting frequency. Before COVID-19, 77% of respondents said they work from home less than once a week, while only 40% of respondents said they would work from home less than one day a week after COVID-19.

The trend we’re seeing is that respondents who previously worked from home one day per week or less will be increasing that once things have settled back to ‘normal’. However, respondents who previously worked from home two days per week or more are likely to maintain their previous behavior.

For the foreseeable future, we expect to see continued disruptive mode shifts in peoples’ commuting patterns.

In the future, people may drive and take transit to work less frequently

From the answers we received, we can approximate that survey respondents will decrease the days they drive to work by 11% and decrease the number of days using transit by 19%. This will roughly translate to a similar drop in volume traveling by each mode—that’s an 11% decrease in cars on the road and a 19% decrease in transit riders on any given day.

We also noted that 29% of respondents who identified themselves as occasional or frequent transit users were expecting to decrease their use of transit in the future.

Suburban commuters may come into the city less frequently, with less transit trips overall

From the data we collected, the reduction in transit trips is greatest for people who live suburban and work urban (-24%). This suggests that respondents with longer transit commutes and other mode options for local trips will be reducing their transit behavior the most.

We saw that the biggest increase in working from home is also with people who live suburban and work urban (an increase of 3.7 days per month per person). It seems that longer commutes could be cut in favor of working from home. From what we heard, respondents who live and work in suburban areas showed the least change in all categories of behavior. This suggests that most long-term change is most likely to occur in and around urban areas.

So, what is the future of commuting?

It’s impossible to say if these attitudes will prevail over the long-term, or if our old habits will die harder than we might think. A major consideration will be the human touch: Can we effectively work with our colleagues and clients for long periods of time without personal contact? Or will the flexibility of being able to work remotely from literally anywhere make working outside of the office environment more appealing?

For the foreseeable future, we expect to see continued disruptive mode shifts in peoples’ commuting patterns. However, we expect that to vary considerably from city to city and region to region. Some questions we can ask to try to understand how things might be impacted are:

  • What is the employment profile of the regions? White collar professionals will be more likely to shift to remote work, while hospitality or trades don’t have that option
  • What is the transportation mix in the region? A dense, well-served transit center like New York City is likely to continue seeing less ridership and an increase in car traffic. A region without much transit might actually see less traffic on the roads as more people work from home
  • Why do people travel to the region? Are there popular spots for tourism? Will more people be taking road trips instead of flying for the foreseeable future, thereby contributing to additional congestion?

The fact is that all traffic is local and unique to local circumstances. The right answer in one region might not apply to another. Traffic is complex and the human factor is difficult to estimate, which is why we’ll be continuing this conversation over the coming weeks and months. Add your thoughts by taking our 5-minute travel behavior survey here.

In the end, the infrastructure we build is about supporting people. We must plan ahead to meet the needs of tomorrow.

  • Rick Gobeille

    An expert on the E-ZPass transportation system, Rick has a background in both engineering and IT.

    Contact Rick
  • Emily Raque

    A transportation planner, Emily assesses the safety, financial aspects, and operational benefits of roadway projects through data analysis and digital modeling.

    Contact Emily
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