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Will we still commute after the pandemic?

Even before the pandemic, researchers had identified that crowded public transport accelerated transmission for respiratory diseases such as influenza.


IN THE advanced economies, the novel coronavirus pandemic is likely to accelerate long-term structural changes in the location of work and accommodation and the transport systems that link them.

But the rate of change will be tempered by enormous inertia in real estate and transit systems to accommodate a widespread shift in work from central cities to the suburbs and secondary cities.

While many executives and professionals can afford to live in central areas of large cities so as to take advantage of networking opportunities and cultural facilities, most workers are forced to live in suburbs and satellite communities, where housing is cheaper. Over the last three decades, improvements in communications technology - including email, instant messaging and cheap video-conferencing - have made remote working more feasible, even for service sector firms which rely on contact between colleagues and between suppliers and customers.

In Britain, the proportion of the workforce working remotely had been increasing steadily, albeit from a low base. Even before the coronavirus pandemic, 5 per cent of Britain's workforce was working mainly from home, showed a 2019 survey by the office of National Statistics. Twelve per cent of respondents said they had worked from home at least one day during the week prior to the survey.

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Full-time and part-time home working was most common in the traditional commuter regions of London and the South East, as well as among older and more senior workers, and those in the highest-paid occupations. The implication is that working from home - at least part of the time - to reduce or avoid commuting was desirable, and many more would have liked the option if it were available. More widespread use was held back by stigma, with remote working seen as a privilege reserved for high-status individuals and experienced workers nearing the end of their careers.

Enforced working from home for many office employees during the pandemic, however, has proved it is technically feasible and has lowered the barriers to its social acceptability, which is likely to speed up more widespread adoption.

London's workers spent an average of one hour and 32 minutes travelling to and from work every day in 2019, compared with an average of just under one hour in the rest of the country. Like other megacities, London relies on public transport to shuttle millions of workers between the centre and periphery as well as satellite towns. Before the pandemic, two-thirds of inner London's workers used public transport to get to work, compared with just 15 per cent in secondary cities and less than 10 per cent in the rest of the country.

Public transport is far more energy-efficient than private cars, which helps explain why London's per-capita energy consumption for transport is less than half of that in other regions of Britain. Nonetheless, commuting still imposes a heavy penalty in terms of fares, energy consumption and time absorbed, as well as impacting adversely on physical and mental health. Even before the pandemic, researchers had identified that crowded public transport accelerated transmission for respiratory diseases such as influenza.

Increased remote working implies a reduction in the need for central offices and their ancillary services, with a partially offsetting increase in demand for working space in the suburbs, secondary cities and rural areas. Much of this increased work space will be located inside dwellings, translating into pressure for bigger homes with more rooms, often further from megacity centres.

The principal constraint on the more widespread use of remote working is likely to come from the relative inflexibility of the real estate and transport systems. In the short and medium term, therefore, the increased demand for working from home outside central cities will have to be met from an existing housing stock that is essentially fixed.

Commercial real estate faces a similar problem. There is an emerging oversupply of work space and services space in central cities, with not enough in other areas. Conversions to non-commercial use in central areas and the construction of more space in other areas will take years.

The pandemic and enforced working from home have shown the potential for a revolutionary shift in the location of work, but the great inertia of real estate and transport systems may delay much of the shift. REUTERS

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