It’s been a few years now, but I have stood among the commuters on the platform at Luton station. I travelled into the office in London a couple of days a week for several years. Before that I took the bus to work, like millions of other Londoners. It was the most normal thing in the world.
The current crisis has changed people’s daily habits in many ways, including the commute. And in future, it may not be quite so normal. More people than ever before are working from home – as much as 60% of Britain’s workforce during the height of the lockdown. The longer that pattern of work persists, the more likely it is that employers will shift their practices and try and make some savings. Offices may scale down in size or become more flexible. People will also change their expectations, and a quarter of those working from home at the moment report that they’d like to carry on, at least for some of the week. Working styles could change substantially, and the number of people commuting may never recover.
It won’t be a moment of ‘peak commuting’ though, for one simple reason: that has already happened.
The graph above is from a statistical bulletin on commuting trends, the latest one I could find. It shows trends between 1995 and 2015, and during that 20 year period, the number of commuting trips has fairly steadily declined. That’s despite growth in population and in the number of employees.
There are a number of reasons for this. The most important ones are more self-employed workers who don’t have a fixed workplace, and part time working and working from home have both increased. Various studies have found that younger employees expect greater flexibility than previous generations, and so the traditional 9 to 5 has been eroding for a while.
The current crisis will probably deliver a step change in what was already a downward trend, and this will bring a variety of environmental benefits. Commuting represents a quarter of Britain’s transport emissions, which have not declined in twenty years. If a significant number of people continue working from home, we may finally begin to make a dent in transport emissions.
At the same time, many people have shifted from public transport to cars because of the virus. That will skew the 2020 figures, and it makes it harder to predict transit patterns on the other side of the crisis – especially if some bus or train routes are forced to close because they become uneconomic.
Despite that uncertainty, the Coronavirus offers an opportunity to work with the trend and create more sustainable work and travel patterns. In the hierarchy of sustainable transport, the best journey is the one you don’t take at all, and so working from home is something that can be encouraged – rather than trying to coax, bribe, shame or even bully people back into the office.
Of course, working from home is very much a matter of personality and so it shouldn’t be prescriptive. For introverts, it’s a beautiful thing, while extroverts really struggle with it. As someone who’s right on the borderline between the two, I’ve found a good balance by dropping into a co-working space once or twice a week. I suspect that there may be increased demand for hot desks and co-working set-ups in future – somewhere that people can still have colleagues and a sense of community without having to travel to a central office in another town.
If there is a change in commuting, there will be benefits beyond the environment. I expect a lot of people would find more time in their lives, and less stress. There might even be a rise in volunteering and active citizenship as a result of a new time dividend. So while the coronavirus shake-up won’t be the moment of peak commuting, perhaps it will still mark a major shift towards healthier and more sustainable working practices.