Commuting is back — but not as we knew it

Pandemic predictions that the daily journey to work would die off are greatly exaggerated

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Tokyo’s commuters are packing trains again — but they have slightly more room to breathe. In Mexico City, increasing numbers are heading to work by bus, car and underground. And rush hours are picking up in cities from London to Berlin to Milan.

Pandemic predictions of the death of the commute were greatly exaggerated, according to Financial Times analysis of transit data.

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Mandatory returns to the office, restoration of normal public transport services, and, perhaps, a determination on the part of some pandemic-scarred workers to pursue business as usual, have prompted a gradual revival. But with many professionals no longer obliged to attend their workplace daily, the way people slog to work and back is still in flux, posing challenges to policymakers and transport authorities and lifestyle choices for workers themselves.

The Financial Times analyzed travel patterns in 10 big cities around the world. Commuting to all these cities has recovered since lockdowns prompted sharp drops in the second and third quarters of 2020. But the depth of the decline — and the speed and extent of recovery — have varied, depending on the cost and length of the journey, available space at home, corporate culture, and even national character.

Commuting is back — but not as we knew it.


The bounce back

Until October 2022, Alphabet Inc.’s Google published figures based on its users’ movement through transit stations and places of work. It still amounts to the best globally comparable proxy for commuting habits through the pandemic years.

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The FT’s analysis of Google’s snapshot of mobility in October 2020, 2021 and 2022 shows the partial recovery experienced by Tokyo, Paris and the City of London was replicated in Berlin, Milan, and Manhattan. In Seoul, as early as October 2020, more people were using transit stations on Mondays, Tuesday and Wednesdays than before the pandemic.

Of the 10 selected cities, the most consistent recovery in commuter traffic has happened in Mexico City. Use of the city’s transit stations and visits to workplaces were up on all days of the week in October 2022, compared with the baseline of early 2020, according to the Google data.

Commuters exit a train in Mexico City.
Commuters exit a train in Mexico City. The most consistent recovery in commuter traffic has happened in Mexico City. Photo by Christian Rodriguez/Bloomberg

In the U.K. capital, more recent data from Transport for London (TfL), the authority running the city’s bus, rail and underground Tube system, reports a continuing recovery, but one that is still mostly short of pre-COVID peaks. Tube use is below the 2019 baseline: mid-week journeys this month are running at 18 or 19 per cent below levels five years ago.

In Paris, the traditional rhythm of “métro-boulot-dodo” (subway-work-sleep) has faltered. Latest figures on Métro use from the mayor’s office show that in 2022 there were 1.34 billion trips, nearly double the low of 753 million in 2020 but well short of the 2018 peak of 1.56 billion. None of the commuter lines, such as the RER, has recovered to pre-pandemic levels.

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New habits

While commuting is returning, the way in which people travel to and from work is changing.

In New York, for example, people living close enough to Manhattan are dropping into their office for shorter periods, then working remotely, rather than commuting into the city for the whole working day, according to the Regional Plan Association (RPA), an economic and environmental think tank for the New York-New Jersey-Connecticut area.

Mitchell Moss, a New York University professor specializing in urban policy and planning, says “people are going further out or coming closer in.” Commuters are favouring longer, but less frequent commutes, or shorter hops into Manhattan offices. That has meant some traditional suburbs that fall between the two are lagging economically, while closer boroughs, such as Brooklyn and Queens, or parts of New Jersey, thrive.

People exit a subway car at a Manhattan subway station on March 18, 2024 in New York City.
People exit a subway car at a Manhattan subway station on March 18, 2024 in New York City. Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The goal of the Metropolitan Transport Authority, which runs the New York subway, is to hit 80 per cent of pre-pandemic traffic by the end of 2026, against current mid-week usage of about 70 per cent.

Carlo Ratti and colleagues at MIT have analyzed GPS data for millions of movements across the United States, confirming that people are travelling less far from their homes, consistent with more remote working. The trend is more pronounced for higher-income workers, while lower paid employees’ mobility patterns have barely altered.

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Ratti, an architect, engineer and urban planning expert, says the research has also detected a more flexible approach to commuting, with some shifts in the timing of journeys. “That’s good news (for cities), because the problem is not a problem of capacity, it’s a problem of peaks,” he said.

The problem is not a problem of capacity, it’s a problem of peaks

Carlo Ratti

In Milan, where the typical commute is as short as 10 or 20 minutes, the return to normal patterns seems to have been faster than elsewhere. In the Italian business capital, the Google data shows transit station use was down by as little as 10 per cent on Tuesdays in October 2022, against a drop of 31 per cent in Manhattan on the same day.

Culture

Corporate — and national — culture is shaping the commuter revival. Research by Cevat Aksoy, associate director of research at the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, shows that more individualistic countries, such as the U.K. or U.S., exhibit higher rates of working from home.

U.K. bosses have certainly needed to exert more overt pressure to persuade staff to submit to generally longer commutes into London. In October 2022, Google data suggests City of London workplace footfall was still down by between 23 per cent (on Thursday) and 34 or 35 per cent (on Friday and Monday, respectively) against early 2020 figures.

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Similarly, in Sydney, where October 2022 levels of office work and transit use were generally as low as Manhattan and the City of London, a recovery since then has been influenced by more aggressive attitudes among employers. In November last year, The Australia and New Zealand Banking Group Ltd., one of Australia’s largest banks, warned staff they could be paid lower bonuses unless they spent half their work hours in the office.

The rigid South Korean corporate culture and work ethic have brought more workers back to old commuting habits. “Because of the strong community-oriented collectivism, (companies) prefer to see employees work in person,” said Son Youn-Jung, a researcher at Korea Labour Institute. “The culture is like you can’t trust your workers if they are not seen in the workplace. More trust of workers is needed to expand remote work and flex time.”

Commuters in Seoul on Sept. 15, 2020.
Commuters in Seoul on Sept. 15, 2020. The rigid South Korean corporate culture have brought more workers back to old commuting habits. Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

Only 3.1 per cent of salaried workers in South Korea were working from home as of last August, up from 0.5 per cent in 2019, though below 2021’s 5.4 per cent, according to the national statistics body.

But some of those who still have the option of hybrid work now question the need to commute. Choi Yeon, a 32-year-old employee of a U.S. chemical company, goes to her office in Seoul’s bustling Gangnam business district only once a week, while working from home in the suburbs for the remainder. “I can save two hours wasted on the street every day. Working from home is more efficient as I can concentrate better,” she said. “If they force me to come to the office every day, I don’t think I can continue to work there.”

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Tokyo’s iron-willed commuters are also returning — but not in the same numbers as before the pandemic.

The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism publishes a five-stage explanation of how congestion is measured, much of it related to the ease or difficulty with which commuters can digest reading material. A 100 per cent congestion rate means all seats are taken and each strap handle held by someone standing. At 150 per cent, the train is more crowded but a commuter can read a broadsheet newspaper without bothering anyone.

Commuters make their way to work during rush hour in Tokyo, on Feb. 28, 2020.
Commuters make their way to work during rush hour in Tokyo, on Feb. 28, 2020. Photo by Charly Triballeau/AFP via Getty Images

For 2022, the average rate of congestion during peak morning hours in Tokyo was 123 per cent, according to the ministry. That was up on peak-hour pandemic congestion but down on 2019’s 163 per cent and the 180 per cent official threshold at which a broadsheet newspaper can only be opened if folded in half lengthwise. By comparison, when occupancy peaked in the 1970s, congestion on Tokyo’s 31 major train lines was about 220 per cent — the origin of notorious pictures of station guards cramming people into trains with brute force.

Commuters board a train during the morning rush hour in Mumbai in 2015.
Commuters board a train during the morning rush hour in Mumbai in 2015. Photo by Dhiraj Singh/Bloomberg

In Mumbai, local trains deemed the most important method of public transport in the city were carrying almost 7.5 million people per day before COVID erupted. By 2023, that number had dropped to roughly six million daily riders.

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But Saurabh Khadse, who works for a luxury retail brand in Mumbai, has noticed a renewed focus on in-person work in his role in human resources. Having worked from home during the pandemic, he now travels up to two hours each way every day, taking an autorickshaw to a local train, and finally, using a shared taxi that drops him at work.

Housing and cost

As in Tokyo, people in Mumbai tend to live in small homes where there is little space or privacy. “Even people in higher income brackets may live with their families in two, maximum three-bedroom homes,” said Khadse. For such people, the opportunity to work in a spacious air-conditioned office offers a more relaxed environment and might trump the grind of the commute.

Cost is another factor. Japanese employers traditionally cover the cost of commuting for staff. But other countries’ commuters have proved more reluctant to give up the money they saved during the pandemic by not travelling daily to and from the workplace.

Employer compensation for commutes is partly governed by worries about fairly treating those who live close to the workplace and those who travel, says Alastair Woods, workforce consulting partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers International Ltd. “The working assumption for most in the U.K. is that the salary should cover travel, particularly (for) those who have moved to lower cost locations.” He adds that there has been more innovation in the U.S., where there are longer distance commutes. Companies there are providing help such as accommodation through hotel partnerships and carpooling matchmaking.

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Plans for infrastructure

In New York, the pandemic has stirred all sorts of talk about the city’s demise, led by an ever-worsening deterioration of the nation’s largest transit system. The subway became notoriously dangerous — and filthy — during the depths of the pandemic. Ridership and safety have improved since and so have the MTA’s parlous finances, paving the way for more investment.

“Even if people spend more time working from home, most are likely to be hybrid workers who commute (to New York City) on some days of the week,” an October report by the Regional Plan Association suggests, underlining the need for spending on transit lines.

Commuters walk along the concourse after arriving at London Waterloo railway station in London, U.K.
Commuters walk along the concourse after arriving at London Waterloo railway station in London, U.K. Photo by Jason Alden/Bloomberg

The shift to hybrid working has also squeezed the finances of TfL. It has said it is on course to cover the costs of day-to-day operations by the end of its financial year this month but has been pressing the U.K. government to help fund modernization. London’s mayor Sadiq Khan has asked TfL to run a three-month trial, starting this month, of all-day off-peak fares on Fridays, to lure commuters into the city on what is still the quietest day for in-office work.

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Some infrastructure issues have created problems elsewhere. In Mexico City, data from research group Inrix showed a 10 per cent increase in the time road drivers lost to peak-hours congestion in 2022, compared with the year before. That coincided with falling use of the underground systems after a fatal bridge collapse in 2021 and extensive repair work.

Meanwhile in Berlin, the city government created numerous “pop-up” cycle lanes during the pandemic, to take advantage of streets freed of cars driving in from the suburbs. But most have been closed, and traffic levels have risen again. In Milan, by contrast, the construction of cycle lanes has increased, with some now connecting the centre with the outskirts, suggesting more people are cycling into the city.

Time saved

Overall attitudes to commuting do seem to have shifted. Two-thirds of employees globally told consultancy Gartner Inc. in 2022 that going to the office “requires more effort than it did pre-pandemic” and 73 per cent said it felt more expensive. Some 17 per cent would move to a new job in exchange for an easier commute, according to a separate survey by Boston Consulting Group.

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What of the individuals who are commuting less frequently? Plenty of research carried out before the pandemic suggested commuting could cause deep economic and psychological harm. For women with greater caring responsibilities, who tend to take jobs closer to home, the increase of hybrid and remote work has boosted opportunities.

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If less frequent commuting relieves the psychological pressure on individuals, society could benefit. But a shift need not come at the expense of employee productivity. In 2021 and 2022, employees saved an average of two hours per week, per worker, by not commuting, according to a working paper published last year by the EBRD’s Aksoy and others. But the study found workers were reinvesting 40 per cent of that saved commute time in their jobs. Aksoy says that figure has barely changed since. Data collected last year shows 38 per cent of the time saved is still being devoted to work, 33 per cent to leisure, and 14 per cent to caregiving activities.

It turns out that while the urge to commute dies hard, so do habits acquired during lockdowns. “If you ask me if commuting will be (back) at pre-pandemic levels, I don’t think it’s going to be the case,” Aksoy said.

Reporting by Andrew Hill, Emma Jacobs, and Michael O’Dwyer in London, Joshua Chaffin in New York, Sarah White in Paris, Sam Jones in Berlin, Silvia Sciorilli Borrelli in Milan, Leo Lewis in Tokyo, Namrata Kolachalam in Mumbai, Nic Fildes in Sydney, Song Jung-a in Seoul, Christine Murray in Mexico City.

© 2024 The Financial Times Ltd.

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