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COVID Will Increase Supercommuting, and That’s a Good Thing

It's not the 'end of cities,' but residential and commuting patterns will not be the same post-crisis.

Aerial view of I-10 freeway intersecting with Beltway 8 in Houston, Texas. Omarhasan1/Shutterstock

The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated existing social trends more than it has created an entirely new way of life. This past summer, scores of families relocated to the suburbs who, back in January, had been vaguely musing that they might be making such a move at some point in the next five years. Cities who thought they had another decade to come to terms with demographic decline are now beginning to grasp that they have to deal with it sooner.

Another way the future might be more like the present, just more so, is in terms of the increase of “supercommuting,” or at least an increase in supercommuters.

Let’s assume that the pandemic will prompt more relocation to the outer reaches of metro areas than a massive migration to Heartland and Sunbelt regions. Let’s further assume that, while many of those rearrangements are permanent, central business districts won’t remain ghost towns forever. Some of what’s now full-time teleworking, will, eventually, shift to part-time teleworking. The sum total of these changes could well mean more part-time supercommuting.

Pre-COVID, 3.5 million Americans spent more than 90 minutes commuting. That number was on the rise due to soaring real estate prices and the advent of smartphones and high quality WiFi connections. A 2019 National Geographic article profiled a Bay Area resident who spent eight hours each day commuting to and from San Francisco, much of it dealing with work-related calls on his laptop and phone. That obviously would not have been possible in the era of the “Man in the Grey Flannel Suit.”

Urbanists, economists, and psychologists have often pondered the social consequences of long commutes. Sprawl critics doubt that anyone with a long commute can possibly be happy. Others maintain a more equanimous position, arguing that someone choosing a long commute must at some level be valuing other goods, such as better schools, a yard, and freedom from having to listen to their neighbors set off fireworks all night long, over time spent in the car or train.

Communitarians sometimes get a little too gauzy about the social benefits of working from home. If work is stressful, isn’t there value in maximizing the amount of stressed-out hours at the office proper, away from the home front? “Wait ‘til your father comes home” carries no force when father’s always at home, wearing pajamas. Work is an important source of middle-distance friendships that vanished, and were not replaced, once everyone pivoted to teleworking back in March. While it’s true that Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone blames commuting times for harming civic life (see chapter 12), that’s just one among heaps of factors he explores.

No doubt, a daily two-hour commute reduces the likelihood that you will go to town meetings, coach your kids’ soccer team, help organize the community food pantry drive, and serve on the vestry. But is commuting 1.5 to 2 hours a few times per week, or even per month, more civically destructive than commuting 30 minutes daily? People who live 30 minutes out from the central business district will be more tempted to attend evening events in the city and go into the office on weekends. Someone with a two hour commute has to think hard about whether an evening event’s worth their time. Not all long commutes are equal, and some are clearly preferable to short commutes. An undisturbed hour and 15 minutes on the commuter rail is a superior experience to 45 minutes of standstill traffic in a car, which in turn is often preferable to 30 minutes spent sharing a packed E train. 

Supercommuting can be conducive to privacy, even when surrounded by others. Train travel connoisseurs have always known this. Consider the following passage from Ed Streeter’s Daily Except Sundays, a light-hearted book about commuting culture published in 1938:

[T]he commuter knows no privacy in all his waking hours. When the morning alarm clock jars him to consciousness his wife is beside him, ready to argue about shutting the window. During dressing and breakfast he must put joy and pep into a succession of sour little faces, reflecting unfinished homework. His business day must be spent trying to get something out of a lot of morons—or trying to prevent them from getting something out of him. His evening is, all too often, passed exchanging noises with comparative strangers when he would give a five dollar bill to crawl under the piano and go to sleep beside the dog. Only twice, in this unsolitary waste, can he be entirely alone. Once is on the train going to town in the morning. The other is on the train coming out at night. Small wonder if he treasures these interludes like pearls.

As the old Metro-North slogan put it: “Your train time is your own time.”

More part-time supercommuting will not be good for public transit systems’ bottom line. As the notion of “farebox recovery” comes to seem more and more like a joke, progressive politicians will increasingly define transit as “a social service,” particularly systems relied on by the low-income cohort. Service cutbacks will be hard to avoid but perhaps also service quality expectations will moderate. The need for high speed rail on Connecticut’s New Haven line may seem less pressing. The sacred status of the “one seat” ride among suburban politicians in metro New York has frustrated many reform proposals. Perhaps it could become more feasible to locate a new Port Authority Bus Terminal in New Jersey instead of Manhattan’s West Side, which is one of the most impractical places in the world to build a gigantic new transportation hub while keeping the old one running. What demand there is for office space could shift some from midtown to points south, as bus and commuter rail riders might be more willing to put up with a short subway ride down to lower Manhattan. Service quality is, substantially, a question about convenience and people can more easily put up with an inconvenient situation if they encounter it 5-10 times a month than if it’s an everyday affair.

None of this is a recipe for bringing back the crowds so utterly essential to the urban economy. Calls for coming back to the office as a question of “civic responsibility” will seem less and less compelling the longer the shutdown drags on. If teleworking former urbanites attach themselves, civically, to their new communities as much as social capital advocates hope, that must mean their attachments to the city itself will weaken. Some won’t be coming back in until they’re guaranteed maximum “vibrancy”; others will come back as soon as they feel safe enough to do so. The long-term outlook is unclear, but of course who even knows what “long-term” means during an era when six months feels like five years.

Stephen Eide is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and contributing editor of City Journal. This New Urbanism series is supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. Follow New Urbs on Twitter for a feed dedicated to TAC’s coverage of cities, urbanism, and place.

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