By Emily Badger
Peak commute time has long ruled our lives, our cities, our tax dollars. But it doesn’t have to.
There is something uniquely awful about that time of day when there is no good way to get around. The car horns sound nastier as downtown traffic snarls. The elbows feel sharper on a jammed subway. The sight of red brake lights is soul-crushing when they lead on a highway all the way to the horizon.
Mere mention of it makes the body tense up: rush hour.
But for much of the pandemic, it vanished. Not only did people travel less over the past year, with schools closed, restaurants off-limits, and millions of workers unemployed or at home; they also traveled less in a very particular way. Rush hour peaks flattened, smoothing travel demand around cities across the country into a low-grade continuous flow, a Tuesday morning not so different from a Saturday afternoon.
Traffic has begun to return as the economy has revived. But planners, transit agencies and researchers are now considering the remarkable possibility that in many places it won’t revert to its old shape amid newfound work flexibility.
About a third of workers in the U.S. hold jobs that economists say could be done remotely. Suppose many of them worked from home one day a week, or opted occasionally to read email in their bathrobes before heading in. Overall, we’d be talking on a given day about a decline of a few percentage points in peak commuting trips — a small number, but a big deal during the most painful parts of the day.
At this stage of the pandemic, it can feel as if much of life is hurtling back to old form — many of us will still be in the same job, the same city, the same home at the other end of all this. But the pandemic doesn’t have to radically change the future of work to make the decades-old problem of the peak commute perceptibly less miserable; a modest number of people working from home on a Thursday might do it.
That’s because roadway congestion is nonlinear. Each additional car doesn’t necessarily contribute equally to making traffic worse. Approaching a tipping point, a few more cars can strangle a highway. Similarly, removing a small share can unclog congestion. Your discomfort on transit is nonlinear, too: Until all the seats are gone, more passengers don’t affect you much. But once the aisle starts to fill up, every new body erodes your personal space and compounds chaos at the boarding door.
Transportation researchers have observed the benefits of marginal changes in commute behavior on Jewish holidays when most employers remain open but a small share of commuters stays home. In Washington, D.C., compressed schedules and telework policies for federal workers had created noticeably saner traffic on Friday mornings. On the region’s Metrorail, peak ridership before the pandemic was consistently 10 percent to 15 percent lower on Fridays than midweek.