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Will the increased usage of remote work permanently change urban mobility?

Home Office replaces commuting ? | © Dirk Budach

Big city streets are eerily empty. What a stark contract to peak hour traffic jams before COVID-19.

This is the immediate impact of the current crisis on urban transport. It comes together with the biggest ever, global pilot for remote working. The number of people working remotely had been increasing quite slowly over the years until COVID-19 and the quarantine hit us. Suddenly a large part of the population is working remotely. There are many online tools that facilitate remote work. Providers of audio and video conferences saw the biggest increases. For example did the daily users of Skype increase to 40 million in March. That is a 70% increase over February. Zoom daily users went even from 10 million in December to 200 million in March and its share price more than doubled since February. And we are swamped with good advise for remote working techniques, etiquette for video calls and many, many jokes.

A city bus on an empty street in Madrid – most people work from home | © Dirk Budach

We believe this will have a lasting impact after the immediate crisis. More people will continue to work remotely. For urban transport this means that there will be less people commuting to work and thus less strain on urban transport networks in particular during peak hours. There may be more demand for other innovative transport services to the suburbs and in the evenings, but I’ll get to that later.

There are pros and cons of remote work. One of the biggest benefits is avoiding the commute to the company premises. On average the daily commute to the work place takes roughly 80 minutes both ways in the EU. That is a lot of time spent each day. Working remotely from home can avoid spending this time commuting. We believe that many employees will be interested to continue to work remotely after the COVID-19 crisis.

Berlin Alexanderplatz – empty – will less people use public transport in the future? | @ Bernhard Kußmagk

Wir glauben auch, dass viele Unternehmen sich offener für das „Home Office“ ihrer Mitarbeiter zeigen werden. Viele Firmen konnten jetzt beobachten, dass die Technologie und die Prozesse dazu vorhanden sind,

Unsere Hypothese ist deshalb, dass es nach der COVID-19-Krise einen spürbaren Anstieg der Mitarbeiter geben wird, die außerhalb ihres bisherigen, traditionellen Büroarbeitsplatzes arbeiten werden. Dies wird den Pendlerverkehr verringern und somit Auswirkungen auf den städtischen Verkehr insgesamt haben. Die Nachfrage der Fahrgäste im öffentlichen Verkehr könnte weniger stark ansteigen als in den letzten Jahren prognostiziert, in vielen Fällen sogar im Vergleich zum Vorkrisenniveau zurückgehen und/oder auf einem relativ niedrigeren Niveau bleiben. In diesem Fall werden die möglichen Folgen der Reduzierung der Fahrgastzahlen mit Sicherheit eine Neugestaltung des ÖPNV-Angebots durch die (meist öffentlichen) Betreiber und Aufgabenträger erfordern. Verkehrsnetze könnten an einigen Orten angepasst und die Taktfrequenzen verringert werden. Eine weitere Folge wäre eine Verlangsamung des Ausbaus der öffentlichen Verkehrsinfrastruktur, insbesondere des ÖPNV, und letztlich auch von Investitionen in das Rollmaterial, also in neue Fahrzeugbeschaffungen – mit negativen Auswirkungen auf die betroffenen Industriezweige. Der weltweite Trend der Veränderung des Modal Splits zugunsten des öffentlichen Verkehrs auf Kosten des Individualverkehrs könnte diesen Entwicklungen jedoch in gewissem Umfang entgegenwirken. Und andere, flexiblere On-Demand-Konzepte für den öffentlichen Verkehr könnten ebenfalls Marktanteile gewinnen. Die Zukunft wird es zeigen….

Commute less – spend more time in the Homeoffice – that could be the trend |© UTM

Our hypothesis is that there will be a noticeable increase in employees working remotely after the COVID-19 crisis. This will reduce commuter traffic and thus have an impact on urban transport. Passenger demand on public transport might not increase to the extend which has been forecasted in recent years, in many cases even decrease compared to pre-crisis levels and /or remain at relatively lower levels. If this happens, the likely consequences of reduced passenger numbers will be for sure require a re-planning and redesign of the offering by the (usually public) operators. Networks might be adjusted and frequencies reduced on some locations. Subsequently, investments in traditional public transport infrastructure as well as rolling stock might slow down which would have an impact on the industry.

The world-wide trend of change in the modal-split in favor of public transport at the expense of the individual car traffic, however, may counterbalance these developments to some extend. And other, more flexible, on-demand public transport concepts may gain market share. The future will show….

We also believe that there will be a mid-term impact on urban planning and where people chose to live. Today the location of our employers’ premises is a major factor in choosing where we live. If one starts to work remotely, it becomes less relevant how far away one lives from the company premises.  

The authors have worked most of their business life remotely. Our customers, teams and colleagues have always been based all over the world and we got used to working with virtual teams. And even when we had an office at our employer’s premises, we were traveling most of the time and thus working remotely from hotels, airport lounges and other locations. Often, we found ourselves working for a while from a city and even a country of our choice. The results counted; not clocking time in some office building. And most of the time enjoyed working from different locations.

Commuting time is 80 minutes on average in European countries | © UTM

Working remotely means the freedom to pick from where you work and where you live. Some may find that real estate and rents are lower outside the city centres. Others may find that smaller cities provide greener, safer, more child-friendly living conditions. Others may want to accommodate a partner, who does not have the option to work remotely. Some may use the new freedom of remote work to change their living location more drastically and move to the mountains or the beach or even another country. We have all seen the photos of freelancers, who travel the world and work remotely from amazing places. With more remote working possibilities, this may become more common now for full-time employees and families.

Pre-Corona most people had to commute on a daily base to office buildings like the towers in La Défense / Paris| © UTM

It is quite common for students now to live for a while in another country during their studies. And they come to appreciate that experience. Later in life they may want to provide their children the experience of living in another country, but they may neither work for a corporation that supports international relocation nor be willing to give up their current job. However, they may be working remotely for their current employer. This will make is possible to work really remotely, from another country. Thus, they could keep the job and still live abroad for a while or a school year. Our friend Kristen did that with her family and explains: “During my high school I lived abroad for a year and I have very good memories of that experience. Now we wanted to give our daughters the same experience. We were living in California and my husband worked already remotel. He continued to work remotely in the same job, when we moved to Dijon for a year. It was a wonderful experience for our family. However, finding a school, an apartment and getting the water, electricity, telecoms set up was quite tedious. Managing the whole admin around tax, social security etc and starting a social life was also quite a challenge.” It should be easier. The authors believe that everyone should be free to choose where they work and live. Our mission is to make that easy.

If more remote work also means that more people will choose to live further away from the company premises (mostly located in the city centres), then this may increase the demand for shared ride services like on-demand shuttles like the BerlKönig in Berlin. On-demand passenger offerings should definitely have a brighter future. The general impact on public transport is to be observed.

BerlKönig Berlin | © BVG

Let us know your comments and questions around remote working & living and the impact on public transport:

Mohsin Majid: Mohsin Majid

and Christoph Althoff: Christoph Althoff

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