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April 28, 2021
5 min read

Will Commuting Patterns Bounce Back After Covid?

In the change management world, it’s often said that to ensure meaningful and lasting change often requires a “burning platform”. This is an event so severe that it jolts us from our habits and routines and literally forces us to do things differently. It’s probably fair to say that for our working life, Covid-19 represents just such a “burning platform”, with government mandates forcing many workplaces to shut and many workers to rapidly establish a home office.

Data from Transport for London show that traffic volumes on the underground fell to 5% of normal levels during the first lockdown in March and April, with rail travel at similar levels, and bus travel down to around 15% of the normal volume. Even as lockdown measures eased, these numbers didn’t return to normal, with a high of 42% of normal levels reached throughout 2020.

”So, as vaccines are gradually being rolled out and we can look with a degree of optimism towards a possible post-Covid world, what might happen to commuting levels when restrictions are no vonger in place?

Making changes
Perhaps a good indication might come from a study conducted by researchers at Cambridge and Oxford universities a few years ago. The study examined the impact of another forced change to working patterns, which in this case was a strike by workers on the underground, to see whether the changes forced upon commuters would stay once the strike lifted. The answer was a resounding yes, and what’s more, the researchers found that not only did people manage to find alternative ways of getting to work, but those ways were also often more efficient than their tried and tested routes from before. All of which actually added up to a benefit to the overall London economy. “For the small fraction of commuters who found a better route, when multiplied over a longer period of time, the benefit to them actually outweighs the inconvenience suffered by many more,” the authors say.

New habits
Because the strike only affected part of the underground network, the researchers were able to analyze 200 million data points that illustrated how patterns of usage changed during and after the strike. In other words, they were able to see whether people reverted to their normal travel patterns once the strike ended. The results show that around 5% of commuters made permanent changes to their travel habits. This may sound like a small number, but it actually represents a significant change in travel patterns. Research from the University of Nottingham found that when remote working was at its peak, the City of London lost 70% of its workforce as people worked from home, which cost the local economy around £9 billion per year. So even if just 5% of the workforce change their working habits permanently after Covid, this would still represent a sizeable change to local economies.

While 2021 is likely to mirror 2020 in terms of work patterns, it’s not clear yet whether these trends will endure into the long-term. There is already visible signs of “zoom fatigue”, with this likely to result in a growing desire to return to the office for the social aspects and to avoid the isolation that has so plagued society during the pandemic. What the paper reminds us, however, is that even if the workforce works a few days a week remotely, this will have a significant impact on the economic activity in city centers. Indeed, it’s possible that this mix-and-match approach may result in the work-related services struggle to survive in either the city center or the suburbs. Do you feel prepared for the post-covid world of commuting? With crisis comes the opportunity for innovation and transformation. If you need help preparing your business for the future of mobil.