June 23, 2024

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The remote work mystery deepens—traffic is worse than ever but offices are sitting empty

2 min read

It’s hard to ignore the fact that almost nobody is in their office as much as they used to be. Indeed, just 5% of workers worked entirely from home before the pandemic. For over two years now, offices can’t quite surpass half-full, and more than a third of workers who can work from home do so all the time. One of the most commonly cited benefits of working outside the office is the fact that it means avoiding the slog of commuting, which can be incredibly costly both financially and time-wise. 

But in a Wednesday blog post, economic blogger Kevin Drum, formerly of Mother Jones, dug into a new mystery: Somehow, commuter traffic is just as bad as it was before the pandemic. With empty offices and millions fewer people commuting during working hours now, how could that be?

Last year, Axios analyzed 2021 TomTom Traffic Index and determined that commuter congestion was building up month by month after plummeting when the pandemic first hit. A researcher behind the traffic index, which pulls from hundreds of millions of GPS signals, said that despite remote work, rush hour would still be “coming back slowly.”

That slow drip has become unavoidable. Drum pointed to traffic data from 2021—peak remote-work era—in notoriously car-centric Los Angeles; it was only down 6% from 2019, according to the state’s Department of Transportation. Things aren’t much better in other major metros. Per TomTom Traffic Index data, time spent in traffic during the morning and evening rushes in Atlanta, Chicago, and Miami all grew between 2021 and 2022—alongside fuel prices and tolls. 

That tracks, considering that traffic congestion actually worsened in 2022, though it still notched below pre-pandemic levels. That trend continued this year; Drum cited national data from the Office of Highway Policy Information, which shows that urban interstate travel has roughly doubled since 2020, right about where it was in 2019.  

Naturally, it’s confusing….

Jane Thier

2023-11-19 08:00:00

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