Commuting is Back - But Different Than Before

Predictions from the Covid-pandemic era that the daily commute would become obsolete were greatly exaggerated, according to an analysis of traffic data by the Financial Times.

The mandatory return to the office by many companies, the restoration of normal public transportation operations, and perhaps the determination of some pandemic-weary employees to return to business as usual have led to a gradual revival of commuting, as current traffic data indicates.

At the same time, many employees are no longer required to be at their workplace daily, leading to changes in how people commute. This presents challenges for policymakers and transport companies and allows employees more freedom in choosing their lifestyles and mobility options.

The Financial Times analyzed travel behavior in 10 major cities worldwide and compared it to data from the Covid pandemic. The result: In all these cities, commuter traffic has rebounded after widespread office closures in the second and third quarters of 2020 led to significant declines. However, the analysis also shows that the extent of the decline and subsequent recovery varies depending on the cost and length of the journey, the available space at home, the prevailing corporate culture, and the characteristics of the country.

The data examined by FT is based on user data from Google, which regularly captures snapshots of its users' movements at train stations and workplaces. The mobility data for October 2020, 2021, and 2022 were analyzed and compared to a baseline from 2019, the year before the pandemic.

In Berlin, One Day of the Week is Particularly Popular for Home Office

Of the 10 cities studied, commuter traffic in Mexico City has recovered the most. According to Google data, more train stations in the city were used, and more workplaces visited on all weekdays in October 2022 than in early 2020.

In the British capital, newer data from Transport for London (TfL) shows a continued recovery, but commuting behavior is still far from pre-pandemic peaks. The use of the London Underground is 18 percent below the 2019 baseline. In Paris, metro usage has also not returned to pre-pandemic levels. The latest figures from the mayor's office show that 1.34 billion journeys were made in 2022, nearly twice the low of 753 million in 2020, but significantly less than the 2018 peak of 1.56 billion journeys.

Data for Berlin shows that while people are returning to offices, commuting behavior has also changed, with fewer people commuting to work than in 2019. Notably, many in Berlin work from home on Mondays. For employees in the capital, the ability to start the week from home seems particularly popular.

Changed Commuting Behavior Has Different Reasons

The mobility data shows that while commuting is returning, the way people commute is changing. The reasons for this are varied.

The prevailing corporate culture in cities and national culture shape commuting behavior. Research by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development shows that individualistic countries like the United Kingdom or the USA have a higher share of home office work. A study by the German ifo Institute has also shown this.

In cities like London or New York, this is likely due to generally longer commute times and comparatively high travel costs, emphasizing employees' desire to work from home. In October 2022, the number of workplaces in London City was still 23 percent (on Thursday) and 34 to 35 percent (on Friday and Monday) below early 2020 levels, according to Google data.

Changing attitudes towards commuting are also reflected in employee surveys. In 2022, two-thirds of employees worldwide told consulting firm Gartner that the commute to the office "requires more effort than before the pandemic," and 73 percent said it is more expensive. According to a separate survey by the Boston Consulting Group, 17 percent of respondents would change jobs for an easier commute.

Effects of Commuting on Well-being and Productivity

Numerous pre-pandemic studies suggest that commuting can cause significant economic and psychological harm. For women, who typically have greater caregiving responsibilities and tend to take jobs closer to home, the increase in hybrid and remote work has improved opportunities.

If less frequent commuting reduces individual psychological stress, society could benefit. However, this shift does not necessarily come at the expense of employee productivity. Studies already show that employees save an average of two hours per week when they do not commute and instead work from home in 2021 and 2022. For example, a study by the US National Bureau of Economic Research found that employees invest 43 percent of the commute time saved by working from home into additional work, which means that home office work can increase overall productivity.

Employee well-being can also improve when the extra time is used for leisure activities. Many use this additional time for walks or a bike ride to the supermarket, as a US study shows.

Researchers from a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco had already found that shifting to a home office neither significantly hindered nor increased company productivity, meaning employees working from home are neither more nor less productive than at the actual workplace.

Recently, executives from large corporations have also admitted that returning to the office does not necessarily increase productivity.

It appears that while the need to commute remains, so do the habits formed during the office closures.

Stefan Wendering
Stefan is a freelance writer and editor at NAVIT. Previously, he worked for startups and in the mobility cosmos. He is an expert in urban and sustainable mobility, employee benefits and new work. Besides blog content, he also creates marketing materials, taglines and content for websites and case studies.

Predictions from the Covid-pandemic era that the daily commute would become obsolete were greatly exaggerated, according to an analysis of traffic data by the Financial Times.

The mandatory return to the office by many companies, the restoration of normal public transportation operations, and perhaps the determination of some pandemic-weary employees to return to business as usual have led to a gradual revival of commuting, as current traffic data indicates.

At the same time, many employees are no longer required to be at their workplace daily, leading to changes in how people commute. This presents challenges for policymakers and transport companies and allows employees more freedom in choosing their lifestyles and mobility options.

The Financial Times analyzed travel behavior in 10 major cities worldwide and compared it to data from the Covid pandemic. The result: In all these cities, commuter traffic has rebounded after widespread office closures in the second and third quarters of 2020 led to significant declines. However, the analysis also shows that the extent of the decline and subsequent recovery varies depending on the cost and length of the journey, the available space at home, the prevailing corporate culture, and the characteristics of the country.

The data examined by FT is based on user data from Google, which regularly captures snapshots of its users' movements at train stations and workplaces. The mobility data for October 2020, 2021, and 2022 were analyzed and compared to a baseline from 2019, the year before the pandemic.

In Berlin, One Day of the Week is Particularly Popular for Home Office

Of the 10 cities studied, commuter traffic in Mexico City has recovered the most. According to Google data, more train stations in the city were used, and more workplaces visited on all weekdays in October 2022 than in early 2020.

In the British capital, newer data from Transport for London (TfL) shows a continued recovery, but commuting behavior is still far from pre-pandemic peaks. The use of the London Underground is 18 percent below the 2019 baseline. In Paris, metro usage has also not returned to pre-pandemic levels. The latest figures from the mayor's office show that 1.34 billion journeys were made in 2022, nearly twice the low of 753 million in 2020, but significantly less than the 2018 peak of 1.56 billion journeys.

Data for Berlin shows that while people are returning to offices, commuting behavior has also changed, with fewer people commuting to work than in 2019. Notably, many in Berlin work from home on Mondays. For employees in the capital, the ability to start the week from home seems particularly popular.

Changed Commuting Behavior Has Different Reasons

The mobility data shows that while commuting is returning, the way people commute is changing. The reasons for this are varied.

The prevailing corporate culture in cities and national culture shape commuting behavior. Research by the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development shows that individualistic countries like the United Kingdom or the USA have a higher share of home office work. A study by the German ifo Institute has also shown this.

In cities like London or New York, this is likely due to generally longer commute times and comparatively high travel costs, emphasizing employees' desire to work from home. In October 2022, the number of workplaces in London City was still 23 percent (on Thursday) and 34 to 35 percent (on Friday and Monday) below early 2020 levels, according to Google data.

Changing attitudes towards commuting are also reflected in employee surveys. In 2022, two-thirds of employees worldwide told consulting firm Gartner that the commute to the office "requires more effort than before the pandemic," and 73 percent said it is more expensive. According to a separate survey by the Boston Consulting Group, 17 percent of respondents would change jobs for an easier commute.

Effects of Commuting on Well-being and Productivity

Numerous pre-pandemic studies suggest that commuting can cause significant economic and psychological harm. For women, who typically have greater caregiving responsibilities and tend to take jobs closer to home, the increase in hybrid and remote work has improved opportunities.

If less frequent commuting reduces individual psychological stress, society could benefit. However, this shift does not necessarily come at the expense of employee productivity. Studies already show that employees save an average of two hours per week when they do not commute and instead work from home in 2021 and 2022. For example, a study by the US National Bureau of Economic Research found that employees invest 43 percent of the commute time saved by working from home into additional work, which means that home office work can increase overall productivity.

Employee well-being can also improve when the extra time is used for leisure activities. Many use this additional time for walks or a bike ride to the supermarket, as a US study shows.

Researchers from a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco had already found that shifting to a home office neither significantly hindered nor increased company productivity, meaning employees working from home are neither more nor less productive than at the actual workplace.

Recently, executives from large corporations have also admitted that returning to the office does not necessarily increase productivity.

It appears that while the need to commute remains, so do the habits formed during the office closures.