Working for Smart Growth:
More Livable Places and Open Spaces

 

A Shift to Working From Home Raises Many Questions About Potential Effects on Other Aspects of Daily Life

Author: Tim Evans
August 2020

working from homeIn the early weeks of the pandemic, with stay-at-home orders having recently gone into effect, large numbers of New Jerseyans started working from home. Cell phone data in mid-April showed handoffs between cell sites down by more than 50 percent, indicating a substantial drop in daily travel. While the impetus for this sudden spike in working from home—a highly contagious virus—is hopefully temporary, some aspects of the shift may persist after the danger has passed. Many workers and employers are finding that a lot of meetings don’t have to happen in person, that they can accomplish most of what they need to do without direct personal interaction with coworkers, and that they don’t miss their daily commutes. (In fact, many workers are willing to take a pay cut if it means being able to continue avoiding traveling to work every day.) With the necessity of a daily commute to the office now being questioned, it is worth considering what might emerge as some of the longer-term effects if a significant portion of New Jersey’s employed population ends up working from home permanently, or multiple days a week.

Widespread working from home is likely to upend a number of land use and transportation processes and behaviors. From a smart-growth standpoint, some of these changes would be unambiguously positive, others negative, and some a mixed bag. Here, we will attempt to characterize these effects as to whether they are mostly positive or negative, with acknowledgement that in some cases the verdict is unclear.

Positive effects

Reduction in vehicle-miles traveled (VMT): The most obvious positive effect of having large numbers of people work from home is the reduction in travel and its associated costs in time and money. As of the 2018 American Community Survey, the average (one-way) travel time to work in New Jersey was 32.4 minutes. For the average employed New Jerseyan, then, being able to work from home represents more than an hour a day not spent in a car, bus, or train. And for people who cannot work from home, it means far fewer other cars on the road and thus less time wasted in congestion. The Texas Transportation Institute, in the 2019 edition of its annual Urban Mobility Report, estimates that the average car commuter in the New York metropolitan area (which includes most of North Jersey) loses 92 hours a year (more than two full work weeks) just from sitting in congested traffic; in the Philadelphia metro (which includes much of South Jersey), the figure is 62 hours. By not contributing to rush hour, people working from home are saving time behind the wheel not just for themselves but for other workers who must continue driving to work. Car commuters are also saving money on gasoline, tolls, and vehicle maintenance.

Reduction in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions: The fewer commuters are on the road in their cars and light-duty trucks, the fewer greenhouse gas emissions they are generating. The transportation sector represents the single largest component of New Jersey’s GHG emissions footprint, accounting for 42 percent of total emissions as of 2018, according to the Department of Environmental Protection’s most recent greenhouse gas inventory. More than two-fifths of our GHG emissions result from moving people and things from one place to another. Reducing the need to travel to work could be a powerful tool in shrinking our carbon footprint. Having 20 percent of the workforce work from home, for example, would produce a reduction in GHG emissions equivalent to having 20 percent of the workforce commute in electric vehicles (actually better, when the emissions embodied in the production of the EVs and the generation of the electricity to power them is factored in), which is itself a highly ambitious and aspirational goal.

Improvement in air quality: It’s not just CO2 that all these non-commuters are emitting less of. They’re also not generating the same level of other harmful pollutants, leading to improved air quality. NASA satellite data found a 30 percent decrease in air pollution over the Northeast Corridor in March when compared to a year earlier. Enabling some of our recent new telecommuters to work from home on a more permanent basis would likely result in a lasting improvement in air quality over significant portions of the state, along with a decline in the incidence of asthma and other ailments associated with poor air quality. These gains would be particularly important to the lower-income communities that are often located closest to major highways and the noise and pollution they generate.

Office demand in smaller centers: Reduced demand for office space, and a desire to “de-densify” office occupancy so as to abide by social distancing guidelines, might incentivize major office employers to disperse some of their workforce away from large, centralized office buildings or campuses and into smaller satellite locations. Smaller and/or shared offices with reduced square footage requirements might find walkable suburban downtowns an attractive option, where mixed-use development is already the default and where employees could take advantage of downtown amenities. This could add a new group of potential occupants for smaller downtown business districts that were not previously office hubs.

Surface parking and stormwater runoff: With fewer people driving to work, demand for surface parking lots would probably decline, since there would be far fewer vehicles to be stored during work hours. (And storing all these vehicles when not in use consumes a lot of land—in some cities, more than ten parking spaces per household.) In suburban office locations, large tracts of suddenly obsolete parking lots could offer opportunities for redevelopment that would not involve displacing any existing land uses. Surface parking could be exploited as a de facto “land bank.” Or, if the area lacks sufficient development demand for all of the surface parking to be claimed by new urban uses, some of it could simply revert to nature, increasing green space and reducing stormwater runoff. Reducing the acreage devoted to parking would also save money, as the many hidden costs embedded in “free” parking — from the costs of paving and maintaining parking lots to the opportunity costs implicit in not being able to build more revenue-generating uses on the land—are recouped by local governments and developers.

Local shopping: Reduced car commuting might result in shopping becoming more localized. If a significant number of people are no longer obligated to physically leave their homes every day to go to work, they will no longer have built-in opportunities to use their vehicles to run errands on the way to or from work or during their lunch hour. Instead, accomplishing these functions will now require an intentional trip away from the house, rather than the costs of these trips being subsumed into the larger daily commute trip. This might argue for trips focused on shopping, eating, and socializing being shorter and closer to home, on average, as workers freed from having to use the car every day seek to minimize their driving time.

Demand for in-town living: The convenience offered by in-town living, with a variety of destinations in close proximity, might increase the demand for housing in walkable, mixed-use centers if travel to work no longer needed to be factored into people’s residential locational decisions. If “work” and “home” are now the same physical location, effectively neutralizing “work” as a decision-making factor, then the popularity of “live-work-play” environments might grow even further, since offering “live” and “play” (i.e. non-work destinations) together would now be sufficient to attract some people whose choices might otherwise have been constrained by the need to live near their job. Note that this could be true even in places where development is focused around public transit, even if increased telecommuting causes transit ridership to drop. Transit-oriented development (TOD) may remain popular, irrespective of rather than because of transit, because the non-transit aspects of TOD—the walkability and easy proximity of multiple types of destinations—are things that people still want, even if they no longer need to ride transit to get to work.

Road infrastructure: As with parking supply, demand for road construction and widening is likely to decrease, with fewer commuters hitting the road as more of them work from home. This would make widenings and other capacity expansions like those recently approved for the New Jersey Turnpike, Garden State Parkway, and Atlantic City Expressway increasingly unnecessary and difficult to justify. In fact, many roads will suddenly have excess capacity, raising the possibility that some pavement space could be reclaimed for other uses, especially in cities and towns with lots of pedestrians and businesses seeking to expand outdoor operations. Taxpayers may tire of paying to maintain roads that suddenly see a lot less use.

Negative effects

Suburban office clusters: Having large numbers of people working from home will depress demand for office space. In a suburban environment, this may mean suburban office parks sitting vacant, putting stress on their host municipalities’ tax bases (although they would also offer opportunities for redevelopment). 

Urban redevelopment: In an urban environment, a depressed office market might make the process of downtown revitalization more difficult. In addition to the direct loss of property tax revenue from downtown office buildings, the commitment of a large office tenant to relocate to a formerly distressed urban area is often a catalyst for more widespread reinvestment, and without these signals, it might be harder to recruit other downtown businesses and residents into town.

Downtown business districts: A loss of downtown office employment would also put stress on other businesses that either service these office uses directly (like printers, office supply stores, cleaning and janitorial services, security, caterers, etc.) or that cater to the office workforce when they leave the office but before they head home. Restaurants and delis that serve lunch to workers, bars and clubs that serve as post-work meeting places, and stores that allow workers to run errands on their lunch hours might all suffer from a loss of customers. 

Note, however, that this latter group—the businesses whose customers are individual employees rather than the office tenants or buildings—may only be in jeopardy in places with a concentration of jobs, places that gain significant population during the day. In places where residents and employment are more evenly balanced, the loss of customers from the workforce no longer being in town during the day might actually be counterbalanced by the fact that more people who live nearby are now at home during the day and may need to run some of those same errands that they would otherwise be doing from their (former) work location. Smaller downtowns might actually see an uptick in activity, with more residents working locally. Incidentally, being overly dependent on office workers’ midday activities to sustain local businesses might be an argument for adding more housing to major downtown business districts, to create a better balance of jobs and residences.

Suburban car-oriented retail: Suburban shopping centers, already beset by competition from online retailers, might suffer a further loss of business if fewer people are out on the road. These car-dependent destinations often benefit from “trip chaining,” the phenomenon in which people who are on the way to or from work decide to accomplish other tasks on the way, since they are already in the car. But if trips to these locations can no longer be incorporated into the work trip and instead require a dedicated trip, they may become less attractive destinations. From a smart-growth perspective, however, a decline in the fortunes of car-oriented retail might be a net benefit, since the beneficiaries of a decline in trip chaining are likely to be more local businesses that are located closer to where most people live and don’t require a car trip onto the regional road network. Renewed demand over the last decade for walkable, mixed-use centers and for experiential” retail like dining, yoga, or pottery classes already favors downtowns over suburban shopping centers anyway, so a decline in driving might simply accelerate this trend.

Exurban/rural development: The lack of a need to commute would likely prompt some people to choose to live farther out in the countryside, if they value privacy and open space more than convenience and community interactions. Employed people generally seek to keep their commute time below a certain threshold and will choose their residential location based on how far they will need to commute to their job, or will choose a job based on how far it requires them to travel from their home. But if the home and the workplace are now the same physical location, people can base their locational decisions much more on personal preference than on commuting considerations. This might fuel a new round of sprawl and land consumption on the exurban fringe.

Transit ridership: Transit ridership, like car commuting, is likely to drop if large numbers of people continue working from home, stabilizing at a new, much lower equilibrium. This is especially true for regional rail systems, the main purpose of which is to transport suburban workers to jobs in central cities. The effects on subway, light-rail, and local bus ridership are less clear, since those modes get used for a wider variety of trip purposes, although bus ridership had already been declining in the face of competition from for-hire vehicle services. In any case, many of public transit systems’ remaining patrons will be people whose jobs don’t enable them to work from home, and people without cars using transit for non-work purposes. Many of these transit-dependent workers are among those who have recently been deemed “essential” (e.g. home health-care aides, hospital workers, grocery store and pharmacy employees, food service delivery people), however, so it is not clear how these people will continue to get to work if transit services are scaled back.

Transit funding: With transit ridership reduced to mainly people in service-sector industries who cannot work from home, many of whom are paid much less than the typical office worker, there may be less of a constituency and thus less political will to fight for a stable source of funding for transit. The loss of middle-class “discretionary” transit riders (people who have other options) might cause transit to be increasingly perceived as basically a social program for lower-income people.

Social isolation: Many employed New Jerseyans who have been working from home are likely discovering the degree to which interacting with people at work is also a part of their “social” lives. Leaving home every day to travel to a workplace guarantees daily interaction with a certain number of people outside of one’s own household, including not just coworkers and other professional colleagues but coffee baristas, sandwich makers, and convenience store cashiers. But without the requirement to leave the house, the new crop of telecommuters are finding themselves in a situation already familiar to many retirees—one in which socializing with others, when not built into a daily routine, can easily fall by the wayside, especially for those who live in car-dependent suburban neighborhoods where practically every trip outside the house involves several miles of driving. This might argue in favor of increased demand for live-work-play environments, where people can access multiple destinations close to one another and close to home, sometimes without needing to drive at all.

© New Jersey Future, 16 W. Lafayette St. • Trenton, NJ 08608 • Phone: 609-393-0008 • Fax: 609-360-8478

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