Has COVID-19 Changed Commuting for Good?

September 16, 2020 5 Minute Read

Has COVID-19 Changed Commuting for Good?


Ask the average office worker for their least favourite part of their daily routine, and you’re likely to get a common response: The commute.

Whether it’s an hour in a car both ways, or standing in a packed subway car, commuting to the office wasn’t ideal even before COVID-19.

Now, with physical distancing and sanitation concerns surrounding public transit, many workers are wondering how they’ll be able to safely return to the office in the coming weeks and months.

It’s a question on the mind of companies around the world, and not one with a simple answer.

At CBRE, the discussion about the safety of commuting is ongoing. Toronto Managing Director Jon Ramscar has joined other industry leaders in a series of discussions facilitated by the Urban Land Institute to discuss potential short-term and long-term solutions. Meanwhile, surveys sponsored by CBRE have examined employee and occupier mindsets around commuting in this unprecedented time.

Whether it’s allowing continued remote work, making non-public transit commuting more accessible or even considering the built-form of our offices, there’s plenty of work through to make the commute possible, if not mundane again.

The Commuting Conversation

Jon Ramscar understands the importance of leading a conversation. As CBRE Executive Vice President and Managing Director of its flagship downtown Toronto office, he’s been involved in top-level conversations about the return to the office for months now.

Those conversations span industries and companies, as he seeks out the broadest perspective on working during COVID-19. In recent months, he’s participated in the Urban Land Institute’s “Reimaging Recovery” series, including a conversation about “Retrofitting Our Urban Region.”

“One of the most pressing issues we’re all facing is transit: How do we mobilize employees and get people back to work?” says Ramscar.

Long-term Ideas

For urban-dwelling employees who rely on transit, biking could provide a safer commuting option. In the long-term, increased cycling infrastructure could make it easier for those workers to get to the office.

“It’s still early to talk about large-scale changes to buildings as real estate by its very nature is not flexible as a built form ,” says Ramscar. “It is possible to create amenities in a building that would accommodate bikes, from lockers to bathrooms with showers and many investors and developers have had success in attracting tenants due to these features in new build developments. We have been witnessing an increase in bike locker and shower facilities in recent years and it will be interesting to see if this trend accelerates moving forward with our City’s development inventory. However, it is clear in the short-term, we’ll need to consider more practical changes.”

Cycling is just one alternative to public transit that employees may seek out. According to a recent survey by the Chicago Tribune, 28.0% of workers who use public transit to get to work will look for alternative methods.


Short-term Solutions

“There’s a lot of discussion around practical solutions that can be implemented quickly, without changing the fabric of a building,” says Ramscar.

Increased sanitation and mandatory mask policies are one way to make public transit safer for workers. Employers may also consider implementing staggered start times, to reduce the number or employees taking transit at any given time and removing the crush of a traditional “rush hour.”

There’s also the question of which employees should return to the office first.

“I firmly believe that when leaders come back to the office first, it increases the confidence of other employees, who feel encouraged to do so,” says Ramscar. “But there’s also the question of demographics. It might be, for personal safety reasons, that you see a younger demographic return to the office first, while the older demographic works from home for longer or more often.”

Rethinking the Commute

Many employers have signaled that the days of the 5-day morning-and-evening commute may be over.

In CBRE’s recent 2020 Global Occupier Sentiment Survey, 70.0% of respondents said that some portion of their workforce will be allowed to work remotely full-time, while 61.0% indicated that all employees would be allowed to work remotely some of the time.

This suggests that a hybrid office model will emerge in the coming months, allowing employees to choose where they work and when. In a survey of 1,000 U.S. office workers conducted by The Harris Poll and sponsored by Hana, CBRE’s flexible space solutions platform, up to 58.0% of respondents appreciated not having to commute. That number rose to 70.0% for suburban workers. Considering this, many may choose to commute less often, and during off-peak hours.

“The reality is we are in a fluid situation that requires a thoughtful and practical approach to see us all through safely and effectively ,” says Ramscar. “No one has the answers, and everyone has to be mindful of their own idiosyncrasies. We know from our global clients and our own business at CBRE that teamwork and collaboration are essential to a company’s culture and so the office will continue to play a vital part in a company’s success going forward. It comes down to how we facilitate this in the interim . At CBRE, we’re looking to create a best-in-class action plan based on the latest available information from our global platform as our clients continue look to us for guidance.”

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