Will remote work help solve our traffic woes?

Long-term changes could be a silver lining to relieve gridlock

COULD BUSINESSES’ EXPERIENCE with social-distancing help relieve traffic congestion in cities like Boston?

These days, employees of many companies are learning to use remote meeting software like Google Hangout, Zoom, and Skype to conduct business. When the COVID-19 emergency mercifully ends, some businesses may decide to put their newly-gained telecommuting experience to continued use.

Working from home has been on the rise since before the recent crisis began. According to the Federal Reserve of St. Louis, the share of Americans who primarily work from home has risen in recent decades, from 0.7 percent of full-time employees in 1980 to 3 percent in 2017.

Prithwiraj Choudhury, a professor at Harvard Business School told Axios, “The virus could act as a game-changer for remote work, The coronavirus could be the catalyst that gets firms to adopt remote work policies in far greater numbers than we see now, even after the pandemic ends.”

Last year, Greater Boston had the worst traffic congestion in the nation, according to INRIX, a transportation data firm. When this year’s results were released earlier this month, Boston had again earned that dubious distinction. The Governor’s Future of Transportation Commission cites “remote working” as one of the most promising ways to ameliorate the ever-lengthening commute times that increasingly constrain economic growth.

Seventeen years ago, a panel led by esteemed Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter cited traffic congestion in the Boston/Cambridge area as a major impediment to sustained economic growth. Since then, congestion has gotten dramatically worse.

Organizations like Pioneer Institute are innovating to protect the health of employees and their families by requiring employees to work remotely and using Google Hangout or similar platforms to conduct meetings online with computer cameras and microphones. The response here has been very positive, resulting in a boost in collegial idea-sharing and support.

One obvious advantage of remote work is that it eliminates daily commuting time for employees who sometimes spend up to 10 hours or more to get to and from work each week, the equivalent of more than 12 40-hour workweeks per year. Of particular interest in metropolitan areas like Boston, newly-converted telecommuting employees would reduce congestion of our streets and highways.

But with every plus, usually comes a minus. In this case, commercial real estate owners and investors worry that a significant uptick in telecommuting would reduce the value of their properties. Evidence shows that when disruptive influences reduce commuting to central business areas, property values go down. The Journal of Urban Economics reported a 2015 study that showed when congestion tolls were imposed in Singapore to relieve congestion, it resulted in an almost 20 percent decline in local retail real estate values.

Other strategies suggested by the Future of Transportation Commission to relieve congestion also carry the risk of devaluing commercial offices in Boston and Cambridge, including building out Worcester to be a second major economic hub.

Maybe after the COVID-19 emergency is fully addressed, it will have a long-tail effect of teaching many employers that remote work can work. They say necessity is the mother of invention. In this case, the technology has been around for a while, but relatively few companies have seriously considered using it. Maybe this time necessity will be the mother who teaches us to use the invention.

Greg Sullivan is research director at Pioneer Institute, a Boston-based think tank.