Virus upends commuting attitudes, plans

Residents keen on working from home, says new poll

THE CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC will hopefully come to an end or become successfully managed in the not too distant future, but some of the commuting practices it is ushering in may have more staying power.

Among regular MBTA subway riders, 44 percent say they plan to use the system less going forward, while 45 percent say they plan to end up driving more, according to a new survey done by the MassINC Polling Group for the Barr Foundation. Just a quarter of those surveyed said they would be comfortable riding the subway at rush hour.

An astonishing 41 percent of all employees in the statewide poll said they would prefer to continue working from home even after workplaces reopen, an indication that the enormous changes forced by the virus outbreak have opened a window into the possibility of a long-lasting resetting of the way we commute and work.

“This survey suggests we could see changes all across the system in terms of how people get around, with large swaths of the population planning to do things differently than before,” said Steve Koczela, president of The MassINC Polling Group.

The pandemic broke out just as the Legislature was wrestling with a plan to address the state’s transportation needs. In early March, the House passed a bill that would raise the state gas tax by 5 cents a gallon along with raising other fees to fund transportation needs. Just before the shutdown, the traffic data firm Inrix rated Boston traffic the worst in the country for the second year in a row.  Meanwhile, the MBTA has been struggling to deliver capital improvements quickly to a system suffering from billions of dollars in deferred maintenance.

Gov. Charlie Baker, an avowed foe of broad-based tax increases in general, has said now is an even worse time to consider tax increases, with the economy in tatters and unemployment spiking. But none of that changes the transportation infrastructure needs the state will face, and many have pointed out that gas prices have plummeted, which would more than cushion the impact of a 5 cent hike in the gas levy.

If more permanent changes in work and commuting practices are likely, how does that change planning for the state’s transportation future? The combination of fewer transit riders and more people taking to their cars is exactly the wrong way to go in the effort to relieve roadway congestion and promote more environmentally sustainable commuting patterns. But what would that mean in the context of an overall decrease in people commuting to work by any means?

Meanwhile, they are not viable commuting methods for many people, but 64 percent of respondents said they would support communities permanently giving over more street space to pedestrians and bicyclists. It’s hard to see how that would work, though, if accompanied by a crush of more cars on the road.

Meet the Author

Michael Jonas

Executive Editor, CommonWealth

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

About Michael Jonas

Michael Jonas has worked in journalism in Massachusetts since the early 1980s. Before joining the CommonWealth staff in early 2001, he was a contributing writer for the magazine for two years. His cover story in CommonWealth's Fall 1999 issue on Boston youth outreach workers was selected for a PASS (Prevention for a Safer Society) Award from the National Council on Crime and Delinquency.

Michael got his start in journalism at the Dorchester Community News, a community newspaper serving Boston's largest neighborhood, where he covered a range of urban issues. Since the late 1980s, he has been a regular contributor to the Boston Globe. For 15 years he wrote a weekly column on local politics for the Boston Sunday Globe's City Weekly section.

Michael has also worked in broadcast journalism. In 1989, he was a co-producer for "The AIDS Quarterly," a national PBS series produced by WGBH-TV in Boston, and in the early 1990s, he worked as a producer for "Our Times," a weekly magazine program on WHDH-TV (Ch. 7) in Boston.

Michael lives in Dorchester with his wife and their two daughters.

Big differences that emerged early on in the shutdown in who has been able to work from home have largely persisted. The poll showed that just a quarter of those with only a high school diploma have been able to work remotely, while more than 70 percent of those with a BA or further education have been able to do so.

It is yet another metric showing how the effects of the pandemic have not been felt evenly. If more working from home becomes baked into how companies operate, the same will be true with whatever the new normal is on rush hour roadways, trains, and buses.