Of course, she said, she doesn’t miss the traffic. It’s the 30 to 45 minutes built into her mornings, when she thought through her day or laughed along to a radio show. The drive home, she said, allowed her to catch up with loved ones via speaker phone, leaving her more present with her husband and daughter by the time she arrived home.
“I feel like I’ve been deprived of that quiet time I normally had in the mornings,” said Swift, 48, who recently returned to her office at the Girls Global Academy public charter school a couple of days a week. In the evenings, “I miss the solitude of the drive.”
Commuting often conjures up teeth-gnashing traffic jams, stifling subway cars and withering waits for the bus. When offices shuttered in March, social media rejoiced with workers celebrating their new commutes to the couch.
But after more than nine months of teleworking, some say they have come to miss the reliable and even forced time to gradually move into their work days and wind down into home life. Without a morning commute, they say, they tend to log on to their laptops earlier. Walking downstairs in the evenings often doesn’t provide enough mental buffer between a demanding boss and the dinner table.
Some motorists say they miss their favorite podcasts, audiobooks and radio shows. For some transit riders, it’s the guilt-free time to read or doze. Cyclists and walkers long for their daily doses of exercise and the outdoors.
Parents, in particular, say scarce “me time” vanished along with work travel.
Olney resident Erwin Hesse, 33, said he appreciates the relative privilege of missing his commute when so many others have lost jobs or can’t work from home. Still, he said, he has felt more fatigued without his usual 50-minute Metro ride between the Shady Grove station and Chinatown, where he oversees enrollment for the Georgetown University School of Continuing Studies.
With three young boys at home, he said, he used his commute as “alone time” to catch up on the news, listen to music or read for work. The evening ride home helped him mentally end the work day, he said.
“Since March, I don’t have that time to decompress,” Hesse said. “As soon as I open my door, I hear ‘Daddy, Daddy, Daddy!’ . . . There’s no break in the day like when I was on the Metro.”
Of course, many workers still say good riddance to the daily trek, especially in the nation’s capital, where pricey housing and notorious traffic congestion leave commutes via all modes averaging 43 minutes each way. Fifteen percent of such trips exceed an hour, according to the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments.
In a COG survey this summer, 75 percent of employers whose staffs liked teleworking during the pandemic cited “no commute” as a top reason.
Whether commuters miss that time might depend on how they traveled — did they get to exercise or relax? — and for how long they commuted, experts say. It also probably coincides with how predictable — or not — their trip was. Those who had awakened predawn to slog through traffic never knowing when an accident would turn a one-hour drive into two probably relish more sleep and less stress working from home.
Experts say the pandemic has further exposed disparities between office workers who could forgo the commute and more hands-on or service workers, who often have no choice but to carry on. Some public transit riders have reported fears of risking their health on buses and subways.
Researchers say they plan to closely track the amount of teleworking that continues post-pandemic, which could leave sweeping impacts on long-term travel patterns.
“There’s always been the question of how much of this will stick once the public and personal health situation has changed,” said Kanti Srikanth, the COG’s transportation planning director, who has enjoyed three hours of additional free time each day since mostly working from home.
How many of us eventually resume the commute — as well as how quickly and how often — will affect a wide range of economic activity, from gasoline consumption and public transit budgets to the survival of businesses that rely on lunch and happy-hour crowds.
Much of it, experts say, will depend on how quickly local economies recover pandemic-related job losses, how much employers continue to allow teleworking, how much workers want to return to the office and how quickly they feel comfortable jamming onto buses and trains, even after widespread vaccinations.
Unknowns surrounding the future of the commute also complicate local and state governments' abilities to predict their infrastructure needs. A region's transportation capacity — from the number of buses to the width of highways — typically is pegged to the demands of the peak morning and evening rush periods, experts say. Even a slight reduction in traffic volume can have an outsize impact on congestion.
In October, Washington-area traffic remained 10 to 15 percent lighter than pre-pandemic levels. However, highway speeds during the evening rush averaged about 50 mph — a 25 percent jump from the pre-pandemic 40 mph, according to the COG.
Timothy Canan, the COG’s planning data and research program director, said he suspects some workers pining for their commutes might have forgotten the pain they could bring.
“I think there’s a longing for predictability in our lives, and that includes the commute,” said Canan, who’s been able to skip a trip that once consumed three to four hours of his day. “As annoying as it could be, it was part of life that we now think of as normal.”
Juliet Jain and Glenn Lyons of the University of the West of England at Bristol said nostalgia probably plays a role. But their 2008 study also revealed that some workers consider their daily travel a “gift,” rather than a burden, particularly for “transition time” and “time out.”
“It’s this space between different types of roles — the gearing up for the start of the day and winding down at the end,” said Jain, who studies travel behavior.
Lyons said another researcher who conducted a study called the “teleportation test” found most people didn’t want to arrive at work instantly, even if they could. On average, he said, they preferred a 20-minute commute.
“People quite like some time on the move,” said Lyons, a professor of future mobility.
Jesse Littlewood, 40, is one of them. He said he immediately missed his 45-minute bicycle ride — he considered it “potentially one of the world’s loveliest commutes” — to his job at Common Cause in downtown Boston. He said he’d always appreciated the mental space that exercise and fresh air provided between work and home, as well as the chance to experience the changing seasons.
“It was one of the best parts of my day,” Littlewood said.
Since working from home, he said, his cycling time has been subsumed into more work, time with his children, house cleaning and an earlier dinner.
“Without the impetus to commute, I’m not motivated to strap on all the cold-weather gear and go out for an hour or two,” Littlewood said.
Transportation consultant Alan Pisarski, who has written extensively about commuting, said he’s long heard from people who like being able to decompress between work and home. Even as many bemoan the commute, he said, people typically travel longer as their incomes rise, choosing a more spacious home or other amenities over the additional time.
As pandemic teleworking has shown, he said, many commuters find ways to value their travel time, such as couples who catch up during their daily carpool.
“I’ve always said,” Pisarski added, “that American commuters are very resilient.”
Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.