The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Washington commute could return by fall for many workers. It won’t be the same as before.

Traffic is seen through the glass of a bus stop while moving along 14th Street NW before the coronavirus pandemic in 2019.
Traffic is seen through the glass of a bus stop while moving along 14th Street NW before the coronavirus pandemic in 2019. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
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Most Washington-area residents who have spent the past year teleworking because of the coronavirus pandemic could be back to their commutes by fall, but it might not resemble the commute they left behind in early 2020.

Labor Day has become a target date among many employers eyeing the return of workers to the office, according to surveys, business leaders and public officials. A study led by the Greater Washington Partnership, an alliance of the region’s top chief executives, found employers expect 75 percent of their workforce to return by the end of fall.

Prospects for a return were improved this month when President Biden’s administration announced that vaccines would be available for all adults by the end of May, although business groups and other experts say the transition to widespread in-person office work should be gradual and telecommuting is likely to remain an option for many workers.

“Most employers are going to start to go to a more hybrid model where folks are in the office a couple of days a week,” said Joe McAndrew, vice president of transportation at the Greater Washington Partnership, which surveyed nearly 200 Washington-area employers. “This all kind of rests on our ability to both vaccinate the population at a scale needed for herd immunity and to reopen the supporting services that enable folks to be able to get to the office.”

Chief among those services are the availability of child care and the full reopening of schools — plans that some school districts have announced in recent days. Despite a rocky vaccine rollout across the region, progress has been made. Almost 1 in 5 residents of the greater Washington region have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine.

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Officials at the region’s transit agencies, which have operated at lower levels for months, say they are ready to ramp up operations, although questions remain about whether agencies can lure back riders. Recent polls and research suggest commuters might be skeptical of using trains, buses and carpools, and they could turn to personal vehicles to get to work.

“Everything seems to be pointing to the fact that we’re going to see solo-occupancy vehicle trips increase,” said D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6). “It’s going to be a while until we are all packed into the train car again, right next to each other.”

Any increase in driving during the recovery period could be offset by the continuation of high levels of teleworking.

Transportation planners say they expect to see a transition period in which commuters try new ways to get to work, including more biking and walking for those closer to their offices. Some employers are discussing how to allow for variable work schedules so employees can commute outside of traditional rush hours.

As people return to offices, there might be temporary changes in the number of people driving, riding transit and carpooling, said Kanti Srikanth, the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments’ deputy executive director for metropolitan planning.

Still, there is no indication that an office return around Labor Day will resemble the “terrible traffic Tuesdays” of the past — the day after the holiday when summer vacations ended, schools were opened and Washington commuters faced an utterly frustrating commute.

“It could be a little messy in the early days,” especially after a year of relatively light traffic on the region’s roadways and transit systems, McAndrew said. “But I don’t think it will be cataclysmic.”

He said the number of people working from home during this transition period and post-pandemic is expected to rise above pre-pandemic numbers. Before the pandemic, about 10 percent of Washington-area workers were telecommuting on any given day.

Some transportation experts are projecting at least 20 percent of the region could work remotely at any given time after the pandemic subsides. Research shows there’s support among workers for keeping the option. In a survey of more than 2,400 residents commissioned by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, more than 91 percent of telecommuting workers said they would like to continue doing so at least one day a week when the pandemic is over.

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Of the Washington region’s 3.2 million jobs, 60 percent, or about 1.9 million, are telework-capable, according to Council of Governments estimates.

“We should expect there will be more telecommuting in a post-pandemic period,” said Srikanth. The Washington workforce has demonstrated that working remotely is possible under difficult circumstances, said Srikanth.

Another report commissioned by the Council of Governments found nearly 30 percent of managers reported increased worker productivity as employees work from home, and 75 percent of workers said they were glad to avoid a commute.

Ryan Drysdale, 33, a D.C. resident who works for a civic engagement nonprofit downtown, said he misses his bike ride to the office and interactions with colleagues, but working from home has given him flexibility to explore his neighborhood, spend more time with loved ones instead of commuting and work from anywhere when traveling.

“We’ve proven that we can work remotely and can do it well,” said Drysdale, adding that he hopes to continue remote work at least part time. “This is a huge change. It’s an opportunity for companies and organizations to attract workers based off of those [telecommuting] policies, and for companies to save on rent and folks to save on commuting and lunch downtown.”

In the pandemic recovery period, commuters also might encounter more walking and biking as the pandemic accelerates support for bus lanes, bike lanes and wider sidewalks.

These changes in travel patterns and work habits present an opportunity for transit to reinvent itself, Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld said recently. The transit agency — which has seen ridership and revenue plummet in the past year — is looking at flattening service levels, in which train frequencies are less tied to traditional peak hours. Periods of peak travel have become less pronounced during the pandemic, he said.

“We may be traveling at different times,” Wiedefeld said. “Why don’t we run that level of service all day to meet that demand?”

More immediately, Metro is working with business and tourist groups to ensure the region is prepared for a surge in commuters and visitors this summer. The agency is planning marketing campaigns and exploring incentives for commuters to return to Metro, Wiedefeld said at a meeting of the Northern Virginia Transportation Commission this month.

Still, he said Metrorail isn’t expecting a mass return of passengers any time soon.

“They’re not coming back until they feel this thing is in the rearview mirror,” Wiedefeld said at another recent meeting with transportation leaders. “They are not taking any risk.”

Metrorail ridership remains 90 percent below normal, creating a financial hurdle for an agency that gets 80 percent of its revenue from rail.

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Biden’s announcement this month that there will be enough vaccine doses for “every adult in America” by the end of May is likely to accelerate the return to the office, said Jeffrey C. McKay (D-At Large), chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.

“We should be looking at that date that the president has put out, working backward from that and saying, ‘How long do we need to market it, ramp up our messaging to get people back on the train?’ ” he said, urging Metro to take steps to bring back riders.

He continued: “We expect a lot of businesses — federal government and others — to reopen. And I think a lot of these people who have been staying at home have forgotten how bad traffic can be. And they’re going to reckon with that pretty quickly.”

Government restrictions resulting from the public health emergency — along with continued shifts in travel and telecommuting — have abated traffic jams in the Washington area. The region saw traffic delays drop by 77 percent last year, more than any other major metro area in the nation, according to data by traffic analytics firm Inrix.

Traffic congestion — especially rush-hour, bumper-to-bumper nightmares — has plummeted, with trips to downtown Washington slumping 60 percent.

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“We’ve never seen anything like it,” said Bob Pishue, a transportation analyst at Inrix.

He said questions remain about whether morning rush-hour traffic, which has practically disappeared in the region, will return to previous levels. Data indicates there are changes in traffic patterns, in which employees with more flexible work schedules are timing their trips differently. Meanwhile, midday travel has increased in recent months, Pishue said.

“It’s hard to predict the future with where things are right now, but we expect relatively slow increases in traffic congestion as things kind of come back online,” he said. “It’s not going to come back all at once.”

Some commuters said they are eager to return to their commutes, although their confidence relies heavily on vaccine rollout progress.

“I’m immunocompromised, so the idea of going back too early and not having everyone vaccinated or having safety protocols in place, that makes me nervous,” said Cate Bonacini, 33, of Takoma Park, a transit rider who works at an international organization downtown.

Bonacini’s employer is considering a reopening this year. When that happens, Bonacini said, she most likely will drive, and then will return to transit — with double-masking — when she and people close to her are vaccinated and she feels safe. For now, she said, she’s looking forward to getting back her commute and using the time to read, catch up on news or connect with friends.

“I just miss that time in between work and home,” she said. “It was a place to process and think and reflect on the day and what went well and what didn’t. I’m just missing those opportunities.”

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly cited a statistic that 80 percent of managers saw increased productivity in employees. The number is almost 30 percent. The article has been updated.

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