The pandemic significantly altered travel routines for scores of residents in the region, according to a recent survey by the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments’ Transportation Planning Board. About 66 percent of respondents said their daily habits changed “a lot.”
Kanti Srikanth, deputy executive director for metropolitan planning at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, spoke with The Washington Post about the pandemic’s effects on commuting habits, the lessons businesses and transit agencies can take from a year when much of the workforce did their jobs from home, and the changes commuters might encounter as they return to offices. Here is an edited transcript of the interview.
The Post: What should commuters expect if they are returning to the office this fall?
Srikanth: My sense is that the patterns of travel will be different from what we all remember from before the great pandemic period. At the very least, [the commute] will be different.
We should definitely expect peak-period volumes to be lower and for them to change. What it is like after Labor Day may not be what it will be like in the middle of October. There might be hours of the day — which before the pandemic were not as crowded — which may now begin to see a bit more traffic. All of this is because people are trying new work schedules. Some employers are saying, “You know, hey, look, we want you to be here Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, but you work from home on Monday” — that sort of thing.
This is going to involve people figuring out what they are comfortable with. Maybe perhaps by the end of the year, we might begin to see people settling down. In September, I may want to try three days of teleworking because my employer allows it. My employer wants to bring people back slowly. But by November, December, I’m fine.
The Post: Your survey looked at how the pandemic influenced travel habits. Did anything surprise you?
Srikanth: Our survey found that 91 percent of our respondents working from home said they wanted to continue working from home. What is surprising about that is the pandemic period was really less-than-ideal circumstances to be working from home. Both spouses were working from home. You have children who no longer are able to go to their day care or other activities. Grandma and grandpa are not able to come to help out. And with everyone working from home at the same time, there’s the question of how you manage the demand on the Internet or on computers. With all of these things, you would think that people would say, “Oh, I’m ready to go back into the office.” So I think the point is that in spite of it all, they still want to work from home. And the reason for that is that there were some benefits — quality-of-life benefits.
The Post: How will teleworking affect the post-pandemic return to work?
Srikanth: In July 2020, when we did a survey of a small set of employers who already had a teleworking program to some degree in their office, we found a large number of employers say that they expect to retain the teleworking arrangements. Of those, 20 percent of them said they expect to retain teleworking at the pandemic level, which as you know, is very high. That’s interesting. And then in the same survey, we found that one-third of these employers and managers have reported increased productivity. So for a long time, there was a sense that, “Oh, I don’t know if this person — if I allowed this person to work from home — will be really working or watching a television show or doing something else.” That’s not what we saw. About one-third of them said there had been increased communications between workers and managers. These are the reasons we should expect teleworking to be a bigger factor in the changes in commuting than we might have expected before.
What will traffic volumes be like?
Srikanth: It’s going to vary widely. Volumes during the off-peak could be somewhat higher because now people have more flexible work schedules. They don’t have to go to work every day. They are doing more teleworking or working part-time in the office on any given day. So because of all of those things, in the short term, we should expect peak-hour volumes to be somewhat lower and maybe some of the traditionally off-peak hours volumes could be slightly higher because instead of coming home at 4:30 in the evening on my partial daily work day, I’m heading home at 2:00.
The Post: What are the implications for Metro and Metrobus, where volumes have been significantly lower during the pandemic?
Srikanth: I think the long-term future of transit in our region is very good. And I say that because I feel the long-term growth prospects for our region are very bright. We are going to bounce back. If you look at our region historically, when we have gone through some recessions and some significant economic challenges, the impact on this region has been relatively less than other parts of the country. And that is because this region has certain characteristics, strengths or certain unique features. It could be the presence of the federal government and the federal agencies. It could be the international organizations or the region’s strong medical and health sector, the I.T. sector, education — all of these things make our region very attractive. So we should continue to expect growth over the longer term in jobs and population.
In the immediate short term, obviously, ridership will likely be low on transit. In our survey, we asked people about coming back to transit and they said, “Oh, we would like A, B and C done.” Our transit operators are already doing a lot of those things [enhanced cleaning, social distancing, more frequent service]. So that again tells us how active, proactive our transit operators are. So, yes, in the short term, because employers are not bringing back all employees at full strength — they are allowing for more teleworking and there may be more virtual meetings — we will see a slight reduction in our transit. But remember, some of our transit — MARC, VRE and Metro during peak-of-the-peak before the pandemic — were very crowded. Transit agencies need to make sure they are staying in touch and in tune with what the public’s expectations are.
The Post: Are there other shifts that transit agencies might make post-pandemic?
Srikanth: We have also learned some lessons. During the pandemic, we realized that there are transit-dependent communities, whether you want to call them essential workers or something else. They may not want to own a vehicle for whatever reason. We found out that they were not being as well-served. So there are some lessons learned here that transit agencies can use to reexamine their service plans.