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Commuting patterns, workplaces may look different in a post-pandemic Washington, Post-Schar School poll finds

The region’s workers are mixed on whether they want to return to the office after the virus subsides

The Tysons Corner Metro station is seen from a skyscraper crane last month in Fairfax County. Ridership is continuing to rise only gradually on regional rail and bus systems. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
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Some residents in the Washington region express hesitancy in returning to their pre-pandemic work and commuting lives when the pandemic eventually ends, likely fueling a disruption in the rhythm of traffic and mass transit as employees ponder returning to workplaces.

Two in 10 area residents say they will ride Metro less often, including about 3 in 10 of those who rode at least weekly before the pandemic, according to a Washington Post-Schar School survey released Friday. The results find that the region’s workers — of whom 59 percent say they did most of their job at a computer before the pandemic — are mixed on whether they want to return to workplaces after the pandemic subsides.

The results suggest a potentially large shift in commuting patterns in the Washington area as some residents expect to change their behaviors around how they get to work and whether they work outside their homes. The data also points to a region that is cautious about resuming normal activities.

“Our residents seem to be a little bit slower, a little bit more likely to perhaps want as much research as possible before making the determination that it’s safe for them to go back,” said Jeannette Chapman, director of the Schar School of Policy and Government’s Stephen S. Fuller Institute at George Mason University, which studies the region’s economy. “We will take longer to get back into the office. And it will take longer for those potential workers to get back onto rail even once they’re back in their office.”

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

Residents who plan to cut back on mass transit cited several reasons: concern for the coronavirus, increased telework, or a combination of factors that include driving and use of other transportation options. Residents also expressed child-care concerns in preferring to stay home and a desire to protect non-vaccinated children and at-risk relatives.

The survey finds about 2 in 10 D.C.-area residents (19 percent) have ridden Metrorail in the past three months and 14 percent have taken a public bus. Nearly 4 in 10 say they haven’t taken the bus or train because of coronavirus concerns.

Read more about the poll here.

While the majority of workers say they are “not so” or “not at all concerned” about the possibility of being exposed to the coronavirus at work, more than 4 in 10 are worried about workplace exposure.

About one-quarter of workers prefer teleworking most or all of the time once the pandemic ends, and another quarter want an even split between teleworking and leaving home for work. Still, nearly half say they would prefer or need to leave home for work always or most of the time, including 33 percent who would like to “always” leave home for work.

In weighing options to return to his downtown D.C. office this fall, Sam Waite, 37, decided driving would be the less risky choice. A longtime transit user, Waite said even if he wears an N95 mask, the 90-minute trip via bus and train from his Greenbelt home to Metro Center would put him at greater risk of exposure. His main concern, he said, is protecting his 2-year-old daughter.

“It’s really unfortunate that I feel like I have to do this. I would like to take public transportation again, but it’s just a very scary thing for me right now,” Waite said. “If it was just me, I might think differently, but it’s not just me. I’ve got to think about other people who I can give it to.”

Virus caution among residents could slow D.C. area’s comeback, Post-Schar School poll finds

Waite said he would prefer to continue working from home full time or on a hybrid arrangement. He’s not alone in expecting to rely more heavily on telework: Four in 10 workers in the Washington region say that once the pandemic ends, they expect their employers will allow them to telework more than before, while a similar share say they expect the policy will be about the same.

The expectation among employees for increased telework peaks at 50 percent among those who live in D.C., while 39 percent of workers who live in the Maryland suburbs and 37 percent in Northern Virginia say the same.

Two-thirds of the region’s workers teleworked in the past year, according to the poll, including nearly half (48 percent) who teleworked in the past month.

The pandemic is likely to hasten a trend toward telework that has been in motion for years in a region with a heavy reliance on white-collar jobs. More than one million people teleworked at least occasionally in 2019, according to the National Capital Region Transportation Planning Board. Telework days accounted for about 10 percent of the region’s weekly work trips before the pandemic.

More workers are returning to the office. The pandemic-era commute might be changed forever.

The Post-Schar School poll finds that among residents who worked from home in the past year, 33 percent want to telework most or all of the time when the pandemic ends, 35 percent want to leave home for work always or most of the time, and 31 percent want an even split between the two.

Two in 10 residents say they are back to their normal pre-pandemic lives, and another roughly 3 in 10 say they are mostly back to normal, while nearly half say they are either partly or barely returned to normal. About a quarter say they will be fully back to normal within three months, and another third say it will happen within the next year.

New CDC indoor mask rule may threaten economic momentum and upend return-to-work plans

The Post-Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University poll was conducted July 6 through July 21, days before the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reversed recommendations on mask-wearing and advised that vaccinated people wear masks in indoor public settings in areas with high transmission, citing evidence that those who are vaccinated can spread the more transmissible delta variant. Caseloads have risen in the D.C. region and nationwide since early July.

View detailed crosstabs here.

The survey was conducted among a random sample of 1,000 adults in the District and the region’s Maryland and Virginia suburbs. It has a margin of error of plus or minus four percentage points. A half sample was asked questions about activities they have done and their coronavirus concerns if they haven’t; those results have an error margin of six points. And the sample of over 600 workers has an error margin of five points.

Among other modes of transportation, the poll finds 37 percent of residents have taken a taxi or ride-share service in the past three months, but another 25 percent have not because of coronavirus risks. Younger people and D.C. residents are more likely to have ridden in a ride-share or taxi than older people and suburbanites.

As governments lift pandemic-related restrictions, offices reopen and students prepare to return to classrooms, transit officials are ramping up the message that Metro is safe. Still, ridership is continuing to rise only gradually on regional rail and bus systems. Metrorail trips are around 25 percent of pre-pandemic levels, while Metrobus ridership is about half.

Metro is still requiring masks for all passengers and has also promoted a new air-filtration system in subway cars and more robust cleaning standards, which include daily and spot disinfecting at stations and on cars and buses.

“As ridership continues to rebound, Metro remains ready to serve as a safe, reliable and affordable transportation option for new and returning riders looking to get around the region once again,” Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld said late last month.

Planning a return to the office? The D.C. area’s transit systems want to get you there.

GMU’s Chapman said service improvements the agency plans to begin next month should help Metro regain riders who will be crucial to boosting long-term ridership.

“This survey does heavily indicate that at least in the medium term, there will be less demand for Metro,” she said. “The people that used Metro, either daily or multiple times a week, are the ones that are more likely to say that they’re going to change their behavior.”

Residents who worked from home in the past month are more likely to say they will ride Metro less frequently once the pandemic passes (25 percent) than those who did not work from home (14 percent).

A clear 68 percent majority of residents say they will take Metro about as frequently as they did before the pandemic. But among those who rode at least weekly before the pandemic, a smaller 54 percent majority say they will ride about the same amount as pre-pandemic, while another 13 percent of those frequent riders say they will ride Metro more often.

Just under half of people who rode Metro regularly before the pandemic say they have done so in the past three months, while 29 percent say they haven’t over coronavirus concerns. Among area residents who feel they are at high or moderate risk of getting sick from the virus, 48 percent say they haven’t ridden Metro because of the pandemic, compared with 32 percent who say they are at low or no risk. Roughly similar shares of each group have ridden Metro in the past three months.

Herminia Lopez, 39, of Hyattsville said she has not set foot on public transit since last year, when she became sick with the coronavirus and spent nearly four months recovering. Her long illness cost her a cleaning job and left her with fears about once again catching a virus that nearly killed her. As a precaution, she said, she and her family stopped eating out, going to crowded places and taking public transit.

“It may be a long time,” she said, before she feels comfortable sitting next to a stranger on a bus.

Lopez was a frequent rider on the C2 and C4 Metrobus routes. She now gets a ride with a vaccinated co-worker to her job at a Maryland Giant grocery store, where she packs groceries for online shoppers.

“I am not taking any risks using public transit,” Lopez said. “I am vaccinated but many people aren’t and some don’t even wear masks.”

40% of Metro employees report being vaccinated. Mandatory tests are possible unless that number rises.

At least until the pandemic recedes, some returning riders say they will ride less frequently amid the shift toward telecommuting.

Robert Gregory, a State Department employee who is mixing telework and working from the office, said he is planning to resume his Metro commute this fall. Still, he said he expects fewer train rides from his Alexandria home to his Foggy Bottom office because he’s likely to continue working from home a few days a week.

For now, a parking pass and lighter traffic are keeping Gregory’s commute off public transit. He said he has taken Metro a couple of times in the past year and is not concerned about using transit now, but he might be when and if rush hour crowds return.

“If you have been on the Metro, you know it’s only a handful of people on the trains,” he said. “Once there’s more people, of course, there will be more risk.”

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