Returning to offices, rethinking commutes

Time lost traveling to and from the office once seemed unavoidable. But some workers say telework has made them see how unnecessary the commute has become.

As more offices reopen, workers are reevaluating their options to avoid traffic-clogged commutes. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

The coronavirus pandemic-era experiment with remote work, now in its 18th month, has created one of the biggest disruptions to the American commute in memory.

As more workers gradually return to the office this fall, many are rethinking how — and how often — they will get there, while reconsidering commuting habits years in the making.

7 ways the ride to the office might be different this fall

In interviews with workers across the region, The Washington Post found former mass transit commuters who now are hitting the road, nervous about sharing the ride or finding that driving has become faster amid suppressed rush hour traffic volumes. Others are switching to bike commutes, having discovered a love for cycling during the pandemic.

Time lost to commuting — once considered an unavoidable part of life — now feels unnecessary, many say.

A D.C. resident whose office closed permanently during the pandemic said he has three more hours each day to play with his daughter, relax or work late when necessary. An Alexandria resident who used to ride the Metro daily is planning to move away to be closer to family after being allowed to telework full time. Limiting the commute has provided breathing space to better balance work and parenting.

Here’s everything you need to know about getting to the office with scooters, bikes, buses and trains

“It’s an extraordinary upheaval,” said transportation consultant Alan Pisarski. “It isn’t something that’s going to go back to the old normal. There’s no question about that. Too many people have been affected by it and learned from it.”

Commuter choices across the Washington region and beyond will have profound effects on transit agency budgets, road congestion patterns and the financial health of business districts that rely on a daytime workforce. As more offices reopen after Labor Day, the commutes of fall 2021 aren’t likely to resemble those of the pre-pandemic era.

Less money on gas, more time with kids

Zenita Wickham Hurley, 45, Baltimore
  • Early 2020 commute: Driving
  • Fall 2021: Mostly telework, some driving

Zenita Wickham Hurley said she has worked for years to balance her senior position at the Maryland Attorney General’s Office a and raising three children. One of her biggest energy sappers: A 15-minute driving commute that could stretch up to an hour each way with backups, combined with kid drop-offs or pickups.

Hurley, the attorney general’s chief counsel for civil rights, said she’s not certain when she will return to her downtown Baltimore office, but she’s ready to relinquish the stressful drive more often to continue some telework long-term.

“There hasn’t been a day when I’ve said, ‘Boy, I miss commuting,’ ” Hurley said. Since beginning to telework full-time in March 2020, she said, “I almost feel like a different person.”

Money saved on gas and parking during the pandemic has gone toward paying off her student loans. Lunch breaks at home during the summer brought extra time with her 10-year-old, and she often starts fixing dinner while wrapping up a work call.

“When you don’t have that office time, you have more flexibility to go in and out of work mode throughout the day,” Hurley said. “Before, I’d come home depleted with nothing left in the tank.”

At work, she said, she feels “as, if not more, productive” because it’s easier to start early or work late when necessary. She said she also plans to use her office’s new openness to telework as a way to increase diversity by recruiting and retaining lawyers who can make more money in the federal government or private sector.

When she does return to the office regularly, she said, she will limit it to a couple days a week and prioritize in-person meetings, particularly to brainstorm or share ideas, which has proved more difficult online.

“The days of going in just to go in are gone,” Hurley said. “I’m not going to commute, spend money on gas and parking, stress myself out and miss time with my family just to do what I could do just as effectively at home.”

— Katherine Shaver

Driving became faster than the train

Carrie Blough, 44, Brunswick, Md.
  • Early 2020 commute: MARC commuter rail
  • Fall 2021: Driving and seeking more telework

Carrie Blough returned to her office at a D.C. museum in July but hasn’t returned to riding MARC commuter rail. Blough, who lives in Brunswick, Md., has been sharing a ride with a friend who has a parking space downtown.

For seven years, Blough’s commute has been two hours each way, door-to-door. While the commute is “grueling,” she said, it allows her to afford a three-bedroom house with a view of woods and mountains.

At the same time, Blough said, “I love my job. I love working in the city, and I really love the people I work with.”

She hopes she will be allowed to return to teleworking a couple days a week, especially when she needs to write or do research without disruption. With traffic lighter during the pandemic, she said, the drive takes about an hour and 20 minutes, but she expects she will return to the train as traffic picks up.

“This is not going to last once more people go back to work,” Blough said. “Traffic on I-270 and 495 will be crazy, and it will take two hours again.”

Even if the train takes longer than driving, she said, she’ll get to read and nap. She also considers the train more environmentally friendly.

Even so, Blough said, she will have to determine how safe she feels. Having been vaccinated against the coronavirus, she said, she thinks she will feel okay riding MARC with a mask, but she’s worried about cramming onto a crowded Metro car.

“I do wonder how I’ll feel in close proximity to people,” Blough said. “I’m leaving myself open to saying, ‘No, I can’t do this.’ … My friend and I might just drive until things settle down more, until more people are vaccinated and the numbers go down — and I start to feel comfortable riding public transit again.”

— Katherine Shaver

Office closure brings welcome end to long commute

Andrew Breza, 35, Northeast Washington
  • Early 2020 commute: Metrorail to Reston
  • Fall 2021: Full-time telework

Andrew Breza dropped his commute in August 2020, when his Reston office closed for good amid the pandemic. He now teleworks full time.

Breza, a data scientist for a public relations and media management firm, said he is thrilled to skip the Metro commute that took 1 hour and 40 minutes each way from his Northeast Washington home. He had worked from home on Tuesdays before the pandemic, and he’s happy to continue doing so full time.

“I love it,” said Breza. “Absolutely love it.”

Breza said he misses the mental buffer his commute provided between work and home, but he often takes a late-day walk around his neighborhood after logging off his computer.

“Now I can get that separation by getting in the hammock in the backyard,” he said.

With more than three extra hours restored in his day, he said he reads more, gets ahead on household chores and plays with his daughter, who was born during the pandemic.

“I’ve used the time just to live,” he said. “If I need to work later, I can.”

After his office closed, Breza said, he built a treadmill desk for his basement because he missed the walk on both ends of his Metro ride. He said he logs 15 to 20 miles a day, stopping the treadmill only during virtual meetings.

Not paying peak-hour, long-distance Metro fares has left him with an extra $200 a month — a personal gain, but a financial loss that he can see mounting for the transit agency.

“You don’t need to lose a lot of money from long-distance riders like me to really feel it,” he said.

— Katherine Shaver

Unwilling to return to bumper-to-bumper traffic

Luisa Solano, 36, Silver Spring
  • Early 2020 commute: Driving
  • Fall 2021 plan: Telecommuting, biking, Metro and driving

Luisa Solano isn’t overly excited about returning to the office, and even less so about going back to her old commute behind the wheel. The half-hour drive to and from her home in suburban Maryland could easily turn into an hour.

“When I think about commuting again in rush hour, ugh, it’s a pain!” said Solano. “Who wants to be stuck in traffic after the pandemic?”

The past 18 months of telecommuting have given Solano a respite from driving into D.C. that she says has been good for her sanity. It freed her for evening yoga classes and Colombian folklore practices. Her non-commuting trips, she said, have been easier as traffic patterns have shifted.

Solano, a communications consultant at an international public health agency, said she’s ready to let go of the car a few days a week to mix in other transportation options. She expects to have a hybrid schedule in the coming months, although a September office return was postponed.

She’s shopping for a bike to test an eight-mile ride from downtown Silver Spring to the office in the District’s West End. With D.C. becoming more bikeable, Solano said, she’s more motivated to embrace the two-wheeled commute. But she’s not discarding options of working from home, driving some days and taking Metro at other times.

“If I get the opportunity to go when it’s not rush hour, yes, I’m 100 percent down to Metro. But when it’s rush hour, I’m like, ‘Oh, no,’ she said. “I can use the car if I have a meeting and I don’t want to go to the meeting like all sweaty. It’s definitely a mix. It depends on what’s convenient on that day.”

— Luz Lazo

Once-daily Metro rider moving away to telework

Gail Parker, 74, Alexandria
  • Early 2020 commute: Metrorail or bus
  • Fall 2021: Planning to telework from Oklahoma

Gail Parker, an analyst for a government contractor, is planning to move from Alexandria to Oklahoma this fall to look after her 97-year-old mother and disabled brother. She made the decision a few months ago, she said, after being told she could telework long term.

“That’s a tremendous thing for me,” Parker said.

Before the pandemic, she said, she worked from home a few days a year. Since teleworking full time, she said, she hasn’t missed the 45-minute Metro or bus commute. She likes working in her pajamas when she wants, eating healthier lunches and spending part of her lunch break on her balcony treadmill.

“It’s much quieter here, and I don’t have as many interruptions,” said Parker. “If I’m not interrupted, I find I have fewer mistakes.”

Without having to get ready for work and commute, Parker said, she grabs her coffee at 6 a.m. and gets to work. That leaves time to run errands midday and finish up by midafternoon to spend more time painting, relaxing or doing chores.

When she needs to work later, she does. Another colleague, she said, molds his teleworking schedule around his young children.

“It’s more flexible,” she said. “People are setting their own hours, and it’s working.”

— Katherine Shaver

After 40-year ritual, new uses for commute time

Carey Campbell, 64, Arlington
  • Early 2020 commute: Metro
  • Fall 2021 plan: Seeking more telework or Metro

Carey Campbell considers himself a devoted Metro rider and walker. He met his wife on a Metro train and rode one every morning to work. Walking home seven miles daily to Arlington helped him fit exercise into his day.

Before the pandemic, he said, he had never tried working from home.

“It wasn’t really part of my generation,” said Campbell. “I was used to getting up, putting on a suit and going to an office. That was my ritual for 40 years.”

Campbell, an accountant for a federal agency, said he can’t see himself returning to an office. He is more efficient when working at home, he said.

“I discovered I could focus here,” Campbell said. “I thought I’d want to goof off too much, but I realized I can work here and be just as efficient.”

The two hours that he and his wife, a lawyer, used to spend commuting are now spent taking walks together.

Campbell said his team was scheduled to return to the office in November, but he’s not sure if the delta variant has changed those plans. He said he’d like to continue working from home full time but doesn’t know how much teleworking will be allowed.

If he must return to the office, he said he would feel comfortable riding Metro again. His vaccination and what he’s read about Metro’s stepped-up cleaning has made him feel safe.

But he has a big caveat: “If the virus mutates and gets worse, I won’t leave the house.”

— Katherine Shaver

Preparing for a car commute if trains are full

Therese Lee, 43, Northeast Washington
  • Early 2020 commute: Public transportation
  • Fall 2021: Teleworking, with plans for Metro or driving long term

Therese Lee prepared for her first commute since the pandemic began by ordering a plastic face shield for added protection over her mask and eyes.

Like many companies, her employer had planned to summon workers back to the office the day after Labor Day. It would have been her second time in the Arlington office since relocating from Chicago in June.

Lee, a tax adviser, had felt confident about using public transit — her preferred mode of transportation. But the delta variant sent infection rates and her concerns rising, and her company postponed a return to the office until at least January 2022.

Lee was prepared to ride Metro even as the coronavirus pushed her to buy a car, which she hadn’t owned in more than a decade. Now, she will reexamine her commute choice closer to the new year, based on the state of the pandemic and the capacity of Metro trains.

Her employer understands those concerns, she said, and is offering workers discounted parking, subsidized ride-share trips and bike rentals, in addition to Metro and commuter train benefits.

“Even if everyone’s wearing a mask, you’ve got people breathing on you,” she said. “I’m just concerned about when we get back to regular capacity, when people are asked to come back to the office, how are you going to protect yourself then? I don’t understand how that’s going to work because there’s no way to social distance on a packed train during rush hour.”

Her car — a 12-year-old Jeep Liberty with nearly 200,000 miles — is the last resort. If Metrorail cars start filling up, she plans to commute outside the busiest times. If that brings too little comfort, she will consider her car, which she has used to run errands during the pandemic.

“That’s what I use most of the time, just because I don’t have to go to the office now,” she said. “And I don’t really want to take the risk.”

— Justin George

A new love for bikes while avoiding crowded transit

Salome Gongadze, 23, Northwest Washington
  • Early 2020 commute: Transit
  • Fall 2021 plan: Biking

Salome Gongadze found the perfect route to her new job in downtown D.C. The best part, she said, is it’s free of traffic jams and long waits at a train station.

When she returns to the office this fall, Gongadze will be riding the new bike lane on 17th Street NW, across Lafayette Square, and connecting to the Pennsylvania Avenue cycle track. It’s a 20-minute trip from her Dupont Circle home to Federal Center SW — a shorter ride than Metro when factoring in wait times and a transfer at Metro Center.

The researcher discovered a love for cycling when she found herself in lockdown while finishing a master’s degree in global politics at the London School of Economics.

“I got really into riding a bike as a way of kind of getting around more safely, but also because obviously there wasn’t much to do,” she said. “And I found it really relaxing and enjoyable and safe.”

She grew up in Washington riding Metro and buses, but after the pandemic, isn’t ready for crowded transit or to give up the daily exercise. She expects to save about $5 in Metro fares daily.

“This pandemic has been obviously pretty difficult to live through. So I thought, ‘Okay, if I bike commute, I’ll be able to have that every single day. It’ll be good for me,” she said. “It’s better for my physical health because I’ll be moving.”

— Luz Lazo

Working parent’s ‘quiet and beautiful’ Beach Drive ride

Eliza Cava, 35, Northwest Washington
  • Early 2020 commute: Driving
  • Fall 2021 plan: Biking

Just before the pandemic hit, Eliza Cava bought an electric cargo bike. She had been driving to her job in Chevy Chase but missed her bicycle commute to a previous job and wanted to help combat climate change.

With her young children becoming old enough to sit in a cargo bike, she decided she could ferry them to day care before heading to work as director of conservation for the Audubon Naturalist Society. With the bicycle’s electric boost, she said, she can ride uphill from Petworth through Rock Creek Park without arriving sweaty to a morning meeting.

The ride is just over 30 minutes — slightly longer than she had spent slogging through traffic.

A big plus: The closure of part of Beach Drive to vehicles during the pandemic has made her feel safer.

“It’s been transformational,” said Cava. “It’s quiet and beautiful. It’s great. It’s my only time to exercise as a working parent.”

Cava said she’s been going to the office a few days a month since last fall. Though she’s eager to escape her home and see colleagues again, she said, she recently delayed plans to go in more often this fall because of the delta variant. Eventually, she said, she’ll probably work in the office up to four days a week but can see teleworking when she needs to avoid distractions to write or do research.

“I want to go back to my office,” Cava said, “mainly so I can do my commute by bike.”

— Katherine Shaver

One less day of commuter rail a ‘welcome change’

Judah Prero, 49, Baltimore
  • Early 2020 commute: MARC commuter rail
  • Fall 2021: MARC commuter rail and more telework

Judah Prero worked from his Baltimore home on Fridays before the pandemic, allowing him to forgo the almost hour-long MARC commuter train ride to D.C. Since his trade association recently started to allow teleworking on a trial basis twice a week, he said, he’s added Mondays at home, too.

Before July, when people began returning to the office, his trade association hadn’t had a formal telework policy, Prero said. Face time with members of his association and congressional staffers had been considered essential, he said.

“Then covid came along,” said Prero. “Employees demonstrated to members and leadership that we could do what we needed without being together.”

Adding a second day of remote work, he said, is “definitely a welcome change for me and a lot of others.”

MARC trains feel empty, he said, even on a reduced schedule. He said he feels comfortable returning to mass transit because he’s vaccinated and has coronavirus antibodies from contracting covid-19 last fall.

Besides, he said, “To me, driving is just a huge waste of time.”

— Katherine Shaver

About this story

Story editing by Tim Richardson. Photo editing by Mark Miller. Design by J.C. Reed. Copy editing by Anne Kenderdine.