Opinion: Coronavirus Telecommuting May Disrupt Transit Plans

Hundreds of billions of dollars in sweeping transportation proposals in San Diego County, controversial before the health crisis hit, could be jeopardized in a future where more are comfortable with telecommuting.

by Michael Smolens, The San Diego Union-Tribune / March 25, 2020
San Diego, Calif. Shutterstock/View Apart

(TNS) — Governments have long struggled to get more people to take mass transit.

Not surprisingly, ridership has plummeted in San Diego and across the nation amid the COVID-19 crisis. That could have devastating consequences for transit districts.

But the real long-term question is whether they can convince commuters to board buses, trolleys and trains in sufficient numbers in the post-coronavirus world.

Hundreds of billions of dollars in sweeping transportation proposals in San Diego County, controversial before the health crisis hit, could be jeopardized in a future where both employees and employers are more comfortable with telecommuting.

If working remotely becomes permanent in a big way once the crisis subsides, that will raise questions about the plans for miles and miles of high-speed trains under a plan being developed by the San Diego Association of Governments, as well as how much San Diego Metropolitan Transit System should eventually expand service.

SANDAG Executive Director Hasan Ikhrata has said the goal is to increase transit ridership by 10 percent in the coming decades. That may not sound like much on its face, but he said it was enough to create "100 years of capacity" to local freeways, which would also become more efficient with new technologies smoothing traffic flow.

Another goal of the system would be to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to levels mandated by the state.

It would seem squeezing 10 percent out of automobile commutes can eventually be achieved by increased telecommuting, avoiding the huge costs of a vastly expanded transit system.

"It's really hard to say now," Ikhrata said in an interview Monday. "First of all, it's a crisis for all of us and we have to get through it."

Clearly, the long-term reality is uncertain. How and whether the outbreak may ultimately reshape thinking on transit, not to mention so many other aspects of daily life, remains to be seen.

Ikhrata said it's highly unlikely in the future that people will be working remotely at the level they are today. He questioned whether enough would continue to do so to make an impact on transportation needs, though he would welcome it.

"That would be great news. . . If it does, we might have to adjust our plan accordingly," he said.

He also noted that the emerging proposal is multi-faceted. It's not just about high-speed trains, but integrated transportation corridors that involve various modes of transportation, including cleaner and zero-emission cars.

Ikhrata also said the plan won't be fully completed until 2021 and will have built-in flexibility because it would cover many decades.

Telecommuting has been growing for years, but as of 2019 only about 5 million U.S. employees, or 3.6 percent, worked at home half or more of the time, according to data compiled by Global Workplace Analytics. (The numbers do not include the self-employed). That has increased exponentially during the crisis, though it's unclear by how much.

What those figures will be when coronavirus is no longer deemed a threat is anybody's guess. As the Chicago Tribune points out, there's a lot of discussion about whether the crisis will trigger a work-at-home revolution.

Global Workplace said 56 percent of employees said they have jobs where at least some of their work could be done by remote.

Many jobs can't be done remotely, of course, though 80 percent of employees said they want to telecommute at least some of the time. As for businesses, Global Workplace said employers can save an average of $11,000 per half-time telecommuter a year. Again, all this data was compiled before the coronavirus outbreak.

There are still a lot of issues to be worked out if vast populations are to work at home regarding people who don't have access to computers, equipment and energy costs, and liability, to name a few.

Still, the world is experiencing what amounts to a forced trial run.

"This was a true test to all this telecommuting and technology," Ikhrata said.

He noted that SANDAG personnel are working remotely and, after a disruptive first couple of days, things are going smoothly. He expects business and government eventually will make deeper assessments on the potential for telecommuting to expand.

Societal adjustments and innovations during events like the COVID-19 crisis sometime carry over for generations. But Ikhrata said predictions that past crises would foster certain changes, such as reduced travel, haven't always come to pass.

Taking an even longer view, Ikhrata said big catastrophes have not necessarily altered the human trend toward socialization.

"Through history, these viruses, these episodes, are not scarce. . . but even with that, the population migration to the urban core continued," he said.

At least in the short-term, there's something beyond the logistical changes for the workplace and transportation.

Even when the outbreak has run its course, will it have created a lingering concern, even fear, of being in close quarters with a lot of other people?

"How quickly that awareness recedes will be different for different people, but it can never completely vanish for anyone who lived through this year," Deborah Tannen, a linguistics professor at Georgetown University, wrote in one of several essays published by Politico looking at potential long-term consequences of the crisis, bad and good.

Ikhrata agreed that will be an issue, but questioned whether it will remain an ongoing concern.

"People will be thinking twice, but people forget" he said. "Will it last? We don't know."

In the here and now, transit agencies are becoming financially stressed, particularly those like San Diego MTS that rely on a relatively high farebox recovery rate for their budgets.

In the larger picture, the world is changing in ways that will be tough to reverse, if that's even possible. Climate change remains an existential threat along with the likelihood of recurring viruses that scientists say likely will be exacerbated by global warming.

Adapting may require considerable adjustments. Widespread telecommuting may be among the most minor.

©2020 The San Diego Union-Tribune. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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