How pandemic relocations are snarling in-demand suburbs

Ted Shaffrey/AP
A woman wearing a face mask and holding a dog rides the subway in New York City on July 31, 2021. Moody’s forecast in April that New York’s transit system, the country’s largest, would lose 20% of pre-pandemic ridership due to the shift to remote working.

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In 2020, several big cities saw a sharp rise in the number of residents moving out but staying within a 150-mile radius.

With that shift, driving patterns changed. Morning rush-hour traffic into New York and San Francisco is down by 28% and 27%, respectively. By contrast, “we’re seeing traffic congestion back or higher than pre-COVID levels in suburban and exurban rural areas,” says Bob Pishue, a transportation analyst. 

Why We Wrote This

For some people, working remotely opened up new lifestyle options. Many fled big cities, but they didn’t go very far. Will the resulting growth in suburbs and exurbs have lasting ripple effects?

Working at home tees up several short trips by car to gyms, stores, clinics, and restaurants, instead of a lunchtime walk downtown or a single stop on the way home. The result is higher tailpipe emissions from telecommuters than those who work in person.

Perhaps the biggest losers – aside from the U.S. carbon budget – are public transit systems. Moody’s issued a forecast in April that New York’s transit system would lose 20% of pre-pandemic ridership due to the shift to remote working. 

For some, this is an opportunity to re-envision public transit. “The bus doesn’t have to be miserable,” says Jarred Johnson, executive director of TransitMatters. “But it requires us to give precedence to the 40 people on the bus as opposed to the one person in the car.”

Traffic congestion is back. But it may not be where you expected it. 

From New York to San Francisco, downtown streets are flowing a bit more freely in the morning than they did pre-pandemic. Drive out of town, though, and by lunchtime you could be snarled in suburban slowdowns that linger into the evening. 

It turns out that working from home doesn’t mean driving less. Far from it: In some suburbs, congestion is above pre-pandemic levels, as remote workers squeeze in weekday trips to shops, cafes, and clinics, jostling for space with armadas of delivery trucks. 

Why We Wrote This

For some people, working remotely opened up new lifestyle options. Many fled big cities, but they didn’t go very far. Will the resulting growth in suburbs and exurbs have lasting ripple effects?

And for all last year’s hype about digital nomads giving up altogether on big cities and hanging out a shingle in rural idylls, what actually happened was a faster pace of centrifugal migration to suburbs and exurbs, where cars are often the only means of transportation. 

For these remote workers who potentially face a long future commute, the calculus is that employers won’t require their presence five days a week, so they get to enjoy their new surroundings and still stay connected to urban jobs and other amenities. 

“People are living not an hour away but an hour and a half away,” says Mitchell Moss, director of the Rudin Center for Transportation at New York University. “There’s a new recognition of the attraction of low density.” 

This shift in where people live and work is throwing up a new set of challenges. Even before the spread of a new coronavirus variant, transit systems were struggling to lure back riders wary of close proximity to others. For policymakers focused on climate change, a stampede to car-dependent communities only adds to the daunting challenge of curbing carbon emissions in transportation, a sector that produces about a third of all U.S. emissions.

And although cities are rebounding – rents, which fell sharply last year, are back up – the seismic shock of the pandemic and the tech-enabled habits of remote working it seeded will have lasting effects. 

“We’re beginning to see cities opening up. Are we going back to where we were before? The answer is no,” says John Rennie Short, a professor of geography and public policy at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. 

Charles Krupa/AP/File
Very light evening rush-hour traffic crosses the Zakim Bridge in Boston March 17, 2020. Compared with pre-pandemic levels, traffic during the morning rush hour into Boston is down by 21%.

Rethinking work and home priorities

Last March, as schools and offices in Boston shut down, Michael Parker moved with his wife and daughter to their vacation home in Sunapee, New Hampshire. Mr. Parker, who works as a fundraiser at a biomedical research center, figured it was a temporary relocation. By the end of summer, though, the family had decided to give up their rented apartment in the city.

Mr. Parker’s daughter enrolled in a local school, and he worked remotely; skiing and hiking filled their leisure hours. This year when his boss began bringing staff back in person once a week, he bought a small condo in Boston for overnight stays. Next month, that requirement is expected to increase to two days a week. 

Before the pandemic, Mr. Parker rode the subway to work. “We had one car that we hardly ever used, except on weekends,” he says. When they moved to Sunapee, a two-hour drive from Boston, they bought a second car.

Mr. Parker says he can’t imagine commuting to work every day, or staying away from his family during the week, if his employer were to end remote working. “I’d have to figure out some other arrangement. It would make me rethink,” he says. 

Survey and housing data show that Mr. Parker isn’t alone. 

In 2020, Boston was among several big cities that saw a sharp rise in the number of residents moving out but staying within a 150-mile radius, according to a study by the Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland that analyzed credit report surveys. Compared with pre-pandemic years, the number of such moves rose by 18% in Boston and 22% in New York. 

And Zillow recently found that the fastest house-price appreciation in the last two years was in communities with commutes of 50 minutes or longer to job centers in expensive cities like New York and San Francisco, suggesting a willingness to take on longer commutes. 

Still, this doesn’t add up to a mass exodus from American cities. Many workers can’t do their jobs remotely and stayed put in the pandemic. And in less expensive cities like Baltimore and Indianapolis, Zillow reported that sales were actually stronger in urban centers than in suburbs. 

Analysts note that the largest shift in 2020 was not in the number of urbanites who moved out, but in the number of those that moved in to replace them. 

“People were moving out. But people are always moving out. What happened was there were less people moving in,” says Professor Short. 

The future of public transit

As states and cities reopened this year, road traffic came roaring back too ­­– on the outskirts of town. 

Compared with pre-pandemic levels, traffic during the morning rush hour into New York and San Francisco is down by 28% and 27%, respectively. Boston is down by 21%. By contrast, “we’re seeing traffic congestion back or higher than pre-COVID levels in suburban and exurban rural areas,” says Bob Pishue, a transportation analyst at Inrix, a data analysis firm. 

This shouldn’t come as a surprise, says Paul Lewis, vice president of policy and finance at the Eno Center for Transportation in Washington. “Working from home actually increases trips. People that work from home tend to make more trips during the day,” he says. 

Studies have found that telecommuters generate more tailpipe emissions than those who work in person. Working at home tees up several short trips by car to gyms, stores, clinics, and restaurants, instead of a lunchtime walk downtown or a single stop on the way home. 

Perhaps the biggest losers – aside from the U.S. carbon budget – are public transit systems. Transit authorities are waiting to see if riders return when offices reopen after the summer, though the delta variant’s spread could delay that transition. And even if the pandemic ends, there could be a lasting effect. Moody’s issued a forecast in April that New York’s transit system, the country’s largest, would lose 20% of pre-pandemic ridership due to the shift to remote working.

Alfredo Sosa/Staff
John Gilbert, a barber, stands in front of the house he rents with roommates on July 28, 2021, in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He moved out of Boston in March and now commutes to work five days a week. His rent is cheaper now, so he hopes to save up for a deposit on a house.

For commuter rail, the outlook is also grim. McKinsey recently warned that Boston may lose as much as 50% of its commuter ridership due to shifting work patterns, though it forecast a stronger rebound for the city’s bus and subway services. 

This points to an opportunity for commuter rail networks to rethink their role, says Mr. Lewis. The most expensive services to operate are trains that run frequently during the morning rush hour, which may become less of a priority now. “If you’re able to flatten those peaks and redeploy that service to midday and evenings, you could see ridership return,” he says.  

Rapid bus routes offer another way to tackle congestion and serve residents who depend on public transit to get to work and school, says Jarred Johnson, executive director of TransitMatters, an advocacy group in Boston. Bus lanes should be prioritized and paired with congestion charges on cars to raise money to subsidize bus and train fares, he says. 

“The bus doesn’t have to be miserable; it can be just as enjoyable as the train. But it requires us to give precedence to the 40 people on the bus as opposed to the one person in the car,” he says.   

Lifestyle changes leading to more cars

For now, though, U.S. car sales are booming on the back of stimulus checks, easy credit, and lifestyle changes made during the pandemic. Along with that boom comes growing concern about carbon emissions. Despite the fact that electric car sales make up an increasing share of new cars sold, they represent only a sliver of all vehicles on the road. 

This car dependency goes with the territory, says Professor Moss, since mass transit isn’t a viable competitor in much of America. “This is fundamentally an automobile culture. This is a country where people value choice.” 

For John Gilbert, a barber in the Boston area, last year’s shutdown left him with few choices since he couldn’t cut hair remotely. He spent his downtime lifting weights and “driving around aimlessly.” When business returned this year, he was ready to move on – and to move out. 

In March, Mr. Gilbert gave up his lease on a shared apartment six miles from his barber shop and moved to Pawtucket, Rhode Island, 45 miles away. He was glad to opt out of Boston rental prices. “What you got to pay compared to what you got to put up with, it’s just not worth it,” he says. 

Today he drives to work five days a week, but he’s unfazed. “My rent got cut in half, but my commute only got extended by 10 minutes,” he says. “If it was over an hour every day, I wouldn’t have been comfortable doing this.” 

He hopes to save up for a deposit to buy property in Pawtucket, which seemed impossible in Boston. “I love the affordability. Really, there’s not a lot I don’t like,” he says.

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