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Comment of the Week: Working at home as cure for congestion

Posted by on March 16th, 2020 at 11:56 am

Streets in the time of coronavirus. (Note: This is an old photo, but the point remains.)
(Photo © J. Maus/BikePortland)

Portland’s streets are much quieter since scores of people have started working from home during the coronavirus outbreak.

On Friday, a reader named Tom shared a great comment about what this change in work habits means to our travel behaviors more broadly, and how it should inform our decision-making around managing congestion.

Here’s the comment:

“The lighter traffic this week didn’t make any difference to my bike commute but people at my work who drive where in total shock at the lack of commute hour traffic. Some people who just work at their computer and don’t really need to be on-site all the time where given the option to work at home some days, and I heard other companies were doing the same. Some were worried this might impact productivity, but actually it was a very productive week for the factory. If anything it seemed to improve productivity so far.

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My point is that it only took a slight adjustment to allow select people to work from home some of the time to result in a drastic reduction in commute hour traffic, with no apparent downside. This demonstrates that the trillions we have spent locally on freeways over time is in large part to support the employer inflexibility of unnecessarily requiring everyone showing up at the exact same time when other options are available.

Congestion pricing if applied to commute hours may force some workers to ask their employers to allow them to shift their schedule but why not just just directly apply the pressure to medium and large size employers. Employers could be incentivized by a headcount congestion impact fee, that they could then get out of paying if they shifted a certain amount of workers at least slightly off 8 to 5, or allowed some workers to work from home a certain percent of time, or set up car pooling program for employees and demonstrate a increase in carpooling. The answer should not be widen, widen, widen, every time.”

Thanks for that Tom.

For a bit more context, the amount of people who work from home in Portland was already increasingly rapidly before the outbreak. The chart below (from a recent presentation by PBOT Bicycle Coordinator Roger Geller that I’ll share more about soon), compares U.S. Census mode share rates over time. Working from home has nearly doubled since 2002.

(Chart: City of Portland Bureau of Transportation)

Remember, if you read a great comment and want it to be highlighted here, just reply to the comment with “comment of the week” so I can find it easily via search.

— Jonathan Maus: (503) 706-8804, @jonathan_maus on Twitter and jonathan@bikeportland.org
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NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are productive, considerate, and welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. If you see a mean or inappropriate comment, please contact us and we'll take a look at it right away. Also, if you comment frequently, please consider holding your thoughts so that others can step forward. Thank you — Jonathan

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Alan 1.0Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)joel domriesqHello, Kitty Recent comment authors
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Hello, Kitty
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Hello, Kitty

One observation I’ll note: Traffic volumes definitely seem down, but speeds seem up. I chalk it up to all the “driving after the apocalypse” scenes we’ve seen.

Dan A
Subscriber
Dan A

When I drive on Hwy 26 at 5:40am it’s pretty terrifying at times, and has been for a couple of years. Zero enforcement and more freedom of movement than people are used to leads to a lot of people swerving about, trying to get to work 10 seconds faster.

Dan A
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Dan A

I’ll never understand why they come up with these numbers the way they do. Pretty much everyone in my department is allowed 2 WFH days per week, which is not enough for anyone to answer that they primarily work from home, and yet most of us WFH 40% of the time. I’ve been doing this for 20 years.

Dan A
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Dan A

Oops, this comment is not a reply to any comment in particular.

Todd Boulanger
Guest

True dat! …commuting has been a breeze…

Though – as NW governors shut down bars and other community “third places” – do not forget to check the web sites of your favourite small business restaurants for “to go orders” and “deliveries”, like Niche Wine Bar (restaurant license) in downtown Vancouver WA.

They still need our help and business to support their staff during these odd times.

Middle of the Road Guy
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Middle of the Road Guy

Also, if possible leave bigger tips than usual.

Champs
Guest
Champs

The abstract social element notwithstanding, what I’m seeing is that people who aren’t going out and can’t run errands on their commute are relying more on deliveries. It’s more diesel mileage, and the packaging waste is mounting.

Is this a positive impact or simply moving around numbers on the ledger?

Middle of the Road Guy
Guest
Middle of the Road Guy

I realize this is an exceptional time so all assumptions are somewhat conditional, but the reduction of VMT may also result in local dollars leaving the community as there are .

joel
Guest
joel

im going to disagree with this entire post-

sure- easy biking- no cars, but also no one can pay their rent, people are going under, i lost three clients at courier coffee, and we have closed our shop. no wages, no payments, and our bike delivery is down. and if one person gets a cold everything will shut down for us.

its nice that tom can work at home- but i cannot. and tom and jonathan – the downside is that when people stay home they dont support local business. Tom and Jonathan do not have to work retail- retail people are losing their jobs. of course computer based people dont have to go to work, but what about all the food you eat. grocery store, bar, restaurant- those people cannot work from home

tone deaf slanted article. ( sorry jonathan- and im always a huge fan of bikeoortland.)
im a bike based business and its pretty dire- you guys who just bike to work and dont have to like tom- great- dont ever go back, but this article is pretty bad.

i have employees who have no jobs anymore. they probably dont care that they can bike to work because they dont have a job.

that being said im going to support all of my staff through and through but this article seems crazy to me.

lack of commute boosts productivity for bikers-

coronavirus boosts productivity for office workers

however service workers lose their jobs, and bike messengers lose their jobs.

im so so sorry but i find problems with this post.

cmh89
Guest
cmh89

You are projecting a loooot into the post. I know its a frustrating time for anyone who’s ability to earn income is impacted, but this article is not saying coronavirus or quarantines are good a thing and I think you’d have to reach really hard to argue that it does.

The comment/article just points out that there is a significant amount of the population that doesn’t need to physically be in an office to work and that by building road infrastructure that primarily accommodates one mode share, we are subsidizing a business model that requires pointless and needless burning of fossil fuels.

David Hampsten
Guest

People who are in the service industry are getting hit hardest by this lockdown, those who are already making the lowest wages, who are more likely to be immigrants and/or minorities, often without adequate health insurance, who can least afford “taking time off.” Closing schools is a double-wammy for such families – childcare is already in short supply even before the virus, and now it’s completely unaffordable – but such workers are not allowed paid leave, so they’ll lose their jobs if they watching their kids, or be charged with neglect if they aren’t and lose their kids.

So thanks to the lockdown, we’ll now get more long-term poverty, more homelessness, and a greater spread of all sorts of infectious diseases.

What a total disaster!

But yeah, the streets will have fewer cars, which will be great for tech-savvy stay-at-home-and-telecommute cyclists with lots of free time and disposable income. the rich will get happier and the poor more destitute.

Welcome to our own Dickensonian world.

Shimran George
Guest
Shimran George

“But yeah, the streets will have fewer cars, which will be great for tech-savvy stay-at-home-and-telecommute cyclists with lots of free time and disposable income. the rich will get happier and the poor more destitute.”

While the virus is certainly exposing a widening wealth disparity… I wouldn’t tightly couple class and cycling…and while I agree it’s the current case and a huge image problem for cycling in general (it’s notoriously not diverse in many respects…at least here in Portland), I do think the situation partially arose out of systemically bad policy rather than the fact that cycling is somehow a non-egalitarian means of transport.

With the advent of e-bikes especially, longer distances/hills are no longer obstacles that would have deterred a lot of people from conventional cycling. We need to build safe and intuitive bike routes all the way out to the far reaches like East Portland (I am talking bike greenways with proper diverters, and ones where PBOT “your on your own” mentality for cyclists at all the dangerous/confusion intersections where their design is needed most), in addition to outreach in these areas.

I think we could see a future where cycling is in fact a huge time-saver for even poorer residents who are forced to live far from the city-center, allowing them to spend more time with their families, or however they choose while commuting in a stress free manner, and exercising if they choose to do so–it’s a flexible platform that I think has many advantages for all income-levels. It’s one of the reasons I encourage PBOT to continue building bike infrastructure despite the current drops in cycling modeshare.

Furthermore, not just on street planning level but on a fiscal policy level, why aren’t we offering e-bikes subsidies? My brother got a federal (not to mention state) subsidy that would have easily paid for an electric bike when he bought a Model 3. But once again, broken policy on multiple levels subsidizes wealthy Tesla owners rather than electric bikes, which could have made transportation accessible to more people (even blue collar workers whose primarily commute need is to get to work).

I will always be happy to see more people cycling…but I espouse policies that make it more accessible to all people by simply making it easy, intuitive, cheap and practical. Ultimately, being able to enjoy cycling more in a time of depressed activity is a problematic sign of policy rather than a good one–you want all types of people to brag about their stress-free, time-saving, bike commute precisely when things are normal–and cars are sitting in gridlock.

cmh89
Guest
cmh89

You can read whatever you want into the comment/article! It’s your world! You are just misunderstanding the tone and the point of the article.

To be honest, you sound like a motorist advocate. “Not everyone can ride their bike to work!” “Not everyone can work from home!!!!”

Duh

Hello, Kitty
Subscriber
Hello, Kitty

>>> So thanks to the lockdown, we’ll now get more long-term poverty, more homelessness, and a greater spread of all sorts of infectious diseases. <<<

So let's look at the alternative. Those making low wages, without adequate insurance, get sick and have to take time off. Then their kids get sick, so more time off. Even if they have insurance, the hospitals are overwhelmed (and the doctors are all sick), so those who are dangerously ill cannot get needed treatment (and maybe even those who need urgent but non-covid related treatment are turned away). Childcare shuts down because too many staff are sick. So workers without paid leave will lose their jobs if they take care of their kids, or be charged with neglect if they aren't, and lose their kids.

Does this scenario produce less long-term poverty, homelessness, and less disease? Lockdown isn't the problem; it's the pandemic and the way we structure work and benefits.

What if small bike shop owners had to provide sick leave, enough money to buy insurance, and paid time off to their employees?

David Hampsten
Guest

“Those making low wages, without adequate insurance, get sick and have to take time off.”

No, I’m sorry to say, most people who get sick without sick leave (and many who do have it) continue to go to work, both before Covid-19 and I’m sure long after it. Even on jobs that offer sick leave have lots of sick employees on a daily basis, even when I worked (long ago) at PBOT, an employer with relatively generous sick leave. They sneeze, blow their noses all day, consume various drugs, and are in a constant state of misery and decreased productivity, infecting other employees, but they are still “working” and earning a paycheck. They have debts, they need shelter, they need to provide for their families, and our welfare system is pretty much nil.

joel domries
Guest
joel domries

so- when i bike and deliver at courier coffee- its cold outside, i have a runny nose when i transition between inside and outside temperatures, and there are 6 people who no longer have a job. i am taking the virus very seriously.

“My point is that it only took a slight adjustment to allow select people to work from home some of the time to result in a drastic reduction in commute hour traffic, with no apparent downside.”

great opinion- i guess the only downside is that no one has a job anymore except you.

did you know that because of the virus people have lost their jobs.

and i will make a shameless plug for myself and others. and ask for help.

i am working with a network of restaurants- we have all this product but no where to sell it to at cost. if you can help let me know. its not about money but about waste. im going door to door selling milk and eggs.

“no apparent downsides to the reduction in traffic”

seems like the economy does not hurt for the people who agree with that statement.

on the other side-

couriercoffeeportland@gmail.com

i am offering to bring eggs, milk, board games, and perhaps coffee to your house. im running deliveries and if you want to see my protocol its on the website.

i wont mark up anything excpet the coffee to the mnormal amount. i can also do flour sugar and other items.

this is not a good time.
im running delivery daily and if i can help anyone in portland please let me know by phone or email.

jonathan- i hope this post is ok. if not you can edit it. but in the mean time i would like to help anyone who needs it. if people email us or call i can do home delivery. only for elderly people i can provide n95 masks, and sanitizer. we have always had these. if you ask me to come to your house i can bring any food you need, that i can buy, and you can again look on the website to see my new protocol.

thanks

thank you all- best joel

D'Andre Muhammed
Guest
D'Andre Muhammed

Thanks for you post. I have friends in service industry who are terrified about making ends meet right now. They sure as hell are not jumping for joy over clear roads. You are right, totally tone deaf here. Peace.

El Biciclero
Guest
El Biciclero

Yes, this current forced work-from-home else shutdown has some very negative impacts on those whose jobs don’t fit the paradigm. However, I don’t think the article is advocating that we carry on forcing everyone to work from home, and those who can’t, well, too bad!

This post/comment highlight is very similar to the pollution observation made in the roundup article—an observation that livability (virus notwithstanding) generally improves with less driving. One way to have less driving is to encourage those who can to work from home as often as possible. From a standpoint of pure data-gathering, this time of virus mitigation is a gold mine of information about what happens when habits are modified, forcibly or not.

After seeing the small changes that make a big difference, we should investigate how we could make some of those changes even during a non-crisis time to improve life for everyone.

rain panther
Guest
rain panther

I take the point of this original comment to be not so much that coronavirus is great, and that everyone should work from home, but maybe that one side effect of the current situation is an illustration that there are probably lots of businesses that are overly wedded to the notion that every employee must be present in the workplace in order to do a good job.

I’m also not at all sure it’s true that when people work from home, they don’t support local businesses – at least not under normal (non-pandemic) circumstances. It seems like work-from-homers go to coffee shops and lunch places at least as frequently as onsite workers.

That said, I’m not unsympathetic to the fact that the economic toll is so much harder on some business and people than on others. There’s a lot of very understandable anxiety and stress building up.

mark smith
Guest
mark smith

It’s schools. Mom’s, dad’s and ubers taking kid’s and picking up. Get rid of that.

q
Guest
q

I’m a fan of working at home, and it doesn’t have to be all-or-nothing, either. Some fraction of people being able to work at home a couple days per month still adds up to reduced traffic.

It’s also a reminder that, when it comes to trying to make transportation more efficient, there may be too much focus on mode of transportation (taking the bus instead of driving, say) and not enough on reducing the need for the trip.

q
Guest
q

Long term, more people working at home will also hurt businesses in business areas. But the other half of the equation (again long term) is that efforts need to be made (and some are now) to get more people living in business areas.

A lot of American cities are two almost separate cities, one where people live, and another where they work. When one’s busy, the other’s dead. The drawback isn’t just people having to go back and forth between the two. It’s that half the neighborhoods and buildings are empty at any given time.

q
Guest
q

And there’s no better example of land being empty half the time (that is, being wasted) than parking lots. A big part of American life is moving all the cars in residential parking spaces to business parking spaces in the morning, then moving them all back every evening.

Alan 1.0
Subscriber

I almost said that same exact thing right after your 2:59 pm post. I recall something about there being 5-7 parking spots for each car in the metro area. Only “half the time” would be a big improvement.

So instead, how about…more granular functional zoning; urban villages with food, health care, work space, and housing; walk/pedal-to-work family housing; …etc.

Rain Waters
Guest
Rain Waters

I wonder at the meta value of so called “working from home”. Havent we learned anything from all this supply chain stuff ? Working from home is yet another excuse for those who are paid as “professionals” to play around on facebook all day period. Sucking up resources and actually producing what ? I watched gen x master this ummm talent for years.

It needed said. Its needed said for a damn long time and Jon I love you but i would feel somewhat awkward basing my income on such at a large firm say. Next week. Jus sayin.

While the few people left who actually produce value not just issuing redundant dictums and marketing content are gonna struggle and beg for the scraps. Is that why the city in that movie our grandkids insisted we sit through looks oh so much like portlandia ?

Ive lived in Portland before it failed in 2005. I sat through numerous agency goons laughing in a Sharis resteraunt about the rocks flying out of Kendra as she was sprayed by bullets. That kid’s was enough for Rain. So back to sleep now.

What other city comes closer then ? Fill er up with matrix pods or 100sf units for half a million.

q
Guest
q

At least parts of most any job involving reading, writing, talking on the phone, or much of anything that can be done on a computer can be done at home.

You ask, “Sucking up resources and actually producing what ?” Work done by teachers, lawyers, architects, engineers, designers, researchers, bookkeepers, salespeople….If that’s too “professional”, then add estimating and bidding by contractors, preparing and sending out bills by anybody who bills anybody, all kinds of services…

And anyone who works at home can waste a couple hours a day on facebook, and it still won’t add up to the time they would have spent commuting to and from work.

Hello, Kitty
Subscriber
Hello, Kitty

I’ve dealt with several contractors who had receptionists/schedulers who obviously worked from home.

Hello, Kitty
Subscriber
Hello, Kitty

@Rain Waters: Your comments are pretty harsh. Some of my best posts on BikePortland were written at home.

q
Guest
q

I think RW may assume that 100% of the posts here come from people writing from home, because if they were at work (not the fake work done by people working from home) they would be too busy working, making up for the slacker work-at-homers.

El Biciclero
Guest
El Biciclero

“yet another excuse for those who are paid as “professionals” to play around on facebook all day period. Sucking up resources and actually producing what ?”

Hey now. Somebody did the work to allow technology like this forum to exist. I’ll bet some of that was done “remotely” from home. There are things that can be produced without involving delivery trucks. The very article that JM produced that is at least valuable enough to warrant your commenting attention could have easily been created “at home”. Some of the logistics software that helps control the supply chain could have been produced from home. The world’s systems, for better or worse, run on software these days, and software development is just one of the jobs that happens to be suited for working from anywhere. Doesn’t mean we’re a bunch of shirkers producing nothing all day.

Hello, Kitty
Subscriber
Hello, Kitty

Sometimes it feels like the people who “engineered” the nesting on this forum spent a bit too much time on facegram.

Alan 1.0
Subscriber

I expected to see more of an up-tick in posting here than I have. What has been nice, though, is seeing some familiar but LTNS nicks posting again, recently. Hi BIKELEPTIC, hi Jean-Paul, hi Joel (upthread)…