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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.


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
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NOTE: We love your comments and work hard to ensure they are welcoming of all perspectives. Disagreements are encouraged, but only if done with tact and respect. BikePortland is an inclusive company with no tolerance for discrimination or harassment including expressions of racism, sexism, homophobia, or xenophobia. 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
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.

Todd Boulanger

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.


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?


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.

rain panther
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
mark smith

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


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.


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.

Rain Waters
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.

El Biciclero
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.

Alan 1.0

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)…