Robert B. Noland and Wenwen Zhang
The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in major changes in how people work and travel. Our research suggests that some of these changes are likely to endure. While not every job is suitable for working from home, the shift to remote work provides an opportunity to understand benefits associated with spending less time commuting. This exogenous shock to daily commutes gives us the opportunity to explore how commuters viewed the benefits of not commuting. Based on our survey of New Jersey residents, we explored the following questions: What do people like about not commuting? What benefits do they see in spending more time at home? How have they used this extra time?
Our findings suggest that a large share of respondents has enjoyed the time saved from not commuting and many would gladly avoid the return to prior commutes. Over half of those who have been working from home (at least one day a week) report spending more time with family, and many have spent more time cooking, enjoying meals, and walking for exercise. Some reported increased television viewing and internet usage.
When considering activities that respondents would like to see continue when the pandemic subsides, working at home ranks high (36%), as does commuting less (25%). Almost half of respondents (46%) hope to continue cooking at home more often. Some 40% also report that they would like to continue taking more walks; about the same proportion intends to shop online more. Three in ten respondents (30%) would like to see a slower pace of life continue.
While a large plurality of respondents would like to work at home at least some of the time, those with longer commutes (over one hour) express less interest in working from home than those with commutes of 30 to 60 minutes (24% vs. 47%). While this seems paradoxical, it may be that they selected longer commute journeys because they don’t mind their daily commute.
While the pandemic certainly resulted in awful outcomes for many people, this unique time allowed some people to savor the pleasures afforded by the time saved from not commuting. For policymakers this research provides an understanding of how the quality of life for New Jersey residents can be improved when there is less commuting. For transportation and workplace policy, these findings suggest a need to explore options for incentivizing and facilitating remote work. Planners might consider how to locate residential areas in closer proximity to employment centers, thereby reducing commute times.
This essay also appears on the New Jersey Policy Lab website.