While we only have a handful of cities in the U.S. with major mass-transit systems, those cities are huge hubs of commerce. How will the pandemic remake the way we work and our urban commutes?
Famed urbanist, professor and author Richard Florida remains bullish on our downtowns, but when he thinks What the Future, he wonders if we’re headed for an even more bifurcated experience between “creative class” knowledge workers and everyone else.
Matt Carmichael: Say it’s 2026. How many of us are still hybrid?
Richard Florida: The best estimates are 20% of workdays. That’s a pretty significant chunk. I think the nature of the office itself will have to change to do that.
Carmichael: We’ve been able to coast on our longstanding in-office relationships. Will those “office culture” impacts drive us back to work?
Florida: I think there’s a demographic part to this. That’s why this stuff is always more subtle and nuanced. For organizations, the challenge is how do you build a culture when part of your staff wants to be around a lot and another part of your staff is around more part-time? That shifts the nature of the office as a place you plug your laptop in to a place that is much more about social context and social interaction.
Carmichael: Our data show those who have kids at home are more likely to say that their ideal mix of home office is actually at the office.
Florida: People with families want to work someplace quiet. That doesn’t mean they want to go to a downtown office. And I think that’s the important point. What people don’t want is a long, arduous commute on transit. Maybe that goes away in a few years, but clearly people remain fearful of transit. The anecdotal evidence we have from talking to office developers is that suburban office parks are filled—where people can drive—and their downtown offices are at 15% of capacity.
Carmichael: What does that mean for public transportation?
Florida: I don’t think Americans have ever liked public transportation. I mean, look, I’m an urbanist and I extoll its benefits, but to be honest with you, when I was researching “Rise of the Creative Class,” people really didn’t like buses. It has to do somewhat with the nature of our transit systems, which aren’t particularly beautiful. Subways particularly are perceived rightly or wrongly as being not safe. Less advantaged people have no choice, they have to take it. But for professional knowledge and creative workers, they’re not enthusiastic. I think it’s one of the reasons people leave cities.
Carmichael: What does that mean for our public transportation systems and the governments that fund them if ridership starts decreasing?
Florida: There’s no doubt about, it’s decreasing all over the world. There are going to be fewer work trips. Transit will have to be used to support more occasional trips and leisure trips. It’s not going to be the men in the gray flannel suits boarding the morning train going to their office every day as they did in “Mad Men.” All of that means less revenue, which means less upkeep, which means less attractive. It’s not a great time to be trying to support a mass transit business.
Carmichael: One of the things we’ve seen in our data is that people who expect their commutes to change expect to drive more than drive less.
Florida: I think people are just not going to come downtown as much. I think they’re just going to refuse. They’re going to say, “I’m happy to work. I’m happy to work from home and I’m happy to work from a satellite office center.” I think we will very quickly scale up our coworking infrastructure, into suburban office parks and abandoned malls. I think the hub/satellite office model makes sense. We’ll see people commuting less and people working closer to where they live, not necessarily in the home, but in some kind of office environment. We will still get more traffic, and the traffic is not only going into downtown, but it’s people running around the suburbs. The net effect of this is more traffic on the roads, not less.
Carmichael: Does that lean people toward working more hybrid again anyway?
Florida: It depends on what industry and how much leverage you have. My friends who work in finance or real estate are already back in New York City and already wearing a suit and tie. But for many, maybe they’ll stagger their schedule a little. Work from home in the morning and then drive into their suburban office or coworking space in the afternoon. That still means more cars on the road. I think you’ll end up with more cities that look like Toronto, with massive traffic jams going downtown and going all across the suburbs and more cities starting to look like L.A., with traffic everywhere.
Carmichael: What does this mean for cars and for ride-sharing, and for all of this great infrastructure being built around biking in downtowns? Does that momentum keep up? Does it accelerate?
Florida: I’m very optimistic about the future of cities. I think the biking and walking keep up because it’s a much more efficient way to do your day-to-day activities. Biking and moving dining options to the street all become part of what a city offers. The people who live in cities increasingly are not going to be the amenity lovers like we saw in the 2000s and 2010s. It’s going to be more people who work in finance and real estate and need to go to the office. Those people are going to live closer and increasingly where they can walk or bike and not take the subway.