Most commuting happens not to downtown, but to and among our suburbs, where most of the jobs are.
Ellen Dunham-Jones is one of the founders of the new urbanism movement. In her landmark book, “Retrofitting Suburbia,” and its recent sequel, “Case Studies in Retrofitting Suburbia,” she argues that our spaces need to be rethought. When she thinks What the Future, she wonders if hybrid working could lead to seismic changes in real estate, commuting and infrastructure.
Matt Carmichael: How are suburban commutes different from urban commutes?
Ellen Dunham-Jones: Places that are walkable and have transit have different modes and ways to get around. The commute trip isn’t very different from the grocery store trip, the go to the hospital, the go to the doctors, the go to school. So even though the average suburban house generates almost 10 trips per day, the commute trips are just two of those. Yet our suburbs have been planned entirely around the commute trips as the most important. That is what we spend our gazillions of dollars of infrastructure spending on.
Carmichael: What did the pandemic change about this?
Dunham-Jones: Suddenly it’s those non-commute trips, for a lot of work- from-home folks, that replaced the commute time as a de-stressor between work and home.
Carmichael: You have said that the pandemic accelerated a lot of trends about our suburbs. What trends in particular, and what did you see?
Dunham-Jones: The headline is that Millennials are finally leaving cities to move to the suburbs. The reality is that was already happening. But presumably they didn’t all hate city life. They aren’t dying to mow a lawn and drive around everywhere. They liked urban living. So they’ve been moving to walkable suburban places, if they can. But if they’ve been moving out to sprawling suburbs my guess is they won’t stay there unless those suburbs start to retrofit and provide some of the urban lifestyle amenities that this cohort is looking for.
Carmichael: Some companies are saying, “You can be more hybrid, but we still want you in the office 40% to 60% of the time.” Is that enough of a difference from a typical five-day week for most people to impact traffic patterns?
Dunham-Jones: Telecommuting has been the holy grail for how we are going to stop traffic congestion since the ’60s and ’70s. We saw in the pandemic that traffic did really go down. Having three days a week at home is pretty significant. What is weird is the predictability. If you’re not always commuting on the same day, and if that’s true of enough other people, it could also end up meaning that you no longer know how long your commute will be. Some days your commute drops to 20 minutes, but other days, suddenly your commute doubles to 60 minutes. That’s what will drive you completely insane.
Carmichael: A changing office changes the real estate picture, too, right?
Dunham-Jones: Sure, companies are saying, “Not everybody’s in the office all day. I don’t need to spend all that much money on real estate.” But I’m hearing that much more in the cities than in the suburbs. A lot of suburban office folks have always had more parking per employee than the downtowns have had. They think that’s actually going to give them an advantage, and more offices are going to move out to the suburbs.
Carmichael: How might changing commutes change where we want to live?
Dunham-Jones: Anecdotally, people are willing to lengthen their commute if the commute isn’t happening every workday, but I haven’t seen a whole lot of real data yet showing it.
Carmichael: If we move further out, won’t it be harder to persuade people to come back more frequently?
Dunham-Jones: At the moment, all the headlines are focusing on the labor shortage of essential in-person workers. But in the background, a lot of employers have been worried about a shortage of office workers. Will employers be able to really stick with trying to make people come in three days a week, or are we going to see a lot more firms adjust to saying, “If Facebook can do it, if Twitter can do it, yeah, we can just go completely virtual.” And that starts to get super interesting.
Carmichael: How so?
Dunham-Jones: Real estate prices are traditionally boosted by proximity to good schools, good healthcare and good jobs. As soon as telework, telemedicine, tele-education cuts those cords, we could be on the tip of dramatic reshaping. If the infrastructure bill really does even the playing field in terms of broadband access, we could begin to see a real evening of the playing field between rich and poor places and a lowering of the cost of living for a lot of people. Or we could also easily see a total exacerbation of the segregation of the very of the wealthy from the poor.
Carmichael: So, what happens to the people who don’t have all these options in transportation?
Dunham-Jones: Part of this opportunity to potentially even the playing field between rich and poor would absolutely have to include that transit-oriented development (TOD) becomes only for people that are absolutely dependent on transit. A lot of communities are sort of hopping on the bandwagon of equitable TOD. I’m excited about some of the bus rapid transit programs that Los Angeles has been doing. Atlanta’s about to follow. If you do this right with dedicated lanes, it’s as fast as a train and a hell of a lot cheaper. And you get to more places where people need to get to.