Has coronavirus rung the death knell for the daily commute?

Financial hubs and commuter towns braced for economic downturn as firms encourage working from home

Financial hubs and commuter towns braced for economic downturn as firms encourage working from home
(Image credit: Getty Images)

The days of the daily commute may be numbered, as a growing number of major firms roll out working-from-home schemes in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

J.P. Morgan, the world’s biggest investment bank, has told staff in London that they will be continuing to work remotely on a part-time basis after the outbreak ends, while elite law firm Linklaters will allow its employees to do their jobs from home for up to half of each week.

As other employers plan similar measures, the commute as we know it is “under threat, with potentially huge consequences for our cities and social lives”, says The Guardian’s Sam Wollaston. So what are the potential repercussions?

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Boosting worker well-being

Employees have long voiced concerns about commuting and work-life balance, with a shift towards staying at home likely be welcomed by many workers.

According to People Management, a recent poll of 100 UK workers found that one in four cited “concerns about their health” as their main reason for wanting to shun the office for good, while “many had other reasons for not wanting to go back to their place of work”.

Almost four in ten (37%) of respondents said their biggest concern was the potential impact on their work-life balance, while 34% said they did not want to go back to commuting.

Yahoo! Finance reports that separate research by hiring platform Totaljobs suggests that more than half (52%) of former commuters across the UK “do not miss” travelling to work.

Will it devastate city economies?

As the economy reopens, the future of many businesses in city centres “will depend on the office workers and daily commuters who have been absent for months”, says The Telegraph.

The prosperity of central London and Canary Wharf is at risk after decades as a global hub and massive investment in millions of square feet of world-class office space.

And towns in so-called “commuter belts” may also suffer.

Commuting “shaped our cities and gave rise to suburban railways, buses and underground trains”, says The Guardian’s Wollaston.

Between the First and Second World Wars, “one-third of the British population became commuters, thanks to unplanned development, with new urban areas springing up on the fringes of cities”, he writes.

But “the pandemic means that, for many, it is no longer necessary to leave home, let alone your neighbourhood, to go to work”.

What about commuter towns?

Research published by the BBC earlier this month found that London’s commuter towns have seen the highest rate of people moving onto Universal Credit since the coronavirus lockdown began.

“Experts said the drop in office-based working in the capital has impacted employment in commuter towns,” according the broadcaster.

Laura Gardiner, research director at the Resolution Foundation think tank, said: “Those workers may be able to continue working from home, but lots of the industries around them - the cafes, restaurants, the retail sectors - people who travel into the city to provide services to those office workers, therefore have nothing to do.

“Those people tend to live on the outskirts of cities, and this is especially acute in London.”

However, Britain’s countryside communities could benefit from the decline of the commute. The end of lockdown saw a sharp rise in countryside property searches by people living in cities.

A Rightmove study revealed a 126% rise in enquiries for village properties during June and July compared with the same period in 2019.

How will public transport networks fare?

In some cases, the effects of the pandemic have already been devastating.

Transport for London (TfL) came close to running out of money in May, with the Treasury forced to provide a £1.6bn bailout to keep the “essential service” running. TfL receives the vast majority (75%) of its income from fares, meaning that a downturn in commuting has severely reduced its revenue.

But for other rail firms that don’t use this financial model, the drop in commuting could be a blessing in disguise.

“Just as a pet is not only for Christmas, a train is not just for the rush hour: both the pet and the train are 24-hour, seven-days-a-week commitments,” writes Sim Harris, editor of Rail News.

“A train standing idle on a siding is a bit cheaper, certainly – little or no traction current being consumed, no kilometres clocking up, no variable track access charges and no expensive driver sitting in the cab.”

“Generally speaking, commuter railways are expensive to run, at least if they have the sharp peaks which are typical in Britain (and many other countries),” he adds. “So an easing of commuter demand could well help the railways in the medium and longer term, rather than damaging them.”

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