Telecommuting trumps returning to the office

The most credible estimates indicate that at least 20% of workers will continue to work from home on any given day after the pandemic, compared to less than 6% before the pandemic. The share of remote workers is likely to be much higher in Silicon Valley, where many workers have jobs that don’t require daily office visits and where high housing prices make workers more likely to want to live elsewhere .

Last June, Apple received pushback from employees when it announced it wanted them to return to the office at least three days a week. Return-to-office plans have been delayed by new waves of COVID, but as of last month employees were still threatening to quit if forced to return to the office three days a week.

Google was a bit more flexible, saying some employees will be allowed to work from home full-time. However, he notes that he will pay them less if they decide to move away from high-cost locations such as San Jose or New York.

More recently, however, Airbnb announced that it would allow all of its employees to live and work wherever they choose. CEO Brian Chesky noted that, during the pandemic, “we also had the most productive two years in our company’s history, while working remotely.” Rather than requiring two or three days a week in an office, Airbnb expects “most employees to log in in person quarterly for about a week at a time.”

More importantly, the company promised people the same salary no matter where they lived. At least 6,000 American workers will be affected by the policy. Twitter, Reddit and Dropbox are among other companies that will also allow most if not all employees to work permanently from home.

These policies will have profound impacts on transportation, and the deepest will be in the San Francisco Bay Area, where transit agencies are spending billions of dollars on projects likely to carry few passengers. CalTrain, for example, is spending nearly $2.5 billion to electrify its commuter trains, but as recently as February 2022 ridership was still below 20% of pre-pandemic levels. As reported yesterday, VTA is spending $9.1 billion to extend BART by six miles, but BART still carries less than 30% of pre-pandemic passengers.

San Francisco Muni says its new $346 million bus rapid transit line is a “great success” because it’s a bit faster than the buses that came before it. On ridership, all he has to say is that the numbers are up 15% – which isn’t saying much in a month when national transit ridership has increased by 25% and where ridership was so low in the first place.

Of course, all those Silicon Valley workers moving to Nashville or another lower-cost housing market won’t care how much Bay Area transit agencies spend on megaprojects, because their taxes won’t will not pay them. (Even the federal share comes entirely from deficit spending, not gasoline or other federal taxes.) So hardly anyone will push back against the public transit mess.

This piece first appeared on The Antiplanner.

Randal O’Toole, the anti-planner, is a policy analyst with nearly 50 years of experience reviewing transportation and land use plans and the author of The Best-Laid Plans: How Government Planning Harms Your Quality of Life, Your Pocketbook, and Your Future.

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