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Like more than half of Americans, I live in the suburbs. Luckily, I don’t have to commute to the city every day—or even wear pants—because I’m a writer. But if I had a real job, it would take me well over an hour to get from my door to The Nation’s offices. As it is, going into New York City for a meeting starts with a 12-minute walk from my house to the commuter rail. That train takes 38 minutes to get to Grand Central station. I then spend about six minutes walking up and down various ramps to get to a subway. The subway takes about eight minutes to get to Port Authority. From there it’s a 10-minute walk to the office. And that’s when everything is running on time. Everything takes longer if it’s raining or snowing or if I’m hungover. The whole process has to be reverse engineered to get home.
That was before the coronavirus. Now commuting to a meeting takes one minute from my bedroom door to my desk chair. Sometimes I take the scenic route and chat with my wife on my way to work. I’ve gone two months without being within coughing distance of any office. Why would I ever go back? Why would anybody? Office workers have known forever that spending hours per day commuting is nonessential and a gigantic waste of time.
Suburban living isn’t a phase. It’s not new. Americans have been moving to the suburbs for nearly a century. That trend has had all sorts of deleterious social and political ramifications. Urban decay, white flight, housing market bubbles, and massively unequal school resources are just a few of the ills caused by suburbanization. And don’t even get me started on the anodyne, sterile, normative consumerist “culture” championed by the suburban ideal.
It would be good for the country if the suburbs were razed to the studs and the land returned to nature. But since that’s not going to happen, the pandemic is a great opportunity to finally bring our work expectations in line with how and where people actually live.
Despite technological advances that would look like magic to Alexander Graham Bell, we’ve remained tied to an Industrial Revolution idea of workers showing up to the giant widget place so an overseer can motivate them to produce profits. Many nonservice industries have had the technology to exist without a centralized office for 30 years, and over the past 20, the Internet could have made a central office nearly obsolete. But until 10 weeks ago, most people were trudging in to work every day.
That’s maddening because, while the technology is there to allow many people to work from home, the infrastructure is not there to support the overwhelming and ever-increasing number of commuters. Our infrastructure hasn’t kept up with our suburban expansion (or any expansion, really). Our bridges and tunnels are crumbling. Our trains and buses are so inefficient that Europeans wonder why we don’t set them aflame in riots. Our roads and highways are poisonous parking lots warming the planet one traffic jam at a time.
The negative environmental impact of commuting is undeniable. Studies show that the average drive to work adds 4.3 metric tons of carbon to the atmosphere a year—per car. If everyone in the US drove just 10 percent less, it would have the equivalent environmental effect of taking 28 coal-fueled power plants off-line for a year. And let’s not forget: Commuting is unhealthy. People with longer commutes tend to be less physically active and have higher rates of obesity and high blood pressure. Every commuter has been told to take the stairs as a way to build in some daily exercise, but “don’t spend three hours a day sitting on a train” is also solid physical fitness advice.
And that’s where we were before Covid-19 made us more aware that our public transportation systems are petri dishes for communicable diseases. One of the most mind-blowing moments in the whole pandemic was when New York City announced, triumphantly, that it would start bleaching its subway cars every night. I did not know until that moment that I had spent most of my life riding around in yesterday’s filth, not just today’s. I’m going to need a hazmat suit before I get on the subway again.
I simply cannot fathom a world in which the pandemic is declared over and everybody starts commuting to work again. I do not think that we can go back to expecting people to fork over hours and hours a day sitting in traffic or trapped on a disease tube simply because they have a meeting. Zoom or Skype or Google Hangouts might not be the ideal way to conduct face-to-face business, but the lockdown has shown that any number of daily, mind-numbing check-in meetings can be handled remotely.
There will be resistance to allowing people to work from home after the pandemic has passed. What’s the point of having a sweet corner office if nobody’s there to cower outside it? Working from home robs many bosses and brownnosers of some of their favorite methods for doling out favors and establishing loyalty. When everybody is working remotely, the work kind of has to stand for itself. But that’s a bad paradigm if you’re a talentless man who has your job only because your dad and the boss are golfing buddies. There are a lot of people whose only professional skill is laughing at their boss’s jokes at happy hour, and those people can’t wait to get back to the office.
But the raw efficiency of working from home will, with any luck, cause most offices to embrace working remotely. Now that people have had this taste of managing their own time like the adults they’ve always been, dragging them back into a daily routine of inefficiency and health risks will be hard. Telecommuting was one of the big ideas to emerge in the late 20th century. In the post-pandemic 21st century, it might finally become a reality.