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April 13, 2020

After the Pandemic: A Lot Less Commuting

Predicting Tomorrow is More Fun than Watching Today

Work from Home

I’ve been wrong many times in predicting that remote work-at-home would cut way back on the amount of commuting people do. This time it’s going to happen because it’s already happening. The tools for remote collaboration have gotten much better; the Internet held up (fingers crossed) under an enormous shift in volumes. We have been forced to learn what we needed to learn to work mainly from home.

Many of us have taken a crash course in remote meetings. They’re a hell of a lot better that the old phone conferences. With Zoom and other tools, I’m even spared my usual problem of not remembering people’s names since the names are with their video feeds. Side bar texts are a much better way to make snide comments than passing paper notes or whispering.

The last company I started had no servers even though it was information intensive because our information and access to it was safer and more flexible if the servers were in the cloud. Turned out, of course, that cloud-based servers (as long as security is good) make it much easier to shift work from an office to home.

If I were starting a company today (I’ve given up on that), unless there were machines to run, crops to tend, people or animals to care for, there’d be no office at all. For the foreseeable future, hotel rooms will be cheap enough to rent whenever and wherever we need to be together. Ditto for restaurants.

It will be almost impossible to convince people that they need to drive an hour or more for a one-hour meeting, find parking, and then drive back an hour. “Why?” we will ask. Can’t we do this online? A lot easier to schedule one hour than three. Don’t even have to worry about feeding the dog or letting him in and out.

The Implications are Huge

Downtown office space is going to have a long and severe recession. Some businesses won’t reopen, of course. But many businesses won’t choose to have an office even when people can work together again. Offices are expensive. Offices are as much a relic as typing pools, coffee carts, carbon paper, and filing cabinets. Why heat and cool both a home and an office when just one will do? And why commute?

Downtown hotels and restaurants will suffer except to the extent they quickly adapt to become the meeting place for those without an office.

If you don’t have to go downtown to work, then you don’t have to live downtown unless you want to. Downtown rents will come down. Sprawl will be enabled by remote working and partially driven by health concerns whether urban planners like it or not. The environmental price of sprawl will be mitigated by both no commuting and much less need for separate heated and air-conditioned workspaces.

Much schooling can stay at home.  Maybe we’ll have free online college for everyone. There’s no reason why every young adult shouldn’t be able to take the best online courses in the subjects they’re interested in. No need to incur huge debt to live in a palace just so you can get to a lecture by a local “expert”. Socialization is important but it’ll cost extra.  

Check the price of oil. The crash in oil prices is caused not only by less driving, of course; but the Saudi’s and the Russians and even us Americans aren’t going to be able to sell our oil at very high prices when driving doesn’t resume at its former level and offices stay shuttered. Cheap energy is like a huge tax cut except we don’t have to pay for it later. Environmentalists will be concerned that low energy prices will incent energy use. But, for the next couple of years, crippled economies and much less driving and office space will push emissions way below the rosiest UN scenarios. Renewables have already become a much bigger part of our energy supply because fossil fuels bear the brunt of any cutback.

We must finally finish the job of getting broadband everywhere people live, especially since where you live often will now often be where you work and learn.

Vermont Will be Aided and Challenged by Another Wave of De-urbanization like the one which brought Mary and me here long, long ago. More on that later.

We’ve also learned that the real essential workers are the ones who can’t work from home. If they weren’t on the job, we’d be starving and sick. Remember the scorn people had for burger-flipping and shelf-stocking and trash-hauling jobs. Turns out these jobs are more essential than what most of us do. People who do these jobs will be paid more and all of us who depend on them will pay higher prices. Fair enough.

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