Telecommuting Wins over Returning to Offices


The most credible estimates say that at least 20 percent of workers will continue to work at home on any given day after the pandemic, up from less than 6 percent before the pandemic. The share of remote workers is likely to be much higher in Silicon Valley, where a lot of workers do jobs that don’t require daily office visits and high housing prices give workers extra incentives to want to live elsewhere.

Last June, Apple got some push-back from employees when it announced it wanted them to return to the office at least three days a week. Plans to return to offices were delayed by further COVID waves, but last month employees were still threatening to quit if forced to return to the office three days a week.

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

Most recently, however, Airbnb announced that it would allow all of its employees to live and work anywhere they wanted. CEO Brian Chesky noted that, during the pandemic, “We also had the most productive two-year period in our company’s history, all while working remotely.” Rather than requiring two or three days a week in an office, Airbnb expects “most employees will connect in person every quarter for about a week at a time.”

Most significantly, the company promised people the same pay no matter where they lived. At least 6,000 U.S. 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 permanently work at home.

These policies will have profound impacts on transportation, and the most profound will be in the San Francisco Bay Area, where transit agencies are spending billions of dollars on projects that are likely to carry few riders. CalTrain, for example, is spending almost $2.5 billion electrifying its commuter trains, yet as recently as February 2022 ridership was still less than 20 percent of pre-pandemic levels. As noted yesterday, VTA is spending $9.1 billion extending BART by six miles, yet BART is still carrying less than 30 percent of pre-pandemic riders.

San Francisco Muni claims its new $346 million bus-rapid transit line is a “great success” because it is a little faster than the buses that preceded it. About ridership, all it has to say is that numbers are up 15 percent — which isn’t saying much in a month when national transit ridership grew by 25 percent and when ridership was so low in the first place.

Of course, all those Silicon Valley workers who move to Nashville or some other lower-cost housing market aren’t going to care how much Bay Area transit agencies spend on megaprojects, because their taxes won’t be paying for them. (Even the federal share comes entirely out of deficit spending, not gas or other federal taxes.) Thus, hardly anyone will push back on transit boondoggles.

This piece first appeared on The Antiplanner.

Randal O'Toole, the Antiplanner, 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.