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Will Fewer In-Office Workers Change Cities?

In cities with longer commute times from the suburbs, fewer employees are returning to the office following the COVID-19 pandemic—and the change is costing local economies, according to The Wall Street Journal (subscription).

What’s happening: “Eight of the 10 major cities with the biggest drop in office occupancy during the pandemic had an average one-way commute of more than 30 minutes in 2019. Meanwhile, six of the 10 cities with the smallest drop in office occupancy have average commutes of less than 30 minutes,” according to a Journal analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data and access-card company Kastle Systems.

  • The phenomenon is global, with “commuter cities” such as Los Angeles and London seeing emptier office buildings than larger cities with good infrastructure and sufficient supplies of affordable housing, such as Copenhagen.

Why it’s important: “Luring commuters back is critical to central business districts that depend on these workers to support bars, restaurants and other small businesses that fuel these economies.”

However … That may prove difficult. Workers indicate they are not keen to give up schedule flexibility and a sense of improved work–life balance—on top of the time saved from not commuting.

What’s next? A fundamental change in city planning, perhaps. Richard Florida, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management and School of Cities, “expects cities to evolve away from pure business districts and toward more mixed-use neighborhoods. As fewer people commute to city centers, more offices and meeting rooms will open in residential neighborhoods and in suburbs, he said.” 

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