Can work-at-home cure California traffic jams?


A rare positive of the pandemic era has been the dramatic reduction in California’s infamous traffic congestion.

That’s what recessions do. Fewer jobs, fewer commutes. Right?

Well, 2020 was an economic oddity for many reasons. The stay-at-home mentality promoted to slowing the spread of coronavirus also impacted how many folks were on the road. And since remote working likely will endure past the pandemic’s end, its ability to cut congestion — and perhaps investments in transportation infrastructure spending — looks intriguing.

My trusty spreadsheet tells me that last year’s traffic improvements in the Bay Area outpaced Southern California. That’s due more to the two region’s varying job types, not job losses.

To calculate commuting rankings, I compared traffic and employment stats using data on traffic jams in 57 big U.S. cities from navigation gear maker TomTom, November unemployment data in those markets, and how they fared in a study of metro-area workforces and their potential to work remotely by Outdoorsy, a recreation vehicle rental app.

Ponder what I learned about San Jose vs. the Inland Empire, two job hubs near big cities.

Curiously, both had congestion woes 19% of the time in 2020, ranking fifth-highest among the 57 markets tracked. But San Jose’s 2020 traffic was 42% less congested vs. 2019 — the second-largest drop. Riverside congestion was down 27%, the 20th smallest decline.

It probably wasn’t the scale of job losses that explains the difference between these two suburban areas. The San Jose area’s unemployment was 5.1% — up 113% in a year. Riverside was at 7.9%, also up 113%.

So, consider instead the hot industries in the two regions. San Jose is a tech hub and very friendly to remote work. Riverside is all about logistics, which is nearly impossible to do from home. In fact, warehousing and shipping help to power stay-at-home life.

In the San Jose market, it’s estimated 48.5% of jobs can be done remotely — No. 1 among these 57 cities studied for congestion. Riverside? Just 29.6% of folks have work-for-home potential — tied for last with Grand Rapids, Mich., a historic factory town known as “Furniture City.”

Bigger trend

A somewhat similar pattern was found in the nearby big cities.

San Francisco traffic was 21% congested in 2020 — with 42% fewer delays in a year, the No. 5 drop. Los Angeles was congested 27% of the time — still No. 1 nationally even after traffic improved 36%. That drop ranked No. 12 out of 57.

The improvement gap between these giant, urban employment hubs can’t be unemployment. Yes, the jumps in rates exceeded their suburban neighbor’s joblessness but they were remarkably similar. San Francisco’s jobless rate was 6.1% — up 154% in a year while L.A.’s rate rose 153% to 9.6%.

Next, look at remote-work potential.

In tech-heavy San Francisco, 43% of jobs are work-from-home ready, the third-highest share of the 57. In Los Angeles — with an economy filled with in-person work such as hospitality, port and factory jobs — 37% of workers can potentially work from home, ranking No. 23 of 57.

No local oddity

This gap is not just some north-south California quirk.

Let’s look at what my spreadsheet told me when I divided the 57 cities into three groupings, ranked by drops in 2020 congestion.

Joblessness didn’t matter.

The 19 cities with the biggest traffic drops — down 39% on average — had an average unemployment jump of 102% to 5.8%. Joblessness in 19 cities with the smallest congestion improvements — averaging 23% — rose 104% to 6.8%.

However, work-from-home differed.

The big traffic declines came in markets averaging 39% of jobs with remote potential. The smallest congestion improvements were in towns in which 34% of jobs had work-from-home possibilities.

Hopefully, many questions raised during pandemic life will be studied once the health crisis is over. Like “Can work-at-home cure California traffic woes?”

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