Almost 43% of employed residents of Boulder worked at home in 2021, according to data recently released by the Census Bureau. That’s more than any other city in Colorado, but even statewide 24% of people worked from home, which was a 159% increase over 2019.
The pandemic has completely altered work and travel habits in Colorado and the rest of the United States. While not everyone who worked at home in 2021 will continue working at home now that President Joe Biden has declared the pandemic to be over, there will still be far more people working at home than before the pandemic.
Telecommuting has different effects on highways and transit. The number of people working at home in the Denver urban area more than tripled between 2019 and 2021. This reduced the number who drove to work by around 20%, but it reduced the number who took transit to work by 42%.
Transit is harder hit by telecommuting partly because transit mainly served downtown workers, and those are the types of workers most likely to work at home. But it is also because transit is distinctly inferior to driving, being slower, more expensive, and less convenient, so as the pandemic reduced traffic congestion some people who were still commuting to work by transit switched to driving.
The effect on transit is likely to be permanent. As late as July 2022, Federal Transit Administration data show that transit in the Denver area carried only 58% of the number of riders it carried in July 2019, which is consistent with a 42% drop in transit commuting.
Those who hoped to save energy or reduce greenhouse gas emissions by getting people out of their cars and onto transit are doomed to disappointment. This is especially true since, even before the pandemic, Denver transit used more energy and emitted more greenhouse gases per passenger-mile than the average sports utility vehicle or pickup truck.
Meanwhile, the decline in commuting by automobiles isn’t translating into less overall driving. Researchers have found that people who work at home actually drive more miles per day than people who drive to work. Apparently, they use their afternoons to do errands and take other trips that they weren’t able to make when stuck in an office or other workplace. Despite higher fuel prices, the latest data from the Federal Highway Administration revealed that urban Coloradans drove almost 8% more miles in July 2021 than they did in July 2019.
Another finding of the census data released on September 15 is that the city of Denver’s population declined by nearly 16,000 people since the pandemic. Boulder’s population dropped by nearly 1,500 people, but Colorado Springs’ population grew by well over 5,000 people. In general, people moved out of dense areas such as Arapahoe and Jefferson counties and into less-dense areas such as Douglas, El Paso, and Weld counties.
This counters the urbanist narrative that millennials and other young Americans wanted to live in dense, “vibrant” cities. In fact, even before the pandemic, a 2018 Gallup poll found that 40% of the residents of major cities wanted to live somewhere else, while more people wanted to live in suburbs and rural areas than actually lived in such areas.
The increase in telecommuting brought about by the pandemic has allowed more people to find their dream homes and lifestyles. Despite the pandemic’s negative effects on the economy, Colorado’s homeownership rate grew by 5%, mostly in single-family homes.
This is another disappointment to those who hoped that Americans would accept living in compact, European-style cities while getting around on transit instead of driving. Although the pandemic is allowing more people to live the way they want, Colorado city and regional planners are still locked into prepandemic thinking.
For example, they want to spend more money on transit systems that few people ride and less money on highways that everyone depends on. They also want to crowd more people into dense cities and multi-story apartment buildings and discourage the construction of single-family homes that most Americans want.
It is time for Colorado city leaders to catch up with how Coloradans really want to live.
Randal O’Toole is transportation and land use expert, and author of numerous books including “Gridlock: Why We’re Stuck in Traffic and What to Do About It.” He blogs at The Antiplanner.
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