Expanding mass-transit systems is a pillar of green and "new urbanist" thinking, but with few exceptions, the idea of ever-larger numbers of people commuting into an urban core ignores a major shift in the labor economy: More people are working from home.
True, in a handful of large metropolitan regions — what we might call "legacy cities" — trains and buses remain essential. This is particularly true of New York, which accounts for a remarkable 43% of the nation's mass-transit commuters, and of other venerable cities, such as San Francisco, Washington, Boston, Philadelphia and Chicago. Together, these metros account for 56% of all mass-transit commuting. But for most of the rest of the country, transit use — despite often-massive infrastructure investment — has either stagnated or declined. Among the 21 metropolitan areas that have opened substantially new urban-rail systems since 1970, mass transit's share of work trips has declined, on average, from 5.3% to 5%. During the same period, the drive-alone share of work trips, notes demographer Wendell Cox, has gone up from 71.9% to 76.1%.
Meantime, the proportion of the labor force working from home continues to grow. In 1980, 2.3% of workers performed their duties primarily at home; by 2015, this figure had doubled to 4.6%, only slightly behind the proportion of people who commute via mass transit. In legacy core-metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs), the number of people working from home is not quite half that of those commuting by transit. In the 47 MSAs without legacy cores, according to the American Community Survey, the number of people working from home was nearly 250% higher than people going to work on trains or buses.
In the greater Los Angeles area, roughly 1.5% of people worked from home in 1980; today about 5% do. Meanwhile, despite significant expenditures, the share of people using mass transit went from slightly over 5% to slightly less than 5%.
The areas with the thickest presence of telecommuters — including cities such as Austin, Raleigh-Durham, San Diego, Denver, and Seattle — tend to have the greatest concentration of tech-related industries, which function well with off-site workers. In San Jose, the epicenter of the nation's tech industry, 4.6% of people work from home, exceeding the 3.4% who take mass transit. Other telecommuting hot spots include college towns like Boulder, where over 11.6% of workers work from home, and Berkeley, where the share is 10.6%.
Leading telecommuting centers tend to be home to many well-educated, older and wealthy residents. Communities such as San Clemente, Newport Beach and Encinitas in Southern California, as well as Boca Raton in Florida, all have telecommuting shares over 10%. Perhaps older, well-connected people are more inclined to avoid miserable commutes, given the chance to do so. As the American population skews older, the economy will likely see more workers making such choices.
Another important demographic force contributing to the work-from-home inclination is Americans' continuing move to lower-density cities, which usually lack effective transit, and to the suburbs and exurbs — where 81% of job growth occurred between 2010 and 2014. While most metropolitan regions can be called "polycentric," they are actually better described as "dispersed," with central business districts (CBDs) and suburban centers (subcenters) now accounting for only a minority of employment. By 2000, more than three-quarters of all employment in metropolitan areas with populations higher than 1 million was outside CBDs and subcenters.
Home-based work could be the logical extension of this dispersal — and modern technologies, from ride-sharing services to automated cars, will probably accelerate the trend. A recent report by the global consulting firm Bain suggested that greater decentralization is likely in the coming decades. A 2015 National League of Cities report observes that traditional nine-to-five jobs are on the decline and that many white-collar jobs will involve office-sharing and telecommuting in the future. The report also predicts that more workers will act as "contractors," taking on multiple positions at once.
Some see these developments as ominous, but greens and urbanists shouldn't: Telecommuting will, among other things, reduce pollution. It may be that the shift to home-based work will prove the ultimate in mixed use — albeit for workers in their pajamas.
Joel Kotkin is a presidential fellow in urban studies at Chapman University. This essay was excerpted from the Manhattan Institute's City Journal.