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A year without a commute for many in the Philadelphia region

For those privileged enough to be able to work remotely, they’ll face a question with a laundry list of ripple effects: Is the commute worth it?

From top left, clockwise: Former commuters Jade Roane, Mark Chadwick, Evy Cruz, and Raymond Ricketts.
From top left, clockwise: Former commuters Jade Roane, Mark Chadwick, Evy Cruz, and Raymond Ricketts.Read moreInquirer Staff Photographers

There’s been so much nostalgia for things lost in 2020, a year filled with enough pain and heartache to fill a few lifetimes.

To ease the agony, there’s yearning for the simple things: the small talk we once rolled our eyes over, the smell of last night’s dinner lingering in a friend’s house, the pre-rehearsed hoots and hollers for an encore performance already planned.

Some of those privileged enough to be able to telecommute during the COVID-19 pandemic miss treasured parts of their old ways of getting to work: sunrises over the Delaware River, bike rides with a backdrop of Philadelphia’s skyline, or designated time with a favorite podcast or audiobook. Essential workers, of course, have not had the option to get sentimental.

“It was my chance to see how the city truly breathes during the morning,” William Clark, 25, said of his mile-long walk to his job in Center City. That half-hour was his “source of solitude,” he said.

Others are relishing their extra time. They’re learning languages, saving money, finding more opportunities to exercise, read, and cook, and are improving relationships with partners, children, and roommates. One reader told The Inquirer he lost 40 pounds by turning his nearly hour-long commute into workout time. Another got rid of his car — “doesn’t make sense to pay for insurance on something that’s collecting dust,” he said.

Some, however, find themselves in unhealthy patterns of limited movement and longer work hours, unable to refocus the blurred lines around professional and home lives. Some parents can’t find a replacement for those few moments alone in a bus, train, or car.

When considering how they’ll commute in the future, workers will weigh those pros and cons and ask themselves a critical question: Is it worth it?

The decisions they’ll make — whether it’s five days in an office, never stepping in their workplaces again, or something in the middle — will have implications for transportation funding, equity, pollution, and congestion. Ripple effects will likely impact retail, restaurants, and real estate.

“Part of me would really like to just continue to work from home,” said Rebecca Clemmer, 60, of Ridley Park, who before the pandemic commuted about 40 minutes to King of Prussia each way. “Part of me misses [the] hustle and bustle of an office, and the resources of having the people around you that you need to interact with. I don’t know if that’s ever going to come back the way it used to be.”

Dozens of commuters shared insights with The Inquirer about life without travel bookending the start and stop to their day. Here’s what they said.

10 to 30 minutes

Between 2015 and 2019, the average commute for Philadelphia was 34 minutes, slightly higher than nearly 27 minutes nationally, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Averages in Philly’s collar counties fall between the two figures.

Commuters — especially bikers or walkers, whose shorter travels brought endorphins from regular exercise — were more apt to express an eagerness for their former routines.

Casey Alrich, 40, of South Philly, biked the two miles to his job in Center City, no matter the weather. It was constant, regular cardio, and just enough to get the blood flowing. Now he sometimes takes a nighttime ride to feel as if he’s “in the city again.”

“It’s hard to keep up with when you don’t have to do it,” said another biker, Mark Chadwick, 39, of South Philly, who previously rode into Old City.

» READ MORE: Bike shops are usually busy this time of year. Coronavirus took demand to the ‘next level.’

It’s no surprise that lengths and modes of commute affect a person’s feelings toward working remotely, said Greg Krykewycz, associate director of multimodal planning at the Delaware Valley Regional Planning Commission. People seek out a city for its urban amenities, such as being able to easily walk or bike to places.

“Very few people are living somewhere because it allows them to drive a long time to get to work,” he said. “That’s a glitch, not a feature. Whereas, biking and walking, it’s a feature, not a glitch.”

The same can be said about convenient and frequent transit. Before his work at the Kimmel Center came to a halt, Peter Mohan, 44, of Oaklyn, Camden County, had a 30-minute commute using PATCO. Work he’s found since has required a long drive, and he misses public transportation. He decided where to live because of it.

“I would put a dot at every PATCO stop, and then just increase my radius until we found something suitable ... ,” Mohan said. “That was the primary driver of where we moved to, to be frank.”

» READ MORE: Philadelphia’s traffic congestion was bad before the pandemic. It could get worse.

30 minutes to an hour

Marina Stuart, 26, of South Philadelphia, is “the queen of watching SEPTA pull away,” she said. She’s moved since she last regularly commuted, but her 35- to 40-minute travels between South Philly and William H. Hunter School in North Philadelphia, where she teaches science, used to involve the bus and Market-Frankford Line.

“I do think that in-person learning is something that we have lost, and that will be important to get back when it is safe to get back,” she said.

The COVID-19 pandemic didn’t introduce telecommuting, it merely launched the growing trend into hyperspeed overnight. As of September, about 33% of workers in the United States reported to be “always” working remotely, down from 51% in April, according to a fall Gallup poll. About two-thirds of remote workers wanted to continue doing so.

The number of people teleworking before the pandemic was likely “artificially low,” said Krykewycz, of the DVRPC. It’s now “artificially high,” as employers are advised to keep workers at home to stop the spread of COVID-19. The whiplash from the change, and what could shake out to be a preference for a hybrid work schedule, causes “sustained shock” in the transportation world, he said.

» READ MORE: It’s all on the line for SEPTA and its riders, from service cuts to layoffs

“There just hasn’t been anything quite like this in recent history,” Krykewycz said.

Stay-at-home orders and a fear of public transportation have kept riders off SEPTA, a system that heavily depends on fare dollars to fund daily operations, since March. The transportation authority continues to see depressed ridership, with figures still down about 65% on transit and 85% on Regional Rail.

SEPTA expected that telecommuting would chip away riders, just not at this speed. At the same time, the authority faced competition from rideshare for passengers, especially during off-peak hours, before the pandemic, Krykewycz said.

“I’ve gotten more done than I ever have when I was in-person, in the office,” said Evy Cruz, 30, of West Philly, who previously took SEPTA in a “crowded, mad dash” to Center City.

She has used the time she has saved from commuting to practice Spanish and take nonprofit management courses through Drexel University.

With a 4-, 7-, and 9-year-old to care for, it was always a rush out the door for Ashanti Martin, 42, of Fairmount, who took a SEPTA bus to commute to University City. Her commute served as a “buffer” between home and work — “valuable alone time,” she said.

“I try to say, ‘OK, Mommy needs quiet time,’” said Martin, who watches over her children as they’re schooled virtually, “but it just never lasts. Sometimes I’ll take a walk or something like that, but it’s not really the same.”

» READ MORE: Coronavirus' legacy will likely be continued work from home

An hour or more

The unlocked human potential some telecommuters are discovering should signal an “equity red alert,” Krykewycz said.

Wealthier, white-collar workers who telework have potential to become more productive, while those who must continue long commutes to lower-paying jobs won’t benefit from extra time or money saved, he said.

“It’s just going to make the time-rich time-richer, and the time-poor time-poorer,” Krykewycz said. “That’s a real concern.”

Feelings on the future were mixed for some with the longest commutes. Jade Roane, 47, of Townsend, Del., drove well over an hour to work at Simon Gratz High School. He’s “torn.”

“I miss the kids,” Roane said. “If you’re in education, you build relationships with students by being face-to-face. … While the practical side of me is like, ‘Hey, stay home and avoid driving.’”

Asked whether the more than two-hour supercommute on a Bolt Bus to New York City was worth it, Raymond Ricketts, 59, of Powelton Village, said he hasn’t “gotten there yet.”

The time he has gained back from not commuting “has been amazing,” said Ricketts, who teaches writing at New York University. “I’m actually a part of one city, not sort of part of neither city, which is how I felt before.”

It used to take about two hours for Johanna Humphrey, 40, of Roxborough, to drop her son off at school and race to catch SEPTA Regional Rail, where she traveled to University City. Now, there’s much more family time “that isn’t punctuated by this extreme stress” of traffic and train delays.

“Of all the things that are really crappy about the pandemic,” Humphrey said, “working from home and not commuting certainly is not one of them.”