Executive assistant Erica Deary lives in Worcester and works in the Seaport. Pre-pandemic, she endured a daily round-trip commute that was three hours — as long as she got out of the house by 5:30 a.m. If she left at 6, she said, “I might as well not go to work that day.”
All that driving made her legs hurt, robbed her of sleep, and contributed to her anxiety. Then, in March, of course, the commuting part of life’s madness stopped, giving Deary a chance at free time that wasn’t spent idling on the Mass. Pike. She enjoyed nature. Ate dinner at a normal hour. Read actual books.
“I’m rejuvenated,” she said. “I know that sounds crazy during a pandemic.”
But Deary has been told her office will be reopening in January, earlier than many companies, which are eying the summer of 2021 as a restart date, or even telling employees they can work from home forever. She’s looking forward to seeing colleagues, but not to losing her leisure time, once again, to the road.
“Dread is too nice a word for what I’m thinking,” she said.
How cruel was Boston traffic? Here’s one way to measure it: Every commuter interviewed by the Globe — people who were fortunate enough to have kept their jobs and their health — said the same thing: The silver lining to the pandemic, if there can even be one, has been the bonanza of time.
The average round-trip car commute in the Boston area was 80 minutes, according to a 2019 report by Geotab, a connected vehicle company. And many people spent a lot longer than that en route in their cars or on public transportation.
Considering this windfall of time — seven hours a week, if you round up — we should be a city of very fit and well-read people who play several instruments and live in immaculate homes. OK, so that didn’t quite happen.
But some of the benefits have been profound. People who once left home early and returned late are now spending significant time with children or elderly parents. They’re exploring new interests, or coming up with marketing plans for their businesses.
Some of the changes, admittedly, are so tiny it’s sad to realize the degree to which commuting has lowered our expectations.
“I’ve got time to throw in laundry!” said Steve Passariello, a sales executive who used to spend 10 hours a week in round-trip commuting, from East Boston to Wakefield, a drive that would leave him “amped up” when he returned home at the end of the day.
“I was always so anxious,” he said. “Even on days you leave early, you catch an accident, or you catch construction.”
The traffic nightmare was confirmed by a Globe Spotlight report last November, which found that the metropolitan region has 300,000 more cars and trucks than it did five years ago (and things weren’t so great back then, either).
Alas, the time saved on driving and riding the T is not pure gain, as the pandemic has unleashed new time-consuming and stressful chores.
In the beginning we were washing and quarantining groceries and the mail. That’s mainly over, but parents are now working second jobs as day-care providers, teachers, zoom monitors, and cafeteria ladies. Late-night doomscrolling to stay abreast of breaking bad news is also claiming untold hours.
But the fortunate have been able to use this big pause to claw back a part of their lives.
“We can go in the back yard with the kids,” said Damain Allen, a corporate purchasing manager. “We never really had time before.”
Allen used to spend three hours round-trip daily commuting from Everett into Boston. His journey involved dropping his son off at day care, driving his wife to her job in Assembly Row, parking, and taking the Orange Line from there. Sometimes the T was so crowded he had to take it outbound so he could get a spot in an inbound car.
Evenings were spent hustling to get it all done so he could start over again the next day.
At first it took a little while to “strip away the rat race” and get used to a slower pace and intense togetherness, Allen said.
But now that he and his wife have seen what life can be like when hours aren’t spent in the car or on the T — when a child’s checkup doesn’t mean one parent has to take a half a day off from work — they’re determined to increase the number of days they work from home when life eventually returns to normal.
“It’s been eye-opening,” Allen said.
With some workers already back in the office, and life resuming to some degree, traffic is already rising toward pre-pandemic levels, according to a report from the Massachusetts Department of Transportation.
Despite declarations of “I can’t go back to that life!” many will have to do just that, albeit perhaps fewer days a week if they’re allowed to work from home.
Passariello, the sales executive, was recently called back to his office. He’s trying to appreciate this period before traffic returns to pre-pandemic levels.
His commute is down to 25 minutes — “with a stop at the store,” he said, giddy.
And yet, lack of traffic makes Passariello a little sad, too: “You wonder what happened to all those people,” he said of the missing motorists. “A lot lost their jobs.”
That’s traffic in Boston for you. It’s bad if we have it, bad if we don’t.