Ready or not, the return of the daily, soul-sucking slog that is the Greater Boston commute is imminent, as workers prepare to return, en masse, to the downtown office buildings that have sat largely empty for the past 16 months.
With state vaccination rates among the highest in the country, and infections at some of their lowest levels since the pandemic’s start, many city employers have pegged September and October as the welcome-back date for in-person work.
But the manner in which employees will be making their trek into the office each day remains largely a mystery — so much so that even those who’ve dedicated their professional lives to studying transportation in the city remain flummoxed about how, exactly, the city’s commuting patterns will look after more than a year-long pandemic-induced pause.
“If you have any insight into how this is gonna go, let me know,” joked Pete Wilson, a senior adviser for Transportation For Massachusetts, an advocacy coalition aimed at improving transportation throughout the Commonwealth.
What’s clear is that things will likely look very different than they did before.
The MBTA’s fall service schedule is certainly expected to be different when it’s announced next month; bus service hours will operate at 93 percent of pre-pandemic levels, while service hours for the Blue, Red, and Orange lines will be at or near normal, according to an agency spokesman.
More pressing, perhaps, are the questions that remain about how many will continue to rely upon public transit going forward.
Online, frustrated users have voiced concerns about the services that were slashed during the height of the pandemic (”We’re returning to our office soon, and I just noticed that ALL of the express bus options I used to use to get into downtown no longer run there,” wrote one Reddit user last week).
Others remain squeamish about packing back into crowded train cars with the coronavirus still lurking and some riders flouting the mask mandate.
According to a city of Boston survey released late last year, roughly 38 percent of commuters said they planned to drive alone to work post-pandemic, a jump from 23 percent who drove before the pandemic. That shift could theoretically result in as many as 60,000 additional cars on the road each morning during the peak travel hour, based on city traffic figures.
Before COVID engulfed the city last March, Jennifer Waters, 48, of Salem, would take the commuter rail or Blue Line to her job in the Financial District. Now? She drives into the city, even though she pays more for parking than she would for public transit.
“I don’t want to be elbow-to-elbow with people right now,” she said.
In a state-commissioned report released last week that surveyed hundreds of local businesses and residents, the consulting firm McKinsey & Co. forecast a vastly different Boston work landscape, with as many as one-third of employers expected to scale back their physical work spaces, while business travel to the city is projected to decline notably, as well.
Among the firm’s most interesting findings, however, was its predictions for commuting and transportation: As a result of multiple factors, including more hybrid work arrangements, commuter rail usage could plummet by as much as 50 percent, while bus and subway ridership could fall as much as 25 percent from pre-pandemic totals.
“It’s incredibly hard” to predict, said Monica G. Tibbits-Nutt, executive director of the 128 Business Council, a group devoted to innovative transportation solutions. “A lot of the information we have now is anecdotal. The majority of companies at this point are coming back probably in October, [so] I don’t think we will have a clear understanding of what that new commute information is going to be until Q1 or Q2 of next year — and it could be as long as next summer.”
But in a city long beset by some of the nation’s worst traffic congestion, even a small shift in the traffic ecosystem could have significant adverse implications.
Some of the recent numbers reported by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, for instance, indicate a troubling trend: While both subway and commuter rail traffic remain down, traffic levels on some roads are already approaching 2019 levels — and in some cases exceeding them.
All before many workers return to the office.
Demand for used cars swelled last year, as people sought to avoid the use of public transportation and ride-sharing apps. The pandemic also prompted some to abandon city life for more spacious abodes in the suburbs and beyond — a trend that could result in more cars making longer commutes upon the eventual return to the workplace.
And even as it has become increasingly clear that many employers will offer added flexibility on working from home, experts say, that doesn’t necessarily mean the area’s roadways will benefit.
“There’s this misperception that ... more folks are working from home, [and so] congestion will somehow be better,” said Stacy Thompson, executive director for the LivableStreets Alliance, an advocacy group focused on transportation innovation and equity in Greater Boston. “The reality is that you only need a small percentage of people to choose not to take the T for us to get to pre-pandemic levels of congestion.”
COVID’s persistence, even here in well-vaccinated Massachusetts, is leaving some riders wary of their pre-pandemic routines.
Damien Graham, who commutes from Roxbury to a downtown job as a security guard, often chooses to walk to work these days. The 43-year-old is recovering from colon cancer, he said, and is thus immunocompromised.
Graham said he sometimes takes the Silver Line to South Station. When he does, he is fastidious about following health protocols.
“I’m still wearing my mask,” he said, and when people around him don’t follow suit, “I move.”
If there is a silver lining in the upended past year in transportation, said state Senator Adam Hinds — who chairs the Senate Committee on Reimagining Massachusetts Post-Pandemic Resiliency — it’s that the pandemic has helped expose an array of longstanding issues within the public transit infrastructure.
Data have shown, for instance, that Black residents are forced to spend considerably more time on public transit per year than white residents, raising questions about the distribution of resources. What’s more, he said, it can be cheaper for some Massachusetts residents to drive into the city everyday and pay for parking than it is for them to purchase a commuter rail pass, which can adversely affect both roadway congestion and the environment.
Hinds is viewing the turmoil of the past 16 months as a chance to reshape the state’s public transportation infrastructure to improve efficiency and equity.
“Honestly,” said Hinds, “there is a real sense that we don’t want to squander this opportunity.”
Globe correspondent Jack Lyons contributed to this report.
Dugan Arnett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.