Can you safely commute to the office during the COVID-19 pandemic?

The pandemic changed how we travel around our cities. Here’s how to find a daily commute that works for you

WeWork 330 North Wabash in Chicago. Photographs by WeWork

If the COVID-19 pandemic has taught us anything about how we work, it’s that our usual routines are not set in stone. Flexible teams are collaborating in inventive new ways, traditional workspaces are being transformed, and the health and comfort of employees is a bigger priority than ever. But while we can make our offices a secure place to work, getting there can still pose a real problem. How can you commute safely to the office in a way that protects both yourself and your colleagues? 

As companies evolve to meet a new set of demands, the daily commute doesn’t have to be so rigidly defined. In this article, we’ll discuss how to find the commute that’s right for your situation.

Finding the right commute for you

For something we tend to do on autopilot, our daily commute has a profound impact on our well-being. Research by the University of the West of England found that adding an extra 20 minutes to a commute has the same effect on job satisfaction as receiving a 19 percent pay cut. A slightly improved commute can have a big effect on your overall happiness.

The factors that determine how you get to and from the office can seem like they’re beyond your control, but as workplaces reopen, there’s never been a better time to rethink your commuting habits. Let’s take a look at some of the considerations to bear in mind.

How often do you need to go into the office?

As offices begin to reopen, many will operate with reduced capacities and on rotating schedules to minimize crowding and create personal space. This might mean splitting teams into two or more groups to be switched in and out over the course of a month, or offering those who are still able to work remotely the option to visit the office less frequently.

Figure out how often you need to be at the office, and then adapt your commute to fit around this schedule. Having to travel less often frees you up to take a longer, quieter route or to use a different mode of transportation entirely. Hopping on your bike just one or two days a week is less daunting a prospect than cycling to work every day.

How far away is the office?

Distance is the biggest factor in how we decide to travel, but it can be a red herring when figuring out the best and safest way to get to work. If you’re living in the city, a bike can beat public transportation over the same distance, especially at busy times of the day. In less connected areas, driving might be the only way to commute safely. Play around with route planning apps, like Google Maps or Citymapper, to see a selection of commuting options you might not have considered.

There is another way to reduce the distance to the office: Bring the office closer to you. A dedicated workspace close to where you live reduces travel times, enhances your work-life balance, and gives you the option of commuting safely and with confidence.

Where is the nearest public transportation?

Before COVID-19, the commute to and from the office looked radically different depending on where in the world you live. In cities with sprawling and well-established public transportation networks, it meant cramming into crowded trains and retreating into your happy place. In suburbs where public transportation is less reliable—or simply nonexistent—it likely meant spending hours behind the wheel.

Local governments advise against nonessential use of public transportation during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has seen passenger numbers slashed on subways and metro systems globally. In New York City, overall subway ridership in December was at 30 percent of pre-pandemic levels, while on London’s tube network, passenger numbers in January were at just 16 percent of normal levels.

Despite this, crowding on station platforms and inside trains is still a common sight during rush hour. If you’re able to use public transportation and can stagger your work hours, check your transit system’s website for advice on how to avoid the busiest times.

Can you drive?

Traveling to the office by car is a surefire way to maintain a safe distance from other commuters, but there are downsides. Parking can be expensive or difficult to find, and as more of us return to the workplace, the amount of traffic on the road is creeping upward toward pre-pandemic levels. This congestion is made worse by a sharp drop in the use of public transportation. In Los Angeles, for example, car usage has almost returned to normal.

Depending on where you live, you might be able to use your car for just a segment of the commute. Consider using park-and-ride services to drop your vehicle off outside the most congested areas, then travel the rest of the way by train, bus, or bike.

What is the safest way to commute during the coronavirus pandemic?

Research from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) finds that COVID-19 spreads more easily indoors because of the reduced ability to socially distance and the limited natural airflow. To commute safely, spend as much time as possible outdoors, avoiding enclosed spaces like subways, waiting areas, and train stations. 

Steering clear of crowds helps to minimize your chances of catching and spreading the virus, so plan a route that avoids passing through busy transit hubs, even if it takes you a little longer to get to where you’re going.

Cycling or walking

During the pandemic, many cities upgraded their cycling routes to encourage more people to commute to the office by bike. If you’re not confident on two wheels, practice the route on the weekend when there’s less traffic, and stagger your working hours to avoid cycling at busy times. 

If you’d rather not arrive at the office looking like you’ve just run a marathon, consider investing in an electric bike. Sales of e-bikes skyrocketed in 2020 as millions of commuters ditched busy trains and congested roads. Your employer might offer incentives to cycle to work, too, like a discount or reimbursement for a new bike purchase.

Is it safe to take public transportation?

As passenger numbers plummeted in 2020, so too did the risk of catching or spreading the virus on public transportation. This risk reduction could quickly be reversed once commuters begin using trains, buses, and subways again, so most cities are continuing to recommend against all but essential use of public transportation networks.

Not everybody has the option to commute by car or bike. If you have no alternative but to use public transportation to get to the office, the CDC has a set of guidelines to help you protect yourself and others while commuting safely.

Here are some tips for safer commuting:

  • Keep up-to-date. Check your local transit authority’s website or download its app for the latest information on train times, schedule changes, and service cancellations. Train frequencies may change, and certain stations may be closed at times to avoid overcrowding, so check before you travel.
  • Avoid touching surfaces. Use contactless payment at ticket barriers where you can. Buy your tickets online to avoid using touchscreen machines at the station, and avoid high-touch areas such as handrails, trash cans, and elevator buttons.
  • Stay six feet apart. This might not be physically possible during peak hours, so try to schedule your working day around busy travel times. Leave as many empty seats as you can between you and the other passengers, and pay attention to social distancing signage and temporary one-way systems.
  • Open a window. Maintain a constant flow of fresh air through the train carriage or bus by opening a window. Ventilation reduces the concentration of viral particles in the air. If you’re in a taxi or rideshare, ask the driver to open the windows or set the AC to non-recirculation mode.
  • Use hand sanitizer. Before and after you ride, rub your hands with hand sanitizer containing at least 60 percent alcohol. Be on the lookout for hand sanitizing stations near turnstiles, and remember to wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water once you reach your destination.

Is it safe to use ridesharing apps like Uber and Lyft?

Ridesharing apps provide a convenient alternative to public transportation, especially when traveling late at night or early in the morning. At first glance, jumping into a taxi rather than catching a train seems the more sensible option in a pandemic, but are Uber and Lyft safe to use?

While drivers are instructed to wear a mask and sanitize their vehicles between rides, sharing a car still presents a risk to both the rider and the driver. There’s no way to keep six feet apart and, because not all COVID-19 carriers have symptoms, it’s not possible to know whether you, the driver, or any of the car’s previous occupants are infectious. 

For these reasons, the CDC advises against the use of ridesharing apps for all but the most urgent journeys. If you do find yourself in need of an Uber or a Lyft, here are some guidelines to bear in mind.

  • Wear a mask and make sure your driver does too. This is now the law for passengers and drivers in taxis across the country. Uber drivers are required to upload a picture of themselves wearing their mask before they can begin a shift. Masks help to reduce the number of infectious airborne particles you exhale, but they’re not totally effective at preventing the spread of the virus. Use them in conjunction with these other tips.
  • Open the windows or switch the AC to the correct mode. Replenish the air inside the car by rolling down the windows on both sides. If it’s too cold to have the windows open, ensure that the AC is switched on and that it’s not recirculating the same stale air.
  • Don’t travel with other passengers. Both Uber and Lyft suspended their carpooling services at the beginning of the pandemic and instructed their drivers to refuse to allow passengers from different households to ride at the same time. If your ride arrives and there’s another passenger inside, request another car.
  • Use hand sanitizer after sitting down. After touching the door handle to enter the car, use a sanitizer that contains 60 percent alcohol to clean your hands, then avoid touching any other surfaces inside the vehicle. If the ride isn’t prepaid, use contactless payment rather than physical cash.
  • Sit as far away from the driver as you can. If you can’t sit six feet away from the driver, sit as far away as you can. The front seat is out of bounds, so use the rear seat on the opposite side of the car to get as much distance as possible between you and the driver. In bigger vehicles, use the seats that are farthest back.

How to commute safely

While there’s no completely safe way to commute during the COVID-19 pandemic, there are still ways to make your commute safer. The way you choose to travel—or whether you choose to travel at all—depends on your circumstances. Cycling and walking are the safest ways to commute, but may only be possible if you don’t have too far to travel. (According to one study, more than 58 percent of office workers in New York City live within a 15-minute bike ride of a WeWork.)

The amount of New York City residents who live within a 15-minute walk or bike ride to a WeWork location.

The subway is safer at quieter times of the day, but should be used only by those who need it. And no matter how you travel, there are steps you can take to mitigate the risk of spreading the virus.

As teams return to the workplace, employers are collaborating with workers to find ways to make the daily commute safer, shorter, and better. That might mean offering free access to local bike share services, using corporate shuttle buses, or scheduling shifts to start and finish outside peak travel hours. Or it could mean shortening commutes by providing employees with a convenient and dedicated workspace closer to where they live.

WeWork On Demand gives you access to more than 190 WeWork locations in 17 cities across the United States, with no monthly commitment. You can book a dedicated workspace for $29 per day, helping to ensure that your teams can collaborate in a productive, focus-enhancing environment without the hassle or risk of a long commute. To unlock hundreds of locations around the world, WeWork All Access grants you access to shared workspace in more than 30 countries.

The health and safety of everyone in the office is more of a priority now than it’s ever been. WeWork has reimagined the workplace of tomorrow, with enhanced cleaning processes, new layouts, improved HVAC systems, and helpful signage to make returning to the office a safe decision.

To get started, download the WeWork On Demand app and create an account to begin exploring locations near you. You can search, book, and pay for available office space from $29 per day, and reserve meeting rooms from $10 per hour. Visit WeWork All Access for access to shared workspace in hundreds of locations around the world.

Steve Hogarty is a writer and journalist based in London. He is the travel editor of City AM newspaper and the deputy editor of City AM Magazine, where his work focuses on technology, travel, and entertainment.

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