Will the Commuters Return?

When New York City is great, it’s great. Musicians entertain you, while you wait for the Uptown A train. But lately, the subways and the streets of the city have become a dumpster fire. Or, as happened this morning, a suitcase fire. Some nut job wheeled a suitcase onto a subway, lit it on fire, and jumped out as the doors shut (on local tv news, no link). A few weeks ago, a woman was pushed on the track and killed. Friends tell me about their college kids, who are getting mugged or hassled outside Fordham and Columbia campuses.

Prior to the pandemic, there were nearly 1 million commuters, people like Steve and my neighbors, coming into the city every day from Jersey, Long Island, and Westchester. People in the boroughs took the D train or the 7 train into downtown Manhattan. But for nearly two years, all those folks stayed home, and it’s had a huge impact on New York City and other cities, where most workers live outside the downtown area.

There has always been crazy people walking through New York City. In the mid-80s as a young college graduate, I walked through Columbus Circle and passed a person with panty hose over his face. Because that situation was only a 2 or 3, rather than a 8 or 9, on my personal alarm scale, I knew that I had became a true New Yorker.

Without commuters, the people with with mental health issues walk around unchecked. The craziness is purer, undiluted. And businesses that served the commuters — everything from food trucks to the shoe shine guys — are gone. Those business owners kept the streets sane, too.

Empty and weird city streets are something out of a sci-fi novel. It’s upsetting.

Now, the workers may be going back. The Mayor of New York City, Eric Adams, is pushing for it. Big businesses want workers back. I just dropped off Steve at the train station for the first time since mid-December. He’s going back three days a week now; his staff will join him next week. Can they change the dynamics on the streets and subways? We’ll see.

The return to work should change the dynamics here at home, too. Remote work was fun for a while, but we’re all ready to get out of the house. There’s a certain energy that comes from moving so early in the morning and making that mental shift from home to work. I think a lot people are getting bored at home and are ready for change. I am.

We are moving to a post-pandemic world at warp speed right now. I mean we’re all still going to get sick from covid at some point. Covid isn’t going away. But the pandemic rules are over for both scientific and political reasons.

Are you ready for these changes?

PICTURE: I love New York! I want to be on a subway platform listening to a busker.

29 thoughts on “Will the Commuters Return?

  1. The covid deaths are ridiculous here. We’re back to minimizing contact until the wave passes. I don’t think my work will ever bring us back more than 1 day a week, but I won’t move out of the city because I’d rather not deal with the politics out there, I hate lawnmowers, and I need to have a bar in walking distance.


    1. Wow. We have nothing here right now. The schools are almost back to being zero cases.

      You got a lot of unvaccinated people there, or are you just getting our December surge now?


      1. Both probably. New cases have been dropping for a couple of weeks, but deaths are still way up, about where they were at this time in 2021. Except in February of 2021, they were definitely heading down and that’s not certain yet in 2022.


    2. Definitely differences in the NE v other parts of the country (though TX & FL also seem well on their way down from the omicron peak, though, with cases & deaths similar to the winter peak).

      There were a 1000 cases in our school district (50K students) last week, less than the week of 1/7, but not consistently trending down yet. We may have turned the corner in the state in cases, but there are statewide differences in cases and vaccinations that make the data messy. One of the high schools just came out of 2 weeks of remote learning (I think, it’s not my kiddo’s school).

      I’m still minimizing contact until the wave recedes (except that kiddo is going to school, which is our biggest contact). Other kiddo is back at college, where the school is moving to post-omicron, with the assertion that vaxed people are largely protected. They’re still providing quarantine housing and still have some restrictions.


  2. “Empty and weird city streets are something out of a sci-fi novel.” I had to stop reading Nora Roberts at the beginning of the pandemic. I’d hoped that it was going to be so over the top, I mean, a magical plague, that it wouldn’t be disturbing, but the descriptions of NYC were eerily like what I was seeing on the news.


  3. I walked through an entirely empty Times Square with all the stores boarded up right after the BLM marches and riots. It was more disturbing than a scene from any novel.


  4. My sister-in-law and big tween nephew went for a trip to NYC last summer. They had an experience where a guy in the subway was accosting them and accusing my tween nephew of taking his wife (?!?).

    I was remembering that story when I heard about the recent subway death. As I recall, the woman who was killed was accused of stealing the guy’s coat and then he pushed her in front of a train.


    1. I’ve found that kind of thing has always happened in NY, though my last significant time there was in the 1980s. As a current resident of “suburb in the city” it feels big, but when I’m there (or in any city center), basically manageable.


  5. I am thinking about when I personally move forward, though. Moving forward is entirely up to me, for me. It would restaurant meals and thinking about travel. My view of the cases and deaths aren’t there yet in my county.


  6. I was at our destination farmer’s market area on Saturday, and there were enough people there to make it feel hopping. It’s an area that can be packed crowded at it’s most crowded, and it wasn’t crowded, but there were lines at coffee shops, people on the street, and buskers. I do think some of the crowd is displaced, rather than bigger over all (say, the downtown mall is empty).


  7. We’re reopening martial arts (at half capacity and with masks) and my 11 year old is going back to classes in person since he’s now vaccinated x2. He’s ecstatic.

    Toronto hollowed out weirdly too. During the first, only real shutdown, one of my friends in health care said the streets were front-line workers and aggressive panhandlers – partly because their income dried up too.


  8. Will the commuters return?

    Hmm. Are we running a betting pool? If we are, I’d say, no, not in the same numbers. It’s been two years. Many companies have discovered they don’t need everyone in the same office all the time.

    A friend is closing down their company office in the city this week. (As in, clearing out stuff to give up the lease.) They’re doing that because their clients aren’t coming in to the city. For the last two years, they’ve met off site with the clients, or remotely. Companies dependent on large, government contracts, of course, will try to go back to 2019’s normal. They may be able to make their employees go along, but they aren’t able to force clients to abide by their wishes.

    It’s been overlooked by everyone that the younger workers who work with software, and write software, can write their own ticket. If they don’t want to commute, they’re able to find employers to work for remotely. So the local business with a company network is competing to keep their IT department not only with their local rivals, but with Silicon Valley (and Walmart, etc.)

    Search on Glassdoor for “Remote Jobs.” There are a staggering number.


    1. Well, Our Gracious Host says the mister is going back 3x/week. I’m going to guess there will be a LOT of 3x/ 2x/ 1/x people. People will figure out that they can get the ‘office’ services they need with less presence. This will mean a LOT fewer people buying $6.99/lb steam table at the fusion Asian place by my old office. Fewer people putting dollars in the tip jar for the buskers. Fewer loan officers thinking that the path to being a vice president lies through making an aggressive loan for a spec office building. So I am betting on ‘the same, but less of it’. And lots of the 2x/ and 1x/ people deciding they can live seventy-five miles out instead of twenty.


      1. I agree. Many of these trends started years before, though, so it isn’t as if there’s a pre-covid normal. Hot desking was a thing well before 2019.

        Software companies have been doing “distributed software development” for years now. So a project can be under continuous development, with teams in Europe, India, Asia, California, etc. picking up the threads around the clock. They don’t all gather around the same coffee pot in the same overpriced city.

        I would think of it as the growth of “greater cities,” as activity is no longer confined to city centers. Fidelity Investments has long had its data centers outside of Boston proper (Marlborough, I think?) At any rate, there wasn’t a need to place the back office people in the expensive city centers.

        AmyP, maybe the hotels will host workers spending nights in the city, rather than buying apartments near work. So, 2 nights in a hotel, work in the office TWTh, from home F & M. Given how expensive city real estate is, it could be more affordable than living in the city, especially if the spouse doesn’t work in the same neighborhood.

        This process accelerates if the cities are seen as incompetent at schooling. As young adults have postponed starting families for some time, there’s likely to be a baby boom about to start.


    2. My big national bank postponed our return to office. But when we do I back I will need to be there 3 days a week. Our team in India has been hit hard and we’ve pretty much had 30-50% absence the last 3 weeks.

      Prior to Covid I did about 50/50 at office/ at home with the occasional week entirely at home. No one cared as my developers are in India and my bosses in other US cities (I’ve reported to bosses I’ve never met in person.). Almost no one I work with is in my city so working from home was no big deal. Some people aren’t cut out for not seeing their co workers but I’m so used to it. We don’t do video calls so I might not recognize many if I met them.


  9. Meanwhile, our downtown (which was almost nothing but parking for the first 8+ years we lived here) is getting built up. There are several major commercial projects underway. I’m not exactly sure what they all are (hotels? apartments?) but people are making major bets on downtown.

    (This is a moderate-sized downtown, not a big city downtown.)


  10. Very different environment, here in NZ.
    But the category of office workers who are *not* going back, are government employees.
    Very strong union. Very difficult to argue that these jobs are essential to be ‘in-person in the office’. Even the ‘customer-facing’ ones had moved to online and phone communication over the last 10 years.
    It’s a huge issue for our capital in Wellington (which has the centre city almost entirely populated by bureaucrats) – so all of the city businesses, which rely on them for patronage, are in strife.

    Here in Auckland, most of the office-based workers are continuing to work either entirely or very substantially from home.
    Of course, we’re awaiting the Omicron tsunami to hit (150 cases and rising yesterday).

    The group who are worst affected by this (apart from the business owners) are the young people in their 20s. Most likely to be living in shared accommodation (i.e. flatting) – with limited space if there are 4-5 of them all trying to work from home; and the people who most need mentoring from established workers – which is harder to do online.
    [NB: I’m doing that for 3 people ATM, and it is much harder to do remotely than in person]

    And, having said all of that, I’m commenting here, now, during my working day, because there’s a widespread telecom outage affecting our offices – so I have no access to all of the data I need to actually work at home!


  11. Funny story about this from a friend of mine.
    She’s a lawyer with offices in the city. Just telling us that she’s been ‘promoted’ to a corner office (internal status in law firms is apparently to do with desirability and location of offices within the building)
    Very excited. Until she realized that the reason is that several of the partners have moved to entirely remote working – from their holiday homes at the beach, most of the time. And just come in once a month or so for senior management meetings (aka restaurant lunches) – or when they are needed in court (and they then hire a hotel suite adjacent to the high court – since they don’t have an ‘office’ any more).
    Cunning as weasels…..


  12. Interestingly, my husband has been called back to work in the office. He was back in September for 2 weeks before he had a medical thing and was out for several weeks, then Omicron hit and his office went remote again. He then decided he liked working from home and is kind of resentful he has to commute again.

    Me, I’ve been back since September and I am thrilled. Everyone is masked, and it’s all been working pretty well. We got caught by Omicron a bit. A student of mine this semester lost his father to COVID and had to go back to Texas to be with his family. I’m going to try to keep him from having to drop my class. I’ve also had one student test positive last week, and another few who were directly exposed, but they ended up testing negative. Omicron is definitely on the wane here.


    1. Wendy said, “Omicron is definitely on the wane here.”

      Hometown U. went in the course of a week and a half from 1 in 8 members of the campus community being an active COVID case to 1 in 200.

      We’re also expecting a snow/ice day Thursday and possibly Friday, too.


  13. One of the facets I adore about 11D is the contemporaneous history it provides (this also from Laura’s newsletter): https://apt11d.com/2020/09/11/home-revolution-newsletter-excerpt/

    From September 2020, six months into the pandemic, at the start of the winter wave, and before vaccines, delta, and omicron when I, at least, was settling into remote school with the belief that it was necessary.

    I don’t like to make predictions and I thought there would be significant consequences to prolonged remote work (even if was a mutual decision of workers and employers).

    I feel like we still don’t know where the COVID revolution will take us (I did hear a charter school advert this morning on public radio and the statewide school population is apparently down 4%, I expect elite universities and flagship state universities will make standardized testing option).

    (Then, as now, several commenters talked about the struggle of training new workers remotely)


  14. “The return to work should change the dynamics here at home, too. Remote work was fun for a while, but we’re all ready to get out of the house. There’s a certain energy that comes from moving so early in the morning and making that mental shift from home to work. I think a lot people are getting bored at home and are ready for change. I am. ”

    Had a conversation the other day with other moms on the verge of empty nesting (none of whom work outside of the home but are busy with projects). A complaint was husbands who were constantly there, working, but also wanting entertainment when they weren’t in their meetings, and constantly wandering through the kitchen for snacks. They were ready to have spouses back at their offices, and, one who has a very fancy office said that he wasn’t going until other were there, because it was too lonely.

    The couple I heard who it works for retreat into their own offices at home for the work day and meet at 7 PM for dinner, and so don’t interfere with each other’s days.

    I think the chatting was a prelude to what retirement might look like for these families (though, I presume, actual retirement would involve traveling, they were negotiating the social needs of men whose main source of socializing had been high pressure/high value/high socialization work).


  15. The chatter on our real estate buzz is houses in our metro close-in suburbs going for $1,000,000 over asking price. And, the belief those must be all cash offers, since the appraisals probably couldn’t justify loans. I’m not sure what that means for commuting, moving away, or moving to lower tax states.

    (Development might be a plan, with upzoning that allows more houses to be constructed on those lots; so buy a property for 3.6 million, and build 4 two million dollar houses?)


    1. I know of two families in our network of friends/family members who sold their houses in all-cash deals, for more than would have been the asking price. Neither house was on the market at the time. One (2020) was a distant cousin’s house in Nashville, which went for essentially twice the price the couple had paid for it 3 years prior. (I found the house on Zillow, which confirmed the rumor I had heard from my extended family.) The other (2021, CA) went for 500K – 1M over its probable value, all cash deal.

      I have the impression the TN deal was people moving from California. It was probably Oracle people; Oracle announced in 2021 that it was moving its headquarters to Tennessee. The CA buyers were young software people who wanted that particular house.

      So, bj, it could be that some software company is moving its headquarters to your area? If you’re thinking of downsizing, you might want to contact the real estate agents involved in the deal. If you’re near Bellevue, WA, Amazon is moving its leadership team to that area from Seattle, according to the news.


    2. Indeed the house was in Bellevue, so, maybe leadership team moving from elsewhere for the 2024 potential open of the new Amazon high rise.

      But I still think developers because the house was pretty ordinary and te lot with no views. But people moving from elsewhere sometimes prioritize house design & gardens & privacy over views of the water and mountains (which I’d accept as a rational choice if they’d first lived with the views which are awesome).

      In Seattle nearby, a lot was purchased in 2018 for 1.7 million, divided into two lots and the two new houses sold for 3.2 million each in 2021 (views and 4300 square feet, but on 6000 square foot lots). Hence my guess of developers. Some of these buyers are associated with the hospitals (particularly, they can’t live remotely if they have on call times).


      1. bj said, “In Seattle nearby, a lot was purchased in 2018 for 1.7 million, divided into two lots and the two new houses sold for 3.2 million each in 2021 (views and 4300 square feet, but on 6000 square foot lots).”

        Oh my goodness.

        Some relatives of ours live in Vancouver BC. Some years ago, they put a new kitchen into their older 3k square foot ranch house and then sold the house. The new buyers scraped everything off the lot and put in a 10,000 sq. ft compound–there’s really no other word for it.


      2. And, it’s not the only lot. Watching makes me extremely suspicious of those who argue that upzoning will produce affordable housing (Minneapolis got rid of single family zoning and there’s an effort in WA state as well at the state level).

        The Vancouver BC market is really crazy. Foreign buyers are a big deal there (and I do wonder what role they play in WA). They’ve added a 15% foreign buyer tax, cooling off periods, . . . .


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