Atlanta’s notoriously clogged highways have fallen uncharacteristically quiet in recent days, but there’s little cause for celebration.
As the novel coronavirus sweeping the globe brings major cities to their knees—shuttering businesses and forcing people to isolate themselves—it’s natural to long for a sliver of hope that some good could come of the turmoil.
In terms of transportation, at least, observers say Atlanta’s future could be a little brighter.
Public health officials have encouraged people to work from home, when possible, and the already growing trend of teleworking has become the norm. So much so, in fact, that it could leave a lasting impact that shifts the way Atlantans go to work for years to come. A recent LendingTree analysis found that a relatively high percentage of Atlantans (almost one in 10) had been working from home prior to the outbreak—tied with Portland for the country’s third highest percentage.
But can the budding practice become Atlanta’s status quo once the outbreak is contained?
Jokes about that meeting that could have been an email suddenly seem to carry weight, as Atlanta Regional Commission officials told Curbed Atlanta in a recent interview.
“These are unprecedented circumstances, so it wouldn’t be typical to have this many people teleworking at one time,” said Rosalind Tucker, managing director of the ARC’s Mobility Services Group. “But this is a tipping point for teleworking.”
Crises of disruption in recent Atlanta history, such as the I-85 bridge collapse or the “snowmageddon” weather event, spurred a temporary need for teleworking in the city; but, as the coronavirus spreads, Americans are faced with “the world’s largest telework experiment,” Tucker said.
Of course, it’s too soon to calculate the exact impact COVID-19 will have on the growth of teleworking in metro Atlanta, but John Orr, ARC’s transportation and mobility manager, said the crisis will likely make people more comfortable with the practice.
“If this is successful,” said Orr, “I think we’ll see more employers and employees seeing the benefits of teleworking.”
ARC leaders are now collecting and studying transportation statistics related to highway driving and transit ridership during the pandemic, and the data could help inform the future of transportation planning and investment in metro Atlanta, Orr said.
“If we are collectively successful as a region in transitioning into teleworking on an increased scale, it will do a lot for the region’s longterm future,” he said.
The obligation to pivot toward teleworking seems to also be helping to curb stigmas related to the practice, such as bosses’ concerns of employee productivity when they can’t keep an eye on staff.
Some managers might wonder, “How do I know they’re working?” Tucker said.
Her office, which runs ARC’s Georgia Commute Options mobility advocacy program, is providing online seminars to help guide employers and employees on methods to track productivity by monitoring objectives and deliverables.
Additionally, Tucker said, boosting teleworking could help companies learn how to better utilize their brick-and-mortar office spaces.
“Most companies are bursting at the seams,” she said. “Our job market has grown tremendously in the region, and even with sending people home to telework, companies have just been out of space and have no room for growth in the organizations.”
Few companies allow employees to telework daily, although staggering shifts so that some employees work from home on certain days can make better use of square footage.
“I don’t see teleworking removing the need for an organization to have [physical] space,” she said. “What it probably will do is create opportunities to save money, because you’d need less parking spaces, and buildings will need to build less parking spaces if companies focus on telework.”
Granted, it’s unlikely the pressure to telework caused by the coronavirus will ultimately quash Atlanta’s traffic woes, but it could help local governments and planning agencies reimagine the need to drive to work.