We all know about the rise of remote work during the pandemic. With more people working from home or some other distant location, a lot of commutes simply no longer exist — at least for the time being.

But which commutes converted to work-from-home, and which ones didn’t?

Some new data shows that not all commuters were affected equally in the Seattle metro area. The number of workers with longer commute times — those that took 20 minutes or more each way — plummeted. But the number of people with short commutes actually increased a little.

More on the COVID-19 pandemic

The data, which comes from market-research giant Nielsen, is based on surveys. It shows a huge increase in non-commuters in this area, as you’d expect in this era of remote working.

The number of people who do not normally commute shot up by two and half times since the pandemic started. In the period from February 2020 to February 2021, about 318,000 workers age 21 and older in the Seattle metro area were not typically commuting. In the same period one year earlier — before the pandemic took hold — only 125,000 workers did not typically commute.

That pencils out to 193,000 fewer commuters just because of remote work. On top of that, the number of people in our area who were not employed, for whatever reason, increased by 74,000. There could be a number of factors behind that increase, but it’s likely that a lot of it is due to people losing their jobs because of the pandemic.

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Combined, that’s an increase of 267,000 Seattle-area adults who were either not commuting or not working since the start of the pandemic.

While that is a very big number, it really isn’t surprising. We’ve all experienced or witnessed these changes to the nature of work and commuting firsthand.

But the Nielsen data provides some additional insight into how the pandemic affected commuters in our area that is perhaps less expected. It shows that 100% of the net decline in commuting was due to those folks with commutes of 20 minutes or longer.

In total, since the start of the pandemic, the number of Seattle-area workers who commuted 20 minutes or more each way dropped from more than one million to about 810,000. That represents a decline of nearly a quarter of a million (246,000) with moderately-to-very long commutes.

The biggest decline, by far, was among those with commutes of 30 to 59 minutes. Those fell by about 34%. Slightly shorter commutes (20 to 29 minutes), and what are often called mega-commutes (an hour or more each way), also declined, but not quite as dramatically.

On the other hand, the number of people with commutes of less than 20 minutes actually increased a bit. Nearly all of that increase was among those with the shortest commutes — those less than 10 minutes.

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While the data shows this large gap between how the pandemic affected people with longer commutes compared to those with shorter commutes, it doesn’t explain why. And the reason behind this trend was not immediately apparent — at least to me. So I looked more closely at the Nielsen commuter demographics for some clues.

One jumped out.

There is some correlation between commute time and professional status. The data shows that, on average, people with shorter commutes are more likely to work jobs that could be categorized as “blue collar” — and these were often jobs deemed essential during the pandemic (such as food service and grocery, transportation, delivery and retail).

These jobs typically don’t have the option of remote work, which may explain why their numbers didn’t decline during the pandemic. Longer-commute jobs are more likely to be white collar, and able to convert to remote work.

The data shows roughly half (49%) of the Seattle-area workforce with a job categorized as blue collar had a commute time of less than 20 minutes. In comparison, only about 37% of white-collar workers had commute times of less than 20 minutes.

Folks who work white-collar occupations in the Seattle area were at least twice as likely to work remotely than someone with a blue-collar occupation, according to the data.

And there is a corresponding gap in income: Remote worker had a median household income about $35,000 higher than those commuting less than 20 minutes.

There is something else that the data doesn’t explain, which you may be wondering about: With a quarter of a million fewer daily commuters in our area, why is the traffic still so bad?

Nielsen surveyed nearly 3,000 adults ages 21 and older both before and during the pandemic in the Seattle metro area, which includes King, Pierce, and Snohomish counties. The estimated 21-and-older population was a little over 3 million.

Navigating the pandemic
(Jennifer Luxton / The Seattle Times)

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