The COVID-19 pandemic has shown countless individuals and companies that working from home can be a viable option. Big Tech is leading the charge with firms such as OpenText Corp., Shopify Inc., Twitter Inc. and Facebook Inc. revealing plans to transition large portions of their workforce to a permanent work from home basis. As a result, those moves could have significant implications for both cities and suburbia. 

BNN Bloomberg spoke to Jennifer Keesmaat, former chief planner for the City of Toronto and chief executive officer of The Keesmaat Group, in a phone interview on what this means for the future of urban planning.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

How will a big shift to remote work impact commutes?

All of a sudden you’re in a situation where working from home is entirely socially acceptable. I think that’s really the big thing that’s changed. What might’ve happened over five, six or seven years is now happening over five, six or seven months. One of the biggest implications is on our transportation system and in particular our transit system. 

The good news is we couldn’t build transit fast enough and now we’re in a situation where even if a relatively small percentage – say, 10, 20 or 30 per cent of the workforce in any given office was working from home on alternate days of the week - that would have a transformative impact on our transit system. The impact of this on our mobility system are difficult to underplay, even if it’s a relatively small shift to working from home, the impact on both our roads and transit system could be substantial.

Doesn’t this mean a lot less revenue coming in for transit systems? 

The money side is incredibly complicated -particularly in the Toronto context or in the Canadian context - where we have relied on the vast amount of our operating money to come from the fare box. 76 per cent of the money needed to operate transit comes from fares. In a situation where, in part because of work from home but also in the short term because of social distancing, you need a fundamentally new way of paying for transit. A model of having riders fund it won’t work anymore because the way riders use the system will really change.

What does this mean for condominium planning in the city and the housing mix in general?

Vertical living isn’t going anywhere. There’s a whole variety of community, social and environmental benefits from living in an urban place. If big companies like Shopify, Twitter and Facebook are creating a work culture that’s based on being in the office some, but not all, of the time then why would anyone pay the high rent of living in San Francisco if you don’t have to? But what’s really happening are people will have more choice than they had in the past. A lot of people paid high rent to be close to their job because they had to … they had no choice. 

We did a study called Growing Up Vertical when I was chief planner and one of the things we found is that young families with children want to stay in an urban locations precisely because they want to walk to work. They didn’t want the long commute. But now we have a new variable in the mix because now those parents could potentially work from home. However, other questions emerge in their suburban location such as access to child care. People, both young and old, were already choosing walkable, urban locations and the many offerings of urban life. None of that changes in the future going forward - your commute might change because you might be working from home now, but all of the offerings of urban life are still on the table. 

I don’t think we should anticipate a wholesale abandonment of urban living because those are really powerful things and reasons why people were choosing to live urban environments in the first place.

What should city planners be thinking about with the new normal?

We’re still in the learning phase but you need to look at the clues Shopify, Twitter and Facebook are giving us as to what the future will look like. It’s going to be a much less office-centric, 9 to 5-centric workplace. That presents opportunities in mitigating our environmental impact through the commute in particular and one of the big trends linked to all of this is the importance of cycling as a viable form of transportation. 

One of the biggest challenges we’ve faced over the past decade in most Canadian cities is managing the commute and the environmental impact. The number one priority for city planners needs to be prioritizing cycling infrastructure and active transportation so cycling is more of a choice than it has been in the past. 

The images are really fantastic from the pandemic because we’ve seen so many people out cycling; now the question becomes how to do you turn that into a true transportation option rather than something that’s just recreational. It makes designing the city different because we’ve prioritized parking and cars.

What will be one of the main changes to cities in the future?

From a mobility perspective, cycling is a profound change that was already underway in many cities but it’s been accelerated now. Milan, London, Paris, even Athens have accelerated what were already ambitious cycling plans in part because they need an alternative to not being able to fill their transit systems up with people and knowing there’s not enough room in the streets for everyone to get into their cars. 

That will be a massive shift that will have profound implications for cities, in part because cars are very expensive, they’re really hard on roads and the environment. But they’re also expensive from a health and safety perspective – the injury and death that results from driving is astronomical in cities so they have a big implication on public health. Shifting to cycling will lead to all kind of other phenomenal outcomes.