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COVID-19 may have permanently altered commuting, study finds

How that plays out could have a long-term impact on gasoline prices

Photo (c) buzzanimation - Getty Images
Two hurricanes approaching the Gulf Coast could impact oil refineries and cause a short-term increase in gasoline prices. On the other hand, changes in Americans’ commuting patterns since late March may mitigate the effect.

With millions of Americans now working from home, gasoline demand has dropped, keeping fuel prices stable. New research published by Cars.com shows 66 percent of workers are no longer commuting to the office, and it’s not clear if and when they’ll return.

"As much of the American office workforce continues to work remotely, there is a major shift in commuting behavior, which is likely to have a lasting impact long after we return to the office," said Matt Schmitz, assistant managing editor for Cars.com. "Workers are saving up to an hour or more a day by not commuting, and finding significant value in this newfound gift of time.”

But the fuel savings may not last forever. The study found that because of the pandemic, mass transit may be less of a factor when workplaces reopen.

Less reliance on mass transit

“When they do finally return to the office, it won't be via mass transit,” Schmitz predicts. “Personal vehicles will dominate the work commute as distrust in public transport and ride-sharing continues."

That’s been borne out of new and used car sales data over the last three months. Consumers who might not have considered buying a vehicle before are buying cars now, some for the first time. Not only is mass transit ridership down, but consumers have also greatly reduced their reliance on ride-sharing.

How all of this affects gasoline prices in the months ahead remains to be seen. An increase in people driving personal vehicles could easily send gasoline demand back to pre-pandemic highs.

Lasting changes

On the other hand, the Cars.com research suggests some of the changes in consumer behavior may be lasting. Even after workplaces reopen, 35 percent of employees say they believe they’ll have the option of working remotely and will probably commute to the office less often.

Last week, a survey by KPMG found that there is almost no clamor among workers to return to the office, with 79 percent telling pollsters they believe they are more productive working from home. Fifty-five percent said they would like to have the flexibility to work remotely from now on.

The Cars.com study found two-thirds of employees say they have gained between 30 minutes and an hour a day because they aren’t commuting to the office. Forty-three percent say they’re using the time to watch TV, 38 percent are exercising, and 33 percent are spending it with family and friends.

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