A new report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies on commuting patterns has found those with the lowest incomes are far less likely to be able to work from home.
Around 73% of workers in the poorest fifth of earners in the UK and 64% in London would struggle to work from home; the corresponding figures for the richest fifth are far lower 35% in the UK and 20% in London.
The ability to work from home steadily increases the higher your income, whereas the use of public transport has only a small correlation to higher earnings.
In London, the worst hit area for COVID-19, it is those from the richest households who were most likely to use public transport before the lockdown - with 52% of workers in the top income quintile – these are also are more likely to be suitable to home working.
Meanwhile, 44% of the poorest fifth of workers commute via public transport and will find it harder to work from home.
Only 14% of people used public transport to get to work in the UK before COVID-19, rising to 49% of workers living in London. However, the nature of jobs in London means that workers there are on average more able to work from home than workers in the rest of the country.
The report highlights that public transport commutes are much more concentrated around peak hours making social distancing difficult.
It is helpful in terms of ‘flattening the commuting curve’, that those workers who commute at peak times before the lockdown are much more likely to be able to work from home. This means that ‘encouraging home working is therefore likely to be disproportionately effective at reducing public transport congestion’.
However ‘key workers’ who cannot work from home ‘were just as likely to have been commuting at peak times as other workers before the lockdown’.
Overall, 13.6% of the UK workforce – around 4.5 million workers – got to work by public transport in the pre-lockdown period
Outside of London around 70% of workers normally get to their jobs by car, 14% walk or cycle and 9% take public transport.
In London, where many more jobs are office-based, just 42% of workers worked in jobs that could not have been done from home, compared to around 56% of workers in the rest of the UK.
- Those less able to work from home are much more likely to have taken the bus to work, particularly in London.
- Around 22% of workers in London who are less able to work from home took the bus to work compared to just 9% of those more able to work from home.
- Workers who were more able to work from home were, by contrast, much more likely to take the train or tube.
- Workers in financial and insurance services were most likely to commute via public transport however, over 85% of workers in this sector also work in occupations that can be done from home.
- fewer than 5% of workers in manufacturing and agriculture/mining commute via public transport, but equally very few workers in these industries can work from home.
- The accommodation/food sector stands out alongside administration and wholesale/retail as a sector with both relatively high public transport use and low ability to work from home.
- Workers in these sectors may struggle to return to their previous jobs until social distancing measures are eased; this is especially true in London where 66% of workers in accommodation and food commute on public transport but only 28% are estimated to be able to work from home.
- Younger workers are most reliant on public transport to get to work, with almost a fifth of those aged 16-24 using it compared to just 9% of workers aged 55 and over.
- The differences are starker in London, where 63% of working young people commute by public transport, compared to 40% of those aged 55 and over.
- Younger workers were also less likely to work in jobs that could be done from home before the lockdown.