Pandemic has altered Baltimore-area commuting patterns. But for how long?

Baltimore-area workers shaved 35 hours off their average annual commuting time in 2021 compared with the year before the coronavirus pandemic, one way that getting to and from work has shifted amid increased remote work and efforts to promote more efficient travel.

Commuters say road congestion has eased noticeably as more people choose telework or fewer days in the office, though many believe traffic has been creeping back up to pre-pandemic levels.


Woodlawn resident Todd VanderDonck has observed such patterns since returning to the office earlier in 2022. He works one day from home and the rest at a nearby office where he reviews contracts. He bikes or walks to work, after choosing years ago to live close to his workplace.

“When COVID was in play ... there was nobody on the roads as we went back,” he said. “There was nobody in the parking lot. There was nobody anywhere. And as of late, traffic is picking up. It’s really picking up.”


In 2021, Baltimore-area commuters traveled an average 27.3 minutes each way, shorter than their average 31.5 minutes each way in 2019, according to a recent study based on U.S. census data. The CommercialCafe study found Baltimore had one of the biggest decreases in average trip to work of any U.S. city.

Todd VanderDonck regularly commutes by bicycle from his home in Woodlawn to a nearby office.

It showed an increase in remote workers having an impact across the U.S., said Alexandra Ursu, marketing specialist for CommercialCafe, which tracks the commercial real estate industry and the job market. But it’s likely other factors contributed, too, she said, such as changes in a city’s mix of businesses, demographics or local infrastructure, as well as city’s size, available transit and share of the economy compatible with remote work.

CommercialCafe found the average U.S. commute time dropped 7% in 2021 to 51.2 minutes, or 25.6 minutes each way. That added up to about 17 hours saved in a year.

At the same time, the remote workforce in the U.S. tripled, from less than 6% in 2019 to just below 18% in 2021. The study estimated that the number of workers 16 and older doing jobs outside a centralized workplace has grown to about 27.6 million workers, resulting in about 18.6 million fewer commuters.

Baltimore experienced the biggest drop in average commute — 4.2 fewer minutes one way — of any U.S. city outside the West Coast. California cities, including Oakland, San Francisco and San Jose, had the biggest decreases.

In Maryland, traffic volumes are down on average about 5% compared with pre-COVID 2019 levels, according to the state Department of Transportation.

But shorter average commutes may be temporary in Baltimore and elsewhere, some experts say. Employers are demanding more on-site work and employees are defaulting to familiar habits. Meanwhile, some commuter benefits programs lost traction during the pandemic.

“Long term, one of the big worries we have is that people see there being less traffic on the roadways and making a shift from public transit and other shared modes to driving alone into work, which will then push us back into a place where travel times increase and we start this whole cycle over again,” said David Strauss, executive director of the Association for Commuter Transportation.


As they return to worksites, employees may find hybrid schedules and new commuting patterns don’t mesh well with public transit, which typically costs commuters less when it’s used regularly at traditionally busy times, he said.

Charlie Garlow of Silver Spring plugs in one of his electric vehicles in 2018.

During COVID, VanderDonck found that drivers had more patience for cyclists.

“Now that a lot of people are coming back, everybody is stressed out in their cars and for some reason they’re all running late for where they need to be,” he said. “I can see it on their faces. I can see the duress.”

The shift in work habits and resulting changes in commuting patterns come amid a renewed movement to promote more efficient commuting. In 2022, Maryland expanded its commuter tax credit program. And state transportation officials launched a commuting app that rewards users through a point system for planning trips that help reduce congestion and improve air quality.

About 25 of about 300 registered employers claimed the state’s commuter tax credit in 2019. The number claiming the credit dipped during the pandemic and hit a low in 2021 — possibly because people were hesitant to return to mass transit, vanpooling or carpooling and just did less commuting, said Stacey King, a transportation demand management specialist with the Maryland Commuter Choice program.

Maryland Commuter Choice administers the credit and works with employers to establish commuter benefits programs. The credit reimburses employers for half the cost of subsidizing some forms of commuting, capped at $100 per worker per month.


The hope is that employers will begin to tailor commuter benefits to the more flexible schedules many employees are demanding, especially with the tax credit’s recent expansion, King said. Since July, the credit has covered carpooling, biking, walking or running, scooters and even telework, for employers who pay for at-home equipment or co-working space. It already covered mass transit, the most popular option; vanpooling; employer-provided guaranteed rides home, and an option to cash out of an existing parking space and use money toward salary or transportation costs.

King said she expects tax credit usage to bounce back to more than pre-pandemic levels now that more people are returning to workplaces and additional modes of transit are covered.

In November 2021, the state rolled out the “IncenTrip” app. It allows users to earn points and cash for trying different commuting patterns. It has grown steadily to about 200 users as more people have returned to worksites.

The app encouraged Manchester resident Ed Singer to start riding his bike 12 miles to work in Westminster as many as five days a week, unless it’s raining.

“Every three months or so, I get a $50 check,” by redeeming points, said Singer, Carroll County’s watershed management coordinator. “So I’m saving money on gas. I‘m getting in better shape and not having to pay car repair bills. It’s a win-win situation.”

On days he does drive, his commute is about five minutes shorter than it used to be because Route 30 is less congested than it used to be. He assumes that’s because many more people are teleworking.


Employers who have offered commuter benefits in the past are now looking for the right balance in how they offer benefits for hybrid or telework models or as companies look to decentralize office space, Strauss said. Some are increasing vanpool offerings as a cost-effective way to fill gaps in public transit. Others are looking at options such as replacing parking benefits with coverage for public transit or vanpooling.

In some industries, “you’re competing heavily for your workforce, and if you’re not providing really progressive and employee-focused transportation options, you’re not going to be able to retain the workforce,” said Strauss, whose association includes transportation and planning agencies, transit providers, Fortune 500 companies, universities and others.

A southbound bus passes Towson Town Center on Dulaney Valley Road in Towson.

Many companies are striving to meet corporate sustainability goals, as well as reducing costs associated with employee parking, she said.

“It’s not in the interest of the companies to have employees driving to work, so they’ve got to make it more convenient and affordable to use other means to do so,” Strauss said. “Right now ... if employees see it as more affordable and efficient and convenient to drive to work, they are going to do that.”

Efforts are underway at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, part of the University System of Maryland, to encourage faculty, students and other staff to share rides, ride bikes or use transit as part of the “climate action plan” for the Catonsville campus.

“That’s going to help reduce the amount of emissions air pollution going out,” said Ryan Kmetz, the university’s sustainability director. “We’re trying to get folks to come to school in the most environmentally responsible fashion possible.”


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The number of registered carpool users on campus decreased during the coronavirus pandemic, but the numbers have begun to pick up to earlier levels, Kmetz said. Registered carpoolers, currently about 150, can park in a designated, centrally located lot at a discount. A guaranteed ride program is available on a limited basis for those who miss carpool rides.

Other services include a university-run shuttle system with several routes and two campus Zipcars that can be rented by the hour. And in 2020, UMBC increased the number of electric vehicle charging stations to 19 from just two.

The charging station expansion encouraged Dinah Winnick, UMBC’s director of communications and content strategy, and her husband to buy a Subaru Crosstrek plug-in hybrid. She said her family has long been committed to minimizing its carbon footprint and having just one car.

Her husband rides his bicycle to work and accompanies their children on their bikes to school. Winnick, who used to work every day on campus, splits her week commuting to the office and working from home in North Baltimore’s Harwood neighborhood.

Because she has no way to install a charging station at home, “I knew that having a charging station at work was going to be the priority to make it possible,” Winnick said.

She charges the car at work, for free, moves it after a couple of hours to a regular spot and charges it once a week at a grocery store.


“I very rarely ever have to buy gas,” she said. “It’s worked out very nicely for us.”