Remote Workers Could Doom High-Speed Rail Projects

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Living in a rural area or in a smaller city has always come with the cost of needing to secure transport of some kind (like a shuttle, taxi, or a friend) to take you to the airport or train station, especially in the United States. But the trend towards remote workers business models trend underway that might challenge this model.

If you look at Amtrak’s route map, you’ll notice that the service isn’t really geared toward serving rural areas and smaller cities. Sure, they do stop at some smaller cities along existing rail routes, but those aren’t the point as much as a place to get fuel and let people get onto connecting services. On top of that issue, Amtrak largely uses the same tracks as freight trains, and the freight lines have been placed according to freight needs and not the needs of potential passengers. In one particularly weird case, it completely skips the Phoenix metro area, with the nearest station in Maricopa.

But I’m getting off topic a bit with that last one. The main point to gather from the map is that it’s designed mostly to connect larger cities with other large cities. Going from New York to Los Angeles isn’t a big deal. Going from El Paso to Albuquerque, well, even Amtrak tells you on the map that you’re getting on a Greyhound. Public transit really isn’t a priority in the United States, though. So maybe this isn’t a fair comparison. Let’s look at some maps in other countries for a minute:

Will remote workers change this map?

In this Eurail map, we see a similar pattern. Long-distance transit connects cities. If you need to go from a small town to a small town, the only way you accomplish that is to go to the nearest big city, get on the network, and then go to the nearest big city to the destination. The last few miles are either through a partner service or you’re going to need to rent a car, get an Uber, or something else.

As newer faster services like hyperloop go into development (LOL —Ed.), the same pattern starts to emerge. Even Elon Musk wants to continue serving cities and connecting cities together.

To be clear, I’m not saying that this pattern is stupid. It’s clearly smart to focus on where the customers are, and globally, a majority of people live in cities. In more developed countries, the percentage is almost always over 75% and often exceeding 90%. Building a rail station and/or a major airport in every little hamlet would not only be economically inefficient, but it would be a big waste of space. The exceptions to this are rare, and they’re almost always in rural areas that are beloved by global tourists, like the Grand Canyon.

COVID Created Remote Workers, & Cities Aren’t Recovering

When working on another recent article about remote workers and their fight to remain remote workers, I found that many cities are pushing hard to get people back into office buildings. Jobs that could be done by remote workers or some on-site/remote hybrid (around 40% of all jobs in the United States) largely went remote during the pandemic because that was the only way to keep doing business. Remote workers found that they really weren’t enjoying going into cities they couldn’t afford to live in every day for work and then commuting back out. I wrote this about New York’s problem:

New York City’s mayor, Eric Adams, met with 100 business executives in February trying to get them to force workers back into New York’s empty commercial buildings. His argument? New York’s economy is hurting because people aren’t coming into the city and leaving again every day. With the sky-high cost of living in places like New York City and San Francisco, only the wealthiest people can afford to live near where they work. Everyone else has to get up hours early to ride transit into these cities and work in jobs that can’t pay for an apartment in the next building, or even on most of the same island or peninsula.

“That accountant from a bank that sits in an office, it’s not only him. It feeds our financial ecosystem. He goes to the cleaners to get his suits cleaned. He goes to the restaurant. He brings in a business traveler, which is 70% of our hotel occupancy. He buys a hot dog on our streets—I hope a vegan hot dog—but he participates in the economy.”

Other people in big cities are worried, too. Businesses catering to people who spend time in the city but can’t afford to actually live there are closed up and going out of business. Commercial real estate isn’t selling. Both the unsustainable big cities and their economies are suffering because workers would rather live somewhere else with cheaper real estate, cleaner air, open spaces, and lower taxes, but now the cities aren’t getting that revenue or providing some of those services.

Forcing the return of these workers isn’t great for the environment, workers, or even many companies. Some companies will try to force their remote workers to “go back to normal,” but many  of those workers are getting poached by companies willing to continue to offer remote workers jobs— and, as real estate prices continue to climb— that’s just going to shift a lot of population to smaller cities and rural areas, diminishing the importance of big cities in the global economy. That’s going to reduce the need for high-speed interconnectivity between cities.

Ultimately, the demographic shift caused by remote workers is going to mean that the “city to city” model won’t be as applicable for future transportation needs. When people want to travel, fewer people will be leaving from a big city. When they travel, fewer will be going to a big city, as things like business meetings will start happening elsewhere. Large companies, with some or all of their workers going remote, won’t attract people to places like New York or Los Angeles nearly as often— and we’re already watching this play out in Texas, Tennessee, and Alabama where major companies are building out huge factories on cheap real estate.

A lasting trend of companies hiring remote workers and the diminishing importance of cities is going to make building big projects a lot more challenging and a lot less financially feasible. I don’t know what the solutions are, but they’d better be found before construction begins and not after they’re done and hemorrhaging money. The importance of highway transportation and autonomous vehicles might be bigger than we think for a green future.

Featured image: A screenshot of the Amtrak website showing its service map.

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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

Jennifer Sensiba has 1984 posts and counting. See all posts by Jennifer Sensiba