Luring urban workers back to the office after months free of the stress, time and cost of commuting will be a struggle.
The number of Tube passengers on Tuesday remained 72pc down compared to last year, according to data from Transport for London.
But Britain’s biggest business group the CBI has warned that city centres will become “ghost towns” without millions of commuters to keep tills ringing in coffee shops, nail bars and dry cleaners. The sandwich chain Pret a Manger has already cut 2,800 jobs.
As part of the push, the Prime Minister has promised that ministers are “working at pace” with rail companies to launch flexible season tickets. Welcoming the announcement, Richard Burge, chief executive of the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry, acknowledged that a hybrid of office and remote working was likely to be the future for many firms.
A study by the Centre for Economic and Business Research (CEBR) found that almost a third of workers – about 10.7m – expect to keep working from home, rising to 44pc of those based in London. Between March and June, the CEBR estimated some £2.3bn went "missing" as the average commuter spends £202 a month near their place of work.
Cutting the cost of commuting is a sensible starting point. Figures from Expatistan, the cost of living calculator, show that London was the most expensive of 55 cities worldwide for a monthly ticket on public transport, at £134.50. This compares with £96.04 in Dublin – the next highest – and £90.72 in New York.
Meanwhile, the average five-mile taxi ride on a business day in Edinburgh ranked the seventh-highest globally after Zurich, Amsterdam and Tokyo but higher than London, which came in tenth, and New York, which ranked 16th.
Reducing the time people spend commuting is a tougher circle to square.
Analysis of data from the Office for National Statistics by the Resolution Foundation shows that since 1996, the average time spent travelling from home to office in England has risen from just under 23 minutes to just over 28.5 minutes for 18-29 year olds.
It has risen by even more for 30-49 year olds, from just under 24 minutes to 31 minutes, suggesting older workers have moved to cheaper areas at a cost of longer journeys. This is a trade-off they have been spared since March.
Workers are not just spending less time commuting. Academics from Harvard Business School and New York University analysed email and calendar data from 3.1 million workers across 16 large cities in North America, Europe and the Middle East to see how the pandemic had changed their working days.
Their report in the National Bureau of Economic Research found although employees have attended 12.9pc more meetings than pre-Covid, and 13.5pc more people have attended meetings, the average duration of a meeting fell by a fifth. Overall, employees spent 11.5pc less time – about 20 minutes – in meetings.
For Kallum Pickering, senior economist at Berenberg, whenever there is a “positive economic evolution” there tends to be too much focus on the costs rather than the benefits.
“If the firms who currently have people working from home see that their workers are just as productive, and if workers see that they are saving time travelling – and money by not buying coffees and lunches – they may not choose to go back, no matter how much you reduce the price of rail travel,” he says.
“If the benefits are higher than the costs, it wouldn’t make sense to make people return to cities.”