Breaking the commute barrier: how improved public transport can transform the office landscape

Amid the transformative impact of hybrid work, the role of commuting has emerged as a central concern. Our recent research sheds light on a vital way to help encourage people back to the office — efficient, affordable and sustainable transport systems.

Written by Fergal McGinley. Edited by Camilla Siggaard Andersen, Research Lead, Hassell.

During the technological leaps and disruptions brought forth by the COVID-19 pandemic the concept of working-from-home catapulted into the mainstream. Prior to the global health crisis, remote work had only gradually gained traction, with just a handful of forward-thinking companies and industries adopting flexible work arrangements. Yet when the pandemic struck in early 2020, organisations worldwide were forced to rapidly shift their operations to remote setups — forever transforming the landscape of office-based work, with significant consequences for the broader urban ecosystem to follow.


It’s these wider consequences that our 2022 research study, Time Well Spent: exploring the impact of hybrid working on cities and communities, set out to address. Written for Irish Institutional Property, the study investigates how the priorities of employees in Ireland changed as they were enabled to spend more time at home, and how the development of cities and regions might be impacted by their choices.

One well-recognised trend identified by our research was a pattern of increased local life’. With more time working from home, people began to greater appreciate quality housing, local neighbourhood amenities and green space. Proximity to the workplace became less important and if people’s new priorities weren’t satisfied in their current homes and neighbourhoods, they became more likely to look for a new home.

In a survey of the Irish population, we found that 44% of employees able to work remotely were recent or future movers’ compared to just 33% of employees unable to work remotely. In Ireland as in the rest of the world, these settlement trends generally favoured larger properties in less urban locations.

Our research also identified that the time and monetary cost of commuting is a barrier to hybrid or remote workers choosing to work from their company offices.

Our survey of Irish workers found that only 23% of people value time spent moving between places (including commuting), compared to 69% of people who value time spent socialising or undertaking recreational or cultural activities. This time-cost barrier is only exacerbated by the trends of upsizing and retreating from city centres, potentially resulting in greater time spent working remotely.

Metro North West, Bella Vista Station, Sydney, Australia. Photography by Mark Syke


It’s yet unclear what the long-term negative outcomes of the hybrid/​remote working phenomenon will be, although initial evidence points to increased loneliness and isolation [1], loss of motivation [2], and diminished creativity [3]. There is also a concern that the reduction in face-to-face encounters with colleagues could result in a long-term downturn in innovation. Measured by new patent applications, innovation fell by up to 18% in some US counties during the Prohibition Era, when informal social interactions were disrupted [4].

While it’s true that commuting can contribute to a healthy routine and help create a mental separation between work and life, it is also true that this journey is often too long, too costly, and too stressful to outweigh the gains”, says Camilla Siggaard Andersen, author of Time Well Spent and Research Lead at Hassell.

Employees generally find the benefits of hybrid working outweigh the deficits, especially if they can save precious time commuting and use their time at home better.”

The sentiments toward commuting identified in Time Well Spent are echoed around the world. In the United States, one study found that 74% of professionals said the commute is what they dread most about returning to the office [5], while another study ranked no commute’ as the top benefit of hybrid/​remote work [6].

In the UK, individuals’ commute times directly correlate with how positive their experience of remote work has been — the longer your commute, the more you enjoy working from home [7]. UK workers cited the health, monetary and environmental benefits associated with less or no time spent commuting [8], while many London firms aimed to locate offices within a three-minute walk of underground stations to ensure staff face easier journeys to work [9].

In Australia, workers spent a daily average of 54 minutes and US$13 commuting in 2022 and 47% of 5,001 survey respondents said they are experiencing financial strain due to rising costs [10].

In China, a survey of 3,170 employees found that saving commute time’ was the top benefit of working from home (mentioned by 59% of respondents), while in-person meetings’ (43%) and social engagements with colleagues’ (43%) ranked highly on factors attracting employees back to the office [11].

While people value social connections and engaging with co-workers in person, they value the time and costs saved by not commuting more. What could help to tip the scale back in the other direction? Public transport. Faster, cheaper, and more frequent public transport.

Park Avenue Central Village, Shanghai


To encourage commuters to use public transport regularly, it’s essential to focus on upgrading various aspects of their journeys that contribute to the perception of inconvenience. This includes time, cost, experience, and environmental impact.

Physically reducing the distance that people may have to travel between their home and workplace is one way to save time commuting. This may be achieved practically by increasing the provision of homes in existing business districts, or by increasing the amount of workspace in residential neighbourhoods.

According to research conducted by Hubble, a leading online marketplace for workspace in the UK, the pandemic saw a notable surge in demand for shared workspaces located closer to employees’ residences [12]. Few companies, however, are well-suited to accommodate such a distributed model and few CBD’s are well-suited for a significant land use transformation.

But what if we could redefine proximity without physically relocating workspaces, and reframe distance in terms of time saved by enhancing public transportation? By envisioning a scenario where travel time between locations is reduced, we could effectively shrink sprawling cities and bring workspaces closer to employees’ homes while minimising further disruptions to our businesses and neighbourhoods.


Where quick journey times would certainly be a significant pull factor for public transport, the spiralling costs remain a deterrent. In the summer of 2022, Germany rolled out a €9 monthly travel ticket, which gained purchasers unlimited access to the country’s local and regional public transport networks. Fifty-two million tickets were sold over the three-month period they were available [13], with one fifth of the German public using public transport regularly for the first time. There was also a 42% increase in rail travel relative to the same period pre-COVID 19 [14]. The lesson is simple: make public transport cheaper and more people will use it.


While we all understand that we spend time and money commuting, we also pay a physical and mental toll that is determined by our experience of our commutes, as well as burdening the planet with each trip. The experience of commuting refers to the design elements of transport networks and how they make us feel as we travel along them — standing in a packed unairconditioned tube carriage in the height of summer, cycling on roads without dedicated cycle paths, waiting at an uncovered bus stop in the rain.

When our experience during our commute is poor, we expend mental and physical energy coping with that experience – energy that would otherwise be conserved when working remotely.

Epping to Chatswood Rail Link, Sydney, Australia. Photography by Simon Wood
Level Crossing Removal Project, Werribee Station, Melbourne, Australia. Photography by Sarah Pannell

The solution is to design public transport networks with the user experience in mind.

This means ensuring frequency comfortably meets demand, sheltering users from the elements, providing for essential needs via water fountains and stop-and-go retail, and creating an environment that feels safe. Aside from waiting times, cleanliness and comfort were the aspects of public transport systems most valued by 305 surveyed users in Santander, Spain [15], highlighting this necessity for quality service in public transport networks.

Most modes of transport, aside from walking or running, have a degree of environmental impact. As our society becomes more environmentally conscious, it’s imperative — particularly if the trends for upsizing and retreating from well-connected city centres are borne out — that public transport provides a sustainable and efficient alternative to people who would otherwise rely on cars.


To illustrate, let’s consider the journey from the Irish commuter town of Navan in Co. Meath to Dublin, spanning approximately 40km. Currently this route can only be efficiently done by car.

It takes around 75 minutes in rush hour, generates 15kg of CO2 per round trip [16], and costs over US$19 a day in fuel, tolls, insurance, and other expenses [17].

A direct rail link could cut this journey time to under 30 minutes [18], cost less (potentially as little as US$8 for a return trip) [19], and emit just 2.8kg of CO2 per round trip[20]. Overall, a better experience. Kinder to the environment. Faster. Cheaper.

Time Well Spent focuses on how we value our time. Commuting is one of the biggest time-consuming challenges identified.

We don’t value the time we spend commuting because it takes too long, costs too much, and can negatively impact our wellbeing — and the environment.

Given the rising cost of city-centre accommodation and the de-centralised settlement patterns that have accompanied the shift to new hybrid working, the provision of affordable, efficient, and well-designed public transport is imperative. Improving our public transport systems is how we can protect our neighbourhoods, look after our planet, and give precious time back to ourselves that would otherwise be spent commuting.

Epping to Chatswood Rail Link, Sydney, Australia. Photography by Simon Wood

[1] McCarthy, A., Ahearne, A., Bohle-Carbonell, K., Ó Síocháin, T., & Frost, D. (2020) Remote Working During COVID-19: Ireland’s National Survey Initial Report. Galway, Ireland: NUI Galway Whitaker Institute & Western Development Commission.

[2] McCarthy, A., Ó Síocháin, T., & Frost, D. (2022) Remote Working in Ireland: 2022 National Survey Findings [Survey report]. Galway, Ireland: NUI Galway Whitaker Institute & Western Development Commission.

[3] Wingard, J. (2020, February 14) Loneliness Is Crippling Workplace Productivity: Here’s The Leadership Prescription. Forbes.

[4] Andrews, M. (2019) Bar Talk: Informal Social Interactions, Alcohol Prohibition, and Invention. Entrepreneurship & Law eJournal.

[5] Worried About Returning to the Office. (2022, March). Korn​fer​ry​.com. https://​www​.korn​fer​ry​.com/​i​n​s​i​g​h​t​s​/​t​h​i​s​-​w​e​e​k​-​i​n​-​l​e​a​d​e​r​s​h​i​p​/​d​r​a​g​g​e​d​-​b​a​c​k​-​t​o​-​t​h​e​-​o​f​f​i​c​e​?​u​t​m​_​c​a​m​p​a​i​g​n​=​0​3​-​0​3​-​2​2​-​t​w​i​l​&​u​t​m​_​s​o​u​r​c​e​=​m​a​r​k​e​t​o​&​u​t​m​_​m​e​d​i​u​m​=​e​m​a​i​l​&​m​k​t​_​t​o​k​=​N​D​k​0​L​V​Z​V​Q​y​0​0​O​D​I​A​A​A​G​C​7​f​z​g​F​e​4​A​V​C​V​m​z​R​O​u​T​C​R​H​2​B​m​x​P​9​V​3​V​1​H​R​N​f​r​F​r​v​3​0​V​t​L​w​9​W​L​d​r​D​8​O​G​u​k​1​A​f​9​P​5​X​H​g​Q​B​X​3​Z​I​R​e​G​I​W​A​d​g​t​l​U​5​Z​9​D​4​K​Z​p​T​W​F​z​p​F​A​N​Y​Y​2​x​s​I​Q​i​K​WG_cA

[6] Barrero, J., Bloom, N., & Davis, S. (2022). SWAA March 2022 Updates. WFH Research. https://​wfhre​search​.com/​w​p​-​c​o​n​t​e​n​t​/​u​p​l​o​a​d​s​/​2​0​2​2​/​0​3​/​W​F​H​R​e​s​e​a​r​c​h​_​u​p​d​a​t​e​s​_​M​a​r​c​h​2​0​2​2.pdf

[7] Watkins, H. (2020, August 17). The Problem Isn’t The Office – It’s The Commute. Hubble. https://​hub​ble​hq​.com/​b​l​o​g​/​i​m​p​a​c​t​-​o​f​-​c​o​m​m​u​t​e​-​t​i​m​e​-​o​n​-​w​o​r​k​-​p​r​e​f​e​r​ences

[8] Skopeliti, C. & Obordo, R. (2021, August 28). I’m utterly sick of it”: UK workers on the return of the commute. The Guardian. https://​www​.the​guardian​.com/​u​k​-​n​e​w​s​/​2​0​2​1​/​a​u​g​/​2​8​/​s​e​v​e​n​-​u​k​-​w​o​r​k​e​r​s​-​t​a​l​k​-​a​b​o​u​t​-​t​r​a​v​e​l​l​i​n​g​-​w​o​r​k​-​c​o​m​m​u​t​e​-​c​o​v​i​d​-​p​a​n​demic

[9] Hodgson, J. (2023, May 22). Companies pick office locations for most pain-free” commute. Yahoo​.com. https://​uk​.style​.yahoo​.com/​c​o​m​p​a​n​i​e​s​-​p​i​c​k​-​o​f​f​i​c​e​-​l​o​c​a​t​i​o​n​s​-​m​o​s​t​-​0​8​4​1​4​8​4​9​2​.​h​t​m​l​?​g​u​c​e​_​r​e​f​e​r​r​e​r​=​a​H​R​0​c​H​M​6​L​y​9​3​d​3​c​u​Z​2​9​v​Z​2​x​l​L​m​N​v​b​S​8​&​g​u​c​e​_​r​e​f​e​r​r​e​r​_​s​i​g​=​A​Q​A​A​A​B​n​v​q​L​d​E​Q​n​n​l​m​2​m​D​y​c​8​L​V​k​h​_​B​M​B​v​t​H​u​-​K​h​y​A​u​V​j​Z​F​L​M​n​L​s​3​f​4​j​u​u​2​e​C​5​Z​C​0​v​-​t​j​9​m​I​G​Y​j​m​z​C​J​E​E​W​c​U​V​Y​r​Q​F​J​d​e​z​L​C​1​1​U​j​I​-​N​J​Z​9​_​3​D​D​6​p​c​B​C​Q​6​I​l​R​r​S​_​L​Z​d​A​j​s​P​w​n​C​y​j​w​Z​u​G​C​A​M​T​y​D​3​9​E​_​w​3​I​z​O​W​I​f​e​p​f​s​w​1​S​V​m​S​d​z​9​U​y​3​g​2​l​8​A​h​&​g​u​c​c​o​u​n​ter=2

[10] Real Insurance. (2022). The commute is back – and the cost of commuting is high. Real Insurance. https://​www​.realin​sur​ance​.com​.au/​n​e​w​s​-​v​i​e​w​s​/​t​h​e​-​r​e​a​l​-​a​u​s​t​r​a​l​i​a​n​-​c​o​m​m​u​t​e​-​r​eport

[11] Wang, Y., Liu, Y., Cui, W., Tang, J., Zhang, H., Walston, D., & Zhang, D. (2021, May). Returning to the office during the COVID-19 pandemic recovery: Early indicators from China. In Extended abstracts of the 2021 CHI conference on human factors in computing systems (pp. 1-6). https://​dl​.acm​.org/​d​o​i​/​a​b​s​/​1​0​.​1​1​4​5​/​3​4​1​1​7​6​3​.​3​4​51685

[12] Watkins, H. (2020, August 17). The Problem Isn’t The Office – It’s The Commute. Hubble. https://​hub​ble​hq​.com/​b​l​o​g​/​i​m​p​a​c​t​-​o​f​-​c​o​m​m​u​t​e​-​t​i​m​e​-​o​n​-​w​o​r​k​-​p​r​e​f​e​r​ences

[13] Pladson, K. (2022, August 30). Did Germany’s 9-euro train and bus ticket pay off? Dw​.com; Deutsche Welle. https://​www​.dw​.com/​e​n​/​9​-​e​u​r​o​-​t​i​c​k​e​t​-​g​e​r​m​a​n​y​-​w​i​n​d​s​-​d​o​w​n​-​e​x​p​e​r​i​m​e​n​t​-​w​i​t​h​-​l​o​w​-​c​o​s​t​-​t​r​a​i​n​-​t​r​a​v​e​l​/​a​-​6​2​9​62871

[14] Posaner, J., Wilhelmine Preussen, & Gehrke, L. (2022, August 24). Last call for Germany’s €9 ticket to ride. POLITICO; POLITICO.’s%20Federal%20Statistical%20Office%20says,period%20in%20pre%2DCOVID%202019.

[15] Dell’Olio, L., Ibeas, A., & Cecin, P. (2011). The quality of service desired by public transport users. Transport Policy, 18(1), 217-227. https://​www​.sci​encedi​rect​.com/​s​c​i​e​n​c​e​/​a​r​t​i​c​l​e​/​p​i​i​/​S​0​9​6​7​0​7​0​X​1​0​0​0​1​0​0​9​#​a​e​p​-​a​b​s​t​r​a​c​t​-id12

[16] Based on 130km roundtrip determined by Google Maps and emissions per km of 1.4L petrol Audi A3 Saloon, from Petrol Saloon cars running costs. (2017). Sust-It - Simply Efficient Shopping. https://​www​.sust​-it​.net/​m​i​l​e​s​-​p​e​r​-​g​a​l​l​o​n​-​m​p​g​-​f​u​e​l​-​e​f​f​i​c​i​e​n​t​-​c​a​r​s​.​p​h​p​?​t​y​p​e​=​s​a​l​o​o​n​&​f​u​e​l​=​p​etrol

[17] Petrol: €12.48 (based on €1.60/litre price, economy of 6L/​100km and 130km roundtrip) M3 toll: €3 (€1.50 each way) Tax: €0.55 (daily rate based on 2023 NEDC 111-120 category [€200/​annum]), from Motor Tax Rates in Ireland (2022, December 3). Money Guide Ireland. https://​www​.mon​eyguideire​land​.com/​c​a​r​-​t​a​x​-​i​n​c​r​e​a​s​e​s​-​i​n​-​b​u​d​g​e​t​-​2​0​1​2​.html) Insurance €2.33 (daily rate based on 2022 national average for comprehensive insurance [€865/​annum]), from Switch​er​.ie. (2023, April 27). How to pick the right type of car insurance. Switch​er​.ie; Switch​er​.ie. https://​switch​er​.ie/​c​a​r​-​i​n​s​u​r​a​n​c​e​/​c​a​r​-​i​n​s​u​r​a​n​c​e​-​t​ypes/

[18] Comparable journey from Newbridge to Dublin Heuston takes 21 minutes (~41km). 30 minutes figure is based on a theoretical direct rail link from Navan to Dublin Conolly 50km in total distance. Citation for Newbridge-Dublin train: Newbridge, Co. Kildare. Routes Services: Dublin Heuston-Waterford. (2023) Irish Rail. https://​www​.irishrail​.ie/​e​n​-​i​e​/​s​t​a​t​i​o​n​/​n​e​w​b​ridge

[19] Comparable Newbridge-Dublin Heuston return journey costs €16.90 for an adult, with plans to extend the short hop’ zone to include Newbridge – return trip cost with a travel card would be reduced to €7.60. References: Dublin Waterford Rail Fares (2023). Irish Rail. https://​www​.irishrail​.ie/​e​n​-​i​e​/​r​a​i​l​-​f​a​r​e​s​-​a​n​d​-​t​i​c​k​e​t​s​/​f​a​r​e​s​-​i​n​f​o​/​d​u​b​l​i​n​-​w​a​t​e​rford Newbridge and Kildare to be included in new Dublin Commuter Zone. (2023, May). Kildare Nationalist. https://​kil​dare​-nation​al​ist​.ie/​2​0​2​3​/​0​5​/​0​1​/​n​e​w​b​r​i​d​g​e​-​a​n​d​-​k​i​l​d​a​r​e​-​t​o​-​b​e​-​i​n​c​l​u​d​e​d​-​i​n​-​n​e​w​-​d​u​b​l​i​n​-​c​o​m​m​u​t​e​r​-​zone/

[20] Based on theoretical 100km roundtrip train journey from Navan to Dublin Connolly at 28g CO2 per passenger km, from Iarnród Éireann Sustainability Strategy 2021-2030 (2021). Iarnród Éireann/​Irish Rail. https://​www​.irishrail​.ie/​A​d​m​i​n​/​g​e​t​m​e​d​i​a​/​d​1​d​7​a​0​6​0​-​d​e​e​e​-​4​0​d​b​-​9​a​7​9​-​3​6​f​2​d​e​4​8​0​1​6​1​/​I​E​-​S​u​s​t​a​i​n​a​b​i​l​i​t​I​E.pdf

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