A commuter wearing a mask prepares to board a train...

A commuter wearing a mask prepares to board a train toward Penn Station at the Ronkonkoma LIRR train station. Credit: Newsday/Steve Pfost

Whether pressured to return or wooed with free breakfast, many workers are filing back into downtown offices. But few are going in five days a week, and many don't plan to for the foreseeable future. That's because employers can do little about the primary pain point that's keeping people at home: commuting.

Office avoidance is most dramatic in big metro areas where commutes are especially painful. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, 1 in 10 workers has a one-way commute that lasts over an hour, but in New York, almost 23% do. Other expensive metro areas — such as San Francisco (19.4%) and Washington (18.3%) — aren't far behind. All of these cities had office occupancy rates under 50% as of Sept. 14, according to data from Kastle Systems. Meanwhile, major cities with shorter commute times — such as Austin, Houston and Dallas — have long had occupancy rates over 50%.

The most miserable commutes are associated with public transportation. The average one-way journey for a commuter rail rider is 71.2 minutes; for a subway rider, it's 48.8 minutes. It's 46.6 minutes for those taking the bus. And there's not much office-thirsty CEOs can do to shorten those journeys. Even if companies decide to offer free transit passes to workers, they can't make our buses, subways and trains run any faster or more reliably.

"It's a very intractable problem," says Diane Davis, a professor of regional planning and urbanism at Harvard's Graduate School of Design. "People spend so much time commuting because of the way we're building our cities."

When setting out to write this column, I (with breathtaking naivete) thought that by talking to the right people, I might be able to offer some concrete suggestions on how to improve commutes, at least around the edges. The benefits go far beyond RTO: There are plenty of people who can't work from home and whose lives would be immeasurably improved by better transit. Instead, I came away with a new appreciation of just how difficult the commuting problem is.

I'm now more convinced than ever that the work-from-home toothpaste cannot be forced back into the tube. Just as Napster heralded the end for Tower Records, and Netflix spelled doom for Blockbuster, the COVID-19 pandemic has changed something fundamental in the calculation about traveling to an office.

In the second quarter of 2022, about 42% of North Americans visiting an office were doing so just once a week, according to Basking.io, a company that provides workplace-occupancy data to real estate companies, while just 20% were in the office four or five days a week. Average peak occupancy is lowest in the biggest cities, "indicating that commute time is one of the biggest hurdles for the companies to get people back in the offices." I can't stop thinking about what one reluctant worker told The Wall Street Journal back in February: "You're not going to get me on the train for two hours for free bagels."

Before the pandemic, workers endured long trips because there didn't seem to be an alternative. That's no longer the case. "People have a new frame of reference now," says Jennifer Moss, author of "The Burnout Epidemic." "We've come to understand we can be productive and meet our objectives without having to spend all this time commuting." This makes long journeys to the office feel even more painful than they did in 2019.

Can cities make brutal commutes better? In theory, yes, but the needed changes are logistically difficult, politically costly and financially expensive.

Any plan has to start by reducing traffic congestion. That means convincing more drivers to take public transit. That, in turn, means making such transportation more reliable, pleasant and frequent. "People are driving because there are limited [other] options, not necessarily because they prefer the experience. It could very well be that the bus stops running at 6 p.m., and that's not an exaggeration," says Tiffany-Ann Taylor, vice president for transportation at the Regional Plan Association.

Implementing fees to drive into city centers, as London has done and New York City is considering, can help. Those funds can also then be used to beef up transit options, like express bus lanes, biking infrastructure, more-frequent train service and new ferry routes.

But even if U.S. cities do adopt congestion charges — a big if — translating the extra money into major transit improvements would require a heroic effort. To really be able to rely on transit, a subway train or city bus has to come often enough that people don't need to think about it. That's closer to every four minutes than every 20, says Hayley Richardson of TransitCenter, an advocacy organization. (I laughed bitterly at this, since the train that visits my suburb runs only once an hour, even during rush hour.) And transit lines would have to expand into more neighborhoods, since if a stop is more than a 10-minute walk away, people tend not to use it.

Any rewards from major improvements would also be decades away. Harvard's Davis says it took Stockholm — a model of improved commuting — 20 years to get it right. London's glistening new Elizabeth Line, which opened earlier this year, was formally approved 15 years ago (and suggested generations earlier).

Experiments in making buses or trains free or much cheaper — like those conducted in Boston and Germany earlier this year — are unlikely to make a big difference either if service isn't dramatically improved. We could spend millions — billions, trillions! — on improvements to transit, and it would likely only shave a few minutes off the average person's commute.

There is, of course, a different way to improve commuting: Get rid of the idea of a central business district ringed by neighborhoods where people live. Mix up where people live and work. That density is one reason a city such as Vienna, Austria, manages to have an average one-way commute time of 13 minutes — half the U.S. average. But the major zoning changes needed to achieve European-style density in the U.S. seem wildly unrealistic. Even if changes to city structure were politically feasible, Davis says, they'd likely have limited effects on commuting. "So many people work on the internet anyway. So why should they go into an office to do something that they could do at home?" Why, indeed.

Which brings us right back to where we started.

It's not that improving the commute in a car-centric country is impossible. Toronto, for example, has buses that serve its suburbs every 10 minutes. I'm sure Torontonians still have plenty to complain about, but if a bus visited my Boston suburb every 10 minutes, I'd be dancing.

It's also important to note that commuters are not totally helpless in improving our lot. More people could walk or bike to work — currently, only 3% of Americans walk to work, and about 1% bike to work, even though about 29% of Americans live less than five miles from their offices. People with physically active commutes tend to like commuting more (or, maybe more accurately, hate it less).

But compared with the trials of commuting, managing the challenges of hybrid and remote work seem relatively straightforward. We aren't going to see a full RTO until people are willing to RTC — return to commuting. Which is to say, never. Because it seems many of us would rather do anything but commute … even spend all day on Zoom.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners. Sarah Green Carmichael is a Bloomberg Opinion editor.