Who’s Ready to Go Back to Normal?

A wide-ranging poll explores how people’s views on commuting, housing, and other topics have shifted since the pandemic.

Strap in your seatbelts, because “a lot of the most critical questions of our time are about to be revealed to you.” 

That’s how John Grubb, chief operating officer of the Bay Area Council, began a recent presentation on the business group’s latest opinion poll. The poll puts numbers behind several trends that have long been relegated to the realm of pure speculation, including the permanence of remote work, how people’s travel habits might shift post-pandemic, and how people’s political views have evolved over the past year. 

The poll reveals that for many people in the Bay Area, there’s no going back to normal after the pandemic — especially when it comes to the work habits of highly educated, higher-income people. It also shows that in their heart of hearts, many people in the Bay Area aren’t actually that liberal on many issues. Despite that, policymakers might have some ins to enact major policy changes in areas like housing and transportation. 

The poll, done in conjunction with EMC Research, surveyed 1,000 registered voters in the nine-county Bay Area and is representative of the region’s demographics. The survey was carried out between March 10 and 16 in English, Spanish, and Chinese, and lists a margin of error of 3.1 percent. Where relevant, the poll compares its findings to previous Bay Area Council polls. Last year’s poll, carried out around the same time in 2020, also reflects post-pandemic reality, so 2019 is taken as the pre-pandemic baseline. 

And since things are evolving quickly in terms of vaccine distribution and the reopening of the economy, these responses from mid-March should be taken with a grain of salt. In general, “What [people] actually do might be different than what they say,” Grubb cautioned during the presentation. Still, these poll results say a lot in and of themselves. 

Taking the Temperature

The poll starts things off with some basic temperature taking by asking sweeping, open-ended questions. Consistent with a pattern that began in 2018, a large plurality of people (50 percent)  said the Bay Area is on the “wrong track,” compared to 26 percent who said things are going in the “right direction.” Although general dissatisfaction is down slightly over the past two years, these sentiments mark a big difference from 2014 and ’15, when more than 50 percent of people had a positive outlook.

Bay Area Coucil/ EMC Research

When asked about the most important problem in the region, homelessness was the most common response by a significant margin. Concern about homelessness has risen over the past two years, as concern about housing costs and traffic declined substantially. 

Naturally, pollsters followed their question about the region’s biggest problem by asking if they’re planning to leave the Bay Area in the next few years. Nearly half of people  (47 percent) either somewhat or strongly agreed, close to the 2019 peak of 49 percent, and way up from 2016, when just 31 percent agreed with that statement. Cost of living was the biggest factor for those who said they’re planning to move away; followed by policy issues like high taxes and the region being too liberal; “quality of life issues” like traffic, crime, and homelessness; and housing costs.

Bay Area Council/ EMC Research

Perspectives on the pandemic were another major part of the poll. Asked when they will feel safe returning to “normal,” about 10 percent said now, 20 percent said within 6 months, 30 percent said between 6 months and a year, 20 percent said 1-2 years, with the remaining 15 or so percent selecting even longer time horizons. In other words, many people don’t think they’ll be ready to resume their normal activities for a very long time. 

The poll went on to ask about people’s perceived safety of different activities. Three-quarters of people believe outdoor dining is either somewhat or very safe, compared to just 37 percent for indoor dining. Attending a pro sports event or an indoor gathering of more than 100 people got even lower marks. Despite many parents agitating for schools to reopen, only 53 percent of people thought going back to school was either somewhat or very safe, with parents of children only slightly more likely to consider it safe. The poll also asked about travel: 42 percent of people said traveling on a plane is safe, compared to 35 percent for public transit.

Work and Commuting     

Some of the most interesting findings relate to work and transportation. When asked about which modes of transportation they take at least 2-3 times per week, walking/ biking, transit, and carpooling saw big dips from their pre-pandemic rates, while driving alone remained pretty much flat. Public transit ridership saw some of the biggest fluctuations, going from 29 percent of people saying they ride at least 2-3 times per week, to 12 percent currently, to 20 percent expected in the future. Despite the ongoing “bike boom,” with bike shops struggling to keep up with demand, people don’t plan to return to pre-pandemic rates of walking and biking as a mode of transportation. After the pandemic, 26 percent of people say they’ll walk or bike to get around at least 2-3 times per week, compared to 43 percent pre-pandemic. 

Bay Area Council/ EMC Research

When the poll was conducted, a strong majority of respondents said they are primarily working remotely. Of those who are employed, 63 percent are working from home at least some of the time, and 37 percent are not. 

On the whole, people enjoyed working remotely. More than half (52 percent) of people said they were more productive working from home, compared to 28 percent of people who said they were less productive. It’s no surprise, then, that many people plan to continue remote work after the pandemic. Looking towards a more “normal” future, 38 percent of people plan to commute to work 5 days a week, down from 58 percent pre-pandemic. People planning to go into work 3 or 4 days a week also saw a big jump, while 16 percent of employed people reported they don’t plan to commute at all, up from 10 percent pre-pandemic. 

All told, 34 percent of employed people say they’ll go into work less often overall after the pandemic. Plans to return to in-person work vary significantly by sector, however. About a quarter of people in tourism, hospitality, retail, and manufacturing said they’ll go in to work less often, compared to more than half of people in professional services and tech.  

These discrepancies are highly correlated to income and education, the poll found. Just 22 percent of those making less than $100,000 plan to go in to work less often, compared to 47 percent of those making more than $150,000. Only 18 percent of those without a four-year college degree plan to go into work less often, compared to 47 percent of those with a graduate degree or higher. The poll also found racial discrepancies in people’s plans to continue remote work, with fewer Black and Latinx people saying they would go into the office less often than Asian and white people, although they were not as dramatic as income and educational disparities. 

Bay Area Council/ EMC Research

Political Questions

For many people, life got a bit easier during the pandemic. 2021 was the first year in recent history when more people said it was “easier to get around” than “harder to get around,” as compared to last year. And traffic declined significantly among people’s perception of major problems in the Bay Area. More people also reported that it’s getting easier to find housing than in prior years, as rents (if not home values) have declined. And housing affordability also declined in terms of people’s perceptions of major problems. However, when people were specifically asked about the future of the Bay Area’s economy, housing costs were far and away from people’s top concern. 

Corresponding to these shifts, people’s support for new housing construction declined slightly. 71 percent of respondents support policies that make it easier to build housing near transit and commercial areas, down from 78 percent in 2019 and 2020. 59 percent support new housing in their neighborhoods, compared to 64 percent in 2019 and 2020. Still, polling on this issue contrasts mightily with the actions of many local politicians who remain hostile to most housing construction. 

The poll did not directly address the question of massively expanding public transit in the Bay Area — an issue the Bay Area Council is pushing through its support of the Link 21 program. However, it did ask people what they thought about merging Caltrain and BART into a single agency, an idea proposed by the advocacy group Seamless Bay Area, and, some transit advocates say, a prerequisite for expanding the region’s transit network. It turns out, Bay Area residents are more united in their support of this concept than almost any other question: 83 percent of people supported integrating the two transit systems, and 86 percent supported the concept when primed with information about the benefits. 

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