Remote(ish) work: a new lease of life for sprawl?

This is my third short piece discussing intra-provincial migration numbers published by the ISQ (Institut de la Statistique du Québec) on 13th January 2022. They are worth discussing because they reveal the impact of COVID and allow for some speculation about what the future may hold for Montreal.

In the first I suggested (in French – but the suggestion would have been the same in English) that the migration trends observed during the COVID pandemic, in particular those of 2020-21, should not be extrapolated: Montreal’s considerable net migration outflows, amped by COVID, will probably revert to levels similar to those of pre-pandemic years.

In the second, I dial back this apparent optimism: when pre-pandemic years are looked at, it can be seen that since 2014 Montreal’s net internal migration losses have been accelerating rather rapidly. This may be due to the increasing cost of dwelling on the island, and to the (pre-pandemic) rise of more flexible work practices.

In this third text, I look more closely at what the migration numbers suggest about remote work, and how it is giving a new lease of life to sprawl.

Remote work: real, but over-hyped

One would be forgiven, upon reading breathless accounts of the remote work ‘revolution’, for thinking that the whole world and its sister are now working from home. This is an egregious exaggeration: those currently working remotely are a minority consisting mainly of well qualified office workers, preponderantly those who worked in downtown offices.

However, they constitute a vocal and influential minority (and maybe, now, a rather bored and lonely one) – hence the revolutionary vocabulary.

Indeed, even at the height of the pandemic most work took place outside the home.

Many people (doctors, nurses, medical receptionists, teachers, delivery people, vehicle drivers, municipal workers, artisans, trades people, construction workers, retail assistants, fast-food cooks, garbage collectors, factory workers – the list could go on) continued to work outside the home during the pandemic.

Many others are longing to cease working from home: those in difficult family situations, those who are flat-sharing, those with poor internet, those working on the edge of a kitchen table, those who are sociable, those who long for stimulation, etc…

And some employers are questioning whether organizational culture, creative interactions, fast exchange of know-how and tacit-knowledge, rapid resolution of minor issues, etc., can survive within organizations where no-one knows each other and where personal investment and commitment are minimal.

None of this means that remote work isn’t becoming more prevalent : however, it is, and will be, less prevalent than jaded techno-revolutionaries suggest. The most likely scenario is one that was already emerging pre-COVID, i.e. hybrid work: people for whom it is possible will be in the office following a pre-defined rhythm, probably about 3 days a week (and about 2 at home or elsewhere).

As we have seen, though, for many people hybrid work is not possible – so this partial workplace revolution (is there such a thing as a partial revolution? don’t we just call that change?) will directly impact only a small proportion of the workforce.

Where are Montrealers moving, and what does it suggest about remote work?1

Most Montrealers who moved out of Montreal during COVID are hedging their bets when it comes to location choice: they seem to expect to be present, some of the week, at their urban workplace, and are therefore not moving very far.

Note: the data are from ISQ tables Migrants interrégionaux selon la région d’origine, la région de destination et le groupe d’âge, régions administratives et ensemble du Québec, 2001-2002 à 2020-2021. Regions have been grouped as followed: Montreal = Montreal island; Peri-metropolitan= Laval, Lanaudière, Montérégie, Laurentides; Other Southern Québec = Estrie, Capitale Nationale, Mauricie, Outaouais, Chaudières-Appalaches, Centre-du-Québec; Remote = Bas-Saint-Laurent, Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean, Abitibi-Témiscamingue, Côte-Nord, Nord-du-Québec, Gaspésie-Ile-de-la-Madeleine

Although the vast majority of Montrealers remained living in Montreal, Montreal’s net population loss during 2020-21 was large : – 48 300 people.

Of this total, 84% (i.e. over 40 000) flowed to regions that directly abut Montreal Island, i.e. Laval, Lanaudière, Montérégie and Laurentides.  In 2018-19, before the pandemic, fully 92% of Montreal’s net losses of 29 000 flowed towards these same peri-metropolitan regions.

People from Laval (a suburb of Montreal: the other regions extend into peri-metropolitan territory) are also moving to the same peri-metropolitan regions : Laval lost 7 700 people to Lanaudière, Montérégie, and Laurentides, whilst gaining 6 785 from Montreal. The trends were not dissimilar pre-COVID, the numbers being 4814 and 4909 respectively in 2018-19.

These trends and proportions are essentially the same if 24 to 44 year olds are analyzed: this cohort form the bulk of internal migrants, and it is reasonable to assume that most are either in the workforce or in a household where someone is in the workforce. They are not yet moving for retirement purposes, nor are they moving to study.

Infrastructure, congestion and the environment1

This substantial move to peri-metropolitan areas (one that pre-dates COVID, but that COVID has amplified) raises a number of issues.

First, congestion. The small country roads of Montérégie, Lanaudière and Laurentides are not designed for heavy residential traffic or for commutes. Neither are the drainage, water or fiber-optic equipment. The ease of working and living in these ex-rural areas may be lower than anticipated.

Second, municipal and public services such as schools, daycares and hospitals will also struggle to meet the new demand and expectations of an ex-urban population.

Third, this population movement is exacerbating urban sprawl at a time when, as a society, we still struggle to fully internalise how important it is to reduce our environmental impact.

Finally, it is not only extra driving and land consumption that are problematic: the abandonment of fully-serviced and denser neighbourhoods on the island of Montreal in favour of underserviced rural areas will require the provision of new infrastructure that incorporate large amounts of energy and unnecessarily consume land and resources.

A new lease of life for sprawl (abetted by light rail)?

Given the trends, which pre-date COVID, it is probable that many people who have moved to peri-metropolitan areas will remain there, and that others will follow (albeit at pre-COVID rates). Flexible and hybrid work arrangements do not easily allow for migration to remote regions (pace the real, but absolutely tiny, flows), but are fully compatible with these more central locations.

These regions are within 50 km or so of Montreal, convenient for bi- or tri-weekly trips to the office. What is more, they are becoming even more convenient for long commutes: Montreal is in the process of building a controversial light-rail system (the REM).

Despite its bad planning and surprising financial arrangements, when completed the REM will make it easier for people to get to the core of Montreal from peri-metropolitan areas. A 30 minute drive to an outer station, followed by 20 minutes on the train, will get you from deepest Montérégie to downtown Montreal.

It is unfortunate, but without better regional planning, sprawl, which never disappeared, may have gained a new lease of life.

1- I’ve had some constructive exchanges with Pier-Olivier Poulin about these migration data: he has raised interesting points in our discussions, and has picked out similar trends (not surprisingly – we are looking at the same data!). I am happy to acknowledge his contribution to the ideas outlined above. I remain responsible for all editorializing and interpretations.

Published by Richard Shearmur

I am a professor at McGill's School of Urban Planning. I perform research on innovation, on how we locate work activities (in a world where people often work from many places), and on urban and regional economic geography. I used to work in real-estate, and teach a course on this. I am an urban planner, member of the Ordre des Urbanistes du Québec and of the Canadian institute of Planners.

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