Does telecommuting increase vehicle miles traveled?

By Logan Dredske
Recent research published in the Journal of Transport & Health analyzed the impact telecommuting has on vehicle miles traveled (VMT). The research, conducted by Sandip Chakrabarti, used the 2009 National Household Travel Survey to compare daily VMT for those who frequently telecommute (more than four days a month, or once a week on average) to those who do not telecommute or only telecommute occasionally (one to three days per month). Results indicated that more telecommuting was associated with higher levels of annual VMT.
Frequent telecommuting was associated with 27 percent higher odds of driving more than 20,000 miles per year when compared to those who do not telecommute at all. However, on days when telecommuting was utilized, telecommuters were 3.58 times more likely to drive less than 10 miles for that given day. Chakrabarti suggested that regardless of the frequency of telecommuting, it is associated with relatively more miles driven per year. When analyzing telecommuting on a daily basis, it is intuitively linked to significantly fewer miles driven per day.
On average, telecommuters have a longer commute to work and drive approximately four miles more per day than those who do not telecommute. As a result, the average frequency of telecommuting among these workers is not enough to offset the higher commute distance associated with telecommuting. Additionally, longer commute distances are associated with living in locations that require driving to reach non-work destinations such as healthcare, retail, and grocery stores.
Chakrabarti was careful to note that, “telecommuting has the potential of reducing per-capita VMT if the option to telecommute does not induce residential shifts away from the workplace.” This highlights the importance of promoting residential development within appropriate proximities to job centers.
Chakrabarti also analyzed the relationship between telecommuters, transit use, and active transportation use. Findings suggested that frequent telecommuting is associated with 56 percent higher odds of at least one transit trip per month. Like VMT, transit use on a workday for telecommuters is 71 percent lower than those who do not telecommute. Also noted, four percent of telecommuters reported using transit to get to work over the week preceding their survey day, compared to two percent of non-telecommuters. Frequent telecommuters took 15 more walk trips per week and had a 41 percent higher odds of walking/bicycling more than one mile on a telecommuting workday.
Telecommuting programs by firms may help promote non-motorized travel, but only if alternatives to driving exist. Therefore, Chakrabarti recommends, “governments encourage the provision and utilization of telecommuting options if they simultaneously implement complimentary policies or infrastructures that facilitate positive (e.g. more non-motorized travel) and arrest negative (e.g. longer commutes) urban impacts of telecommuting.” These include housing close to jobs, improved transit options, and support for transit-oriented developments.
Logan Dredske is a Project Assistant at SSTI.