Do telecommuters really travel fewer miles?

By Saumya Jain

Along with other travel restrictions, the COVID-19 pandemic also resulted in more Americans teleworking. Due to these restrictions and the subsequent change in travel patterns, vehicle miles traveled (VMT) went down significantly. Although 2020’s VMT reduction does make telecommuting seem like a viable solution for reducing VMT and transportation emissions, it is crucial to note that telecommuting does not always translate to reduced travel and can have hidden environmental costs. A recent California-based study reaffirms these findings and builds on what previous studies have already told us: travel behavior of telecommuters is more complex and often results in higher non-work VMT.

Researchers from University of California at Santa Barbara surveyed a mix of California residents to understand the difference in travel patterns of telecommuters and commuters. For people living in California, who mostly rely on automobiles versus other travel modes, the study finds that telecommuters on average accrue 1.37 times more VMT and make 0.53 more trips in a day compared to commuters.

Telecommuters with family members below the age of 21 were observed to make more trips as they are often designated drivers for younger family members. The study also found that traveling for telecommuters increased as education level and household income rose. An analysis by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that in August of 2020, a quarter of the employed were teleworking, a majority of whom had an associate degree or higher.

The authors emphasize that travel behaviors and VMT could differ for telecommuters who live in neighborhoods and cities that have more transportation options and a diverse land use. Before policy makers and companies make telecommuting a norm post-COVID, it is important to work toward measures that counter induced VMT and travel. Densification of land use and improved availability of transportation options can help reduce both trip lengths and automobile usage.