Remote work could increase driving and transportation emissions

Remote Work

By Chris McCahill

The impacts of telecommuting often come up in SSTI’s work around travel demand management and climate action plans, so our team makes a point of staying on top of the latest relevant research. Although the pandemic showed us that remote work helped cut traffic considerably, especially in major job centers, the verdict is still out on whether widespread telecommuting could really help lower travel demand. A growing number of studies suggest it could have the opposite effect.

There are studies—like a recent one in Australia—that point to telecommuting as a key strategy for reducing transportation emissions. Those studies, however, tend not to consider the second order effects of remote work such as where people choose to live and how much their household travels for non-work activities.

In contrast, researchers from California State University recently presented a study at the International Conference on Transportation and Development in Seattle, which showed telecommuters take more trips per day and travel longer distances overall. Using data from the 2017 National Household Travel Survey (NHTS), they found that occasional telecommuters tend to travel more than both those who never telecommute and those who work entirely from home. They even travel more—for shopping, recreation, and other activities—on days they don’t commute.

In urban areas, people who are required to commute travel the least—contrary to common perception—followed by those who have the option of working remotely but choose not to. In rural areas, those who work from home travel the least.

The authors explain:

The analysis revealed that while home-based work (HBW) trips for primary telecommuters decreased significantly, all other trip purposes increased (in number and distance) and in a higher manner than the decrease of the HBW trips. These findings indicate that telecommuting is likely to increase total VMT [vehicle miles traveled] and associated negative impacts and should inform relevant transportation policies.

Past research tends to support these findings and offers some explanations. A synthesis of 39 studies, published in 2020, found that while many studies tout the environmental benefits of remote work, “more rigorous studies that include a wider range of impacts (e.g., non-work travel or home energy use) generally find smaller savings.”

Studies that suggest telecommuting could have a negative environmental impact, like the newest California State study, point to a couple of main reasons:

  • People who work from home tend to travel more during the day for non-work activities. Part of this could be that they are not consolidating activities along their commute (i.e., trip-chaining).
  • The option to work remotely lets people live farther from their workplace and from city centers, which lengthens their commute and could force them to drive longer distances for other activities.

One study in California found that while telecommuters often stay home during the workday, those who leave home tend to travel at least one-third more than someone who commutes. Another study in the UK confirmed that telecommuters travel more than those with a fixed work location. And finally, an earlier study based on the 2009 NHTS found that while frequent telecommuters tend to walk and use transit more often, they are also 27% more likely to drive at least 20,000 miles per year than those who never telecommute.

The author of that study explains:

Telecommuting has the potential of reducing per-capita VMT if the option to telecommute does not induce residential shifts away from the workplace. Telecommuting cannot be used as a means to effectively reduce urban congestion and energy/emission if driving remains underpriced, and if desirable residential locations are not available close to jobs.

Pandemic conditions proved this to be partly true. According to the latest data, traffic congestion was still considerably lower in 2021 compared to 2019, even though total VMT was higher. This is because traffic moved away from major urban highways and peak commuting periods, but it cropped up at different times of day and in more outlying areas. Therefore, to the extent that remote work can help lower travel demand and emissions, it will need to be paired with policies and investments that ensure people don’t continue driving excessively for activities other than commuting.

Photo credit: Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash, unmodified. License.