By Michael Brenneis
Changing travel behavior may be confounding our traditional notions about transportation demand as evidence shows that people were staying home more even before the pandemic. The debate continues as to whether remote and hybrid work schedules lead to less driving overall, or just distribute driving differently throughout the day. Yet scholars are finding that flexible, work-from-home schedules may be associated with people being more active.
The story of VMT over the last 25 years has been one of hills and valleys, but with only a modest overall increase–something the authors of one study call a stagnation of personal travel. Using pre-pandemic data from the American Time Use Survey, the authors found that people were spending roughly 25% less time outside their homes in 2019 than in 2003. People skipped going to arts, entertainment, or sporting events by about 25%. They reduced the amount they shopped, dined, and socialized outside the home by more than 15%. At the same time, they worked, studied, played games, and practiced their religions in the home between 30 and 130% more. The authors suggest that advances in communication and information technologies could be behind this reduced travel demand.
Although they might be driving less, remote workers might also be walking and biking more. A new study from Switzerland found workers with remote, flexible schedules tend to walk more both for shopping and recreation, and bike more for recreation. The effect is large enough that it lets them reach a recommended amount of physical activity for better health. Interestingly, the study also found a correlation between regular transit use and active travel–suggesting that people may walk or bike more when taking transit.
It makes sense that if people prefer to travel less, and it potentially makes them healthier, that we should consider designing our transportation and land-use systems with this in mind. Prioritizing peak-hour travel may give way to accommodating the movement of freight and package delivery more consistently during the day, for example. Real estate interests might wish to see workers returning to office blocks in central cities, but from the worker’s perspective, there’s something to be gained by working a more flexible remote schedule.