Workers offset their commute travel when working from home 

By Chris McCahill 

The massive shift to remote work during the pandemic altered the way many offices operate and increased interest in the potential for widespread telecommuting to help reduce traffic, transportation emissions, and other harmful impacts. We have reported several studies, however, that suggest remote work simply lets people drive at different times of day and for purposes other than commuting. A new study backs that finding. 

This newest study, led by researchers at UC Berkeley, uses two sources of information. The first is mobile analytics data from SimilarWeb that reveals when and how often people check in at different locations using their smartphones. The second is a panel survey with nearly 2,000 participants, conducted in five waves between August 2020 and July 2021. The researchers were able to link the two datasets at the individual level. 

The work confirms what other studies have found—that remote work can have an induced-travel effect on non-work trips. It found that people tend to make one extra trip on days they work from home. The researchers also determined it is typically a new trip, and not one that would have been taken another time. They note that this new trip is usually shorter than a commute, so the overall effect of remote work on total travel distance is negative. But they also warn, “the travel reduction effects of telecommuting will be overestimated if the new trip-generation is not taken into account.”  

The researchers also add that the induced non-work travel caused by remote work could be even larger now that COVID concerns have dwindled. They explain: 

In fact, we can see that […] the effect of telecommuting on non-commute trips, and on non-commute distance traveled, have increased in the latter stages of the pandemic post-vaccine availability. This suggests that as people returned to (quasi) normal life, they started leveraging the flexibility of telecommuting to make more and farther non-commute trips. 

This finding is summarized in the chart below, which shows the typical remote worker traveled almost 10 fewer miles per day early in the pandemic, but only about 3 fewer miles once vaccines became more widespread.  

Workers traveled fewer miles per day when working from home during the pandemic, but that reduction has grown smaller. Source: Obeid et al., 2024

Flexible working arrangements, including remote work opportunities, still offer plenty of benefits. Perhaps most notably, they have shifted some travel away from the most congested rush hour periods, which means fewer roads need to be overdesigned to handle heavy traffic for just a few hours each day. Avoided trips also help to lower emissions and safety risks associated with car travel. Those benefits are limited, however, when people compensate by offsetting their commute trips or, even worse, by moving farther away from their workplace and potentially driving even more. To see significant reductions in vehicle travel, remote work (and other ways to avoid traveling) can be paired with robust transportation demand management programs, more compact development patterns, and improved walking, biking, and transit opportunities. 

Photo Credit: via Pexels, unmodified. License