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When the coronavirus pandemic began last year, one of the first visible changes we experienced was a dramatic decrease in traffic. Los Angeles, like much of the country, became deserted overnight. This was because of people sheltering in place, which resulted in students taking online classes and, those who could, working from home.
According to a recent Gallup poll, roughly 33% of U.S. workers said they had shifted to working completely from home by Oct. 2020, down from 51% in Apr. Compared to 2019’s annual total, national vehicle miles travelled were only down about 15% in 2020.
As cities begin to reopen, debates have arisen on whether they’ll be radically altered or will appear largely untouched, as a recent Slate article noted. Whichever the case may be, most seem to agree that the increase in teleworking is here to stay. And though analysts have predicted a sharp decrease in post-pandemic driving, leading to a welcome reduction in greenhouse gas emissions, the aforementioned article poses a counter argument: What if people who work from home actually drive more than if they’d gone to the office?
Slate referenced a 2018 study that found that policies that promote telecommuting may indeed increase, rather than decrease, people’s travel demand, regardless of the size of the MSA.
To explain this, the publication used the example of a fictitious character, Sheila the commuter. Assume that in pre-COVID times, she drove her car 10 miles each way from her home in the suburbs to her workplace downtown. Before starting work, she worked out at the building’s gym. For lunch, she would either walk to the drug store to pick up a prescription or ride transit a couple stops to meet her friend for lunch. On her way back home, she would stop at the grocery store. Altogether, Sheila drove 22 miles a day, roundtrip counting her stop.
Once the pandemic hit, Sheila worked from home. And as her office opens back up, she’ll return to work in person only three days per week and the other two at home in the suburbs. Since Sheila won’t be driving to or from work, she’ll be taking many other trips for her errands. She’ll make separate trips to the gym, to lunch, to pick up her prescription, and to the grocery store. What was a hypothetical daily 22 mile drive is now 26 miles.
Or what if Bob, Sheila’s neighbor, who used to use public transit to go to work in pre-pandemic times is now working from home full time and has to drive to meet clients now? He might have to get an additional family car, which suggests even more future driving. Because people who obtain a car, tend to use it.
Though mere examples, they highlight multiple distinctions between working at home and at the office. First, people working from home are unlikely to stay there all day after the pandemic ends. Under normal circumstances, teleworkers tend to travel quite a bit—and the places they want to reach are likely further away than if they were at the office. As Rongxiang Su, a Ph.D. student in geography at the University of California—Santa Barbara who has studied teleworking, explained, for those working downtown, “everything is close by, so they don’t need to drive 30 minutes to a shopping mall.”
Over time, teleworking could lead people to spend even more time sitting behind the wheel. “After COVID we’ll have people relocating farther out,” Patricia Mokhtarian, a professor at Georgia Tech’s School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, said. “When they do commute, they’ll be traveling longer distances.” In a 2005 study, Mokhtarian and her colleagues concluded that teleworking can modestly reduce driving. However, the effects dissipate as teleworkers move further from the central city.
Mokhtarian expects a big increase in remote working after the pandemic ends. “We could see a doubling or tripling compared to the amount before COVID,” she said. But she doesn’t believe even that would reduce vehicle miles traveled.
Teleworking’s impact on VMT has major implications for the environment, because in the U.S., transportation is the biggest source of greenhouse gases. Moreover, more cars on the road could implicate more car accidents. In Los Angeles, car crashes are reportedly the fourth leading cause of premature death, ahead of homicides, strokes, and lung cancer.