When I first moved to Washington D.C., I shared an apartment with a graduate-school classmate and her husband. Every Wednesday, he would leave for his job and I would leave for mine, but she would stay behind, and start work by sitting down on the couch and remotely logging in to her office computer.
There were personal benefits for her in working this way, such as being able to spend the day in the comfort of sweat pants. But there were also benefits for the rest of us. She was not making a commute on Metro, as she normally did, which meant that everyone on a rush-hour train, somewhere, had a little more room.
Telework – also sometimes called “remote work” – can reduce transportation demand by eliminating trips entirely, which is why transportation demand management (TDM) agencies have a history of promoting it to individuals and to companies.
However, given the broader changes in telework provision across the economy, TDM agencies should de-prioritize telework promotion, and devote the resources for that promotion to other efforts.
The number of people teleworking at least part time has grown rapidly in recent years. However, it is not clear that TDM promotion is the reason for telework success in the Washington region or elsewhere.
TDM TAKEAWAYTrends like employee recruitment and workplace continuity during extreme weather have likely been far more important to the expansion of telework. Thus, with tight budgets, TDM agencies should no longer focus on telework promotion.
TDM Agencies and Telework
As far back as the 1980s, employers and TDM agencies, like Arlington County Commuter Services, have promoted telework because a person who teleworks for one day, instead of driving, removes one round-trip commute from the road network. In the past, Arlington Transportation Partners (ATP), the business-outreach program of ACCS, would provide basic information on sources for telework policy, training, and the Virginia Telework Tax Credit, and then refer an organization on to Telework!VA.
That program, funded by the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation, at one point had a full-time telework expert on staff who assisted employers in creating programs. That position has since gone away, and ATP has also shifted focus off of telework in order to concentrate on the commutes that still happen every day.
Telework Trends in the D.C. Region
The State of the Commute surveys have found that an increasing number of employees have heard about telework from the employer. In 2013, 70 percent of respondents who work in Arlington and across the region said that they learned about telework from a “special program at work/employer.” This is a dramatic increase from as recently as 2004, when only half of teleworkers who worked in Arlington named the employer as the source of information and only about 55 percent said the same across the region.
It is possible that TDM agencies have been influencing employers to offer telework through employer outreach. However, in a 2012 survey of leaders from Arlington employers that had worked with Arlington Transportation Partners, 68 percent of respondents said they would have likely started offering telework without ATP’s assistance. Compare that to the 38 percent who said that they would have offered ridematching assistance for employees without ATP or the 57 percent that would not have offered transit subsidies without ATP.
Furthermore, Arlington’s telework uptake is no higher than in other areas (the rate doubled, across the region, from 15 percent in 2004 to 30 percent in 2013) even though its TDM program is more robust and better recognized among the public than other such programs in the region.
Other Factors Influencing Telework
None of this is to say that TDM agencies have been ineffective in their telework promotion. Rather, other trends have probably been far more important to the expansion of telework. In the region, the federal Telework Act of 2010, which mandated that all federal agencies develop and inform employees of telework policies, is probably an important factor (around the region, 38 percent of federal employees telecommute, as compared to 27 percent at non-profits and 26 percent of for-profits). Though reducing congestion was a stated motivation for the Act, other factors, including continuity during inclement weather and emergencies, as well as employee recruitment and retention, were also goals.
National Telework Trends
Telework provision has been on the rise outside of the Washington region as well, with increases in telework offerings captured in data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and surveys from the Families and Work Institute (FWI) published in 2012 and 2014. The 2012 FWI report also asserts that employers around the nation have increased their provision of flexible work arrangements in recent years because these arrangements are much cheaper than other benefits, such as health-care and retirement contributions. Furthermore, flexibility “allow[s] employees to work longer hours or adjust their work times to take care of daily concerns while still getting their work done.”
Also, we know that information technology has advanced rapidly over the past few years, making the mechanics of telework much easier for everyone.
How to Handle the Telework Trends?
It is likely that telework penetration has additional growth potential. The 2013 State of the Commute report estimates that a further 470,000 workers across the region are interested in teleworking and have jobs that would allow them to telework. By no means should TDM agencies discourage telework. But given limited resources, and the fact that telework is more available for reasons that have nothing to do with transportation-demand reductions, these agencies should focus on other issues that companies are less likely to embrace on their own, such as providing subsidized transit passes, and carpool and vanpool formation.
Telework and Traffic Congestion
Besides, telework may not be all that effective for vehicle-trip reduction. Those who telework might make other, non-work trips on their telework day, say to run errands from their home. These may not take place during peak periods, but if someone makes these trips in a car, then they still represent vehicle-miles travelled and release of pollutants. For teleworkers that normally do not drive to work or for other trips, teleworking eliminates no vehicle trips, though they might reduce congestion on transit and in bike lanes.
Carpools, Vanpools, and Telework
More serious is the possibility that telework impedes carpooling and vanpooling. A few months ago, while riding a crowded elevator, I heard a woman bemoaning that, while that day was usually a telework day for her, someone in her regular carpool unexpectedly had to commute in to work, which, according to the rules of their pool, required everyone to come in to the office. You can see how this conflict of needs could wear on a person if it were to occur frequently.
And this dutiful carpooler is not alone. Other studies, though with limited data, found teleworking may “detract from the appeal of alternative mode use by … disrupting a routine daily schedule that might better support ridesharing arrangements and transit use.”
In all things, setting priorities and sticking to them helps yield success. This is especially true for TDM agencies, which usually have small budgets. With money tight, TDM agencies can let go of telework promotion.
Photo by Giorgio Montersino