Transportation Agencies: Focus Less on Telework

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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 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.”

Conclusion

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

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5 Comments or Mentions

5 Comment(s)

Robert DeDomenico

It makes sense that certain transportation solutions become popular because they yield sensible benefits to those adopting them. Any TDM strategy with such a side effect stands a better chance of becoming a significant part of the overall solution, of doing so faster, and, once it has taken root, of not requiring continuing advocacy to grow to its natural limit. The role of TDM advocacy as an incubator, with limited resources, does mean that the healthy vines must be weaned so that other seedlings can have a spell in the greenhouse. Among the novel and promising developments is a concept known as CargoFish Physical Internet, which I personally look forward to seeing grow once it gets to see the light of day (figuratively speaking). My knowledge of this concept is due to having conceived it, researched it, developed it, promoted it, defended it, and made countless sacrifices in keeping it alive through its long winter away from the sunshine of even being known. I invite you to learn more at http://www.cargofish.com, or by just searching the Internet for CargoFish Physical Internet.

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Rick Albiero

I agree that motivating employers to telework can be a difficult business. Additional statistics from other regions would have bolstered your point as Arlington is one small area and the D.C. area is never a good statistical barometer when considering how much bang you get for your buck.

Other alternative commute methods are also effective, but typically in combinations. We have seen carpools much more effective when combined with flexible schedules that allow them to travel in carpool lanes that aren’t crowded with “clean” cars, motorcycles and parents taking their kids to school. The same goes for public transportation which allows riders to have a seat and possibly enough room to use the free wi-fi that so many now offer.

The discussion of telecommuters making other trips during the days they are working remotely is true! The impact on emissions has never been proven. Telecommuting doesn’t magically make the dry-cleaning, (that you need less of), get picked up, it doesn’t make groceries show up on your doorstep and it doesn’t drop your kids off at school. What it does do is allow you to do multiple errands at once, without sitting in traffic and fighting for a parking spot. Studies do show that this often replaces splitting these errands into multiple after-work trips. Cold car start reductions? What do commuters do in the morning on the way to work as opposed to going to run errands during the day?

Why would someone who usually teleworks have to come into work because someone in their carpool had to commute, I guess not as part of the carpool but alone? So the other carpoolers had to drive separately and the teleworker had to drive in instead of working from home?

Sorry, I’m a big proponenet of all alternative work options. And telework is just one of them and not the silver bullet that many people will propose. It’s part of an overall, integrated approach. Employers provided with multiple options that fit more of their employees needs and options will be more likely to embrace these programs. That, I think is the best approach. Focusing on just vanpooling, (lower adoption rate and overall ridership than carpooling), only mass transit that only gets a percentage of people close enough to their workplace to be an option in most markets, or yes, just telecommuting that many people can’t do because of unsuitable job-tasks, work collaboration needs, personal aptitudes or remote worksite are going to be much less effective.

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Jack Nilles

In my experience many TDM agencies nationwide have strongly resisted advocating telecommuting as something peripheral or tangential to their goals. So I find it surprising to see a recommendation the TDM agencies cease doing something that few of them ever did in the first place. One might similarly make the recommendation that TDM agencies should cease to exist since they are expensive to run and their history shows that they are largely ineffective; billions of dollars spent with little to show for it.
If TDM agencies are to hew to their stated mission, namely to encourage reducing single occupant commuter travel, they should promote all viable alternatives, not just the ones they are most comfortable with. That includes sticking to the facts about impacts of the alternatives and avoiding baseless statements such as telecommuting doesn’t really affect overall car usage.

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Paul Mackie

It’s an interesting conversation, Jack.

About a decade ago, the state of Virginia encouraged TDM agencies to do detailed telework training and outreach with companies. But every bit of evidence we see now is that telework is finally doing very well on its own. This is great, and here in Arlington, telework is still noted as one of the options for employers to consider. But we, like all TDM agencies, have huge demands relative to our resources, so focusing on transit and other options is a better prioritization of effort for the impact we know our services can achieve.

On your point about the effectiveness of TDM agencies, third-party research shows that the TDM work that Arlington does, and for which we are nationally recognized as a leader, has been very successful, even though we spend relatively little money compared with the dollars required to build roadways. TDM outreach work throughout the county helps shift more than 40,000 car trips each work day from solo-driven cars to some other forms of transportation. That’s roughly the equivalent of the number of vehicles on six lanes of I-66 and I-95 during the three-hour morning rush hour. Thus TDM cost-effectively supports the investment the county has made in its land-use plan and transportation infrastructure, resulting in better use of Arlington’s transportation system.

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Robert DeDomenico

CargoFish Physical Internet, of Pittsgrove, NJ, was the only concept specifically recognized as having merit at the recent US FHWA Novel Transportation Workshop. During the last panel discussion, the well known technologist, clean tech entreprenuer, and government advisor G. Nagesh Rao of the US SBA said, “I was speaking with Robert DeDomenico, and he has a very innovative and valuable concept.” Numerous other individuals invited as keynote speakers and/or panel members, such as well known travel behavior analyst and consultant Nancy McGuckin, also provided highly positive private feedback. The FHWA’s private draft report on the workshop is due sometime in January, with a final public report to follow.

The FHWA’s Exploratory Advanced Research division is tasked with helping to promote transportation innovations for the public good.

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