Americans haven’t really altered their commuting habits all that much recently, at least not nationally. The Census Bureau’s latest estimates find that the vast majority of workers -- 76 percent -- drove alone to work last year, the same percentage as a decade ago.
But one thing is changing: More people aren’t going into an office at all. Americans primarily working from home recorded its largest ever year-over-year increase in 2016, climbing to 5 percent of the workforce. Using the Census estimates, we compared each metro area’s average share of workers telecommuting in 2015 and 2016 with averages for 2006 and 2007. In 186 of the 252 areas with comparable data, the share increased.
If this trend continues, Americans working from home will soon overtake the share of people who use public transportation, as it already has in many regions. The slow but steady shift carries numerous potential implications for transportation systems.
Part of the rise in telecommuting stems from employers’ changing attitudes and the increase in jobs that can be done outside an office. Tech-oriented occupations ideal for working remotely have grown, far exceeding job gains in manufacturing and other industries less conducive to it. Advancements in teleconferencing, mobile phones and the increasing availability of high-speed internet have also played a role in gains over the long term.
In most places, remote workers still make up a relatively small segment of the workforce. But they are significantly more prevalent in select regions. An estimated 12.1 percent of workers in the Boulder, Colo., metro area primarily worked from home -- the largest share nationally -- followed by Medford, Ore., and Austin-Round Rock, Texas. These regions enjoy several advantages favorable to telecommuting. Most notably, they’re home to universities and tech firms -- two major industries where telecommuting is more common. In fact, many of the top regions for remote workers are college towns.
Given the vast differences in the nature of work across different types of jobs, a metro area’s industry concentration explains much of the variation in regional telecommuting. Consider the manufacturing and retail trade sectors, where Census estimates suggest just 3 percent of employees work from home. By comparison, about 9 percent of workers in a category that included finance, insurance and real estate worked from home, according to Census data.
Another major factor is demographics, as those with college degrees are much more likely to work remotely.
The uptick in telecommuting is reflective of home-based businesses as well. The Census Bureau’s American Community Survey counts any person working from home.
The estimates, however, understate the full extent of telework. That’s because the survey asks how individuals “usually” traveled to work, so it wouldn’t capture those working from home only one or two days per week.
A recent Gallup survey depicts more widespread telework practices. About 43 percent of employees reported working remotely in some capacity last year, up from 39 percent in 2012. They’re also spending more hours away from the office, with 31 percent of those who telework spending at least 80 percent of their time working remotely, an increase from 24 percent in 2012.
For transportation systems, the most promising outcome of telecommuting is the removal of cars from the road during peak-travel periods. Jason Cao, a University of Minnesota associate professor who specializes in transportation planning, says telecommuting can slow the growth of congestion, but not enough to noticeably alleviate traffic woes. “This is good policy,” he says, “but people may not feel it.”
Other effects of telecommuting aren’t as clear cut. While people aren’t driving into work, they may run errands or make additional trips outside of rush hour. A study by the Center for Transportation Studies at the University of Minnesota found telecommuting increased travel for one-worker households, especially for non-work related trips. Other research indicates that when two drivers in a household share a single vehicle, telecommuting merely frees up the vehicle for the other person.
Patricia Mokhtarian, a Georgia Tech professor who studies travel behavior and telecommuting, warns of other negative potential consequences. Given the option to work from home, some may opt to live further away from their jobs, leading to longer commutes when they do drive to the office. Telecommuting might also result in more air travel and its high carbon footprint. “I would advocate promotion of telecommuting,” Mokhtarian says, “but I would be clear-eyed on the likely transportation impacts.”
Still, Mokhtarian says, the net benefits of telecommuting outweigh the potential downsides. Research assessing the overall effects of telecommuting on travel, while mixed, generally suggests that telework yields a slight decrease in total vehicle-miles traveled. One study Mokhtarian co-authored attributed to telework to a national reduction in annual vehicle-miles traveled of 0.8 percent or less.
Some states and local governments have launched efforts aimed at promoting telecommuting. Minnesota funds an initiative assisting Twin Cities area employers in establishing telework programs, offering free training and consulting. Some governments, of course, also provide flexible work arrangements for their employees.
Proposed federal legislation has called for prohibiting states from collecting income taxes from individuals working remotely in other states. As it stands, employees of companies in New York and a few other states who telecommute from elsewhere pay income taxes twice.
Telecommuting can save companies money and also opens up job opportunities to those living further away or who don't own vehicles. But not all companies are moving in the same direction. Best Buy, Honeywell, IBM and Yahoo all scaled back their telecommuting programs in recent years.
About the Data
The Census Bureau's American Community Survey asks respondents to report how they "usually" got to work over the past week. Those who reported working from home (table B08301) includes individuals owning their own businesses rather than telecommuting, but it does not reflect most workers who telecommute only part of the time. The Census Bureau's 2005 ACS survey (not shown) did not include the group quarters population.