More Remote Work, Less Vehicle Emissions?

One of the more well-known aspects of American culture is its close relationship with cars, often symbolizing independence and the ultimate key to flexibility with one’s time. But driving culture has seen major behavioral changes over the past few decades, now landmarked by two major crises: the Great Recession lasting from December 2007 to June 2009 and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, which began in March 2020.

Vehicle Miles Travelled (VMT) per capita during the pandemic experienced an overall decline since 2019, coming the closest to normalcy during June and July of 2021. In contrast, VMT per capita lagged for a decade after the Great Recession, only returning close to pre-recession levels in 2019.

Now, still on the heels of a pandemic, do we expect to see a similar long — or even permanent — decline in vehicle miles traveled? How could remote opportunities affect emissions? Who has access to remote opportunities? Analyzing the possible responses to these questions can give better insight into behavioral shifts due to crises and how recovery can affect emissions reduction going forward.

VMT article graph v2
Percent change in vehicle miles driven per capita since the start of 2008 (red) and 2020 (black) relative to the prior years (2007 and 2019) for the same months of the year.

Pandemic Aftermath

At the beginning of the pandemic, there was a 40% decrease in VMT per capita. This drop proved short-lived, and by the summer of 2021, VMT per capita rose back to 98% of pre-pandemic levels. By October 2021, VMT per capita was at 97% of its pre-pandemic level, surpassing conditions for the same period of months after the great recession. Given the fluctuating nature of the pandemic, only time will tell what long-term trend takes shape.

The sudden and rapid increase in VMT per capita through July of 2021 was most likely due to a variety of reasons including renewed hunger for travel after being stuck indoors for months at a time; an increase in movement as the economy opens back up; the shift in preference to ride-share services such as Uber and Lyft to minimize exposure from public transportation; or a combination of any of these factors. Other factors affecting VMT per capita include decreased oil prices and suburban migration, as identified by Fehr & Peers’ inquiry into changing travel patterns.

The factor at the forefront is the availability of remote and hybrid options for work and school. Even as a sense of normalcy returns, work-from-home options might be here to stay, with many employees choosing to quit instead of giving it up. This is only growing more crucial as employers struggle to meet hiring needs at the same time that 75% of workers are considering quitting their jobs, an era now dubbed as the “Great Resignation.”

Students, particularly those of higher education, are also getting used to the flexibility of remote options with 73% preferring some courses to go fully online post-pandemic. Given the extra time we've all had to ponder on what we truly want for our lives, it wouldn’t be surprising if the education sector sees disruption paralleled to that of other industries.

Historic Trends and Multiple Solutions

Going back even further, overall VMT has broadly increased since 1971. In 2018, the U.S. Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration attributed the record-breaking VMT values to a robust economy in addition to lower gas prices. While the maintenance of remote options could aid in decreasing emissions for unnecessary travel, it does not necessarily mean we’ll see a decrease in transportation emissions as the economy grows.

This only emphasizes the flexibility that must be maintained to consider multiple solutions for decreasing transportation emissions including electric vehicles (EVs) which can utilize electricity from cleaner energy sources. As the demand for EVs increases, we will need a new metric or at least an appropriately adjusted version of VMT to make smarter decisions coordinating the balancing act of mobility and emissions reduction. Despite the greater initial emissions costs during manufacturing, there is a significant emissions reduction over its lifetime compared to gasoline-powered vehicles.

The Poor Always Foot the Bill

Then there is the question of who has access to remote work options. People from lower-income backgrounds have fewer options for remote work. This availability also varies by race with Black and Hispanic workers less likely to be able to work remotely. While policies are always designed for everyone’s benefit in theory, implementation can reflect the opposite.

Throughout her career as an environmental lawyer, Jennifer Hernandez observed green policies meant to decrease VMT and increase public transportation usage were concentrated in lower-income communities further connected in a messy web of inequality. In her recent Breakthrough Journal essay “Green Jim Crow,” Hernandez pointed out that,

“Public transit, the ‘solution’ wealthy Whites imagine will supplant personal vehicles, does not work for many people in less-affluent communities of color, where housing, employment, and other opportunities are often more dispersed and many more jobs can be accessed in a 30-minute drive than a 30-minute ride on public transit. Unlike affluent residents in the keyboard economy, workers of color more often have multiple jobs, commute during non-peak hours, and simply cannot use transit to ‘balance work, child care, elder care.’”

This issue is inevitably tied to the lack of affordable housing with the American Public Transit Association (APTA) noting,

“The regions with insufficient housing construction often also have the highest housing costs and the largest increases in rent, conditions that make finding housing difficult for families with lower incomes. Thus, the families that are most likely to rely on transit have been discouraged from living in many dense, downtown-adjacent neighborhoods with effective transit options.”

All of this is perpetuated by a cycle of job opportunities concentrated in areas that are “still more accessible by car than by transit, and relying on transit can mean a trip takes twice as long as it would using a personal automobile (if bus or train options are even available).” Despite this focus on more access to public transit, the APTA report showed a consistent national decline in public transit ridership since 2015 citing the likely reason to be increasing mobility options such as ride-sharing and bike-sharing apps although transportation authorities are still trying to figure out their exact effects.

A transit ridership study showed that lower-income households in Southern California greatly increased their vehicle ownership between 2000 and 2015 with the growth being “especially dramatic among subsets of the population that are among the heaviest users of transit.” The study also modeled vehicle access as the most “decisive factor in transit use,” causing ridership to decrease as vehicle access increased. It also suggested getting vehicle-owning households to begin riding at least occasionally instead of driving in order to increase ridership. This would eventually mean encouraging public transit in some of the affluent neighborhoods policymakers have been strategically side-stepping.

Changing the Image of Education

Education, particularly higher education, had long been positioned for an overhaul considering the excessive expenses — like room and board — burying students in high-interest debt they could still be paying off into their 50s and beyond. For years, many parents have been encouraging their kids to stay close to home for college and university to save money. The pandemic has exacerbated this problem. Students who commute spend nearly 20% of their time doing so, with some of them on the verge of dropping out because of unreliable transportation. Of course, not all classes can be conducted remotely, but more remote classes could do much to relieve the burden where possible.

Still, higher education is intertwined with a different mindset judging the perceived value of remote learning. In a 2020 survey, only 25% of students and parents would pay for a fully remote learning institution while only 46% would pay for a hybrid model. Remote learning is often thought to be lower in value compared to in-person learning in addition to the picturesque college experience of campus parties and independence from home that won’t drastically change for many students.

But these low figures don’t solely reflect unreasonable assumptions about remote learning. The pandemic did cause an unexpected shift for educational providers with some still grappling to adapt efficiently to a remote model. Still, this change, of course, poses a serious reckoning in how we think about education with many students already reevaluating their life choices.

Hope for the Future

In 2019, transportation emissions accounted for 29% of US greenhouse gas emissions, 58% of which were from light-duty vehicles. In 2020, transportation emissions saw a 15% drop due to decreasing petroleum usage. Up until September, vehicular emissions for 2021 still lagged behind 2019 levels by 7% but this could quickly change given our unanticipated rate of recovery.

If remote work and school options remain and/or increase, could we see another shift in transportation emissions? Given worker commutes account for 30% of light-duty vehicle travel, a complete shift work-from-home could result in an approximate 9% decrease in overall transportation emissions. While this is an imperfect assumption, it’s clear that increasing remote options could result in significant emissions reduction if extended into long-term behavior.

A significant portion of emissions is likely to be observed with transport between home and school. While remote options certainly weren’t perfect for every scenario, including lack of childcare options for parents and challenges for learners who need school environments, it also extended much more flexibility with time and energy which many are keen to hold onto. Despite the increased VMT per capita, it's possible the increased electric vehicle demand for the next decade will offset a portion of the emissions if this trend continues but it will still take time to see a significant shift to an electric vehicle fleet on our roadways even after the manufacturing of internal combustion engine vehicles ceases.

However the tide turns, it will be interesting to observe how the pandemic acts as a source for behavioral shifts possibly lasting decades, and more importantly how we learn from them. For years now, the green movement has included added pressure on encouraging cycling instead of driving, pushing for added bicycle lanes in cities, and even saw some success with the spread of e-bikes throughout major cities. But the reliance on people’s voluntary behavioral changes will only go so far when the decision is affected by multiple factors. Many people will continue to choose a vehicle given that it's the most convenient option and at times the only option depending on where you live and the physical load of your responsibilities such as childcare.

Behavioral changes are needed, but a more effective strategy includes equitable, systemic change that naturally allows for significant behavioral changes. Increasing options for working and learning from home is one of those changes which also results in more time and money saved. As we continue on the road to a new normal, hopefully, these changes will be here to stay.