As gas prices play in the range of four dollars, lots of people are looking for ways to save fuel as part of their work commute or regular household travel. There are some no-brainers like parking the SUV and using the fuel efficient vehicles in the household fleet.
But a clear winner here is simply not taking that work trip at all – a four-day 40-hour week is a 20 percent fuel saving; a nine-day 80-hour biweekly period is a 10 percent saving. The state of Utah is the first state to go on a mandatory four-day week schedule for state employees with the additional advantage of most offices actually being shut down on Fridays.
The telecommute option is also win-win. The commuter saves fuel and vehicle wear and there is zero impact on the road system or transportation system nor any deleterious effects on the society. The big question mark becomes the nature of the employment and the view of the employer toward such activities.
In 2001 the NHTS (National Household Travel Survey) of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) pursued this question in some depth asking respondents about their ability to work from home. Obviously there are lots of people who can't take advantage of such an opportunity --- think emergency room nurses --- but many others, particularly in technology-related fields, can. The NHTS shows that almost all groups have some workers whose occupation or industry makes it feasible.
There are two discrete elements in telecommuting population. There are those who work at home (WAH) and have no other work location. Then there are those who occasionally work from home although they have a regular work place to go to – the real telecommuters. We also need to include among the telecommuters a sub-group – those who have a work-center near home that they can go to instead of the regular work place.
The NHTS identified about 8.7 million workers who worked only at home, about six percent of workers, considerably more than the census showed in 2000, (and interestingly another 5.4 million with no specific work place). The American Community Survey (ACS), on the other hand, showed only 4.3 million in 2001 rising to just about 5.4 million in 2006; increasing in share from 3.4 to 3.9 percent. Under all surveys, there is a clear growth trend in working at home. In fact, it has been the only “mode” to increase over the last 25 years other than driving alone.
Overall telecommuting would exceed transit totals nationally if New York is excluded. The decennial census and the NHTS show that the great majority of those who work at home are located in suburbs and rural areas (note that those who live in rural areas and work at home are often called farmers.)
Who are they?
Telecommuters tend to be male, older and more affluent. The women who work at home tend to be younger, less well-educated, and less affluent. The men tend to be in business or financial management, or other professional activities whereas women are more likely to be involved in administrative support, service occupations (think daycare) and part-time work.
The NHTS survey data indicated that the occasional work-at-homers look a lot like those who work at home all the time. They are preponderantly male, with an average age of 42, and heavily oriented to the higher income groups with the majority over the $75,000 income bracket. They are overwhelmingly drawn, more than 60 percent, from professional and technical management occupations.
If telecommuters were loaded onto the national system each day, they would constitute a very large additional burden in terms of system demands and fuel use. Most importantly many are long distance travelers – their average distance to work is 17.5 miles, about 50 percent more than the average work trip length. Most people who work at home occasionally tend to be private vehicle users with a limited number using transit modes or even walking.
Some options and impediments
We do not yet know too much about what has happened over the past year’s strong spike in energy price. Clearly, some governments and private players are taking some action. Many state and local agencies have policies supporting telecommuting on a voluntary basis.
In the private sector, Microsoft, operating in a very congested area of Seattle’s suburbs, now offers bonuses to employees for carpooling of up to $1000 and to foot the entire bill for using vans. They also have developed tele-centers in downtown Seattle for the many reverse commuters who work for them to spend time near their downtown/University residences to avoid peak travel out to the suburbs.
What remains astonishing is how little government action has been taken an effective and worthwhile response to the energy situation. One good step would be a public information program focused on prospective employers and their willingness to accept such programmatic changes. Within companies, training managers to better handle the complexities of interacting with employees at a distance would be a big plus. Telecom companies could help with better tools and services and ideas; after all, it is a natural market for their services.
The increasing cost of travel is altering the arithmetic by which commuters weigh their travel choices. Telecommuting represents one important option that needs to be taken very seriously indeed.