Telecommuting: What Impact Will It Have on the Environment

Dec 1, 2004 | RFF Staff


Transportation officials and planners facing increasingly serious congestion and air pollution problems in our nation's cities sometimes turn to telecommuting as a potential remedy. By reducing the number of drivers of the roads telecommuting is expected to ease these problems and benefit society.
This was the thinking behind the U.S. Congress's 1999 National Air Quality and Telecommuting Act (H.R. 2094). This act set up a pilot program in five metropolitan areas--Denver; Washington, DC; Los Angeles, Houston, and Philadelphia--that would study the feasibility of addressing air quality concerns through telecommuting. 

This pilot "ecommute" program ran from mid-2001 through early 2004, at which time RFF scholars conducted an in-depth analysis of data drawn from participants' reports. The analysis is part of a larger report on the ecommute program completed by the Global Environment and Technology Foundation (GETF) for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

This study is one of four new papers from RFF on the subject. The series also includes a survey of telecommuters from a recent study in California, and a review of existing literature on the topic, to provide a clearer picture of how to create a successful and long-lasting telecommuting program.


RFF four-part study of Telecommuting

More information about the overall project can be found on the ecommute/GETF website.
Telecommuting and Emissions Reductions:
Evaluating Results from the ecommute Program

Discussion Paper 04-42
December 2004 

Resident Scholar Margaret A. Walls and Research Associate Peter Nelson analyze data from the five pilot cities enrolled in the ecommute program.


Link to Discussion Paper

Looking at reports from 535 employees working in approximately 50 different companies in five cities over a two-and-a-half year period, two unique aspects of this dataset are that it tracks employees over time and that the frequency of reporting makes the commute-related emissions information better than many other studies. The authors find that many employees appeared to drop out of the program over time, or at least stopped reporting, and that in some areas, employees had been with the program for a long time, while many in other areas were newcomers. Participants tended to own relatively new, cleaner than average, vehicles and emissions reductions from this pilot program were small, but the potential to achieve significant reduction targets through telecommuting may still exist. Walls and Nelson estimate that a 25-ton per year reduction in volatile organic compounds could be achieved in a given metropolitan area with approximately 4,500 telecommuters working at home, on average, 1.8 days per week.


What Have We Learned from a Recent Survey of Teleworkers?
Evaluating the 2002 SCAG Survey

Discussion Paper 04-43
December 2004

Fellow Elena A. Safirova and Resident Scholar Margaret A. Walls examine the 2002 Telework survey conducted by the Southern California Association of Governments (SCAG).


Link to Discussion Paper

This examination reveals interesting findings about telecommuters: consistent with previous studies in the literature, telecommuters in this survey, conducted in Southern California in 2002, tended to have higher educational levels and longer tenures in their current positions and with their current employers. Contrary to popular thought on who telecommuters are, however, the survey revealed that they tended to be more often male than female, and were less likely to have children in the household. The SCAG survey also showed that many people characterized themselves as "telecommuters" but in fact worked at home part of the day and in the office part of the day- thereby still driving their cars to work. This calls into question the air quality benefits of telecommuting, though congestion reduction benefits still may be possible if telecommuters tend to drive off-hours.

A Review of the Literature on Telecommuting
and Its Implications for Vehicle Travel and Emissions

Discussion Paper 04-44
December 2004

Resident Scholar Margaret A. Walls and Fellow Elena A. Safirova review the empirical literature on telecommuting with a focus on trip reduction impacts.


Link to Discussion Paper

The literature that Walls and Safirova review does not always come to a consensus, but there is a predominant view that certain factors increase both the likelihood and frequency of telecommuting. These factors include having children in the household, being female, having more education, having a longer commute trip, having worked longer at one's position, and having a job that does not require face-to-face contact with coworkers or clients. Most studies also show that telecommuters significantly reduce both daily trips and vehicle miles traveled. The authors conclude that there is a need for more research using bigger and more broadly-based datasets containing data on telecommuters across a wide variety of employers.


Emissions Trading with Telecommuting Credits:
Regulatory Background and Institutional Barriers

Discussion Paper 04-45
December 2004

Research Associate Peter Nelson spells out potential institutional and regulatory barriers to using telecommuting in a mobile source emissions trading program.


Link to Discussion Paper

Nelson finds that several regulatory and institutional barriers exist to using telecommuting in an emissions trading program. The most important may be that emissions reductions from telecommuting have weak environmental integrity--in other words, any reductions cannot with certainty be tied to telecommuting. In addition, the approach is unlikely to be cost-effective because the reductions from an individual telecommuter are small.