Op-Ed: Can the telework revolution improve traffic and air quality in Utah?

Written by: Peter Reichard

Every couple of decades, the trajectory of modern history pivots on game-changing innovations: the rise of trains, planes and automobiles; the invention of the light bulb; the birth of television; the emergence of the PC; the dawn of the internet. We are due for another pivot, and it may have arrived in the form of a remote revolution.

With the lockdowns of 2020, the worldwide embrace of telehealth, e-commerce, telemeetings, online education and telework suddenly and dramatically accelerated. In time, much will return to 2019 form. But much will never be the same.

Among the most significant of these changes is the shift to telework. With it will come unfathomable changes in land use, real estate, urban development, transportation, society and the economy. Some changes will be positive, some negative.

In response, Utah Foundation launched its Utah Telework Series. The first report, released in April 2020, addressed the challenges and promise of teleworking at a time when many Utah employers were struggling to navigate large-scale telework arrangements for the first time. The latest report, “The Way Home: The Shift to Telework and its Air Quality Ramifications,” examines what we’ve learned since. It looks at various impacts, such as those on transportation and growth, but with a special focus on air quality.

In Utah, over half of households have seen at least one person shift toward remote work — the largest increase among the Mountain States. Travel to and from work could account for nearly one-third of all passenger vehicle miles traveled, meaning that a significant move to telework can have major impacts on rush-hour commuter traffic.

But the impacts go beyond traffic. Air quality had initially improved during the 2020 economic shutdown due to a decrease in traffic. As Utah’s traffic plateaus post-pandemic, it will be interesting to see the longer-term impact on air quality.

The expansion of remote work will endure to some degree beyond the end of the pandemic as employers and employees find that the benefits in some work arenas outweigh the drawbacks. For instance, many employers are enjoying increases in productivity. Many employees are enjoying lower expenses and see telework arrangements as a means of obtaining more affordable housing in less-dense or even rural surroundings. Some prospective employees may come to see a telework option as a precondition for accepting a job.

However, a long-term decrease in traffic from remote work could simply entice other drivers to make longer and more frequent trips — re-absorbing capacity on Utah’s major roadways.

On the other hand, any successful strategy to remove cars from roadways, such as mass transit or pedestrian options, also frees up capacity, which could also ultimately be re-absorbed by new traffic. And while pedestrian and mass transit strategies may offer more potential ancillary benefits like urban placemaking, remote work could be a more cost-effective approach to removing traffic from roadways.

Furthermore, even if an increase in noncommute driving negates some potential air quality improvements from telework, teleworking should provide net benefits to air quality. A study of telework in Switzerland found that as remote work decreased traffic volume, there were corresponding decreases in emissions. The study suggested that teleworking is a promising tool for urban planning and development, traffic reduction and air quality improvements.

Since 2009, Utah has made an annual, targeted push for employers to encourage remote work, mass transit ridership, pedestrian options and carpooling through its Clear the Air Challenge. The challenge focuses on the winter inversion season, when the amount of particulate matter in the air is at its highest. In 2021, the challenge begins Feb. 1, and the response from employers should be far greater than ever before, with so many now equipped to carry on business through telework.

In fact, with this new capacity in place, employers can encourage periodic remote work that targets any periods of poor air quality — not just during the challenge — whether to counter the particulate matter during winter inversions and ozone smog during hot summer days. The Utah Legislature will be discussing this very topic in the coming general session.

Certainly, many employers and employees will find that they are ill-suited for large-scale telework arrangements and return to traditional workplace settings. Some are already expressing concerns around collaboration, creativity and burnout. But to the extent that employers do embrace telework, it is well worth harnessing the trend to benefit the public.


Originally published in the Deseret News on January 26, 2021: https://www.deseret.com/opinion/2021/1/26/22242999/utah-foundation-can-telework-revoultion-improve-traffic-and-air-quality-covid-19-pandemic-remote

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