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Dr. Patricia Mokhtarian: Commuting after COVID

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SciLine Interviewed: Dr. Patricia Mokhtarian, a professor of civil & environmental engineering at Georgia Tech. She discussed what, if anything, the past history of teleworking can teach about the post-COVID future of teleworking; whether, for industries that turned to telework during the pandemic, work-from-home is here to stay; the effects that telework trends might have on where people live and how they commute; and potential environmental impacts of increased adoption of telework.

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What, if anything, can the past history of teleworking teach about the post-COVID future of teleworking?


[0:00:28]

PATRICIA MOKHTARIAN: Interestingly, I’ve been studying teleworking since the 1980s, when I was hired by the Southern California Association of Governments in Los Angeles to explore what it could do for improving congestion and air quality in Los Angeles. And so from that time till this, starting, say, with the 1984 Olympics, probably every Olympics since then, numerous earthquakes, hurricanes, blizzards, massive infrastructure failures, the SARS pandemic and so forth, we’ve had numerous so-called extreme events in which teleworking more or less had to happen if business were to continue at all. And so at the time, there’d be this flurry of newspaper articles and TV interviews showing how great it was. And now that we’ve discovered it, are we going to keep doing it? And in fact, after the extreme event was over, things were back to normal. People more or less went back to the way they had done it before.

So one point is that there is a sort of built-in kind of snap back to normal conditions. On the other hand, what’s different about this is that the pandemic has been much longer and much wider or broader, if you will, in its duration and impact than any of these previous extreme events have been. So there’s every reason to expect there to be more lasting impacts. We’ve lowered the barriers to teleworking sort of instantaneously and, again, for a prolonged period of time. But I do think that part of what history has taught us is that it’s not for everyone and that for many people, the desire is to do it on a very occasional or, you know, decidedly part-time basis – one or two days a week, not five days a week.


For industries that turned to telework during the pandemic, do you think work-from-home is here to stay?


[0:02:24]

PATRICIA MOKHTARIAN: Teleworking was definitely increasing relatively slowly and gradually but steadily before the pandemic, so there’s every reason to think that at a minimum, it would continue to increase at a steady rate. Obviously, at least in the short term, the pandemic has put a big jump in the trend of teleworking increasing over time. But I think it will bounce back to something, you know, higher than what it was before the pandemic but lower than what it was at the height of the pandemic. So the real question is where, at least in terms of looking at aggregate impacts of teleworking. And I think that’s going to be different for different people and for different organizations. Again, even pre-pandemic, we’ve seen, you know, high-tech organizations implement teleworking programs, sustain them for some period of time and then either terminate them or curtail them dramatically for reasons such as, we need people in, you know, person to have this serendipitous exchange of ideas and so forth. So, you know, all of that is still a factor. And I think over time, companies will realize that there are benefits, if you will, to being together.

One issue that we’ve seen during the pandemic is the entrance of millennials and Gen Z into the workforce at the bottom of the career ladder and having to, you know, get inculcated into a new corporate environment completely remotely – so no local mentors, no, you know, dropping into someone’s office or running into them in the break room, asking a, you know, spontaneous question about who to contact for this or where to go for that. And so, yeah, I think it’s very difficult for people just entering the workforce to work entirely from home. So what I think we’ll see is a blend of some people doing it more than others, many people doing it on a one- or two-day-a-week basis and hopefully just an optimal combination that will work best for employees and employers alike.


Do you think telework trends could lead to long-term changes in where people live and how they commute?


[0:04:42]

PATRICIA MOKHTARIAN: It certainly will change those options for some people. We already see it now – and, indeed, we saw it before the pandemic – that long-distance commuting, if you will, was a thing and probably a growing thing, although I must say I don’t believe that we have very good data on how much of that was happening even before, let alone now and in the future. So I really wish we had better data on how much long-distance teleworking is already happening and then get a sense of what people want to do and will do in the future.

I do think there are some barriers for it to become the mainstream or the rule rather than the exception. So in other words, I do believe it will remain probably a niche option for several reasons. One is there is an extra overhead to managing a completely dispersed workforce or even a largely dispersed one. So I think there is going to be a natural managerial reluctance to just open the floodgates and let everybody live anywhere they want to. And secondly, I’m not sure that very many people, or at least, you know, the majority of people, want to live anywhere and work anywhere. I just mentioned the idea of wanting to be in a work environment with people who you can, you know, contact with, ask questions, socialize with, so forth. People like going to an attractive workplace in a bustling, lively downtown area, and so they don’t want to work from home five days a week – most people. Some do. That’s great, but we’re talking general trends. And so if you really prefer to work from home one or two days a week, a 300-mile commute is not going to be practical, for obvious reasons. So I think the vast majority of people are still going to have conventional commutes. But, again, at the margin, we’re going to see some longer-distance commutes and more people than we had before.


What are some of the possible environmental impacts of increased adoption of telework?


[0:06:55]

PATRICIA MOKHTARIAN: I’m still convinced that, for the most part, teleworking is an environmentally beneficial strategy. Again, we have some gaps in our knowledge with respect to the longer-distance teleworking, and that could be a deal-breaker, by the way, to the extent that people are trading a daily local commute by car for a, let’s say, quarterly long-distance commute by airplane. The carbon footprint of those four flights a year, round trips, could exceed the carbon footprint of daily commuting by vehicle on the ground. So, you know, that remains to be seen. And, again, we really don’t have the data on the extent to which that’s happening. The other environmental issue that I’m worried about more now than I was a few decades ago is transit, the impacts on transit, because it’s certainly been brought home to us in the last year that transit ridership has been decimated by the pandemic. And of course, a big chunk of that are white-collar information workers who are now teleworking instead of commuting by transit.

So, again, many of those will come back as offices begin to encourage people to come back in, but there will be, perhaps and most likely, a longer-term residual hit, if you will, on transit ridership. And what can be a small slice of commute mode share for vehicles could be a huge slice for transit because peak-period commuting is their bread and butter as far as revenues are concerned. So that’s really an environmental detriment, if you will, that I think we have yet to fully grapple with.


How could telework hurt public transit and the people who depend on it, such as those without the means to commute in other ways?


[0:08:50]

PATRICIA MOKHTARIAN: During the pandemic, it’s been brought home to me that there’s really a downside to promoting teleworking from a public policy perspective, and that is precisely the impact on public transit. It seems that we’ve all seen public transit taking a big hit in ridership during the pandemic, and so now I’m thinking, well, the more we promote teleworking, are we simultaneously undercutting transit ridership and removing a prime source of revenue for transit agencies? And then I get struck by the social justice aspect of somehow incentivizing higher-educated, higher-income white-collar workers to stay at home, thereby damaging the necessary transit service that’s needed for lower-income workers whose jobs require them to be in place, and it’s not at all clear to me how to resolve those competing policy objectives, if you will.

I feel like on the one hand, teleworking is good for the environment and in many ways for society, but on the other hand, it could act counter to the need to keep transit viable for the people who must use it and, indeed, for the people who we want to choose to use it because – let’s face it – if everyone who did commute to a major central business district did so by automobile, we’d all be a lot more miserable than we are. So we need transit, and we need it to be viable. And it’s not clear to me the best way to simultaneously promote more teleworking while keeping transit equally viable.


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