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Commuter surveys show hybrid telework is here to stay

Commuter surveys show hybrid telework is here to stay
By Michael Fera and Frank T. Mongioi, Jr.
Vice President, Transportation and Smart Mobility
Apr 19, 2022

As the U.S. workforce steadily transitions to return-to-work, some are apprehensive about transit commuting. Concerns include the communicability of COVID while in close quarters on public transit, and there remains ongoing pre-pandemic concerns about transit reliability.

The current state of commuting

As traffic congestion returns to pre-pandemic levels (and in some cases, beyond), the "COVID new normal" commuter benefits of full-time teleworking are no longer delivering. Hybrid teleworking isn’t reducing single-occupant-vehicle (SOV) travel. As commuters return to in-person work a few days a week, driving alone and battling heavy traffic congestion on a "hybrid schedule" is more tolerable and worth not risking unreliable transit and potential illness.

These aren’t necessarily rational decisions. But travel behavior—often emotional—typically hasn’t been. Considering all these “new normal” factors, employers are now concerned that they may have an acute parking shortage as they establish new hybrid work policies. Telework is one strategy, but we need to focus on getting people back on a sustainable, post-pandemic transit model.

When government-mandated shutdowns began in March 2020, there was a dramatic drop in SOV commutes as well as transit ridership. When people did leave their homes, they no longer faced typical traffic congestion on major arterials. Corridors that would typically handle hundreds of thousands of vehicles per day were nearly barren during peak commuting hours. This began to change throughout late 2020 and 2021 as the pandemic waned and some commuters slowly began going back to the office, schools began to reopen, and many workers chose to drive alone instead of taking transit out of concern for perceived health, safety, and exposure issues.

By fall 2021, most employers were finally ready to begin sharing long-awaited plans for returning to the office with employees. While this has been delayed in some cases due to the quick emergence and surge of the Omicron variant, return-to-office plans are finally being put into action and employees around the country are stepping foot into their workplaces regularly for the first time in over two years.

How commuter habits have changed

ICF worked with employers and commuters to get a better understanding of what commute options are available to employees and how employee commute habits have changed. These shifts in commute modes will affect traffic congestion and regional air quality to some degree, but questions remain regarding the long-term impacts of hybrid commute models on the transportation system.

Our research found that the paradigm shift in commuting forced by the pandemic has led to transformative changes in workforce policy throughout the country. Colleges, non-profit organizations, private companies, government agencies, and health care providers have all added telework programs. Based on data gathered through surveys to commuters and employers, we see evidence of a major shift from driving alone to hybrid commuting taking place. We compared commute modes of individuals prior to the pandemic with planned commute modes after reopening in fall 2021. Prior to the pandemic, transit (bus, train, subway, etc.) and SOV made up the largest shares of commute modes. The graph below shows commuter data of travel options for individuals prior to the pandemic.

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The next graph shows commute options for the same commuters after their offices reopened. While one set of data points doesn’t tell the whole story, this chart shows a promising development for mitigating traffic congestion. After workplaces reopened, telework emerged as the largest of commute options utilized. This is coupled with a decrease in percentage of commuters driving alone to work, as well as a decrease in transit use.

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If employers make teleworking a permanent option, there is a possibility that the number of commuters who drive alone will continue to decrease—easing traffic congestion and saving travelers time and money. As previously mentioned, questions remain on how impactful hybrid commute models will be. For example, if metropolitan office workers dramatically reduce time in the workplace, will they avoid transit and drive alone on the days they do need to go to the office, since it may be tolerable to drive on those few days? More time is needed to answer that question and better understand the long-term impacts of hybrid commuting on transportation demand management.

Taking a closer look at employers’ return-to-work plans, some organizations—such as manufacturers and those providing medical care—are requiring employees to work fully in-person due to the nature of their work. However, most employers polled are offering hybrid and flex models that allow commuters to work from home at least once per week. Approximately 55% of employers in our survey indicated that hybrid options are included as part of their return-to-worksite plans. Some employers have even stated that they will remain completely remote, saving the costs of office space and giving themselves competitive employee recruitment and retention leverage.

As shown in the graphic below, employers are returning to in-person work through a variety of models, though most data points indicate that some sort of telework option is available to commuters. Each point on this map represents a unique employer. One interesting note is that seven of the eight hybrid employers captured in this graphic did not have telework programs prior to the pandemic.

Surveyed employer telework options by location

Nearly all the employers shown below did not offer telework options prior to the pandemic. While it is optimistic, the potential impact of clustered hybrid commuting employers can be great for eliminating SOV traffic congestion from busy corridors and avoiding the negative impacts on air quality.

Looking back, transportation demand management experts, environmental advocates, and economists have sought for decades to make teleworking a part of American workforce culture. As early as 1979, headlines called for Americans to work from home to save gasoline, alleviate traffic congestion, and reduce air pollution.

Today, millions of commuters find themselves working from home and experiencing the plentiful benefits of teleworking such as more time with their families, less stress from sitting in traffic, and saving money on fuel—which has rapidly become more expensive in 2022. Some healthcare workers that chose to drive alone at the height of the pandemic have begun to feel more comfortable returning to transit, and many carpools and vanpools are resuming regular operations.

With return-to-work plans in action, commuting patterns will continue to evolve throughout 2022. By leveraging the benefits of sustained telework habits and return-to-transit for commutes into the office, we could see a significant reduction in congestion from pre-pandemic levels. Continuing to remove SOVs from the road can help change the way people see their commute and allow all of us to benefit from cleaner air and stress-free travel.

ICF has a dedicated team of sustainable mobility specialists, marketing professionals, and data engineers that work together to strategize, implement, and promote alternative transportation tools, services, and resources on behalf of our clients. The future of commuting has uncertainties, but we can help make sure the lasting impacts of changing travel habits are sustained.

Meet the authors
  1. Michael Fera, Sustainable Mobility Specialist
  2. Frank T. Mongioi, Jr., Vice President, Transportation and Smart Mobility

    Frank has more than 25 years of experience in transportation demand management and mobility programs, focusing on optimizing client programs, navigating change, and streamlining innovation and improvements. View bio