The Covid-19 pandemic has triggered far-reaching changes in working practices, with a large fraction of the UK population now working from home for several days a week. Despite the removal of lockdown restrictions, UK travel patterns have been slow to return to pre-pandemic levels and teleworking has become an established feature of many professions. This creates the possibility of a long-term reduction in commuter traffic, together with the associated fuel use and carbon emissions.
However, previous research has shown that the ability to work from home may encourage people to move farther from their place of work – a phenomenon labelled ‘tele-sprawl’. If so, the travel savings from fewer commutes could be offset by longer commutes on the days that people work in the office. In addition, working from home may encourage people to take additional trips for other purposes – such as shopping or visiting cafés – which may further erode the potential travel and carbon savings. Teleworking may also influence the travel patterns of other household members – for example, by enabling them to use the household car during the day. These complex interactions make the long-term impact of teleworking difficult to predict.
In our newly published study, we used data from the National Travel Survey (NTS) to estimate the impact of teleworking on English travel patterns over the 15 years prior to the pandemic (2005 to 2019). We compared the weekly travel patterns of teleworkers with those of non-teleworkers over this period, while controlling for variables such as professional occupation and household income. Teleworking was relatively uncommon in our sample, with only 1.3% working from home for 3 or more days a week (‘high-frequency teleworkers’), and 4.7% working from home once or twice a week (‘medium-frequency teleworkers’).
Our results provide little support for the claim that teleworking reduces travel. First, we found that the majority of teleworkers travelled farther each week than non-teleworkers. This is partly because teleworkers lived further from their workplace than non-teleworkers, and partly because they took more trips for other purposes. However, there was a ‘tipping point’: people who worked from home three or more times a week travelled ~7% less far each week than non-teleworkers.
Second, we found that the weekly travel distance of all household members combined was greater in households where one member was teleworking. This suggests that teleworking by one member of a household encourages or enables additional travel by other members of the household. Whilst we cannot pinpoint the precise mechanisms, their net effect is to erode the travel savings from avoided commutes.
Third, we found that the majority of teleworkers travelled farther for business each week than non-teleworkers, thereby amplifying the difference in travel patterns between the two groups.
While high-frequency teleworking was associated with marginally less private travel, the aggregate savings were small and were not significant at the level of household as a whole. Moreover, those savings were more than offset by additional travel by the larger group of medium-frequency teleworkers. This suggests that, prior to the pandemic; teleworking made little or no contribution to reducing travel demand in England.
However, the patterns observed in the past may not be a good guide to the future. The pandemic has led to such a dramatic change in working practices that longer-term reductions in commuting travel appear possible. A much larger group of people now work from home most or all of the time, and many of these may continue to do so in the future. These ‘new teleworkers’ are more diverse in terms of their socio-economic and demographic characteristics, are more likely to telework three or more times a week. In these circumstances, we may expect larger savings in commuter and total travel. The new teleworkers may take more non-work trips, but the environmental impacts of those trips will depend upon the choice of transport mode and the average distance travelled.
A key lesson from our study, therefore, is the need to discourage tele-sprawl. Policy should discourage people from moving to areas of low population density that are far from their workplace; far from retail, leisure and other destinations and poorly served by public transport.
Unfortunately, there are early signs of trends in the opposite direction. For example, the Resolution Foundation found that house prices in the least-populated local authorities have increased by more than 10% since February 2020, compared to only 6% in the most populated. In addition, while the pandemic has encouraged more walking, the use of public transport remains well below pre-pandemic levels.
Carbon savings from teleworking are therefore contingent upon broader progress in sustainable transport policy and land use planning. The key is to encourage the growth of high-density, mixed-use neighbourhoods where work, leisure and other destinations are readily accessible through walking, cycling and public transport. This will help to maximise the carbon savings from teleworking, whilst at the same time improving quality of life and facilitating the broader transition to a sustainable economy.Follow Sussex Energy Group