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  • Laura Bliss - CITYLAB

The Murky Case for Mass Telecommuting

To cut climate emissions, Bay Area planners propose a work-from-home requirement for 60% of office employees. But critics warn of unintended consequences. 

By Laura Bliss for CITYLAB

September 25, 2020, 10:30 AM PDT

Predictions that telecommuting will transform the workplace have been around since the term was coined in 1973. But with as much as half of the U.S. workforce clocking in from home amid the pandemic, this time really could be different. Many employers have indicated that their relaxed work-from-home policies will outlast Covid-19, and several tech giants, including Facebook, Twitter and Google, have blessed workers going permanently remote. 

Now an influential body of urban planners is aiming to capitalize on the trend — by mandating it. During its September 23 meeting, the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, a regional authority that finances and coordinates local mobility plans in California’s Bay Area, set a requirement that large office-based employers should have at least 60% of their employees work remotely on any given workday by 2050. The remote-work order is one of 35 strategies in Plan Bay Area 2050, the group’s 30-year roadmap to guide regional transportation funding, as required by state and federal law. The work-from-home directive aims to bring the region’s climate-changing carbon emissions down.

The 60% benchmark for office workers was designed to bring the telecommute share of the region’s overall workforce as high as 25%, Matt Maloney, the commission’s regional planning director, said during the meeting. With a goal to achieve a 19% reduction in per capita greenhouse gases by 2035, the blueprint’s strategies “must be ones that local governments are poised to deliver,” he said. The telecommuting strategy, Maloney said later, was “one of the most necessary pieces.” 

Yet the idea of forcing roughly one million commuters to stay home on a typical workday as a response to climate change raised significant concerns among attendees. Nick Josefowitz, an MTC commissioner who works as the director of policy at the urbanism think tank SPUR, said that such a mandate would end up punishing workers who share crowded homes with roommates and family members, especially in an exorbitantly expensive housing market with scant inventory. He also questioned the emphasis on telecommuting rather than on non-polluting modes of transport, and warned of impacts on businesses and government coffers that rely on daily infusions of workers. 

“Why require someone who walks to work to stay home?” he said. “What’s the congestion benefit of that? What’s the economic benefit?”

Gina Papan, a commissioner and council member in the South Bay city of Milbrae, called the mandate “problematic.”

“I get the point — greenhouse gas reductions — but I can’t support this the way it’s currently written,” she said. 

Fellow commissioner Eddie Ahn, who is the executive director for the environmental justice nonprofit Brightline Defense, echoed those concerns. He and Josefowitz suggested eliminating the strategy or adding language that allows for flexibility by local governments that might eventually need to comply, such as requiring 60% of office workers to telecommute or to take “sustainable trips” to work instead. 

Others were more enthusiastic. Oakland Mayor Libby Schaaf said that the pandemic’s disruptions to normal life provide an opening for transformational responses to climate change. She called the telecommute mandate “an important policy” whose time has come during Covid-19. “We have to look for silver linings amidst this horrific tragedy, and one of them is that there are opportunities to do things that could not have been done in the past,” she said. “Now is the time we can do this in a way that is least disruptive to business.”

The 2050 blueprint also maps out a number of major investments that would transform life in the region over the next three decades, such as $430 billion to maintain and upgrade roads and highways, $120 billion in transit improvements, nearly $500 billion for affordable housing, and $10 billion for expanded high-speed internet. It calls for a number of legislative and policy changes, including a statewide universal basic income and more jobs and housing near transit.

“Moving to zero-emissions vehicles and telecommuting is important, but really reducing our per-capita miles has to be done with land use.”

But while the document is intended to guide plans and government funds for the nine counties and 101 cities that comprise the Bay Area, its various prongs are unenforceable in the absence of supporting legislation. The plan also does not detail how governments would require employers to meet the remote work threshold. Therese McMillan, the commission’s executive director, said that the amendments suggested by Ahn and Josefowitz, which Schaaf and a number of commissioners also supported, could be added in over time, if and when the strategy is enacted as policy. Enforcement is just one of many legal and logistical obstacles facing any effort to impose a telecommuting target for a whole city, from employers who might object due to productivity concerns to businesses that depend on commuting consumers

Still, a government-backed work-from-home policy at this scale would be a first for U.S. climate policy, and the mandate’s appearance on this planning document is a landmark in a year of upheaval in the realm of transportation — and in the wake of a summer of environmental catastrophe in California. Like many cities that took advantage of the pandemic’s empty streets to introduce bike lanes, pedestrian corridors, and sidewalk dining options, the MTC is now hoping to cement significant congestion relief for the long haul. 

With transportation now the leading source of carbon emissions in the U.S. — and gas-burning personal vehicles topping the list of emitters — getting millions of drivers off the highway would seem like an unambiguous environmental win. But transportation experts echoed commissioners’ warnings that continued mass remote work could have unintended consequences. Research shows that telecommuting can bring modest reductions to personal emissions, yet some studies have indicated that increases in home energy use and daytime trips can cancel out some of those savings. Permanent work-from-home lifestyles might also lure employees to live in more suburban and rural areas where transit, walking and biking are less viable, as seen in the “tech exodus” out of San Francisco to spots like Lake Tahoe, Palm Springs and beyond. 

“Telecommuting is a viable strategy, but it’s a stopgap,” said Ethan Elkind, the director of law at the University of California,  Berkeley’s Center for Law, Energy and the Environment. It can also be used to dodge more aggressive and challenging climate pursuits, he said: For example, when California passed a landmark law in 2008 requiring urban areas to develop compact growth plans lowering carbon emissions, San Diego leaned heavily on telecommuting rather than the types of transit investments and high-density construction the bill was supposed to inspire. While telecommuting may be more politically palatable in the Bay Area, Elkind believes policies such as road pricing and building housing near transit would go further to cut congestion and emissions. 

Those ideas are mentioned in the 2050 blueprint. But the MTC has shown little appetite to date for the difficult political fights that would be required to turn them into reality, Elkind said. The same could be said of Governor Gavin Newsom, who announced his own radical-sounding climate-saving measure this week: an executive order to end the sale of gas-powered cars in California by 2035. While such a directive promises dramatic progress towards the state’s emissions goals, Elkind pointed out that the governor did not support SB 50, a highly contentious state bill that would have required most California communities to increase the amount of housing allowed near transit. It failed to pass earlier this year.

“So far, the governor and the MTC haven’t wanted to use their positions of power to take on the upper-income communities that are most resistant to those changes,” he said. “Moving to zero-emissions vehicles and telecommuting is really important, but really reducing our per-capita miles has to be done with land use.”

Bob Allen, the policy director at Bay Area Urban Habitat, an environmental justice nonprofit, registered another worry: that public transit may be similarly ignored as the region faces the future. Bus and rail agencies in the Bay Area, as throughout the U.S., are weighing drastic service cuts in the face of budget holes created by the pandemic’s gutted ridership. While the blueprint calls for transit funding, its approval came hours after another MTC meeting that featured public callers excoriating commissioners for failing to act aggressively to redirect existing transportation funds towards those operators, which serve thousands of low-income residents and essential workers. Allen called for more investment in transit, and less for road construction.

“We’re trying to lead the country on climate planning and hit these mandated targets,” he said. “I support big shifts in telecommuting, but if it doesn't move the needle, then we’re just dancing around the plans.” 

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