In March 2020, when the world suddenly slowed down and millions of workers had to move from their offices to their homes, the transportation and mobility sector had to start asking questions about its future. The end of traffic, the collapse of motorways, and the definitive rise of teleworking were all predicted.
However, two years later, we can confirm that the change not been so major. In a world still governed by the pace of COVID-19, traffic hasn’t disappeared: it has just changed.
To better understand the true impact that teleworking has had and will continue to have on day-to-day travel, the Georgia Institute of Technology at the University of Atlanta in the United States has conducted an in-depth study. The results allow us to better understand this phenomenon and continue working to get a clear forecast for the sector’s future.
Surveys, details, and lots of data
In early 2021, Cintra launched the study with this renowned entity and under the leadership of Dr. Patricia Mokhtarian, a specialist with decades of experience in research on this and other issues related to mobility. GaTech began the study with extensive, laborious data collection through surveys asking about patterns before, during and after the pandemic. With these, they were not only seeking to label people as workers or teleworkers, but to learn all the important details in order to understand the impact of their activity on traffic: it’s not the same if twice as many people telework one day a week – and continue to use their car to go to work the other four – or if twice as many people telework every day, for example.
In short, they wanted to understand how the changes in daily activity are reflected in traffic and in highway numbers.
A moderate reduction in work-related traffic
The results of these surveys led to an estimate that, prior to the COVID-19 restrictions, these regions of the United States worked from home about 0.3 days a week on average (taking into account five-day work weeks). During the pandemic, this figure increased fivefold, reaching 1.5 days a week. Interestingly, even during the lockdown, many trades had to keep getting around to work every day, and others had to do so some of the time.
What figures are expected for a post-COVID-19 future? To reach this conclusion, they considered both the workers’s wishes (“how much would you like to telework?”) and their expectations, considering the reality of their jobs (“how many days a week do you think you will be able to telework?”).
The figure for how much they thought they could telework in the future was about twice as much, at 0.6 days a week. If this expectation from early 2021 were true, GaTech’s calculations, along with the study of scientific literature and other work, have led them to conclude that the traffic associated with work after the pandemic will be reduced by at most 5%.
This is a much smaller impact than one might have first imagined. This is especially so considering that trips to work entail only 30% of the total. Thus, the overall reduction in traffic would be about 2%.
Therefore, the study concludes that teleworking impacts traffic, but not as much as might have been predicted during the first months of the pandemic.
A reality that’s a work in progress
To fully understand the complexity of this phenomenon, we can’t forget that this study was conducted in the United States, a country where cars are used for many daily tasks (instead of public transit or walking). However, other research shows that its conclusions are applicable in other developed countries like Canada or Europe with some nuances.
The sector is also continuing to work on not losing sight of how these numbers actually evolve. More surveys will be done this year to find out if anything has changed after another year of the pandemic, as well as to account for more scenarios since expectations about how companies will react evolve over time, too. Historical evidence indicates that, even after periods of teleworking (for example, in the 2008-12 crisis), many companies went back to the face-to-face environments to boost creativity, company culture, and training for new employees.
On the other hand, the impact that the time freed up by not having to go to the office could have on non-work-related car trips is being analyzed (though conclusive data is not yet available).
By having more time and flexibility, teleworkers can drive to the supermarket, the gym, or do other tasks during the time they previously spent working. This is a difficult reality to quantify, but understanding it will be important to model and predict how new realities shape our how we get around.