The impact of telecommuting on personal vehicle usage and environmental sustainability

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Abstract

To understand whether telecommuting could be part of the policy solutions for greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction in the transportation sector, this study uses instrumental variable Tobit models and data from 2001 and 2009 National Household Travel Surveys to explore whether telecommuting reduces or increases the daily work and non-work vehicle miles traveled (VMT). Our findings suggest telecommuters have more VMT for both daily work and non-work trips than non-telecommuters. Adding the findings that telecommuting has no impact on other non-working household member’s daily total (non-work) trips, we can possibly argue that households with telecommuter(s) tend to have higher daily total VMT. Our estimated marginal effect of telecommuting on worker’s daily total trips indicates that a telecommuter on average travels 38 vehicle miles more on a daily basis in 2001 and 45 vehicle miles more in 2009 compared with a non-telecommuter. These increases in VMT translate into a rather large increase in GHG emissions in the US equivalent to adding 7,248,845 cars in 2001 and 8,808,165 in 2009 to the road. Moreover, the difference of this marginal effect between 2001 and 2009 suggests the impact of telecommuting on worker’s daily total VMT had increased over time. With the emerging work arrangements to work from home, telecommuting has been welcomed in this changing environment, not only by individual workers and employers but also policymakers. But the outcomes seem to be opposite to what policy makers may have expected for GHG emission reductions.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Note that “to/from work” trips include commuting trips, lunch trips, and other trips such as coffee breaks.

  2. 2.

    We use the term “workers with a telecommuting option” to emphasize the fact that some telecommuters did not telecommute on the day of the trip diary.

  3. 3.

    The first-stage regression results are provided in ESM.

  4. 4.

    We have also tested Tobit models which include those 0 non-work trip VMT cases for non-workers, and the impact of telecommuting is still statistically insignificant.

  5. 5.

    We also estimate the conditional marginal effects (conditional on being uncensored in the IV Tobit models and Tobit models). Our unconditional marginal effects, which take the censoring into account, are higher than the conditional marginal effects. This is because telecommuting not only increases the probability of having various work and non-work trips but also increases the VMT if that trip does happen.

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We want to thank the editor and reviewers for their comments.

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Correspondence to P. Zhu.

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Zhu, P., Mason, S.G. The impact of telecommuting on personal vehicle usage and environmental sustainability. Int. J. Environ. Sci. Technol. 11, 2185–2200 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s13762-014-0556-5

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Keywords

  • Greenhouse gas
  • Sustainability
  • Telecommuting
  • Vehicle miles traveled