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Teleworking Can Reduce Car Travel — But Not As Much As You May Think

Traffic on a San Diego freeway is shown in this file photo, Nov. 22, 2011.
Associated Press
Traffic on a San Diego freeway is shown in this file photo, Nov. 22, 2011.

The work-from-home trend that has swept industries amid the COVID-19 pandemic can help lower greenhouse gas emissions and traffic congestion in San Diego County, though its impacts are limited, according to the county's transportation planning agency, SANDAG.

Agency staffers told board members Friday that they are pursuing more aggressive teleworking goals in their upcoming regional transportation plan. They expect to unveil the results of public outreach and an overall vision for the plan in mid-August.

Teleworking Can Reduce Car Travel — But Not As Much As You May Think
Listen to this story by Andrew Bowen.

Car travel, congestion and air pollution all plummeted in the early weeks of the pandemic, data show, but they began to bounce back in April. Now air pollution is about where it was five years ago.


RELATED: SANDAG Shifts Funds To Fast Track Transit, Highway Projects

While teleworking can reduce vehicle travel, especially during rush hour, those who work from home are also taking more nonessential car trips. They are also less able to link car trips together — for example, stopping by the grocery store on the way home from work — and many are generating more car trips with greater use of home delivery services.

The ability to telework is also limited to jobs that are dominated by white and upper income workers, said Antoinette Meier, SANDAG director of mobility and innovation.

"For just about everyone that works in an industry like hospitality, which is a sector that employs a lot of people in our region, or in other essential industries like agriculture or health care support or transportation services — these jobs are much less likely to be able to be done at home, and they're often lower wage jobs," she said.

Those same essential workers are more likely to be Black or Latino, and many rely on public transit because they have little or no access to personal vehicles.


RELATED: SANDAG Wants More Rail, Managed Lanes In Transportation Plan

"As we plan for a future transportation system with equal access to jobs and education and community services, quality public transit is vital to making those critical connections equitably," Meier said.

SANDAG, which stands for the San Diego Association of Governments, is tasked with slashing the county's greenhouse gas emissions through changes to land use patterns and transportation infrastructure. The next regional transportation plan will lay out a path to accomplishing those goals — but it may depend on voters approving new taxes and road tolls to fund its vision.

The draft regional transportation plan is not expected to be complete before fall 2021.