According to a recent survey of area employees, more people in the Washington area are choosing to telecommute than before the pandemic, while those who return to work once or twice a week prefer to travel alone rather than take public transportation to use.
The Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (MWCOG) triennial State of the Commute, released September 8, reveals what’s visible on the roads: more riders back on Leesburg Pike, driving to and from Loudoun County.
There is no question that the lockdowns caused by the pandemic have changed commuting patterns in the area, as more people who would normally use Loudoun’s commuter bus service, car and van pools, and work from home. After the severity of the pandemic subsides from its peaks in 2020 and 2021, offices will reopen with hybrid work models that require staff to be present at least once or twice a week. The one key takeaway is that telecommuting or remote work is no longer just an option for the region’s workforce. It has become a fact of life.
“Teleworking has exploded,” says Nicholas Ramfos, director of MWCOG’s Commuter Connections program. The pandemic, he said, has accelerated the trend towards remote working.
Of the 8,000 employees randomly surveyed via the online questionnaire, two-thirds said they work remotely or telecommute, up from 35% of respondents in 2019. Additionally, the survey showed that almost half (48th %) of workers in the region choose to telecommute, nearly fivefold from 10% in 2019, eating away at the share of those who drive to work.
Telecommuting as an initiative gained momentum among Northern Virginia localities in 2000, with Fairfax County led by then-Fairfax County Supervisor Gerry Connolly, D-Providence District, now US Congressman for the 11th Commonwealth District, den paved the way. In June, Connolly, along with another Democrat, Maryland Rep. John Sarbanes, reintroduced the Telework Metric and Cost Savings Act, which would expand the telecommuting program in the federal government, which remains one of the largest, if not the largest, employers in the region is .
With the foundations already in place for teleworking, the region was resilient and prepared when the pandemic-induced lockdown hit, Ramfos said.
That’s the upside of the pandemic, but a downside of the pandemic is that people who have to report to work are choosing to drive alone. The survey found that people who commute to work prefer to drive alone, with 78% of trips to remote work locations being by car alone, a 14% increase from 2019. That’s despite not as many people driving to work as before the pandemic. Commuting by car alone fell from a peak of 58% in 2019 to 41% trips per week, which MWCOG said was the lowest percentage of those trips on record since commuting patterns began being recorded in 2001.
Driving to work alone is a problem for the Washington area because car exhaust emits smog-forming emissions of nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds from burning fossil fuels. These emissions combine with sunlight to form ozone, a major component of smog that contributes to respiratory problems. The pandemic disrupted auto travel, resulting in a net decrease in tailpipe emissions. The Washington region has met federal air quality standards for ozone during these two years. As motoring returns to pre-pandemic levels, the region continues to comply with regulations as people avoid daily commutes, preferring to work from home and more people use lower-emission electric cars.
According to Ramfos, people are reluctant to take public transport for reasons ranging from contracting the virus to irregular bus and train services. “During the pandemic, many transit companies reduced their service, leaving people who had to travel with limited choices. In Loudoun County, the commuter bus limited their service,” he added.
The survey shows that public transport ridership fell to a third, or 8%, from 2019, with commuters citing health concerns about sharing spaces. As the Washington Metro Area Transit Authority (Metro) plans to open six new metro stations, including three in Loudoun County, the challenge for area planners is to encourage greater use of public transit. The challenge for Loudoun County, whose ridership has been declining on its bus service, is to adapt its bus service to make this possible serve not only the people who live and work outside of the county, but also the people who live and work here and those who travel to the county for work.
The reality is the hybrid working model isn’t going away, said Ramfos, who has written opinion pieces urging area residents to return to public transport.
“We want people to understand that because you’re on a hybrid schedule, you’re rethinking your commute, looking at your options, and taking advantage of them. Some people may need to drive, and that’s understandable, but for those who don’t, a different way than driving alone and helping the region with congestion.”
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