Public Interest Transportation Forum           

Telecommunications, Telecommuting, and Travel

by John S. Niles

[This is a year 2000 update of an article of the same title from the March, 1994 issue of Public Innovation Abroad, a newsletter published by the International Center of the Academy for State and Local Government based in Washington, DC.]

Telecommuting has become an accepted way of working in the United States. It means people avoiding or shortening their commute by working at home or closer to home and using telecommunications to stay connected. The most typical kind of telecommuting is an office employee working no more than two days per week at home, and using the telephone and electronic mail to keep in touch with the office and external contacts such as customers. Access via modem or direct digital connection to employer computer resources is increasingly common.

Commuting into the office on most work days remains the normal practice for the majority of telecommuters. A US nationwide survey commissioned by the International Telework Association and Council indicates that telecommuting from home as of 1999 is at 19.6 million workers, about 10% of adults. According to another survey, about 27% of American households have members doing some work from home, including after hours. In Washington State, a survey of 450 businesses conducted in 1999 found 34% offering telecommuting as an option. 

Companies such as AT&T, GTE, General Electric, Hewlett Packard, IBM, JC Penney, Sears, and U S WEST have formal telecommuting programs, as well as local, state, and federal government agencies. About eighty percent of telecommuting employees work for companies with fewer than 100 employees.

Formal, organized telecommuting programs are begun by organizations as a response to tight labor markets and opportunities to reduce office space requirements.  Most telecommuting, however, is ad hoc, in response to employee requests for flexibility.

While at first glance telecommuting may seem alien to the normal corporate way of life, it is in fact a close relative of several familiar experiences:


For example, taking work home to do at night and on weekends. What salaried professional isn't already doing that weekly, if not daily?


Sales representatives in state and cities not big enough to support branch office are often asked to base their operations out of their homes and cars.


Field personnel at all levels (delivery drivers, repair technicians, inspectors, for example) have proven for years that people can work effectively without having a boss look over their shoulder.


Branch office personnel separated from the main office certainly have some of the characteristics of telecommuters.


Branch office and back offices such as computer operations have been relocating to the suburbs for years to get closer to customers, to employee's residences, and to less expensive facility space.

Telecommuting is usually set up as a voluntary arrangement that either the employee or the employer may break off if the pattern is unsatisfactory. Generally, both workers and their bosses report that work quantity and quality is improved by telecommuting.  If work isn't done better, telecommuting can be stopped!

Although telecommuting is usually considered to be about where work activity happens -- places apart from the usual main office -- the more important impact is on time: First, telecommuting takes people out of wasteful commuting time. It also allows a more flexible and responsive balance of work time and personal time. Finally, it lets people work during the time of day when they are able to reach peak performance.

Telecommuting makes life a little easier for workers, and a little harder for managers and supervisors. Supervisors must establish new, intermittent, intentional communications patterns to take the place of the more continuous, casual patterns that are possible in the face-to-face office environment.

The traffic reduction yielded by telecommuting is small, and likely to remain small even with steady telecommuting growth. To the extent that telecommuting does leave unused rush hour space on congested roads, it will be partially filled in by other cars. Also, home-to-work commuting is a shrinking purpose for urban trips, and not even the majority share of afternoon rush hour traffic, as reported by the U.S. Nationwide Personal Transportation Survey and others. The projected impact of telecommuting on transportation demand over the next ten years, as calculated in 1993 by the U.S. Department of Transportation, amounts to a 2.3 to 4.5 percent reduction in commuting travel, and a 0.7 to 1.4 percent reduction in vehicle miles traveled.

These one time reductions are likely to be swamped by travel growth. Furthermore, telecommuting is a very small part of telecommunications. A much bigger concept than telecommuting is telework, which means any use of telecommunications that changes the location of where people do work. People who work at home all the time and never commute, people who work in their cars using cellular phones, and banks that relocate their computer centers from downtowns to suburbs are examples of telework that are not telecommuting.

However, telework, like telecommuting, changes commuting patterns. In fact, unlike telecommuting, telework may increase travel. For example, AT&T and IBM have been eliminating office space throughout the U.S. for many of their sales representatives. They now must work more at home and in their cars with portable computers and phones. These workers are then able to spend more time making sales calls at customer organizations. The travel effect of changes like these has not been studied, but should be.

Telework is only a part of a larger set of telecommunications-driven processes that are altering transportation demand across all trip purposes. Tele-services such as telephone shopping and cash machines change the location of customer activity analogous to how telework changes worker location.

Tele-logistics refers to the ways in which telecommunications changes the movement patterns of freight and goods. A prime example of tele-logistics is the system of radio- and computer-coordinated planes and trucks operated by Federal Express and its competitors.

Enormous and popular retail stores in suburban locations surrounded by huge parking lots, stores like Wal-Mart and Eagle, are another example of transportation impacts from expanding telecommunications. The low prices and stock availability in these stores are made possible by the satellite dishes on the roof and the telecommunicating computer systems that order and monitor the flow of goods from factories worldwide.   Electronic shopping on the Internet is another example of telecommunications that will affect movement.

Research by Global Telematics and others has not yet detected a significant overall trend of telecommunications substitution for transportation. More research is needed. One possible underlying reason for lack of substitution is that telecommunications usage causes economic growth and productivity improvement, that in turn yields more income, profits, and wealth, some of which goes into personal and business travel even as telecommunications expands still further.

However, the balance between transportation and telecom may shift if transportation becomes noticeably more difficult or expensive. We know this happens if travel becomes impossible. Major disruptions of transportation during the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, the 1989 and 1994 California earthquakes, and assorted hurricanes and blizzards more recently illustrate that telecommunications can fill in for transportation and keep commerce partially operating at least on a temporary basis.

Transportation planners need to work with telecommunications analysts to understand how the lessons of these experiences can be applied to a future environment where transportation degrades gradually because of travel volume growth and lack of public infrastructure funding. Planning processes need to consider more strategically how the temporary substitution of telecommunications for transportation seen in one-time disasters and other disruptions can be made more permanent.

In conclusion, governments need to invest in research and education to enhance transportation policy makers' understanding of (1) how telecommunications changes the transportation patterns of evolving economies, including service delivery and goods movement, and (2) how telecommunications both generates and reduces travel at the same time.

John Niles is President of Global Telematics, a public policy consulting firm based in Seattle, Washington. He was a founding member of the Telecommunications and Travel Behavior Committee of the U.S. Transportation Research Board. He can be reached via e-mail at:

Return to the Public Interest Transportation Forum home page.