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The shortest route to work

Report of a study from the Dublin Transportation Office on the potential of telecommuting to reduce commute traffic in the Dublin area

"The message in this report is clear: telecommuting will not totally replace routine travel to work, but its implementation is complementary to our existing and new transportation infrastructure and policies, and can make a significant contribution to a reduction in peak travel demand"

This is the verdict of the authors of a report from Ireland, Telecommuting, the shortest route to work

Dublin, like most modern cities, has developed an acute traffic problem. As elsewhere, a raft of policies are being implemented to deal with the problems of urban travel: promoting public transport, restricting car access, encouraging cycling and working. but as elsewhere, such polices - encouraging people to shift to other modes of transport - are meeting limited success. Traffic planners line up their new initiatives like Canute on the beach, facing the inexorable tide of traffic growth. They have faith but precious little evidence that these policies will get people out of their cars to any significant degree.

Can teleworking help?

In such circumstances, attention is turning towards the possible impact of teleworking in reducing traffic. This report takes a very level headed view on the possibilities for the Dublin area, and sets them in the context of other "demand management" measures. 

The raw figures from this study will disappoint the teleworking "evangelists":

"It is evident that the current trend in telecommuting will not have a major impact on traffic levels...

"The scenario modelling exercise points to a modest but positive contribution from telecommuting towards ameliorating Dublin's car-borne commuting congestion"

The figures? On the "most likely" scenarios, the reduction is in the region of 2,500 car trips per day (1.3%), plus about another 1,000 from other modes of transport. This is on the basis of continued growth of telecommuting to the year 2016. 

Not very exciting stuff, perhaps. Nonetheless it stands up to comparison with other proposed and much more costly "mode-shift" measures cited in the report, e.g.

  • upgrade suburban train lines, stations and signalling - impact: 1,300 trips per day
  • introduce park & ride site (impact: 500 trips)
  • complete the cycleway network and provide additional cycle facilities - impact 4,000 trips
  • introduce 150 additional buses to service - impact 9,450.
Results based on "do minimum" scenario

There is an interesting comparison to be made when it comes to looking at how traffic reduction measures are approached. In the case of telecommuting, there are no policies in place, and the study is based on the low rate of increase in telecommuting.

Other measures, however, are the subject of numerous policy initiatives, partnership activities and very large amounts of public funding from the government and other agencies.

So one of the conclusions of the study is that the projected impact of telecommuting is positive enough to be the basis for new incentives to encourage telecommuting in the area. One is tempted to wonder what impact telecommuting would be making if it had had as much in the way of public attention and subsidy as public transport has over the past decade.

And in the list of recommendations for promoting telecommuting is a call for a pilot study in one of the government departments to assess the costs and benefits.

Assumptions in the study

The report cites the 1997 study by HOP in the Cambridge (UK) area. The HOP study, which is cited in the report, projected a reduction of between 4% and 8% (minimum and maximum scenarios), but saw the benefits being eroded by continuing increases in car use for other purposes, unless measures are taken by local authorities to limit car access.

Two key differences between the studies are:

  • the Dublin study did not conduct a workplace analysis of the incidence of  "teleworkable tasks", but relies entirely on managers' and employees' self-assessment. This creates projections underpinned by the principle of "what is, will be", based on people's lack of knowledge about new ways of working
  • it (therefore?) has a very restricted view of who could potentially telecommute.

The Dublin study defines Potential Telecommuters as people who:

  • are social class AB or C1, aged 25-34
  • may be self-employed
  • have variable journey time to work and variable distance to work
  • typically spend an hour or more travelling to work, and
  • occasionally telecommute now.

Though based on responses to their surveys, this seems far too limiting, especially when looking to the future. It more or less rules out new areas of work becoming viable on a remote working basis,  and fails to take account of the impact of corporate teleworking schemes (as BT are starting to introduce) which will have a large impact on the numbers of people telecommuting regardless of their age, social class and journey time to work.

So the study is very self-limiting in its projections. It advocates wider uptake of telecommuting: what would have been useful would have been some projections of figures if large employers were to bite the bullet and allow/encourage/require teleworking. Then the policy-makers would know the targets they could aim for.

One can understand the reason for the authors' caution: they want to remain as close to the findings of their initial surveys and are unwilling to speculate. The study provides a valuable baseline for the minimum that could be achieved in traffic reduction if current telecommuting work patterns and prejudices remain unchanged, and if public authorities do nothing to encourage it.

The report, Telecommuting, the shortest route to work by Amárach Consulting, was commissioned by the Dublin Transportation Office, Telecom Eireann and Telework Ireland. Price £10.

Available from: Government Publications, Postal Trade Section, 4-5 Harcourt Road, Dublin 2, Ireland

Tel: 01 661 3111 ext 4040/4045
Fax: 01 475 2760

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