As the country wrestles with COVID-19, the air is getting cleaner. That makes sense, because travel is down, and transportation is a major contributor to poor air quality.
Some commentators have praised this byproduct of the COVID-19 outbreak. Others have condemned this view. For example, the Wall Street Journal suggested that environmental advocates intend to “leverage” this terrible event to raise money and attention. As with many debates about clean air, this one has broken people into divisive camps even as we try to protect public health.
If clean air depends on us not going anywhere, we are unlikely to achieve it any time soon. Even those of us lucky enough to have a safe, comfortable place to socially distance are not happy about staying home all the time. For those who can’t stay home, transit is not currently the model of sustainability, and even transit agencies are asking us to use them only when necessary.
But there is no question that this pandemic is likely to impact future travel patterns. A recent poll indicated that 60% of workers are working from home at least sometimes. Of those, six in ten say they like it. That means that over one third of all workers would like to work at home in the future, even if they don’t have to.
Telecommuting is not new as an economic strategy for Maine. It should also be explored as a sustainability strategy. We have a clear opportunity to reduce transportation impacts on air quality by having more workers work from home.
Telecommuting can also be a public finance strategy. Maine is facing a challenge in its aging roadway system. Most bridges built during the heyday of highway building in the 1950’s and 60’s need to be repaired or replaced. Widening roads to accommodate more single-occupant vehicles also isn’t financially sustainable. Getting commuters out of their cars and into transit is one part of a solution. Getting more people to live within walking distance of their workplaces is a second. Perhaps more telecommuting can be the third leg of this approach?
As we face the dual challenges of cleaning our air and reducing the need to widen roads, we should consider the role of more remote working. Along with better transit, walkability, and carpooling, a permanent increase in remote working will help achieve these goals.