Driving seemed inescapable until it wasn’t

Work commutes have declined during the pandemic, but Maine needs to log even fewer vehicle miles to meet the state's climate goals.

The Maine Monitor
Posted 2020-10-25

Ask experts about cutting vehicular emissions — the largest source of Maine’s greenhouse gas pollution — and you’re apt to hear how complex the task is. Finding ways to equitably transition from gas-powered to electric vehicles, develop a modernized grid and broadband network, and combat sprawl do demand a daunting confluence of innovative policies, technology and— yes — money.

Yet there’s a low-tech, inexpensive route to lowering vehicular emissions that works instantaneously: Drive less.

Shed miles, gain benefits

Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, few people were willing to look at how far we could push that maxim.

We’ve known for decades that driving pollutant-spewing vehicles was bad for the air and the climate. Nor is it great for our own health as drivers and passengers. Studies link longer daily drives to higher stress, elevated blood sugar and cholesterol levels, lower-quality sleep, obesity, back pain and depression.

Still, we considered driving a necessary evil and kept at it.

Coronavirus shutdowns last spring changed all that. For many people, the work commute evaporated and even grocery shopping happened infrequently. Longer excursions were put on hold.

Driving less took some getting used to, but brought joys like better air quality and more free time. In Maine, people used some of that time to enjoy the outdoors and start or expand gardens.

Testing the limits of telework

But old habits die hard and by summer the miles Americans were logging behind the wheel crept back up. Vehicle miles traveled (VMT) are expected to level off about 10 percent below where they were prior to 2020, according to a recent report from the consulting firm KPMG.

That modest decline will help, but Maine needs to cut VMT far more than that to meet climate targets — even as it moves to electrify transportation (a topic The Maine Monitor will cover further on Nov. 8).

Mainers typically log about 11,000 miles driving each year. Prior to the pandemic, transportation consultant Sarah Cushman said, planners would speculate about whether “maybe we could get 2 or 3 percent of trips in tele-mode on any given day.”Individual commitments to reduced driving may hinge on what support employers, state officials and community leaders can offer — a need discussed in the Maine Climate Council’s Transportation Working Group this past year.

Now we know that roughly 40 percent of the U.S. workforce can work remotely, when necessary, and a large portion of those workers might prefer that mode ongoing — at least several days each week.

Just before the pandemic struck last winter, the Legislature passed a resolve directing the Maine Department of Administrative and Financial Services (DAFS) to “study the costs and benefits of telework to the state and its employees.” That hypothetical exercise turned real on April 1 when 85 percent of the state’s workforce began an unplanned experiment in remote work.

As part of the mandated research, DAFS conducted a May survey of remote employees that found 96 percent could do all or most of their work from home. As for job satisfaction, 82 percent enjoyed working remotely with another 16 percent “somewhat satisfied.” Each week, state employees reported traveling 934,000 fewer miles, generating roughly 200,000 fewer pounds of carbon emissions.

A survey this fall, six months into the impromptu experiment, will gauge employee productivity and satisfaction, and measure further environmental gains — with final results due to the Legislature by year-end.

Cushman cautioned that the viability of telework shouldn’t be measured solely by the pandemic experience, given that employees had to improvise home office spaces and often share them with school-aged children. Absent those disruptions, “true telework is much easier and more fulfilling,” she said, having worked in that mode herself for the past 15 years.

A small piece of a bigger challenge

Telework can whittle back our collective VMT, and — as a recovered long-distance commuter (who once relied heavily on Maine’s ride-sharing and van-pool programs) — I have long advocated for remote work for both personal and planetary benefits.

But work commutes only represent about a third of the miles logged annually. Those who work from home, Cushman said, still run errands, transport children, go on recreational outings and attend medical appointments, and that driving can eat up the energy gains from not commuting.

VMT in Maine could drop further as “teleservices” increase. The pandemic prompted what the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services called a “meteoric” rise in telemedicine. Patients discovered they could save hours — even whole days — previously consumed by medical travel. New research shows that 83 percent of patients intend to keep using it following the pandemic.

But the more reliant we become on remote work, teleservices and online learning, the more essential it is that Maine accelerates the spread of broadband so every resident has affordable access to high-speed internet. That need echoes through numerous recent reports — from the Governor’s Economic Recovery Committee report to the Maine Economic Development Strategy 2020-2029 and the Maine Climate Council’s draft proposed strategy framework.

Broadband is “a prerequisite to success” and a fundamental issue of equity, said Nick Battista, senior policy officer at the Island Institute and board chair of the ConnectMaine Authority. “If you’re talking economic development in rural Maine and not talking broadband, you’re missing something.”

We need rapid technological change in the form of high-speed internet and vehicle electrification to cut carbon emissions quickly. But when it comes to driving, a deadly virus taught us that we can — in fact — turn on a dime. Now, perhaps, the prospect of climate upheaval will motivate us to adopt new habits faster.