The events of the past year have forced a major shift to telework in Utah, with important implications for traffic, air quality and growth, according to a new report from the Utah Foundation. The report, “The Way Home: The Shift to Telework and its Air Quality Ramifications,” focuses on how remote work relates to air quality in Utah, provides new insights gained during 2020 and looks toward the future interplay of remote work and air quality. It is the second installment in Utah Foundation’s Utah Telework series.

Among the findings of the report:

• Travel to and from work may account for nearly one-third of all passenger vehicle miles traveled.

• In Utah, over half of households have seen at least one person shift toward remote work — the largest increase among Mountain states.

• Air quality had initially improved during the 2020 economic shutdown due to a decrease in automobile traffic. However, Utah’s traffic has returned. The net impact on air quality remains to be seen.

• The expansion of remote work will remain in place to some degree beyond the end of the pandemic as employers and employees find that the benefits in some work arenas outweigh the drawbacks. However, some employers express concerns around collaboration, creativity and burnout.

• Some employees see telework arrangements as a means of obtaining more affordable housing in less-dense or even rural surroundings.

• Telework would benefit air quality to some degree. However, an increase in non-commute driving might negate some potential air quality improvements.

• A long-term decrease in traffic from remote work could simply entice other drivers to make longer and more frequent trips — re-absorbing capacity on Utah’s major roadways. However, remote work could be a cheaper approach to removing traffic from roadways than other strategies.

• A targeted push for periodic remote work — coinciding with periods of poor air quality — would produce improvements in emissions to counter the particulate matter during winter inversions and ozone smog during hot summer days.

Utah Foundation President Peter Reichard said that while many employers and employees will return to traditional work settings, telework will retain a significant new role in work arrangements.

“As with other strategies that take traffic off the road, telework can help ease congestion and improve air quality,” Reichard said. “With employers’ newfound capacity to implement remote working, Utah will have expanded opportunities to harness telework to reduce traffic, targeting periods with bad air.”

The full report can be accessed at the foundation’s website, www.utahfoundation.org.

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