COVID-19: The Effect that En Masse Work From Home is Having on Traffic and Pollution

It feels like much longer than two months ago that I first wrote about the coronavirus, Covid-19. At the time of my first blog post on the subject, the world had just witnessed China quarantine more than 50 million people in four weeks. The United States is now under conditions that significantly exceed that number. As of March 26th, more than 20 U.S. states have imposed either statewide orders, or partial orders, for residents to stay at home and shelter in place. Currently, more than 196 million citizens are being urged to stay at home. Social Distancing, Zoom, and Flatten the Curve have become household names and phrases overnight. As I write this, millions of citizens are entering their second or third week of working from home.

As the United States reckons with this outbreak’s severity and we learn to live at a distance, it is crucial to reflect on the unintended secondary effects that have become apparent from en masse “work from home” (“WFH”). Perhaps we can learn something. Perhaps it is just refreshing to note them. Perhaps it could provide inspiration for solutions to many problems we are already facing or will one day face.

Traffic Reductions

Traffic in various cities across the world has decreased dramatically. With millions of people working from home for the foreseeable future, there are fewer cars on the road during traditional rush hour peaks. Traffic in Chicago is moving as much as 60% faster; traffic in Los Angeles is moving 35% more quickly than usual.  8am LA rush hour traffic was flowing around 60 miles per hour, while it typically dips down to 30 mph. Roughly the same increase in speed was measured during the evening commute hour.

Pollution Reduction

A decrease in rush hour traffic was an easily predicted effect of mass-quarantining. One unintended side effect is the sharp decrease in pollution over major cities. There has been a severe downturn in Nitrogen Dioxide (“NO2“) — a significant pollutant released from the burning of fossil fuels — over Los Angeles, Seattle, and New York. The same significant drop in NO2 has been seen over China around Wuhan, Shanghai, and Beijing.

This decrease in pollution and an increase in traffic speeds reflect the anticipated benefits of autonomous vehicles. One of the benefits of AVs is the decrease in emissions that come from daily commutes. Most autonomous vehicle manufacturers and testers use electric vehicles because the electrical power the advanced computer systems draw exceeds the capacity of most car batteries. An increase in electric vehicles on the roads will decrease fossil fuels being burned while driving, which would likely lead to a reduction in pollutants (like NO2) over concentrated areas over roadways.

Another benefit of AVs is the decrease in traffic time. Vehicles the communicate with other vehicles (“V2V”) or that communicate with infrastructure (“V2I”) will, over time, allow for fewer slowdowns and higher average driving speeds. Because vehicles can communicate when they are slowing down, speeding up, turning, exiting, etc. the flow of highway traffic will become smoother as fewer interruptions cause human drivers to hit the breaks or come to a standstill. AVs that platoon in synchronization can also increase traffic speeds.

One of the much-touted benefits of autonomous vehicles is the increased productivity that a driver can experience by freeing up their attention and hands from needing to drive and monitor their vehicle. Although not to the same scale, faster traffic speeds from increased WFH translates into less time wasted on a commute and more time with family and at work. The same is true of WFH; my daily commute has changed from a 15-minute walk to the law school to a 15-second walk from the kitchen up to my desk. 

One metric I am interested in seeing after the Covid-19 social distancing and en masse WFH is worker productivity while working from home. If workers are similarly (or more) productive when working from home, we could see an uptick in companies allowing employees to WFH weekly, or even on an unlimited basis (subject to approval of some sort). Similarly, if some of the benefits that AVs seek to bring — decreased traffic, reduced pollution, increased productivity — can be achieved through en masse WFH, should AV proponents, and others interested in these benefits, be advocating for more WFH in other contexts? Companies could even use WFH to advertise their “green” efforts, by touting the number of driven miles and pollutants they eliminate annually by requiring employees to WFH periodically.

If we anticipate future events like Covid-19, where social distancing becomes crucial, keeping WFH skills sharp may become a necessity. Allowing or requiring workers to stay home one or more days per week could be a method to keep those skills sharp: being productive at home, efficient communication online, and keeping in contact with employees and supervisors. As this crisis continues to unfold, it is essential to remember that this round of social distancing will not last forever. As a country, we will emerge from this crisis changed. How we change is interesting to project, but it is similarly essential to aid in preventing future problems and adapting future solutions.