San Diego workers hopping back in cars

Even though many people are still working from home, traffic is almost back to pre-pandemic levels. Telework, it turns out, won’t exactly crush San Diego’s auto emissions.

“If you put those additional people onto roadways, we will probably exceed where we were,” said Ray Major, chief economist for San Diego Association of Governments.

As everyone tries to figure out the post-pandemic world of work, the agency is using a survey of businesses and employees to zero in on how telework might change traffic.

The findings, discussed at a SANDAG meeting on May 7, will help inform the draft 2021 regional transportation plan that will be released May 28. Officials expect remote work to grow far more than in any previous plan.

Several new initiatives aim to boost participation, even if Major said.the survey indicates “it’s not the panacea we may have thought.”

Last year, it was sink or swim. One by one, employers who could gave it a try. Remote working boomed, and when the dust settles it’s still expected to stay somewhat higher than before the shutdown.

In downtown, a major employment center, the number of businesses that offered telework went from about 27 percent pre-COVID to 65 percent.

Commuters come from all over to work in Sorrento Valley, where telework is up 14 percent. Kearny Mesa, which has more people coming from the South Bay, saw a 25 percent increase, and the spike is expected to be a lasting change.

Smaller employment centers have seen only about 11 percent growth.

“But we know there are many jobs that can’t be done from home,” said Antoinette Meier, director of mobility & innovation.

Only 39 percent of jobs have the flexibility. Of the 64 percent considered essential, 42 percent can’t be done remotely, she said.

Working from home was mostly offered to higher income workers, the report found. Hispanic and black employees find fewer opportunities.

And while there have been job gains at the higher end of income, nearly one in four people who earn around minimum wage are still jobless.

Another yawning gap is internet access. Nearly a quarter of households earning below $50,000 a year lack service. The problem is worse in rural areas, leading to more emissions as residents drive to urban areas to get online.

The uneven access made everything worse for employers and workers, not to mention students and seniors, during the pandemic.

“We’re a workforce community that tends to commute to job centers,” said Imperial Beach councilmember Paloma Aguirre. “But we have a large senior population that wasn’t able to access all the digital resources we were making available.”

While telework may ease some peak hour congestion, it traded freeway traffic for a more local kind. Online shopping and deliveries also surged among those working at home.

“A common misperception is that teleworkers don’t drive or generate much” traffic,” Meier said. But they actually make more trips, like shopping and leisure. A likely reason is that workers can’t combine say, grocery shopping or picking up kids from school on their commute.

“The people who only commute one day a week, the most likely scenario post-COVID, they actually generate the most vehicle miles,” Major said.

There’s really no choice right now, he added, no alternative to hopping in the car. That’s what the plan will try to address.

Nicole Burgess, a bicycling advocate, said the agency must plan for all trips. not just commuting, which only makes up about a third of trips in the region. “Those local trips you can make by bike or foot are extremely important.”