Regional Agency Ditches Plan That Would Make Many of Us Permanent Telecommuters

The Eastshore Freeway, Berkeley. (Dan Brekke/KQED)

The Bay Area agency in charge of regional transportation planning voted Friday to change course on a plan that would have required most employees of large companies to work from home in coming decades.

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission instead opted for a revised proposal that will shift the focus of its effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Instead of mandating that 60% of those working for large employers across the region to telecommute on any given workday — a scenario approved in September — the amended plan focuses on ways to sharply curtail the share of commuters who drive to work from the current 65%.

The initiative is part of Plan Bay Area 2050, a comprehensive blueprint for transportation and housing.

Under state law, the MTC must adopt a plan that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 19% by 2035 or the region would face the loss of at least $100 million a year in funding for traffic congestion relief and other other transportation projects.

Sponsored

But the original 60% work-from-home requirement, a major part of the plan to cut emissions, drew immediate pushback from business groups, transit operators and elected officials who argued it would have lasting negative effects.

Those consequences, critics said, could include damage to downtown business districts and an unsustainable loss of revenue for public transit agencies. Opponents also said the mandate didn't take account of lower-wage office workers who can't work from home or commute patterns in busy downtown areas where most workers have already abandoned driving alone to work as their commute option of choice.

Nick Josefowitz, a San Francisco MTC member and chief policy officer at regional planning think tank SPUR, said the telecommuting mandate "penalized people who are walking to work, biking to work or taking public transit. And it penalized companies that have located in places where people can do that and who encourage people to do that. And it penalized cities that have made huge investments in walking and biking and transit. It was basically saying if you walk to work, you're still being forced to work from home. And there's no environmental benefit in that."

The amended proposal takes on the issue of reducing car trips from another angle. Instead of declaring that 60% of workers must work from home on a given day by the year 2035, it mandates that "no more than 40 percent of each employer’s workforce would be eligible to commute by auto on an average workday."

The revised plan approved Friday leaves it up to major employers how to reach that goal by using a broad palette of incentives — or disincentives.

Inducements to use sustainable means to get to work could include free or subsidized transit passes, bike and e-bike subsidies and giveaways, on-site employee housing, housing subsidies for employees residing in walkable transit-rich communities or simply paying workers cash for walking, biking or telecommuting.

Measures to discourage driving could include getting rid of parking lots and garages and imposing higher parking fees.

The revised plan "provide a lot of flexibility," Josefowitz said. "Ultimately I think it acknowledges that it doesn't really matter if someone is biking to work or walking to work or taking transit — or in some cases working from home — as long as we have fewer and fewer people who are driving to work alone and causing the kind of crippling congestion the Bay Area has seen for so long and creating such environmental damage."

The entire Plan Bay Area 2050, which will set priorities for how to spend hundreds of billions of dollars on transportation and housing initiatives over the next three decades, is expected to be approved.