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Telecommuting and Residential Location: Relationships with Commute Distance Traveled for State of California Workers


Research Report

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Suggested Citation:
Collantes, Gustavo O. and Patricia L. Mokhtarian (2003) Telecommuting and Residential Location: Relationships with Commute Distance Traveled for State of California Workers. Institute of Transportation Studies, University of California, Davis, Research Report UCD-ITS-RR-03-16

The choice of the residential location is usually the output of complex, heterogeneous, decision making processes where many factors beside transportation costs are taken into consideration. Nevertheless, the characteristics of the commute can certainly play a significant, sometimes even decisive, role in location decisions. Conversely, of course, residential location has a significant impact on transportation, and it is important to analyze this relationship as well in the context of telecommuting.

This study helps fill this research gap by analyzing data from 218 employees of the State of California, collected through a self-administered survey distributed in 1998. Among other information, the data contain retrospective responses regarding telecommuting engagement and frequency, commute distances, residential relocations and job relocations for the period from 1988 to 1998, on a quarter-by-quarter basis.

A previous descriptive analysis of these data (Gertz and Mokhtarian, 1999) qualitatively explored the impact of telecommuting on residential location. Future analysis will address this issue in greater depth. The key challenge of such an analysis is the proper attribution of causality. As noted, people move closer to and farther from work all the time, for reasons having nothing to do with commuting or telecommuting. Although the data collection methodology was designed to help rule out competing explanations for location changes (e.g. having a non-telecommuting comparison group, directly asking about the role that telecommuting played in the (re)location decision), none of the mechanisms employed could provide the perfect, airtight approach.

The main focus of the present study is on the joint impact of telecommuting, residential location, and job location on transportation – specifically, commute travel. One immediate virtue of this focus is that it begs the question of causality entirely. We need not determine whether a relocation was an effect of telecommuting, a cause of it, or had any relationship to it at all. We simply compare the commute distance traveled of telecommuters and non-telecommuters. From the transportation planning perspective, this is arguably the key issue. Even if telecommuting does motivate some individuals to relocate far from work, if their commute frequency declines so much that their travel is still reduced, or if increases in their travel are outweighed by decreases in travel for other telecommuters, then policymakers may still be inclined to promote it. Although the limitations of this study (discussed in the next section) prevent it from offering definitive answers, it still provides some provocative initial answers to these important research and policy questions.