Telecommuting now tops public transit for getting to work

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Public transit has long been Americans' second-most common way of getting to work, trailing commuting by driving. But now public transit has slipped to No. 3 because working from home, a.k.a. telecommuting, has moved into the second spot while driving continues to be how the vast majority of Americans travel to and from work.

According to Governing magazine, recently released data from the Census Bureau's American Community Survey showed that in 2017 for the first time the number of people who regularly work from home (7.9 million) exceeded riders of public transit systems (7.6 million). This jibes with a separate Census report that showed the numbers of people who worked from home at least one day a week rose 4.2 million between 1997 and 2010.  

As telecommuting grows in popularity and fewer riders use public transportation networks, it's placing financial pressure on the taxpayer-funded systems that are struggling to attract riders around the country.

Telecommuting isn't public transit's only nemesis. Other trends such as the proliferation of ride-hailing services like Uber, cheap gasoline and the growth in car ownership among low-income people have been hurting public transit systems for years. 

The  American Public Transportation Association found a 3.9 percent drop in passenger transit trips in the first quarter, with declines in networks serving New York, Los Angeles, Boston and Washington, D.C., among other places. All modes of transportation except commuter rail showed lower ridership, the trade group says.

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"Bus systems across the country have experienced particularly noticeable drops," according to Governing. "The Maryland Transit Administration, Miami-Dade Transit Agency and Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority all reported year-over-year declines in bus passenger trips exceeding 10 percent in the first quarter."

New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA), which includes the city's subway system, is among the transit agencies strapped for cash. Earlier this summer, the nation's largest public transit system unveiled a $562 million cost-cutting plan that includes reductions of some positions through attrition. MTA Chief Financial Officer Robert Foran has warned of steep deficits unless a stable funding source can be established.

According to Governing, the Census data probably underestimates the numbers who work from home because the bureau counts only people who "usually" telecommute as opposed to those who do it occasionally. A 2016 Gallup poll found that 43 percent of respondents said they spent at least some time working from home, up from 39 percent in 2012. Employees who worked remotely also spent more time doing so, Gallup said.

In the current tight job market, employees such as millennials are increasingly seeking more flexible working conditions including the ability to work from home. A 2017 survey by the Society for Human Resources Management found that 62 percent of organizations allowed telecommuting, an increase from 59 percent five years ago. 

Here are some telecommuting tidbits. The average telecommuter is 46 years old, has a bachelor's degree and earns a higher median salary than in-office counterparts, according to a 2017 report from FlexJobs, a job site for telecommuters. About the same numbers of men and women work from home. Roughly 24 percent of people who work from home are self-employed. Telecommuting is common in the finance, insurance, real estate and information sectors, according to Governing.  

The FlexJobs report found the number of people who work from home has skyrocketed by 115 percent over the past decade, and some experts predict that half of all full-time workers could be working remotely by 2020.