Bay Area’s future could include a lot more remote work

Regional planning agency approved long-term work-from-home strategy to reduce emissions

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission approved a long-term vision for the Bay Area Wednesday that includes a push for certain employers to require many of their employees to work from home.

Large employers — defined as any company with more than 25 employees — would be required to have at least 60 percent of their employees telecommuting on any given work day in an effort to curb greenhouse gas emissions and reduce traffic congestion by 2035.

Companies would be given the freedom to meet the target using any variety of “alternative work options,” such as compressed work weeks, flexible work schedules, or remote work policies.

Architects of Plan Bay Area Blueprint 2050, the regional planning strategy used to guide policy-making and funding efforts in the coming years, say this strategy is critical to achieving the Blueprint’s goals of reducing current emissions by 19 percent in the next 15 years.

But some MTC commissioners raised major concerns about stifling in-office work, as large employers and their commuters are foundational to The City’s economic vitality.

Nick Josefowitz, who was appointed to the regional planning agency by Mayor London Breed, challenged the notion that forced work-from-home policies were the most effective way to reduce emissions, and told a cautionary tale of the impact a blanket mandate could have on downtowns.

“Our whole city budget relies on workers coming to downtown San Francisco,” he said, adding a rule such as this one would discourage companies from locating in the Bay Area.

Though employers where in-person work is required would be exempted, a 60 percent work-from-home requirement would still disproportionately hurt individuals living in crowded apartments with roommates or those who currently emit little to no carbon when they walk, bike or take public transit to work, he argued.

Hillary Ronen, a San Francisco MTC Commissioner, left a statement for the commission asking this part of the Blueprint receive more extensive review before being included in the final version.

The aggressive goal of a 19 percent reduction in carbon emissions arose as a result of feedback during the public comment period earlier this summer, during which many of the 3,6000 comments received asked for more proactive measures to combat climate change.

The Draft Blueprint seen by MTC before the summer round of public engagement originally projected 14 percent of the workforce would be remote. With the mandate, that number could go up to 25 percent.

Josefowitz, who is also the policy director at urban think tank SPUR, proposed an amendment that would have replaced the stringent 60 percent telecommute mandate with a requirement that a combination of remote work, sustainable transit and other tools be used by employers to to collectively achieve the same emissions goals.

The commission rejected the resolution 9-4, despite lengthy public comment during which many individuals testified against the strict telecommute policy in favor of a more flexible but equally effectual approach to combating climate change.

Alex Sweet from the mayor’s office said a blanket mandate could gut The City budget and jeopardize the services critical to economic recovery. She recommended the Blueprint focus on individual car trips instead of the roughly 70 percent of people who walk, bike, carpool or take public transit to work.

MTC Executive Director Therese McMillan said passage of the Final Blueprint didn’t mean there wasn’t room for flexibility in encouraging sustainable modes of transportation alongside telecommuting, and she encouraged concerned commissioners to voice ideas for “layered refinements” during the implementation phase of this process at local levels.

The telecommute requirement is just one of 35 strategies included in the Plan Bay Area 2050 Final Blueprint, which was approved by the MTC 12-1 and aims to create a more affordable, sustainable and diverse region.

Next steps include an environmental impact report that is scheduled to be released by the end of the year, followed by a five-year plan to work with local agencies and nonprofits to determine how to implement the strategies and achieve these goals. There will also a third and final opportunity for public engagement.