Regional planners back off from mandatory telecommute goal

Widespread pushback yields possible compromise allowing more flexibility, emphasis on transit

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission might back off from a telecommute mandate passed in September that would have encouraged many Bay Area employers to make 60 percent of their workforce telecommute on any given workday.

Stakeholders, including high-profile regional lawmakers, transit agencies and everyday residents, objected to the mandate, worrying it would decimate downtown centers of cities such as San Francisco, disincentivize the development and use of green transit options and disproportionately burden lower income individuals who can’t comfortably work from home.

The MTC will consider a revision to the mandate Friday that would instead require companies to shift their commuters from automobiles to other modes, setting a cap on a company’s workers traveling to the office in a car at 40 percent at any given company by 2035.

San Francisco Supervisor Hilary Ronen, who sits on the County Transportation Authority and authored a resolution in opposition to the original telecommute proposal that was approved by the body, said she’s “relieved” to see this alternative.

“My greatest worry with the previous version was that eliminating a large portion of the local and regional commuting workforce would cause fare revenues to drop precipitously, turning what has been a terrible, but temporary shortfall during shelter-in-place into a permanent funding crisis and causing further, devastating cuts to public transit service,” she said.

If passed, individual businesses would be responsible for offering their own suite of incentives and trip reduction programs to achieve the target, encouraging workers to use a variety of sustainable travel including walking, bicycling and transit as well as working-from-home, where appropriate.

Nick Josefowitz, chief policy officer at SPUR and a member of MTC, described this compromise as “a huge step forward” that offers more flexibility while still reducing greenhouse gases and curbing congestion.

Part of the Final Blueprint for Plan Bay Area 2050, a regional planning strategy that will guide policymaking and funding efforts in the coming years, the work-from-home mandate was designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 19 percent in the next 15 years, a target set by the state.

However Mayor London Breed, the 15-member Bay Area delegation to the California State Legislature, BART, the County Transportation Authority and others issued individual resolutions and statements rebuking the mandate, indicating they couldn’t support the strategy as written and calling on the MTC to work with stakeholders on possible alternatives.

Any revision must achieve the same emissions goal, or the region risks losing at least $100 million in annual state funding in less than two years.

Plan Bay Area project architects believe this revision would “yield similar emission reductions” while providing more flexibility to a diverse roster of impacted employers, encouraging a variety of mode choices for travel and avoiding cumbersome funding requirements from localities, instead passing those on to businesses who would be responsible for “identifying and funding incentives and disincentives to auto commuting for their workforce.”

“This compromise is particularly important for cities like San Francisco, as it doesn’t penalize all those who walk, bike or take transit to work,” said Josefowitz, who expressed alarm at the telecommute mandate at the Sept. 23 meeting.

Examples of employer-funded incentives include free or subsidized transit passes, bike purchase support and free bike-share memberships, cash subsidies for sustainable modes of travel and free commuter shuttles. Disincentives managed by the employer might include the reduction of parking lots or garages at headquarters, compressed work schedules and shared space over dedicated, individual workspaces.

Ronen supports employer-funded options, but she “doesn’t want to rely on employers alone.”

Rather, she wants language that also addresses “economic, social and racial equity, as it is low-wage workers across the region often people of color, wh hold jobs that cannot be done remotely and who are more likely to be dependent on public transit.”

The revised mandate would exclude agricultural employers located in areas less served by transit and raised the bar on company size — from 25 employees in the original strategy to 50 — in order to reduce the impact on small businesses.

Plan Bay Area 2050 includes nearly three dozen strategies that target the economy, the environment, housing and transportation to achieve a long-term vision of an “affordable, connected, diverse, healthy and vibrant for all” nine-county region within the next 30 years.

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