The Housing Chronicles Blog: Is telecommuting the answer to rising gas prices?

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Is telecommuting the answer to rising gas prices?

David Lazarus, the "Consumer Confidential" reporter for the L.A. Times, has written an article about the potential benefits of telecommuting for employees. I think he's onto something -- with today's technologies it's time that employers moved away from this ancient belief that "face time" -- seeing someone in person at the office -- equates to productivity. When I started working for a San Diego-based firm in 2000, I started working mostly from home, saving the driving mostly for important face-to-face meetings with clients, colleagues, direct reports and supervisors.

Today, eight years later and often from a home office, I work longer and with greater productivity, in part because I save up to two hours per day otherwise lost to commuting, finding something for lunch or being distracted in a myriad of ways. With emails replacing faxes and conference calls replacing many meetings previously done in person, the only thing keeping me rooted in Los Angeles are things I must do in person, such as attending industry events, giving speeches, meeting with clients for the first time or conducting field work.

Unfortunately, most people (and employers) still don't understand the huge advantages of telecommuting even on a part-time basis, and why is that? Because they either didn't bother to ask, didn't listen to the answer or just don't want to adapt. But as gas prices continue to rise, they may no longer have a choice, and this could also have a huge impact on future land use patterns. From the article:

The Energy Department reported Tuesday that the nationwide average for self-serve regular gas hit $3.937 on Monday, up 14.6 cents from the week before. In California, the average climbed 14.7 cents to $4.099. Diesel is even higher, topping $5 a gallon statewide.

But the more painful that things become at the pump, the more our political and business leaders will finally realize that they need to take steps, and soon, to wean us from our self-defeating oil jones.

I'm not just talking about promoting conservation and offering incentives for people to buy hybrids and stuff like that. I'm talking about some radical thinking that could finally ease the epic commutes that are wasting so much time and fuel...

American drivers spent 4.2 billion hours stuck in traffic in 2005, according to a recent report from the Texas Transportation Institute. That's about 38 hours per driver, or nearly an entire workweek.

The institute estimates that all this congestion resulted in 2.9 billion gallons of wasted fuel, or about 26 gallons per driver. Factor in lost productivity, and you have an economic hit to the nation of more than $78 billion.

Not surprisingly, the Los Angeles metro area took the booby prize for worst commute, with drivers languishing an average of 72 hours a year in traffic jams -- whole days of your life that you'll never get back.

Similarly soul-crushing commutes can be found in the San Francisco Bay Area, Atlanta, Washington and Dallas.

One answer, of course, is public transportation. But that seems to be one of those things that most of us support in the abstract but don't make use of on a regular (or even semi-regular) basis...

With the economy on the skids and state and local officials struggling to balance their budgets, I'm not holding my breath that we'll see a vast, multibillion-dollar expansion of public transportation.

Nor do I think that Detroit will make more than a token effort at developing more fuel-efficient technologies that would significantly improve mileage. Big automakers will have to be dragged screaming and kicking into the future.

The only realistic answer I see to runaway fuel costs is to get us off the road more quickly. And that means cutting our commutes.

Let's take advantage of what we have (a rapidly growing broadband data network) rather than waiting for what we don't (a world-class, totally convenient public transportation system and cars that get 75 miles per gallon)...

First, we need to accept that a lot of work no longer has to be done at work. Thanks to the Internet, BlackBerrys and other info-tech advances, many people can be just as productive at home as they can at the office, and sometimes even more so.

I'm not saying that we should all go off-leash. But I am saying that employers could trust workers enough to experiment with one remote day a week -- work-at-home Wednesday, for instance...

Meanwhile, local governments could give businesses tax breaks or credits to establish branch offices. Sure, you'd still have to get to the head office from time to time. But why should someone who lives on the Westside or in the Valley have to commute to downtown L.A. every day?

Let's say that any company with more than 1,000 employees would be eligible for a tax incentive if it opened branch offices that reduced people's commutes to 10 miles or less.

Additional tax breaks could be offered for setting up videoconferencing facilities to eliminate the need for you-are-there meetings.

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