Why Do We Still Commute? – Pacific Standard

Over the last year, many companies have ended their liberal work-from-home policies. Firms like IBM, Honeywell, and Aetna joined a long list of others that have deemed it more profitable to force employees to commute to the city and work in a central office than give them the flexibility to work where they want. It wasn’t supposed to be this way—at least according to Norman Macrae.

Macrae foretold the exact path and timeline that computers would take over the business world and then become a fixture of every American home. But he didn’t stop there. The spread of this machine, he argued, would fundamentally change the economics of how most of us work. Once workers could communicate with their colleagues through instant messages and video chat, he reasoned, there would be little coherent purpose to trudge long distances to work side by side in centrally located office spaces. As companies recognized how much cheaper remote employees would be, the computer would, in effect, kill the office—and with that our whole way of living would change.

Source: Why Do We Still Commute? – Pacific Standard

As readers of this blog know, I am firmly in Macrae’s camp. I have a couple of issues with this analysis by Greg Rosalsky. It contains the implicit assumption that knowledge workers commute in order to have real time, face to face conversations with their colleagues every Monday through Friday. The value of these co-located daily discussions is cited to justify the daily commute.

That might hold true for those working in intense think tank work environments like Google’s Moonshot Factory where the job is a group exercise of spitballing and deeply analyzing concepts for their practicality and most importantly, their potential monetization. That’s more akin to a live-in academic residential fellowship than the usual type of work most knowledge workers perform with most of its components and deliverables in digital form accessible from most anywhere. In fact, many of them find they are more able to think and concentrate outside of centralized, commute-in office spaces such as in quiet home offices and communicate quite easily with colleagues using online collaboration tools.

Rosalsky’s article also repeats the “urban centers are cool and people want to live there” to partly explain why we continue to commute to centralized offices in metro areas. But as Rosalsky also notes, the cost of living there is quite high. It’s often out of reach for all but the highest paid knowledge workers and is itself a factor driving lengthening commutes to distant locales where housing is affordable.

To Rosalsky’s credit, he does mention the personal costs of commuting borne by knowledge workers — and indirectly by their organizations due to the adverse health and wellness impacts of daily commuting. I would argue that the maturation and proliferation of information and communications technology has brought us to the point predicted by Macrae where for the vast majority of knowledge workers, the costs of daily commuting can no longer be justified nor the expense of maintaining centralized, commute-in office space for their organizations.

2037: The debut of the rolling office cubicle

In the 1960s, the creators of the television cartoon series The Jetsons envisioned in the 21st century, we’d be jetting daily to the office, whooshing through the stratosphere in personal aircraft between residential and office buildings in a mere few minutes.


Another vision of the future 37 years into the century is decidedly different. There are no personal flying vehicles to speed the commute. Instead, people are still commuting by car to offices distant from their homes just as they did in the latter half of the 20th century when automobiles, highways and cheap fuel made it possible to live far from one’s place of employment, giving rise to the suburban and exurban boom.

In 2037, the suburbs are still booming and moving farther away from centralized metro commuter offices than at the start of the new century. But the commute vehicles are automated and self-driving. They have essentially become personal, employee financed rolling office cubicles — an extension of the cubicle of the centralized, commute in office building where knowledge workers spend two or more hours each workday getting to and from more distant work and home locations. But are they truly necessary? Especially as information and communications technology available now and likely to advance rapidly in the near term makes it possible to perform knowledge work from anywhere as predicted by science fiction writer and futurist Arthur C. Clarke soon after The Jetsons first television season aired?

Leverage ICT for rapid remedy to jobs vs. affordable housing imbalance in metro areas

As I look out the window of my California Housing Finance Agency office in downtown Sacramento at 5 p.m. on a Wednesday, I see a lot of cars.Filled with public employees, teachers, nurses and construction workers, the cars aren’t going to nearby homes. They are lining up to jump on the freeway and drive to the distant homes their drivers can afford. These are middle-income, working families who can’t find housing in the region’s most important job center. And this isn’t just a Sacramento problem, it’s a California problem.

Source: Don’t neglect middle class in California’s housing crisis | The Sacramento Bee

Actually it’s not just a California problem. It’s present in many if not most metro areas. It will be an ongoing issue as long as knowledge industry jobs continue to be concentrated in metro centers where housing is costly, forcing knowledge workers to live elsewhere — often more than an hour away over congested highways — where housing is affordable.

Building more affordable housing in metro centers is far easier said than done and can take decades of political and regulatory wrangling. A far faster and less costly and complicated solution is leverage today’s information and communications technology (ICT) to bring knowledge work to the communities where knowledge workers live, working in home or satellite offices or co-working facilities.

Leveraging ICT doesn’t mean there are no infrastructure costs over the long term. The infrastructure for the 21 century is fiber optic cable. Dubbed the “Information Superhighway” by Al Gore, it should be given the same priority and funding as roads and highways were in the 20th, particularly to deploy it to outlying communities with the greatest need for telecommunications infrastructure modernization.

S. F. Bay Area hitting the wall with unaffordable housing, lengthy commutes

The September losses, combined with 2,400 job losses reported by the EDD for August, paint an unsettling picture and lend credence to the assessment from a growing number of experts that the Bay Area’s job growth has begun to slow dramatically.

“The slowdown is real,” said Stephen Levy, director of the Palo Alto-based Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy. “There were times this year we thought that job losses here and there were just temporary. But the slowdown is a fact. It’s happening.”

The lack of housing also makes it tough for employees to live near their workplaces, forcing many into lengthy commutes on roads choked with traffic. Some prospective employees decide they’d rather not bother.

“The economy in the Bay Area has pushed up against the physical limits of a lack of housing and a lack of places for workers to live,” said Jeffrey Michael, director of the Stockton-based Center for Business and Policy Research at University of the Pacific.

Source: Bay Area hammered by monthly loss of 4,700 jobs

The San Francisco Bay Area is reaching the limits of time and distance. People will only commute so long and so far before it becomes unfeasible.

The silver lining is the Bay Area is headquarters to many information and communications technology companies that innovated the tools to bridge and time and distance gap and make it possible for knowledge workers to work in the communities where they live — and can find affordable housing — rather than wasting time in needless, traffic choked commutes.

Believe it or not, commuting will get better — a few decades from now – San Francisco Chronicle

Let’s start with the bad news. Commuting, that scourge of modern life, will not go away. Skip forward a few decades, and the Bay Area’s clogged roads won’t magically clear. Getting to work will still take time. But you may actually enjoy it. And you’ll have a few options that don’t exist today – some of which could radically change the way California grows. To start with, you probably won’t be doing the driving. Whether you’re in your own car, or in a shuttle van or bus with fellow commuters, the vehicles will drive themselves in most if not all circumstances. And they’ll be electrified, so no more choking exhaust.

Source: Believe it or not, commuting will get better — a few decades from now – San Francisco Chronicle

The problem with this prognostication is it assumes commuting to a centralized office setting will continue well into the 21st century. And along with it, the problem of moving enormous numbers of people over increasing distances so they arrive and depart their offices in a relatively short time window each day.

It’s an outdated 20th century analysis. It views commuting as a transportation problem when in fact commuting itself has been obsoleted in the present decade by the maturation and proliferation of information and communications technology (ICT). It’s no longer necessary to transport human bodies to perform knowledge work daily. ICT makes it possible for knowledge workers to do their work in the communities where they live rather than wasting uncompensated personal time every weekday commuting.

We don’t need to wait decades for electric cars to be perfected and automated public transit and hyperloops to be built. We have the solution today — right now — to end the needless bane of the daily commute.

Transition from Industrial Age to knowledge economy sparks debate over “remote” work

No one said the decades long transition from the Industrial Age to the Information Age knowledge economy would be an easy one. Exhibit A is the debate over “remote” work spotlighted in this article in the November 2017 issue of The Atlantic and the extensive comment thread it generated on LinkedIn.

It’s not hard to see why it’s an either/or issue when framed as working remotely. Remote is a relative term to the other side of the dichotomy – the traditional commute in, centralized office. Hence, the debate is over the merits and demerits of working remotely versus working in the centralized commuter office (CCO).

It’s a natural one given how advances in information and communications technology (ICT) over the past two decades have rendered the CCO increasingly less relevant and decentralized knowledge work. For some organizations such as Automattic, developer of the WordPress web platform, there is no such thing as remote working because there is no CCO.

Essentially, the debate over “remote” versus centralized and co-located is part of the process of coming to terms with the ICT spawned disruption to the Industrial Age model as we move toward a new way of doing knowledge work.

It isn’t 40 hours a week of face to face brainstorming and chatting with colleagues at nearby desks that requires a trip to and from home each weekday with the state of today’s ICT and collaboration tools. Much thought work can be done individually and occurs 24 hours a day – including while exercising and sleeping. In fact, both regular exercise and sufficient sleep are crucial to strong cognitive functioning that drives creativity and problem solving. Both of those activities are too often impeded by the daily time suck of needless commuting. Particularly as commutes grow longer in congested, costly metro areas that force knowledge workers to live farther away from the CCO to obtain affordable housing.