According to a new MIT report, 34 percent of Americans who previously commuted to work report that they were working from home by the first week of April due to the coronavirus. That’s the same percentage of people who can work from home, according to a recent University of Chicago publication.
These new numbers represent a seismic shift in work culture. Prior to the pandemic, the number of people regularly working from home remained in the single digits, with only about 4 percent of the US workforce working from home at least half the time. However, the trend of working from home had been gaining momentum incrementally for years, as technology and company cultures increasingly accommodated it. So it’s also likely that many Americans who are now working from home for the first time will continue to do so after the pandemic.
The social distancing brought on by the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic offers a preview of the benefit of decentralizing knowledge work and will hasten the arrival of the last rush hour. Prior to the pandemic, only a small but growing percentage of knowledge workers spent most of the week working outside of centralized, commute-in offices (CCOs). With the closure of offices to slow the infectious disease outbreak, many more are now forced to do so. They may have grudgingly accepted daily and often long commutes as part of the job. Working outside of a CCO demonstrates they can still get their work done without the daily commute. Instead of turning a car key to start their workdays, they turn on the lights and their computers.
The reduction in commuting is also demonstrating how the automobile-oriented transportation infrastructure built up in starting in the mid-20th century is supposed to function per its original design. In metro areas, that infrastructure is overloaded with cars well beyond that specification, rendering it an inefficient means of getting people to CCOs. Over the decades, more highway lanes are added and public transit funding increased in the hope of improving transportation efficiency. But the effort and billions of dollars spent has largely been futile. The rush hour congestion remains and for too many, it takes too damn long to get to the CCO and back home again.
Freeing up personal time otherwise sacrificed to the commute brings into sharper focus the cost of daily commuting to CCOs. Working in the same space with co-workers has its benefits. Some info tech companies see it as essential to creativity, allowing for the spontaneous sharing of ideas. Having other workers around helps spark that, they believe. It likely does but with a tradeoff that’s not adequately recognized. In congested metro areas and their high cost of housing, bridging the distance daily between knowledge workers’ homes and the CCO with mid-20th century technology comes with a big price. There’s personal time lost every workday that could be used exercising, spending more time with family and friends as well as money spent on transportation, business attire and meals outside the home.
When that cost is suddenly removed from the picture and the savings realized as during the current pandemic, the benefits are also brought into clear focus – as clear as the previously fouled air in these metro areas now. Knowledge workers are learning they can share ideas and be creative without being co-located in CCOs thanks to 21st century information and communications technology.
Home-cooked lunches and no commuting while we deal with coronavirus can’t compensate for what’s lost in creativity.
The author of this New York Times column argues working from home has more downsides than working in an office. As social creatures we need contact with others and work colleagues. (This is why the current social isolation measures are difficult for many.) In the 20th century, knowledge workers lived relatively close to their offices. But in the latter half of the century, the automobile and cheap fuel and a desire for suburban living resulted in their living in communities separated from their offices.
By the 21st century, metro transportation systems became overwhelmed by all the automobile commuting – the preferred way of getting to the office. Pushed beyond their design specs, commutes got more congested and longer — and sucked more and more time out of the lives of commuters. Adding more traffic lanes only kicked the proverbial can. The commutes are growing even longer as housing costs close to offices put them out of reach and send workers to the outlying metro areas in search of more affordable housing. And another thing humans need as well as socialization: contact with nature. The “rush hour?” Three hour daily round-trip commutes are not unheard of anymore.
The 20th century daily commute to office model is headed for obsolescence. We won’t be able to achieve a balance – and reduce the environmental impact of daily commute trips – by adhering to the 20th century model and the tyranny of time and distance that comes with it. A new model of performing knowledge work is needed that leverages information and communications technology instead of transportation to allow knowledge workers to exchange ideas as easily as they might by bumping into each other at the office. While at the same time providing opportunity for socializing with colleagues in person from time to time.
In recent years, the traffic on this route, and on similar country thoroughfares throughout the Capital Region, has included folks who’ve moved from Sacramento into the surrounding countryside and still do daily business in the city. Transportation experts agree that while there are no studies confirming this, anecdotal evidence suggests urban expats, scattered to the countryside by high housing prices, empty-nest syndrome or a desire for a pastoral lifestyle, are helping clog local roads.
Like many metros, the Sacramento suffers from time and quality of life sucks caused by too many commuters relative to limited transportation system capacity. Especially as this article notes, GPS systems route commuters onto and clog secondary roads never intended to function as commute routes. The traditional remedies of building more highway lanes and mass transit take many years and dollars to bring on line. And the public and personal economics to support that don’t scale as well in smaller metros like Sacramento where many commuters live in the region’s less densely populated exurban and quasi-rural areas where housing is more affordable.
Clearly alternative solutions are needed. Given the many state government workers in the metro, the first would be to substitute information and communications technology for transportation. Get state and other knowledge workers out of their cars and create opportunities for them to work in their residential communities in telework centers or if they can, in their homes. The second is beefing up the region’s telecommunications infrastructure which is perhaps the worst in the state, replacing decades old aged copper telephone cable with fiber optic lines.
As much of the economy becomes more knowledge-based it continues to retain a key feature of the Industrial Age: geographic concentration in urban centers. That’s according to this piece recently appearing in Governing. Instead of a post-industrial economy, the economy is being rebooted as Industrial Age 2.0. As in ver. 1.0, work is centralized. Or clustered or agglomerated as it’s termed in the article. Less so in manufacturing plants but in office towers and sprawling info tech industry campuses requiring knowledge workers to show up there every workday just as in the industrial economy.
But that has distorted housing markets, driving up home prices and making nearby housing unaffordable for many. That in turn is expanding the geography of metro areas as knowledge workers seek more affordable housing in communities distant from the office towers and tech campuses in their centers. That drives a level of commuting to work metro areas’ 20th century transportation systems were not designed to handle, creating congested and unbearable “super commutes” that suck hours from each work day. Clustering and the agglomeration run up against fundamental limits. There is only so much residential real estate for knowledge workers to live on adjacent to the office towers and campuses. The law of supply and demand dictates only a limited amount will be affordable.
Analysts such as those cited in the Governing article contend the holy grail of the knowledge economy is the same as that of the offices and assembly lines of industrial economy: proximity. “You wouldn’t actually get the innovation if you took the people working on those things and spread them around the country,” Salim Furth, director of the Urbanity project at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, told the publication. “We rely on face-to-face contact to come up with great innovation and changes.” Buy does that hold true most the time for most knowledge workers? Likely not. Knowledge work is both an individual and collaborative effort. And not all collaboration nor even the most productive must occur in same physical location. Lots of it can be done virtually using today’s information and communications technology.
The knowledge economy should evolve beyond Industrial Age Ver. 2.0 amid rising concern over the environmental impact of commute transportation demand, housing affordability and declining population health status (long commutes have a deleterious impact).
The conference also included a short talk by Lenny Mendonca, Gov. Gavin Newsom’s chief economic and business adviser. Asked about Newsom’s efforts to promote regional responses to the state’s affordable housing shortage and Marin’s reluctance to surrender local control, Mendonca said, “There are 85,000 people a day who commute from the northern part of San Joaquin Valley and Sacramento into the Bay Area.“Those are often people who are commuting and an hour and a half and two hours each way in their car for economic opportunity,” Mendonca said. “That creates all kinds of challenges from housing costs to traffic to air quality to quality of life and community degradation.” Mendonca said one way to address this problem is to build more housing in places where the jobs are, including the Bay Area and Los Angeles.
That’s one way — a 20th century approach. But it takes a long time for new housing to come online, particularly in the already built out Bay Area and Los Angeles. Additionally, proposed land use reforms to reshape suburban development with high density housing near mass transit encounters strong political resistance. A far faster, cheaper 21st century solution is to take a different approach to working, particularly knowledge work. Nowadays, people don’t need a commute-in office in some far off location to get it done. They can leverage information and communications technology to work in the communities where they live so the work can come to them instead of having to drive for hours each day to work.
Indeed, Mendonca recognized the need for more widely deployed advanced telecommunications infrastructure to enable virtual working in a recent interview. “We have large portions in every geographic area, especially rural California, that don’t have access,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle. “You need access to current technologies at the speed the world is moving.”
Last week, the Washington Post reported that “President Trump’s government is scaling [telework] back in multiple agencies on the theory that a fanny in the seat prevents the kind of slacking off that can happen when no one’s watching.”
What we’re seeing is a clash between the traditional definition of knowledge work – seated in a chair in a centralized commuter office (CCO) after taking a vehicle to work – and the inherent constrained capacity of 20th century transportation systems in metro areas to accommodate that mode of working.
Organizations can insist all they want that knowledge work can only be performed in CCOs 8-5, Monday-Friday. But roads and highways are fixed, limited real estate that cannot flex to accommodate all the rush hour transportation demand that generates. The result is crippling traffic congestion, a giant time suck and numerous adverse effects on organizations and knowledge workers.
In the 21st century, information and communications technology replaces the pavement and the vehicle to bring knowledge work to the knowledge worker. We need to adjust our thinking and expectations.
California Governor Gavin Newsom recently issued an executive order directing the state Department of Finance to create a Climate Investment Framework. The order notes that while the state has established an ambitious goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030, emissions from automobiles and other forms of transportation remain a “stubborn driver” of emissions. The order further directs the State Transportation Agency to reduce transportation-based emissions by reducing vehicle miles traveled by bringing jobs and housing in closer proximity and to “encourage people to shift from cars to other modes of transportation.” The order also calls for the state to leverage its $700 billion pension investment portfolio and assets to advance California’s climate leadership.
Placing jobs and housing in closer proximity has historically proven to be difficult to achieve in California given local governments have much more direct jurisdiction over land use planning than the state. A better approach would be to leverage pension funds to support regional projects by local governments to build much needed modern fiber optic telecommunications infrastructure. Pension funds the patient capital needed for long term investments such as infrastructure. This strategy would reduce commute transportation demand by better connecting California communities and allowing office workers to more easily work from their homes and co-working centers instead of piling onto freeways daily and spewing vehicular emissions. It’s particularly timely as the state’s high housing prices in metro areas drive lengthening commutes as people seek affordable homes often located at the edges of metro areas and beyond. This is where advanced telecommunications infrastructure tends to be the weakest but provides the greatest benefit.
The irony of America’s tech-fueled brain drain is that the internet should have freed us from location-based employment and helped disperse high-skilled tech workers. In her 1997 book The Death of Distance, British economist Frances Cairncross heralded the ways that digital technologies, particularly the internet and mobile phones, were “killing location” and “loosening the grip of geography.” For Cairncross, one of the many implications of ubiquitous internet access was that “companies will have more freedom to locate a service where their key staff want to live, rather than near its market” and employees “will gain more freedom to live far from their employers.” Reality proved far messier.
Cairncross says she “misjudged” the extent to which concentrated labor markets matter in the knowledge economy, because they provide an available pool of specialized skills and other agglomeration benefits. So rather than decentralizing the American labor pool, the rise of the internet and digital technologies had the opposite effect: It accelerated its concentration. The face of this change is the San Francisco Bay Area, which consistently ranks as one of the most congested and expensive regions in the US. But a similar scenario is playing out in Denver, Boston, Seattle, and other major tech-driven metro areas.
Despite her misgivings, I believe history will ultimately prove Cairncross correct. Knowledge work is currently in transition between the centralized Industrial Age when the automobile and high speed highways made it possible for office workers to work daily in communities far from their homes to an emerging decentralized “work anywhere” mode.
The trouble in the San Francisco Bay Area and other metro centers the high speed highways that made commuting a breeze in the 1950s and 1960s aren’t so speedy anymore and overcrowded with too many knowledge workers during the morning and evening commutes. Building more highway lanes only induces more commute trips. Autonomous vehicles can’t solve the congestion because there will always be a limited amount of pavement over which they can travel. Mass transit isn’t the answer either given the differing schedule and location circumstances of knowledge workers and limited practical range that has served as a perpetual disincentive.
Of course, there is nothing that beats the natural inclination of humans to socialize and exchange ideas that drive the information economy co-located, face to face. The question is whether doing that every work day remains practical in congested and expensive metro areas given the personal time and economic costs extracted by daily vehicular commute trips. These trips are lengthened by housing market dynamics. Affordable homes are often located at the periphery of metro areas.
Information and communications technology provides the best alternative means to perform knowledge work. And yes, there still needs to be old style in person social interaction. But that can be obtained at training sessions, symposia and social gatherings. Commuting should be confined to getting to and from these events and not daily to a centralized, commute in office.
Liccardo, who also sits on the commission board, said reducing traffic congestion in the South Bay will require cities to add more housing units instead of simply focusing on job growth, and it might require regional incentives and penalties on cities.“We need to get people living closer to where they work,” Liccardo said.
True for those who must be on site for their work. Not true for most knowledge workers who thanks to today’s information and communications technology — much of it innovated in the Bay Area. A new generation of policymakers and planners is needed that recognizes the potential of ICT to reduce the need for daily commute trips that substantially contribute to the enormous transportation demand that’s choking the Bay Area and other metros.