The commute conundrum and the California fuel tax increase

Getting knowledge workers off congested freeways by substituting the use of information and communications technology (ICT) for commuting was first proposed by visionary Jack Nilles in the early 1970s. Decades later, the idea only has grown only better. Commuting sucked then and sucks even more today with more commuters. A half century of experience shows adding more lanes to highways to make commute traffic flow more easily doesn’t help in the long run since the promise of smoother commutes makes commuting more palatable. Until yet more cars fill those new lanes and it no longer is.

In California – home to some of the longest and worst commutes in the nation and where Nilles came up with his brilliant idea – housing and transportation economics and tax policy are complicating the picture. At the threshold of the third decade of the 21st century, ICT and the development of the Internet since Nilles’s eureka moment has effectively obsoleted daily commuting for knowledge workers. But it hasn’t for those who don’t work in knowledge industries such as retail, food service, personal services, construction, manufacturing, transportation, warehousing and agriculture. They are paid only if they physically show up at their workplaces. These workers typically earn less than knowledge workers and are more likely to drive alone to work than use public transit or other forms of transportation. ICT can certainly lessen their personal commuting burden by getting knowledge workers off the highways during commute hours. Fewer commuting knowledge workers means fewer cars and easier and shorter commute trips. But fewer knowledge workers commuting translates to less fuel tax revenue, shifting the tax burden to those who must still commute to a distant workplace. Mitch Turck elaborates in a Forbes column:

Taking a significant chunk of commuters off the road and into their home offices would create a tipping point in remaining drivers’ financial obligations — a regressive and unsustainable “commuter penalty” that would undoubtedly have to be reassessed as a road maintenance tax for all residents. Considering the U.S. is currently using roads more than ever, but hasn’t increased the gas tax in a quarter-century, one can only wish the best of luck to any politician tasked with such an overhaul.

It is this cohort from which proponents of a California ballot measure this November proposing to repeal a recently imposed fuel tax and vehicle registration fee increase to pay for road maintenance and mass transit hope to draw support according to the San Francisco Chronicle:

Polling by Prop. 6 consultants shows that the measure appeals to voters in suburbs and rural areas, especially the Inland Empire, where some residents drive upward of 100 miles a day to get to their jobs. “These are places where people have long drives, and they’re the ones who will be most angry about these taxes,” said campaign consultant David Gilliard.

“This tax affects everybody, but it hits the working poor the hardest,” talk show host Carl DeMaio, chairman of the repeal campaign, told the newspaper:

“We’re going to win,” he told The Chronicle, insisting that his side has the more compelling argument. Supporters of the repeal say the 12 cents-per-gallon gas excise tax and increased vehicle registration fees passed last year by the Legislature and signed by Brown create hardships for working-class families.

Those working-class families have been pushed to the edges of high cost metro areas like the San Francisco Bay Area by housing market economics that make it more affordable there than in the centers and inner suburbs where they work. Those same economics have driven more highly paid knowledge workers farther from their commute-in offices in search of housing that comports with their incomes. Among them, those forced to commute with journeys approaching and exceeding one hour are likely to support the repeal effort, since they are most likely to support anything that will reduce their significant personal commute burden in the short term over any future road improvements.

ICT poised to revolutionize knowledge work as profoundly as the automobile and freeways did in the 1950s.

Gov, like an increasing number of Californians, has an extreme commute to her job. She works in communications at a non-profit organization about 30 miles away, up the notorious 405 to Santa Monica. On good days it takes an hour and a half each way, on the worst days it’s two and a half hours each way.“It’s literally like a part-time job,” she said. Gov’s boyfriend has a similarly long commute into Los Angeles. They wish they could live closer in, but homes closer to their jobs were way out of their price range. To afford to buy here a lot more people are living like Jenny Gov – spending more of their day in ever worsening traffic, leaving little time to spend with family and neighbors, coaching little league or exploring the wonders of California.

Brian Taylor, an urban planning professor who directs the Institute of Transportation Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles said the housing crisis has exacerbated the dilemma in recent years, as new housing construction has lagged in parts of the state where well-paid employment in our more knowledge-based economy has multiplied.

Source: High Home Prices And Congestion Shrink The California Dream – capradio.org

Image result for los angeles traffic congestionChances are Ms. Gov is a knowledge worker and perhaps her boyfriend is as well. When Los Angeles freeways first opened in the 1950s, it was possible to get anywhere in the basin in about 20 minutes. Now they are so clogged daily commuting has become unbearable. It’s no longer as feasible to live in one community and work in another as it was in the golden age of the California freeway, the L.A. car culture and cheap fuel. Nor does it any longer make sense to spend hours commuting to use a computer in a centralized commute-in office.

Now on the threshold to the 2020s and beyond, a shift as profound as how the automobile and the freeway defined daily work life is at hand. It’s Internet-fueled information and communications technology (ICT) that makes it possible to do knowledge work in the communities where knowledge workers live. That gets them off the freeways on work days and would likely make a sizable contribution to improving the region’s notoriously poor air quality. Not to mention the quality of life of lots of Californians who as this story reports find the California dream elusive as they spend much of their lives engaged in long commutes.

Self-driving cars. Scooters. The future of commuting to work is here

From crowdsourced shuttle buses to companies offering rides to lure top talent, here are concepts used in some cities that could one day help your morning commute.

Source: Self-driving cars. Scooters. The future of commuting to work is here

This is applying state of the art technology to the Industrial Age practice of transporting knowledge workers to offices rather than utilizing information and communications technologies of the Information Age to decentralize knowledge work, bringing it to communities where people live.

It may look like progress. But in fact it’s regressive and reflects a 1950s mindset wherein knowledge work can only be performed in centralized, commute in offices. It does little to relieve the daily time suck of the commute. It’s time to put the Industrial Age in the past and truly evolve.

As suburbanites face growing “nightmare” commutes, co-working spaces offer relief

Sacramento like other California metros finds its suburbs at an inflection point. In the 1950s and 1960s, the car was (and still is) king, gas was cheap and the state had gleaming new concrete freeways to facilitate commuting to a distant office.

Now the Golden State’s freeways are at a major maintenance interval and a lot more knowledge workers pack onto them each workday, making for “nightmare commutes,” according to the February 2018 issue of the region’s business magazine, Comstock’s. A logical solution is to bring knowledge work to the suburbs where people live to get them out of their cars, particularly given the decades long difficulty planners have encountered encouraging the use of public transit:

Suburbs are also looking at opportunities for residents to work where they live, and several are adopting the concept of coworking spaces — a shared workspace for entrepreneurs and business professionals from all industries. The concept alleviates congested commutes and the high cost of office space, provides access to a network of business professionals and skill development classes, and rents offices and conference rooms for meetings.

Source: Slumber Party

U.S. commute length grows from 2012 to 2016

Americans are driving longer on the country’s roads and bridges to get to work. This is particularly true in larger metro areas or smaller metro areas within commuting distance of a larger metro area. Shorter commutes are generally found around smaller metro areas. On the whole, the census found that commutes got slightly longer from 2012 through 2016 than in the previous five-year period.

Source: America today: Longer commutes, higher rents, less English at home – CNNPolitics

Uber’s silly solution to the daily commute grind

While the idea of casually commuting to work via flying aircraft is quite exciting, Uber Elevate still has many obstacles to navigate before takeoff. One hurdle consists of developing the infrastructure to support VTOL aircraft. This new infrastructure would include building ‘vertiports’. A ‘vertiport’ is a VTOL aircraft hub comprising of multiple takeoff and landing pads as well as charging stations for the vehicles. Vertiports would need to be constructed all around the cities and suburbs in order for Uber Elevate to be effective. As of now, Uber plans to build vertiports on existing helipads, on top of parking garages, rooftops, or on unused land around highway interchanges. Uber believes in the long run creating this new infrastructure will be more cost effective than continued work on building and repairing roads, rails, bridges, and tunnels.

Source: Skip the commute and fly to work with Uber Elevate – Twin Cities Agenda

This is a silly pie in the sky pipe dream. It calls for the construction of more transportation infrastructure — a 20th century solution to automobile commute congestion — to accommodate a 21st century vision straight out of The Jetsons. At a time when infrastructure funding is constrained.

We don’t need another form of transportation infrastructure to reduce commute congestion and the associated time suck of sitting in traffic. Instead, we need to better utilize and expand as necessary existing telecommunications infrastructure to serve knowledge workers in communities where they live, working at home or in shared supported office facilities. That can effectively reduce and eventually eliminate the commute rather than taking it to the skies.

As management expert Peter Drucker famously asked, why move a 200 pound body when all that’s needed is its eight pound brain? That question applies whether it’s ground or air transportation.

Flying Ubers by 2020? The Future Passenger Drones

Uber is pushing to become the world’s next airline — without buying any planes. Instead, the company believes that a fleet of flying cars could solve the dilemma of daily commutes to work and between meetings in increasingly congested cities. And with the announcement on Wednesday that Uber has secured a contract with NASA to develop software to make “flying taxis” possible, that push seems one step closer to reality.

Source: Flying Ubers by 2020? The Future Passenger Drones

This is nuts. We already have the technology — information and communications technology — that makes daily commuting to a distant office unnecessary.

Commuting isn’t a transportation challenge in the 21st Century. It’s a management challenge: learning how to manage knowledge workers who are geographically dispersed. As management expert Peter Drucker put it years ago, “What is the point of spending such huge sums to bring a 200-lb.-body downtown when all you want of it is its eight-and-a-half pound brain?”

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.

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.