Coronavirus: Sorry, but Working From Home is Overrated – The New York Times

Home-cooked lunches and no commuting while we deal with coronavirus can’t compensate for what’s lost in creativity.

Source: Coronavirus: Sorry, but Working From Home is Overrated – The New York Times

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.

Solutions for Sacramento area commute congestion

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.

Source: Making Connections | Comstock’s magazine

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.

Knowledge economy should evolve beyond Industrial Age Ver. 2.0

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).

To reduce commute transportation demand and further its climate goals, California should tap pension funds to support advanced telecommunications infrastructure

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.

History will judge Frances Cairncross’s predicted “death of distance” correct

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.

Source: How Smaller Cities Are Luring High-Tech Talent | WIRED

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.

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