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.

21st century solution to curb California mega commutes: Leveraging ICT for knowledge jobs

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.

Source: Economist: Marin recession unlikely before 2021

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.”

New generation of policymakers, planners needed to solve metro area traffic congestion

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.

Source: Highways to hell: Bay Area’s worst commutes ranked by MTC – SFChronicle.com

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.

ICT to reduce commute trips and associated vehicle emissions takes on greater urgency as U.N. report calls for “aggressive action” to cool global climate

Not long after the first Earth Day in April 1970, a Los Angeles aerospace engineer as engineers are wont to do saw a problem and came up with a solution to fix it. The problem Jack Nilles saw in his daily drive to the office was bumper to bumper traffic and bad air quality. His solution: substituting telecommunications for commute induced transportation demand by establishing satellite offices in “bedroom communities” where people lived to avoid the trip to centralized commuter offices. The environmental benefit of the solution Nilles proposed nearly five decades ago takes on increased urgency with the publication of a report issued today by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warning of rapidly accelerating global warming.

Absent aggressive action, many effects once expected only several decades in the future will arrive by 2040, and at the lower temperature, the report shows. “It’s telling us we need to reverse emissions trends and turn the world economy on a dime,” said Myles Allen, an Oxford University climate scientist and an author of the report.

To prevent 2.7 degrees of warming, the report said, greenhouse pollution must be reduced by 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, and 100 percent by 2050.

Turning the global economy on a dime is challenging to say the least. Cutting motor vehicle emissions associated with commuting is one measure that could be implemented relatively quickly, especially considering today’s information and communications technology is far more advanced than when Nilles first came up with his idea in the early 1970s, thanks to the proliferation of Internet protocol-based telecommunications.

Peter Thiel: ICT offers low cost, green solution to metro area transportation, housing challenges

Venture capitalist and PayPal founder Peter Thiel was recently interviewed on the Fox Business Network on the city of the future. Thiel talked about the two major shortcomings of today’s city as a situs for knowledge work concentrated in centralized metro commute-in offices: transportation and housing. Transportation systems – roads, highways and public transit – are “badly inadequate” in most metros, Thiel said, and housing costs are exorbitant. Both leave knowledge workers with two bad choices. “People need to have super long commutes or live in small apartments near the city centers where they have to spend all of their salaries on the apartments,” Thiel explained.

That’s where information and communications technology (ICT) can provide a workaround by allowing knowledge work to be dispersed outside of urban centers, according to Thiel. ICT solves the housing problem since it provides access to more affordable housing while at the same time eliminating the need for daily commute trips.

The idea isn’t new and has spawned years of debate despite the strong benefit in solving the housing and transportation challenge ever since Jack Nilles coined the term “telecommuting” in the 1970s. That debate continues to play out nearly two decades into the new century among organizations – ironically including ICT innovators like Yahoo, HP, Apple and IBM – that resist substituting ICT for transportation, fearing a geographically dispersed workforce won’t be as productive or collaborative as one co-located in a centralized, commute-in office setting. Thiel explains:

The ICT version (of transportation) people have talked about for decades is telecommuting. And so would there be some way so that you won’t need transportation at all, you could just do your work remotely. For a variety of reasons this has not worked over the last 30, 40 years people have been talking about it. The [perceived] problem generally is that people who work from their homes, they don’t work as hard. A lot of the value of work comes from talking to people in various ways.

However, Thiel notes management practices are changing to overcome those concerns that concentrate on managing the production and delivery of the work product. That focus necessarily forces a degree of diligence and collaboration to get the work done, he implies.

I think we’re starting to see more and more of this telecommuting in Silicon Valley and elsewhere where people are finding small teams of developers outside of Silicon Valley, there are ways to sort of bundle, put the work in certain packages that you allocate to different people. So I think maybe one of the end runs around the transportation system will be telecommuting. That’s a trend that’s underrated that’s worth exploring a lot more.

Michael Shear’s Rx for the increasingly congested commute and improved access to knowledge jobs

The biggest challenges facing metro regions are transportation and traffic congestion, accessible well-paying employment opportunities and affordable housing. In the world of knowledge organizations, a closely related challenge is determining to what extent staff members will work in the centralized, commute-in office and which are “remote” workers who perform their job duties outside of the office, typically working from home.

Michael Shear of Strategic Office Networks LLC has a solution that addresses all of these for knowledge organizations and regional transportation planners: transitioning away from the centralized, commute-in office of the Industrial Age economy to a more decentralized structure that utilizes today’s advanced information and communications technologies (ICT) to bring the work to communities where knowledge workers live. Those technologies link Enterprise Centers® that serve as community-based workplaces for as little as a few dozen to several hundred employees working for major employers located throughout a metropolitan or regional area. These centers are the building blocks of what Shear terms Distributed Metropolitan Design®.


I interviewed Shear for the Last Rush Hour podcast in December 2015. Listen here.


Key to Shear’s concept is reframing how we think about transportation. With today’s robust ICT capabilities that make it possible to work from most anywhere and traffic congestion crippling many metro areas, the issue is no longer how to most efficiently transport knowledge workers to centralized commuter offices. It’s now about access to a workplace that meets the needs of both the worker and the employer organization.

Traditional transportation initiatives encourage commuters to use public transportation or carpool in specially designated highway lanes. Transportation planners plan more expressway lanes to accommodate the continued growth in commute transportation demand. That remedy has hit the wall as metro areas continue to struggle with commute congestion, particularly as knowledge workers are forced to select housing far from their offices that they can afford, adding to commute transportation demand. Meanwhile, highly compensated workers bid up the cost of housing in central metro areas, fostering a severe housing affordability crisis such as currently afflicting California.

Shear’s concept recognizes that organizations have substantial investments in existing office space. They often can’t quickly transition to an office-less virtual organization. Nor are many workers ready or able to work from a home office or wherever else they choose. Much of this reality drives the debate over the pros and cons of “remote” work and “telework.” With a distributed organizational structure, these terms become far less relevant. When staff need to be co-located for team meetings and project sprints requiring intense collaboration that can be accomplished in settings outside of dedicated central offices. Shear also argues that the most prevalent form of “casual” telework — where only some knowledge workers work from home a day or two per week or more infrequently — cannot make a significant impact on transportation demand and metro area congestion.

A primary challenge for Shear’s concept is determining the right size for the Enterprise Centers®. They provide supported office space in residential communities and must be sensitive to the character of those communities. They must be large enough to be economically efficient but can’t grow too large because they will then generate substantial commute trips from non-locals and objections from nearby residents, effectively becoming the big commute-in cube farms and sprawling parking lots they would replace. Their size would likely be a function of the housing density of the neighborhoods in which they are located. Larger facilities would serve higher density areas where knowledge workers live within walking or bicycling distance with smaller ones most suited to lower density neighborhoods and reached by those modes of transportation or short trips by automobile or public transportation.

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.

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.

Rethinking knowledge work

Bosses acknowledge that remote workers don’t suffer from productivity problems. Research has found telecommuters who can work outside normal office hours and don’t have to spend time commuting often are more productive than their cubicle-bound counterparts. Rather, managers want their teams within view and are willing to trade some efficiency for the serendipity that office-based conversations might yield.

Source: Working From Home? The Boss Wants You Back in the Office

Although information and communications technology (ICT) has eliminated the need to commute to an centralized, commuter office (CCO) every work day, many organizations stubbornly cling to the old paradigm out of habit even as peak hour traffic congestion grows and makes it less practical and inaccessible.

Diane Mulcahy notes executive and human resources professionals contend the CCO supports team-building, culture and collaboration. That’s likely true. But it comes at a terrible personal cost to staff member wellness and work satisfaction, not to mention the cost of maintaining CCOs. It’s not a good and sustainable tradeoff and it’s time to acknowledge that circumstance.

Silicon Valley ICT companies adhere to the CCO model, building huge, high dollar corporate campuses and busing staff there daily from San Francisco over jammed freeways. In the larger scheme, to solve this problem requires rethinking knowledge work. To what extent does it have to be done face to face and what can be done without staff being co-located? If team members must be in close daily proximity over the course of a project, a brainstorming session or an agile sprint, might that be done on a temporary basis with team members housed in close proximity so they don’t have to commute? In this framework, the CCO is replaced by a conference or meeting facility, with knowledge workers spending most of their time working in their communities in home offices or satellite or co-working spaces.

The solution to traffic congestion has to come from the demand side since adding more freeway lanes or smart vehicles isn’t the answer. That will require knowledge and information economy organizations to rethink how they manage and allocate resources.

One Thing Silicon Valley Can’t Seem to Fix – The New York Times

The built environment of the Valley does not reflect the innovation that’s driving the region’s stratospheric growth; it looks instead like the 1950s. Looking at aerial views of midcentury campuses like the Eero Saarinen-designed Bell Labs next to contemporary ones like Apple, it’s nearly impossible to tell the midcentury structures from the 21st-century ones. Designing job centers this way contributes mightily to the region’s ever-worsening traffic. If you found yourself stuck on Highway 101 between San Francisco and San Jose, you’d really see what Silicon Valley looks like for many. Building campuses on isolated suburban tracts guarantees long commutes, and this is one of the worst in the country.

Source: One Thing Silicon Valley Can’t Seem to Fix – The New York Times

Kudos to Allison Arieff of The New York Times for raising this issue as I have many times in this space. I’ve also noted the irony that Silicon Valley’s legendary information and communications technology (ICT) innovation has effectively obsoleted the 1950s centralized, commute-in office (CCO), yet the region remains mired in commute traffic.

As Silicon Valley tech pioneer Bill Davidow pointed out in his 2011 book Overconnected, those office complexes came about because the “killer app” of the 1950s was a combination of pavement (freeways), cheap gasoline and the automobile that made it possible to work in another location far from home. Now ICT allows knowledge work to be done anywhere, eliminating the need to move bodies over highways every work day to CCOs. That’s a real killer app for our time to slay commute traffic congestion — in Silicon Valley and other metro areas.