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.

Bay Area commuters back taxes to pay to improve road, transit – SFGate

Bay Area residents have grown so exasperated by worsening traffic and the paucity of government money to make things better that they’re willing to tax themselves to pay for a regional program of improvements.That’s according to a poll released Friday, just two days after Gov. Jerry Brown and Democratic state legislators announced a transportation funding plan that would boost fuel taxes and vehicle registration fees for $52 billion in road and public-transportation improvements. Two years in the works, the plan would deliver much-needed funding for transportation but still leave many needs unfunded.

Source: Bay Area commuters back taxes to pay to improve road, transit – SFGate

Those long suffering commuters have a much lower cost solution thanks to the ingenuity of the Bay Area’s information technology companies. And it’s already available to them without the need for new taxes. Knowledge workers can utilize ICT to work at home and in their communities instead of getting into their cars and onto crowded freeways to drive to an office.

As management guru Peter Drucker sagely asked, “What is the point of spending such huge sums to bring a 200-pound body downtown when all you want of it is its eight-and-a-half-pound brain?”

Ongoing paradox of SF Bay Area that underutilizes ICT, chokes on traffic congestion

If it seems as if you’re spending more time behind the wheel than ever, it’s not an illusion. Since 2010, the amount of time Bay Area drivers endure crawling along in freeway congestion has soared 70 percent.That’s the highest level of “congested delay” — time spent in traffic moving at speeds of 35 mph or less — since traffic experts began keeping track in 1981.

Source: Drive across Bay Bridge tops list of Bay Area’s worst commutes – SFGate

The San Francisco Bay Area continues to underutilize its signature product — information and communications technologies (ICT) — that could make a big dent in its world class traffic congestion by reducing commute trips.

Instead of commuting along freeways to offices located elsewhere in the Bay Area, ICT enables knowledge workers to remain at home or in the communities rather than playing road warrior each work day. But the Industrial Age commute to the office habit is proving to be very enduring even as traffic congestion and associated delays and adverse quality of life impacts continue to increase.

Technology will change where we live | TechCrunch

Finally, we have virtual reality coming in to totally upend things, perhaps rendering the commute obsolete altogether. There’s a reason Facebook bought Oculus for $2 billion. Facebook sees the future of social interaction as happening through VR. Microsoft has already shown demos of people in completely different places physically, interacting seamlessly almost hologram-like in a way that’s both creepy and awesome (they appropriately call it Holoportation).Perhaps there are some lingering expectations of people being in the office part-time to build camaraderie (drinking virtual beer together isn’t as fun after all), but the five-day-a-week commute will be undesirable to employees — and to employers who want a recruiting advantage and prefer more workable hours for their employees and can offer it by eliminating their commute.

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Instead of having a few densely populated pockets like we do today, people are going to disperse because technology will make it easier to do so and it’ll be much cheaper to live. Real estate prices will shift — not just in San Francisco, but in every major city. And places that hold universal appeal (e.g. beachfront/close to mountains) will draw more people as a result.

Source: Technology will change where we live | TechCrunch

Dan Laufer reiterates the thesis of my recent eBook Last Rush Hour: The Decentralization of Knowledge Work in the Twenty First Century. The maturation and continued evolution of Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) such as VR conferencing will render the daily Monday through Friday commute obsolete by removing the last perceived barrier to avoiding working daily in a centralized office setting: the need to meet face to face.

As I write in Last Rush Hour, ICT will prove as a profound and disruptive force of change for residential settlement patterns as the automobile was at the height of the Industrial Age by dispersing people out of inner cities to the suburbs.