A week ago, there was an interesting article by Yonah Freemark on the Atlantic Cities website, “Why Telecommuting Really Matters, in 6 Charts”.
He points out that:
Over the past 30 years, at the same time the percentage of commuters driving has flatlined, the share of people working from home has exploded, almost doubling since 1980
[C]ontrasting urban density and the percentage of people with long commutes to work (in large counties across the U.S.), suggests that, at least on average, there’s no relationship between those variables and the choice to telecommute
Given current limitations on funding for transportation infrastructure, planners and politicians have a responsibility to take the rise of telecommuting and the potential for further declines in peak-hour traffic
The argument that telecommuting affects traffic patterns has been clear to telecommuters, if not urban planners and traffic planners in the past. Indeed, traffic patterns are also changing because of the shift to online purchases which means more shipments to residences, rather than stores.
All in all, the gradual dispersion of economic activities and their spread over a longer day than 9-5 means that transportation planning needs something better than the traditional rush-hour-to-downtown model. Yet, there is still much talk among public officials about the need for significant road and mass transit investments to bring people downtown.
Freemark also notes:
Two other variables, on the other hand, appear to correlate relatively closely with working from home, at least at the county level. Counties with a higher share of people holding a bachelor’s degree or higher are likelier to telecommute, and those with a higher percentage of “professional” workers
[C]ontrary to what we might expect, are people in less dense, exurban communities more likely to work from home than people living in center cities with plenty of jobs nearby.
If you think about the nature of their work – which often results in intangible services or digital products – it is not too surprising that professional workers can easily do their work anywhere.
Given their generally higher incomes, which affords greater housing choices, it is also not too surprising that these same people don’t live far out on the exurban fringes of metropolitan areas.
However, today, we are still in the early stages of telecommuting technology. For most telecommuters, most of the day, they do email, handle documents and maybe text chat from time to time. That is not yet close to the kind of experience they would have in an office, which offers much more visual interaction with other human beings.
But that will change in the coming years and telecommuters will be able to have something very much like the office experience. When that happens, will they ask themselves whether they want to move “further out”? Some will do so.
Let’s take this thinking one more step. Perhaps the question of where people will live is misleading. In an age of enhanced telecommuting, professional workers won’t need to live in one place. Even now, I know many professionals who identify their home in an urban area. But, in reality, they are there for an average of only 2-4 days a week. The other days they are somewhere else, maybe a country home.
The rise in telecommuting also means that we need to get used to the idea that an individual could be both urban and rural because they can work anywhere and not in the same place all the time.
So here’s a concluding question: Is the like the wrenching mind shift that was required of physicists as they moved from Newtonian mechanics to quantum mechanics? If so, it’s going to be quite a while before public officials and planners accept and respond to the implications of telecommuting.
© 2014 Norman Jacknis