Monday, September 19, 2016

Why Do We Commute?

The costs can outweigh the benefits

When I awake each workday, I consult Google Maps to see which route is the fastest to my office. Because of the location of my home and office, mass transportation and carpooling aren't efficient options. (And with Metrorail's SafeTrack program, not an attractive one either.)

Today's commute was about average: an hour from walking out my backdoor to walking into my office. Tonight will be about the same. So for two hours each workday I'm isolated in my car, burning fuel, polluting the air, adding to congestion, and stressing about what might go wrong along the way.

Is commuting a good use of time and resources? Is my "office experience" crucial to my productivity and professional well-being? How might we do this better?

In some ways, my office is my home away from home: I sit in conditioned space with electricity, running water, Internet access, and even a kitchen in a business neighborhood that offers restaurants, shops, and other services. Meanwhile my home sits empty and idle as the air conditioner continues to run (albeit at a higher temperature setting) and my refrigerator continues to make ice while I continue to pay for Internet service that I'm not using. In a resource-constrained world, this dual environment is an enormous waste.

Governments provide road, rail, and bus systems that get us to our daytime habitats. Then, at the end of the workday, we do it in reverse, leaving offices to sit abandoned in neighborhoods that become nighttime ghost towns.

Ostensibly we do this to work together. But we usually sit in our offices and cubes without any interaction. Sometimes, someone stops by to chat about the latest project or game. But typically there's about as much interaction as action in an NFL game.

Look – I'm not suggesting that we should hunker down at home and interact with others solely through the glow of a computer screen. I am suggesting that there are better ways to work and use resources more efficiently while reducing the externalities of pollution and congestion.

I could see where business neighborhoods become mixed-use neighborhoods with myriad transportation and service options. We could rethink the offices as work cafes where people from many companies can gather as needed and desired to work collaboratively. (Is Starbucks really that different?) If you wanted to, you could share your location and what you're working on with others that have complementary skills who could join you to make the work product better. Just thinking aloud here.

Two impediments here: managers and politicians. Many managers use "butts-in-seats" management techniques rather than work-product techniques: productivity is gauged by personnel control rather than output control. For many politicians, the measure of success is the scale of public works and "making your commute shorter". May I suggest commuting the commute?

There are many people that have to commute. But as the service economy grows, we have to find new ways to use resources and time more efficiently. Baby steps, baby steps ...