Planning Green
Teleworkers Catching up to Strap-Hangers

Removing the bane of most employees’ morning routine—a long slog from the suburbs to a workplace in the city center—might also be the most potent way to reduce carbon emissions. You don’t need to be well-versed in the complexities of labor economics to grasp this simple concept: Teleworking reduces infrastructure costs for municipalities and limits transportation expenses for workers, both in terms of time wasted and money spent riding trains, metros, and busses.

And as an article from City Journal notes, the number of teleworkers now almost rivals the number of strap-hangers across the country:

The proportion of the labor force working from home continues to grow. In 1980, 2.3 percent of workers performed their duties primarily at home; by 2015, this figure had doubled to 4.6 percent, only slightly behind the proportion of people who commute via mass transit. In legacy core-metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs), the number of people working from home is nearly half that of those commuting by transit. In the 47 MSAs without legacy cores, according to the American Community Survey, the number of people working from home was nearly 250 percent higher than people going to work on trains or buses.

The article goes a step further in deciphering these trends. It juxtaposes them against another major shift in the American way of life:

[An] important demographic force contributing to the work-from-home inclination is Americans’ continuing move to lower-density cities, which usually lack effective transit, and to the suburbs and exurbs—where 81 percent of job growth occurred between 2010 and 2014. While most metropolitan regions can be called “polycentric,” they are actually better described as “dispersed,” with central business districts (CBDs) and suburban centers (subcenters) now accounting for only a minority of employment. By 2000, more than three-quarters of all employment in metropolitan areas with populations higher than 1 million was outside CBDs and subcenters.

The effects of these combined changes are only set to grow.

And yet urban planners persist in their folly of “investing” tens of billions of dollars on urban rail projects that, between the coming of autonomous vehicles and the growing role of telework, will almost certainly be underutilized. Those elephants you see before you, dear urbanists: they’re white, not green. An environmentally conscious urbanism should seek to create a favorable business climate for the tech-heavy and emissions-light businesses of the future.

Of course, a 100 percent commitment to telework has proven difficult to sustain even for lean web startups; IBM and Yahoo have also notably reined in their employees’ ability to work wherever they choose. But this isn’t an either/or proposition, especially when it comes to the environment. A reduction in the number of days spent at the office still means lower emissions and less demand for the next generation of mass transit.

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