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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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  • Observe&Report

    For certain vested political and commercial interests, building more, unnecessary transport infrastructure is not “folly” at all. On the contrary, contracts to build white elephants are just as lucrative as contracts to build useful things.

    • FriendlyGoat

      Absolutely true, and under-appreciated in the “why” we do some of the things we do. Contractors make money, jobs are created, the multiplier effect operates. Memorials are built this way too. Also some arenas for sports and other purposes. St. Louis has had a gateway arch for perhaps 50 years.

  • FriendlyGoat

    Tele-workers save time and money working at home—–absolutely. There are side benefits of reduced fuel use, reduced carbon emissions, maybe even reduced incidence of communicable disease. There are fewer opportunities for screwing up life and work with romantic affairs, less concerns about “appropriate attire”—-all kinds of possible benefits. Employers can even balance whether employees really goof off more at home or in group settings, and maybe conclude the latter. And then there is less rent for the boss to pay for office space.

    But only some jobs can possibly be performed remotely and that is never going to change. If people ride the bus to work at an eatery or car repair shop or retail store, they cannot phone it in. So the business community which includes the eateries, shops and stores is always a player in whether it thinks we have adequate employee transportation.

    • Brian

      “less concerns about “appropriate attire”. I remember a long ago Dilbert cartoon. “Day two of telecommuting: personal hygiene is optional.”

    • J K Brown

      Mass transit is seldom reliable enough or operate as late to be of real use to restaurant and evening entertainment venue employees.

      • FriendlyGoat


      • MarkM

        Chicago is a good counter example, thankfully. The mass transit there pretty much runs all night – and there are multiple modes that do so.

      • Curious Mayhem

        They use cabs, which is a fact that surprised me.

  • Gary Hemminger

    building mass transit requires unionized workers. Those people vote. they vote democrat because the democrats give them big pensions and make it impossible to lay them off. That is why we build mass transit.

    • LarryD

      In addition, urban planners hate automobiles, loath the freedom it gives their “inferiors”. Mass transit channels people into going where the planners think they should go.

      • Eurydice

        I have to smile at this. People love their cars and their freedom…until, they have to move to Boston. Then, confronted with narrow one-way streets, thousands of jaywalkers, no traffic law enforcement, random traffic lights, almost no on-street parking, high-priced parking garages, and commutes that are literally “I can see my office building, but can’t actually get there” – well, freedom suddenly acquires a different definition. Freedom here means giving up the car and walking everywhere or taking public transportation.

        • rheddles

          That says more about Boston than people and explains a lot about the mentality of those who live there.

          • Eurydice

            Well, that sounds like a gratuitous insult, but perhaps you didn’t mean it that way?

          • rheddles

            Both. Washington complained about the roads in Boston when he took his victory tour of the states. So it’s nothing new.

            Only in New England would it make sense to say, “You cahn’t get theah from heah.” As Churchill said “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” In New England I think that’s true of the roads as well. Bad enough they started off Puritans who thought only they knew God. Then they started driving on their cow paths. And they still think only they know the truth.

          • Eurydice

            The Brahmins may not like to admit it, but Boston has a pretty diverse population. You’d be hard-pressed to find a Puritan nowadays and most people aren’t any more sure of the truth than anybody else in the country. But, it makes for a nice marketing story.

          • rheddles

            True, except wrt AGW, the new apocalyptic religion.

        • orthodoc

          Well, when your roads follow paths laid out by cows, who are not blessed with a sense of direction….

          • Eurydice

            That’s a charming story, but not really true. Cows did graze on the Boston Common, but the real reason Boston’s roads are the way they are is because it’s an ancient city that grew from a village. It was built on a river, it was (and is) a seaport, there were lots of hills and forested areas. Over the centuries, some hills were used for landfill, the forested areas were cut back, different neighborhoods sprang up, etc. Urban planning can only predict so far into the future.

        • Curious Mayhem

          We drive into Boston and park, if we can get discounted or validated parking. My wife takes the train in, but she’s going straight to the financial district. When I was single, I cheated: I parked in Brookline and walked to the Green Line 🙂

  • Andrew Allison

    “. . . . . will almost certainly be underutilized.” Name one existing urban (or suburban) rail project built during the past 50 years which isn’t underutilized. Exhibit A is the Diridon Memorial Boondoggle, aka the Santa Clara VTA.

  • Brian

    IBM was the pioneer in telework. I think it is now the pioneer in bringing people back into the office. It’s not just IBM, it’s Aetna, it’s Hewlett-Packard, it’s E & Y. The insurance company I retired from in 2015 has now cut back on telework drastically. Part of it is top management, which has a suspicion when people are not in sight. Part of that is justified – not everyone is disciplined enough to work from home. But the bigger trend is to bring people into the office for interaction. A friend who was brought back into an IBM office after 25 years of telework says that she’s actually surprised at how good it is to be around people, and how much more creative her team has become.

    I fear a few years from now we will see a different article on the demise of telework.

    • D4x

      Excellent points. Adding: NYC also needs a new mayor.

    • m1shu

      I’m far more productive working from home, especially with these new open office designs. They look like German beer halls without any of the fun. People are desperate to get some isolation in order to concentrate, from continually booking conference rooms to buying expensive, noise-canceling headphones. No one enjoys the crunch of your neighbors lunch right next to you nor the overarching din of noise when you are trying to listen to someone on the phone. Lastly, where is the productivity gain of having germs spread so easily through the open-plan office?

  • Boritz

    Why telework is in decline:
    The manager of the past (and the future): Get back to work or I’ll fire the -ing lot of you.

  • Jacksonian_Libertarian

    Mass transit is a Government Monopoly, and as such is as immune to cuts as any other Government Program. American Culture needs an antidote to the Rent seeking parasites.

    • Curious Mayhem

      As always, it’s the fantasy of central planning, which never gets anything right. Even when it does, it’s 10 years out of date, at least.

  • J K Brown

    The urban planners want rail projects so they can continue the hegemony of the Anglosphere with monuments to not just Western Civilization, but the distinct subset that led the way to the modern world.

    Instead, like all the world’s earlier explosions of invention, it, in the words of one of the phenomenon’s most acute observers, “fizzled out.” One unique characteristic of the eighteenth-century miracle was that it was the first that didn’t.

    The other one, the real reason that the threads leading from Rocket [the first steam locomotive] form such a challenging knot, is that the miracle was, overwhelmingly, produced by English-speaking people. Rocket incorporates hundreds of invention, small and large –safety valves, feedback controls, return flues, condensers — to say nothing of the iron foundries and coal mines that supplied its raw materials. If one could magically edit out those steam engines invented in Italy, or Sweden, or –more important — France, or China, Rocket would still run. If the same magic were applied to those invented in England, Scotland, Wales, and America, the platform in the Science Museum would be empty.
    –Rosen, Willam, ‘The Most Powerful Idea in the World’

    Of course, those pushing rail, benefitting from their modern university liberal arts degree are ignorant of the fact that every train locomotive is a moving monument to everything they were taught to despise by their professors.

  • allencic

    If global warming is really a scam (and as a retired earth scientist I believe it is) and carbon dioxide is NOT the devil incarnate, then almost all of the inconvenient, expensive, and pointless “sustainable” and “green” and “carbon free” nonsense that modern society is forced to endure goes on the scrap heap of history. Who needs an electric car if CO2 isn’t the devil. Why litter the landscape with ugly bird chopping or bird frying windmills and solar panels? Good old hydrocarbons and their efficient production of energy would make the most sense in every way.

  • Angel Martin

    for urban policy, the influence of peer pressure and avoiding social stigma cannot be underestimated.

    In the 1950-60’s, the progressive thinkers in urban gov’t tried to be “modern” by: building elevated freeways, tearing up streetcar tracks, closing precinct police stations, limiting development density, demolishing low income neighbourhoods… etc.

    And now, they are demolishing elevated freeways, building light rail, community policing, gentrification, and allowing developers to build extreme density with no parking…

    Whatever they do, it is always more stupid than just doing nothing.

    Instead of grand plans by urban gov’t, they should just stop it, and stick to their core mandate.

    Sweep the streets, pick up the garbage and mow the damn grass in city parks !

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