Commuting is destroying our world.

2004-10-02 16:56

Seriously. Commuting really is that bad.

It’s not that no one ever needs to commute. It’s that we have a lot of people commuting who don’t need to, and the net result is a feedback loop of interacting problems making each other worse.

Commuters waste gas, and pollute the environment. They waste time. Furthermore, the more time they spend stuck in traffic jams, the more gas they waste and the more time they waste, and the more of them there are, the more traffic jams they get into.

Underneath it all is a basic design flaw: We have a huge number of people moving the same way, at the same time, all at once, and each of them is in a separate car.

Carpooling helps some. If you can have three people in a car, you’ve just taken two cars off the road. Reducing the number of cars on the road has exponential effects; you’re not only reducing the number of cars directly, but you’re reducing the amount of traffic jam, which means you’re increasing the speed at which the other cars get off the road too.

Telecommuting works better. A telecommuting employee isn’t on the road at all. It’s not just a question of traffic jams; there’s no commute time at all, and there’s no gas burned moving the employee around.

The time spent commuting is often overlooked or underestimated. Many people have a commute of half an hour to an hour each way. Some have longer commutes. An hour each way, for a regular 9-5 job, translates into ten hours a week; on a 40 hour job, that’s 25% overhead. In practice, this time is mostly lost. Sometimes, people work on the road; the net result is that even more time is lost, as people die in accidents caused by idiots trying to have meetings on the phone while driving.

There are, of course, some jobs that really benefit from or require commuting. Most office jobs don’t. Even when there’s a benefit, the costs of commuting may outweigh it.

Commuting hurts productivity, too. A commuter can’t take a 15-minute break. A commuter can’t take just half an hour off to do something at home, or let the plumber in. When my friends who commute need work done on the house, that’s an entire day off from work; there’s no point in trying to arrange a commute. When I have to have someone over, it generally costs me about 20 minutes.

Working from home cuts the impact of sick days. An employee who’s out sick isn’t about to drive in heavy traffic for an hour, check his email, and drive home, but it’s no big deal to stumble over to the office and have a quick look at the inbox.

In short… Commuting is a disaster. It made sense when we didn’t have reliable high-speed networking. Now, for most people, it’s a bad idea. If we didn’t insist on making people commute just so stone-age Luddite bosses could stare at them balefully over a cup of lukewarm coffee, we’d have less traffic, less polution, more time to work, more time to be home from work, lower costs, and better morale.

Get with the program, folks.

Peter Seebach

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