October 29, 2012

Telecommuting an answer social planners ignore

D. Dowd Muska

If a transportation phenomenon cuts gasoline consumption and allays traffic congestion, but isn't the result of "green" mandates, does it really exist?

Ask the nation's central planners. The pols, bureaucrats, and activists who annually squander billions of tax dollars on schemes to modify Americans' mobility and land-use preferences don't exhibit much interest in the shift toward telecommuting.

Fortunately, the U.S. Census Bureau's data-crunchers do. "Home-Based Workers in the United States: 2010" reveals that a growing number of employers and employees are making the latter's desire for convenience coexist with the former's need for accountability and productivity.

In the days of Don Draper, of TV's MadMen, working from your house was headed for oblivion. Between 1960 and 1970, the number of employees with no commute dropped from 7.2 percent to 3.5 percent. The Me Decade saw another decline, to 2.3 percent. But the Era of Reagan brought a reversal. By 1990, domicile-based labor ticked up to 3 percent, followed by 3.3 percent in 2000. Telecommuters, the Census Bureau reports, "increased from 4.8 million (3.6 percent of all workers) in 2005 to 5.8 million (4.3 percent of all workers) in 2010."

As the Reason Foundation's Ted Balaker noted in a 2005 study, since 1980, "only one commute mode besides single occupancy driving has increased — telecommuting." In 68 of the 366 urbanized regions examined in the bureau's new analysis, at least 5 percent of employees punched a clock at home. The all-star team includes Boulder (10.9 percent), Medford (8.4 percent), Santa Fe (8.3 percent,) Kingston (8.1 percent), and Santa Rosa (7.9 percent.)

Fans of government-run transportation systems can't be happy. Consultant Wendell Cox, poring over figures in 2010, concluded that a decade earlier, "working at home had a larger market share than transit in 28 of the present 52 major metropolitan areas. By 2009, working at home led transit in 38 major metropolitan areas … Between 2000 and 2009, the working at home market share increased nearly six times as much as the transit share in the major metropolitan areas (38.4 percent compared to 6.4 percent)." Remove heavily bus- and train-dependent New York City from the national numbers, Cox noted, and there are more no-commuters than employees who take "mass" transit.

Nearly 50 percent of homeworkers captain their own enterprises. A little under 40 percent work for companies, and 5.3 percent have nonprofit occupations. Bringing up the rear, at a rate far less than its portion of all employment, is "public service" at the local (2 percent), state (2.6 percent), and federal (1 percent) levels.

Census researchers stipulate that "men and women work in different sectors of the economy and have different jobs" — reality to you and me, sacrilege to pay-equity shriekers — but there are "few large differences between men and women in the percentage that were home-based workers after accounting for their class of worker, industrial, and occupational distributions." Telecommuters are clustered in management, finance, science, and sales. (It's not surprising that restaurateurs, loggers, electricians, butchers, and nurses can't accomplish their tasks off-site.)

Telecommuting's advantages are obvious: fewer cars on the highway at rush hour, better air quality, less demand for increasingly pricey fuel. But Balaker found hidden benefits as well, including stress reduction for "surly motorists," enhanced opportunities for the disabled, and a rethinking of "how managers measure employee performance" — i.e., the activities that further an organization's "core mission" count, not "staying behind a desk for a long period of time."

At a time when too many quality-of-life indicators are deteriorating, the work-at-home revolution offers Americans a modicum of relief. Nonetheless, telecommuting remains transportation policy's stepchild. It's so … boring.

Let's explore the mindset: Where's the role for government? Visionary elected officials, working with enlightened experts in sustainability, have implemented policies and committed to investments aimed at grappling with gridlock. Transit-oriented development! Walkable communities! High-speed rail! Bicycle paths! Yes, "smart growth" hasn't yielded quantifiable results yet. But since when has cost-effectiveness mattered? There are press conferences, public hearings, listening tours, stakeholder sessions, consulting contracts, legal fees, ribbon-cutting ceremonies, union-only construction, campaign contributions, and votes at stake!

Telecommuting represents a triumph of the productive sector's innovation and tenacity over the political class's inertia and timidity. The refusal to expand roads and highways has made driving a miserable chore. Technology now offers the option of a zero-minute commute, and millions are making the switch.

Many — probably most — jobs can't be telecommutized. But for now, working from home will continue to proliferate. Just don't expect to hear much about it.

D. Dowd Muska (www.dowdmuska.com) writes about government, economics, and technology. He lives in Broad Brook.

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