According to a Star Tribune op-ed that’s already been heavily covered by streets.mn, we’re in for a summer long bombardment of messaging financed by local partisan think tank Center of the American Experiment. Despite reams of research that argues otherwise, motorists will see billboards, bumper stickers, and radio ads proclaiming that the only way to fix their terrible commute is more freeway lanes.
The article states the goal of the messages is “encouraging MnDOT and the Met Council to build more traffic lanes,” though a cynical person might think the real objective is to keep outer ring suburbanites focused and angry enough about their commutes to carry their resentment to the ballot box.
Which, considering the MNGOP’s opposition to dedicated revenue streams for any transportation infrastructure, is a bit of a bait and switch if you ask me. Even if adding two lanes to every freeway in Minneapolis would solve traffic overnight, I doubt you’d find the Center of the American Experiment championing the gas tax increase (or any tax increase for that matter) that would be required to pay for all that new concrete. So ultimately, it seems a pro-freeway, anti-transit position held by an organization that’s also anti-tax would result in nothing but idling engines and busy gas stations. But I’m sure that’s a coincidence.
Does it have to be that way, though?
For the sake of argument, let’s say the Center of the American Experiment is genuinely concerned about congestion in the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro area and wants to offer a conservative alternative to the transit vs freeway status quo. What messaging could they adopt that would not only fix the systemic problems with traffic in the cities, but wouldn’t cancel out other strongly held values of their organization to the point of impasse?
Which brings me back to the title: if the Center of the American Experiment wants to fix congestion, they should fight for telecommuting.
Smart phones are now as powerful as computers were ten years ago. Internet speeds, while still lagging behind most of the developed world, are more than adequate to stream entire seasons of television shows or engage in marathon video chats or online gaming sessions. Technically, as far as most typical office duties go, we’ve been ready to roll on a telecommuting revolution for years now. But it’s never happened, many large companies have rescinded their telecommute policies to ensure new corporate towers are full of busy bees, and some are even declaring it dead before it’s ever had a chance to shine.
While that might seem like a strange suggestion at first glance, it actually checks a number of boxes on a conservative priority list:
Taxes – The most obvious way to incentivize telecommuting would be to offer companies a tax break that’s based on the percentage of their workforce who telecommute, if not the only way. Luckily, lobbying for tax breaks is somewhat of a specialty for the Center of the American Experiment.
Allows us to do more with what we already have – If we take cars off the road (or at least add less of them), we don’t need to build more roads or lanes. That means we have fewer lanes we’ll need to maintain and rebuild in the future, helping manage ongoing infrastructure expenses.
Allows freedom to live where you want – A refrain heard often when MSP traffic is discussed is “You shouldn’t live in Forest Lake if you work in Lakeville!” And while that statement makes sense in abstract, for many people moving isn’t an easy option. Especially when children are involved, or you have unstable employment. Telecommuting makes it easier for someone to live in the community they want to live in, regardless of how far away it is from them physically.
And while not strictly conservative goals, additional benefits to championing telecommuting include:
Millennials want it – A lot of conservative values are a hard sell on a generation that, according to sloppy clickbait headlines, is killing industries left and right. But younger workers are big on workplace flexibility. While an organization with ties and muscle within American business communities pushing for something they value might not be enough goodwill to outweigh the current political climate, it couldn’t hurt for Center of the American Experiment to at least try and hedge their demographic bets.
The technology exists now – A common argument against investing in transit is that “we’re on the cusp of a transportation revolution with self driving cars.” Which is true, in a sense. But accountants didn’t stop using abacuses before personal computers and calculators were available because we were “on the cusp of a computer revolution.” Nobody cancelled their cable ten years ago because we were “on the cusp of a video streaming revolution.” We have problems now, and we need to solve them now with current technology. When the self driving car inevitably arrives, it will change everything. But that doesn’t mean we can sit around waiting for it. And in most cases, the technology and internet infrastructure is ready for telecommuting right now.
For all the benefits of telecommuting, there are issues with it as well. A workplace team of remote and in-person employees can sometimes be a challenge to manage and be managed under. Ultimately, there will be companies that either can’t or have no interest in taking advantage of the program. And while offering employees the choice to live where they want might reduce congestion in urban areas, it still encourages poor land use and sprawling development. But championing a telecommuting tax break is at least more ideologically in line with the Center of the American Experiment’s goals. And think tanks are especially good at, as Bing Crosby put it, accentuating the positives and eliminating the negatives on any given issue.
If anyone from or affiliated with the Center is reading this, I would love to hear your thoughts on promoting telecommuting as part of a traffic solution. We might not be able to agree on everything, but I think this is an alternative that could find champions on both sides of the aisle.
I work at a company that embraces telecommuting, and I love it. I think it’s going to become more and more prevalent, as traditional office cultures gradually give way to new technological, generational, and economic trends. I’m 100% in favor of it and think it should be encouraged by more companies and organizations.
However, one aspect of telecommuting that needs to be considered is that it is yet another way that privileged white collar people are becoming less and less similar to everyone else in the economy. “Knowledge workers” go to the coffeeshop and tap on laptops, whereas everyone else is stuck commuting, on their feet for nine hours, etc. It therefore can seem like yet another unfair elite perk, rather than a social good. This is deceptive because telecommuting is often very demanding (i.e. answering emails at all times, working longer hours, etc.). Still, the farmers and laborers in my family tend to view my telecommuting as a luxury won by my education.
I’m skeptical of the tax credit proposal for a few reasons.
— First: I’m not sure that companies need much encouragement that telecommuting is worthwhile. My employer already allows telecommuting where it makes sense, and those in my (admittedly white collar) social circle tend to work in places with similar policies. Places where there is a clear advantage to the company to telecommuting tend to have accepted it.
— Second: For most of the positions where it isn’t allowed, I’m not sure a tax credit would change behavior. Retail, education, healthcare, manufacturing and similar jobs would not be able to telecommute in most cases. The service industry also often requires in-person work. And the point is moot for other jobs — such as sales, cab drivers and maintenance workers — that don’t spend time in the office but spend all day on the road.
— Third: It is often employees, not the companies, that choose not to take advantage of telecommuting. For me personally, I am more productive with my workplace setup, increased face time with my boss and other colleagues helps me professionally and the spontaneous interactions in the office generate fresh ideas (much as happens in dense urban areas). I could probably never work from home completely, but I certainly could work from home more than I choose to. Shouldn’t the cost of that decision fall on me, not the company, as happens with a gas tax?
My guess is that a telecommuting tax credit would mostly wind up paying companies who already do it without doing enough to encourage others to change their behavior — particularly those companies that see real advantages from a traditional commute.
Agreed. I’d rather see the federal government eliminate tax credits for providing parking for employees.
Those are all valid points. I don’t think this is a bulletproof solution by any means, more that it’s far more ideologically aligned with Center of the American Experiment’s anti-tax stance than a pro-road construction message. Because we all know they’ll never support the additional revenue that would be necessary to expand MSP’s freeways.
I have had several telecommuting jobs, because my preference is for part time flex hours and companies often do that with remote employees instead of office ones.
It’s not necessarily a perk, because it puts a lot of costs on the employee – space, tech needs, internet costs, janitorial and most admin support, all sorts of things. It saves employers quite a bit of money if they have enough telecommuters that they can lease less space. So it’s a facet of a lot of not very well paid office and service jobs – a lot of companies hire remote customer service reps, which is hardly elite (and is often no-differential offshift work)
Also, as you said, a lot of people feel more productive in an office and I think there’s more opportunity for advancement when you work face to face with people.
The same technology that allows your job to be done at home allows it to be done from India. Just saying…
That’s true of the internet regardless of what we do about traffic.
Just saying what? If that’s all there is to it what’s stopping them from just moving it India in the first place? I don’t think you understand how many businesses work.
Received a reply from the Center for the American Experiment. Here it is:
My name is John Phelan and I am an economist at the Center of the American Experiment. I read your interesting item about our recent report on traffic congestion in the Twin Cities. You said you’d like to hear our thoughts, so here I am.
First, I would note that we have the interests of Minnesotans at heart no less than you.
Second, in the report we do propose a way by which road users pay for extra roads; road pricing. We think this would be a better method than a gas tax increase because it charges for use of the road and not the use of gas and it road use not gas use which we are concerned with here. And, to the extent that drivers are taxpayers, this amounts to asking taxpayers to pay for it.
Third, we support telecommuting. As you say, it lessens the amount of cars on the road and reduces congestion. It also, as you say, spreads people around which means less upward pressure on house prices in certain areas (a major problem in my home town, London).
Fourth, while supporting telecommuting, sadly, for reasons of economic geography we don’t see it making more than a marginal contribution to reducing congestion at present. The death of cities or the death of the office have been predicted for almost as long as there have been cities or offices. Yet they persist. Economic geography suggests that they do so because there is a real value to people being close to other people professionally. The spillovers at the heart of new/endogenous economic growth theory are probably the best example. I think, at present, this value is too great to be matched by telecommuting.
Anyway, I enjoyed reading your article.
Why do we need more road before we start pricing road usage? Seems like a measure that could be taken to reduce congestion without constructing anything.
Also, we should be taxing gas as well as road usage, as reducing gas consumption is most definitely a goal. And if nothing else, gas taxes can help internalize the externalities associated with gas consumption.
Meanwhile I’m actually ambivalent as to whether we should really be trying to reduce congestion in the absence of congestion pricing, because in itself it is kind of a form of pricing roads. We’re not currently pricing congestion in dollars but we are in minutes.
I look forward to CAE pushing for congestion pricing of our entire existing freeway network. That would be an immediate and significant solution to congestion, no new lanes required! I would fully support that push.
Me too! (It’ll never happen tho)
Aside from the discussion about telecommuting, the Center for the American Experiment’s dislike of transit, including LRT, might be less justified if LRT planning gave us results that actually reduced traffic congestion rather than questionable schemes to promote real estate development.
I do not think you and others (ie Commissioner Jeff Johnson) are looking at the application of LRT correctly. The SW LRT project is an excellent application for this form (LRT) of rail transit. However is is just one line. By now there should be five or six tram lines in the western suburban region, and the SW LRT should have been built 40 to 50 years ago. In addition every structure that is called or designated as a “highway” should have a parallel and separate space for the bicycle and for walking, separating walk from bike. We do not have that infra in the western suburbs. We have a significant network for motorways – lots. At this point in time adding motorway only lanes will not address “congestion”, it will exacerbate congestion of motor vehicles. The core proposal(s) of the Center for the American Experiment is a *motorway only* approach to transport and that does not and has not worked in any city or metro area in the world. Recent examples are Houston and Los Angeles.
There are a lot of occupations and jobs that cannot telecommute. My job I cannot telecommute – I need to be there in person.
There are many trips that cannot telecommute. People need to transport to places.
It’s not meant to be the entire solution, just part of one (and a part that’s much easier to implement than others).
Sure. But we can’t wait for the one perfect solution that address 100% of everyone’s needs and desires, when there are solutions that can alleviate some of the pain points.
There are a lot of occupations and jobs that cannot telecommute. My job I cannot telecommute – I need to be there in person.
There are many trips that cannot telecommute. People need to transport to and from places.
but if all of us who could did something other than drive on the interstate during rush hour – bike, bus, telecommute, work off-shift (I’ll tell you, I’ve been driving to work on 35W a lot lately and the difference between 8:30 am and 9 am is HUGE) things would be better for everyone, including the folks who absolutely have to be on the road in a car.
I find working with people who telecommute to be a pain, so I usually avoid working with them when I can. Because they are more difficult to communicate with and are more sporadic in their availability. And since they miss out in all the water cooler conversations they tend to miss important details which cause problems to bubble up latter.
Also I don’t telecommute because being alone at home all day would just be depressing.
I work for a global company where everyone is scattered out of logistical necessity, so for me, working with people remotely is just the way it is, and we find ways to make it work. It doesn’t matter if that person is at their home ten miles from my office, or at another corporate office a thousand miles away.
I know it can work OK, I just think its just less efficient in terms of hours worked, and creates a less motivating & collaborative culture.
Way more time is spent out of the necessity spelling out and restating every detail, and it can be much harder to gain any kind of consensus, or do anything innovative.
But if people like it that’s fine, I just would never work for a company where I couldn’t bounce ideas around with peers in person.
I prefer in-person for most things too, but not everyone does and not every task is better in an office where you’re likely to be interrupted by the in-person-preferring folks. Some tasks need uninterrupted flow time.
But lots of jobs are a mix, and having the flexibility is a huge, huge benefit all around. Being able to (for instance) answer emails and voicemail from home before a 10 am doctor’s appointment, instead of taking the entire morning off. Or taking off at noon to go to an end of school showcase and then working from home after the kids go to bed – your stuff gets done, you get to have a life, if you’re outward-facing the company’s responsiveness looks AMAZING. Having people do some work and not risk their lives on days with terrible snow.
And a side effect is less terrible commutes. My husband can work from home whenever he wants. He usually goes into the office, but a lot of times it just depends on the weather.