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There is no low-hanging fruit here

February 3, 2015

Ben Wear reports that the Mayor and Austin Chamber of Commerce want employers to offer flexible working hours and telecommuting to mitigate Austin’s ferocious traffic congestion:

[ I]n the here and now, Central Austin streets, especially downtown, are choked with traffic inside and, often, outside of rush hours. About 125,000 people work in Austin’s central business district. And more people by the dozens are moving to the area every day.

Looking at that ugly picture, a sense of dread is a reasonable response. But elected officials and the transportation professionals who work for them don’t have the option to lower the blinds and curl up on the floor in a fetal position. They have to look for solutions.

Or, in this case, some way to mitigate the damage.

Enter “travel demand management.” Uh, what?

Think of transportation as a marketplace, with supply and demand. The supply is street and highway lanes available, bus and train service, bike lanes, bike share and car share services, taxis and limos, and people’s legs.

Demand, in road terms, is the number of cars and trucks using them.

So, if population is increasing faster than the supply of transportation (or has already, as is the case here), muting the demand might be the only feasible and affordable approach. At least in the short run.

People, however, still have to get where they need to go.

But what if they were to go there at a different time than “normal?” Or not as often? Or what if “there” were closer to home?

Flex work schedules and telecommuting are not new, of course. In 2010, according to the census, about 7.3 percent of workers in the Austin-Round Rock-San Marcos area said they “usually” work at home. That was up from 5 percent just five years earlier, and it put this area 10th in the nation.

The census’ American Community Survey, however, didn’t ask about people using flex time or compressed work weeks, situations where someone is allowed to work four 10-hour days a week, or perhaps nine 9-hour days every two weeks. According to the local transportation official being paid to think about such things, Glenn Gadbois of Mobility Austin, no one is really tracking this.

But whatever the flex time slice is, neither it nor telecommuting usage is taking a sufficient bite out of Austin traffic. New Austin Mayor Steve Adler told me last week he’d like to use his “bully pulpit” to change this. The Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce is advocating for telecommuting and flex time. And Gadbois, through his 4-year-old organization, is trying to make it happen one company at a time.

There is no harm in the Mayor using his bully pulpit to encourage flexible working hours or telecommuting. It’s a lot better than using it to proselytize for a billion-dollar, dead-end rail plan.

But, seriously, this has no chance of making any difference. That’s not because flex scheduling is a bad idea. It’s just  an obvious idea. 

Bad traffic did not start yesterday. (And people were calling traffic bad before they knew what bad is.) Employers and employees have had plenty of time — and plenty of incentive — to adapt to congestion. Flexible work scheduling is just one of many possible adaptations.

Flex scheduling itself is not a new idea. For example,  this page detailing the concept appears to date to the 1990s, back when people used the phrase “world wide web” in everyday conversation. Austin employers are  certainly familiar with the idea today. My firm offers flex scheduling. (One of our legal assistants works four days a week). I know other firms that offer it. Some city employees have flexible schedules. Even AISD uses flex scheduling, with different start times for elementary, middle school and high school students. Everyone knows someone who has a flex schedule. 

We were all promised cushy telecommuting jobs back in the giddy early days of the world wide web. It turns out that there are real costs associated with not being able to interact with your employees or customers or clients face to face. Most employers want to have their employees around each other most of the time. It’s a productivity thing. This is why they spend lots of money on expensive office space and expensive office furniture. If a downtown employer today is requiring its employees to arrive between 8 and 9 a.m. despite the horrendous traffic, odds are the employer believes it needs its employees to arrive between 8 and 9 a.m. 

In order for flex scheduling to make a dent in congestion, employers would need to consider not only their convenience and their employees’ convenience, but the convenience of all the commuters stuck in traffic. If employers and employees had to account for the full costs of congestion they cause, employers might begin requiring employees to report at times that neither employer nor employee would tolerate today. But no one — absolutely no one — will voluntarily require his employees to report to work at 6:00 a.m. just so some anonymous strangers can crawl down I-35 at a slightly faster speed during peak rush hour. Flexible scheduling, in other words, isn’t a technique for internalizing the external costs of congestion. It’s just a tool employers and employees use to reduce their own cost of congestion.  

They’re already doing that.

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