Riding Laptops to Work

L.A. mayoral candidates should back unsubsidized traffic reduction

Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn and City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa are sure to break out some great rhetoric about reducing the city’s epic traffic jams as we lead up to their runoff sequel. We’ve heard it before.

Every election, politicians promise to reduce traffic, which nevertheless gets worse. Lawmakers say if more of us would just get out of our cars, traffic wouldn’t be so bad. They’ve tried everything, they say, to pry us from our sport utility vehicles – from rail transit to “walkable” neighborhoods to car pooling, which is, itself, a partial concession to the car’s dominance.

Yet nothing seems to work.

In its share of work trips, transit continues to slide, as does walking, and despite the nation’s most extensive car-pool lanes system, car pooling continues to drop. But some good news has squeezed through the L.A. gridlock – telecommuting.

Other than driving alone, telecommuting is the only commuter mode to increase since 1980. And, as the city with the nation’s worst traffic prepares for another election, we should note what could be done to spur greater telecommuting growth.

Of course, when compared against driving alone, telecommuting’s share of work trips is still small. But that shouldn’t undermine our optimism. Telecommuting will never be the solution, but it is a solution, especially if cost-effectiveness is thrown into the mix.

Despite hefty public subsidies, transit’s share of work trips in the L.A. metro area has dipped slightly since 1980, and it now stands at about 5 percent. Meanwhile, telecommuting has more than doubled. Right now, telecommuting is only 1 percentage point behind transit and costs taxpayers nothing. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, on the other hand, spends nearly $3 billion of taxpayer money per year.

Bang for your buck? Telecommuters already outnumber rail commuters, and if current trends continue, soon telecommuting will top bus and rail commuting combined.

Instead of throwing more taxpayer money at failed transit projects, as both mayoral candidates seem intent on doing, they should encourage businesses to embrace telecommuting. As broadband connections increase market share and the price of computers and laptops continues to fall, telecommuting will become a viable option for an increasing number of companies and workers.

In the past, some managers viewed telecommuters as low-grade scammers, loafing at home when they should be working in the office. Yet evidence suggests that home-based workers are actually more productive than their office-bound counterparts. A survey of American Express tele-workers found that they produced 43 percent more business than office workers.

Lower costs typically accompany higher productivity. Since workers on the brink of illness can stay home, absenteeism costs and colds don’t ravage companies. Telecommuters save AT&T $25 million per year in real-estate costs, and the company’s managers report that telecommuting helps them attract and retain good employees. Once companies realize that telecommuting can boost their bottom line, more will allow their employees to stay home.

It’s difficult to quantify how much congestion relief increased telecommuting would bring Los Angeles, but a George Mason University analysis of Washington, D.C., commuting found that traffic delays would drop by 10 percent for every 3 percent of commuters who work at home.

And telecommuting’s benefits cut across many seemingly unrelated policy areas. Since it is zero-emissions “transportation,” telecommuting helps clean the air. It also helps to reduce highway fatalities and to increase family time. Since telecommuters cost companies less than office workers, “homesourcing” offers an alternative to offshore outsourcing. Working at home also makes it easier for the handicapped to hold a job.

Telecommuting is growing even though hostile policies, such as local zoning ordinances against home-based businesses, try to suppress it. Since home-business owners and telecommuters rarely agitate as the type of organized interest group that gets political attention, laws that hamper working at home often lurk in relative obscurity. The next mayor should squash all barriers to telecommuting. More and more of us can get to work simply by traveling from our beds to our dens, and politics shouldn’t clog that commute.

Ted Balaker is the Jacob’s Fellow at Reason Foundation.