Build telecom­mute cen­tres, not in­ter­changes

Times Colonist - - Comment - TREVOR HAN­COCK Dr. Trevor Han­cock is a pro­fes­sor and se­nior scholar at the Univer­sity of Vic­to­ria’s school of pub­lic health and so­cial pol­icy.

The pub­lic-health ap­proach to man­age­ment of dis­ease and in­jury is sim­ple. We be­lieve that the best way to man­age it is never to have it in the first place.

Well, what if we ap­plied that think­ing to the in­fa­mous Col­wood Crawl? What if the best ap­proach to the crawl were to pre­vent it in the first place?

I re­call a per­haps apoc­ryphal story from the early days of the “in­for­ma­tion su­per­high­way” in the 1980s that the U.S. Depart­ment of Trans­porta­tion was will­ing to al­low high­way funds to be used for the dig­i­tal high­way. True or not, it is the right idea — one way to deal with con­ges­tion is to ar­range it so that peo­ple don’t have to travel in the first place. Wel­come to telecom­mut­ing.

Ob­vi­ously, not ev­ery com­muter can telecom­mute, and prob­a­bly many of those who could would still have to be in the of­fice from time to time. But if, on av­er­age, com­muters could telecom­mute one day a week, that alone would re­duce traf­fic vol­ume by 20 per cent.

This would also have en­vi­ron­men­tal health ben­e­fits: Fewer cars mean less air pol­lu­tion and lower emis­sions of car­bon diox­ide, thus help­ing to re­duce global warm­ing, with all its an­tic­i­pated ad­verse health im­pacts.

Telecom­mut­ing can take one of two main forms: work­ing from home or work­ing from a re­mote of­fice. The lat­ter could be a satel­lite of­fice for a min­istry or large busi­ness or a shared pub­lic or pri­vate fa­cil­ity where peo­ple from dif­fer­ent sec­tors could work a day or two a week.

From a pub­lic-health per­spec­tive, I favour the shared of­fice space for sev­eral rea­sons. Work­ing at home can be so­cially iso­lat­ing, but also would mean equip­ping ev­ery home with of­fice tech­nol­ogy, and find­ing a suit­able workspace in the home, thus re­quir­ing more equip­ment and prob­a­bly shift­ing costs to the em­ployee.

On the other hand, a neigh­bour­hood telecom­mute cen­tre could pro­vide sev­eral pub­lic-health and other ben­e­fits. First, of course, it be­comes a place where peo­ple gather, thus build­ing com­mu­nity con­nec­tions. Add a day­care or other health and so­cial ser­vices, per­haps a li­brary, a cof­fee shop or small café, and you have even more ben­e­fits. And you get more fam­ily and com­mu­nity time, too, given that time spent com­mut­ing is time not spent with fam­ily and the com­mu­nity.

Tie the cen­tre into lo­cal walk­ing and bik­ing trails and bus ser­vice and you have the ben­e­fits of ac­tive trans­porta­tion. And even if peo­ple do drive, they are not driv­ing as far, which re­duces pol­lu­tion and green­house-gas emis­sions, and they are not spend­ing as much time com­mut­ing. A re­cent Cana­dian study, for ex­am­ple, found that “work­ing from home is as­so­ci­ated with de­creases in over­all travel time by 14 min­utes and in­creases in odds of non-mo­tor­ized travel by 77 per cent.”

A re­cent U.K. study found that work­ers re­ported that a 20-minute in­crease in com­mute time was equiv­a­lent in terms of their re­duced job sat­is­fac­tion to a 19 per cent pay cut. Dr. Kiron Chat­ter­jee, who led the re­search, noted: “An im­por­tant mes­sage for em­ploy­ers is that job sat­is­fac­tion can be im­proved if work­ers have op­por­tu­ni­ties to re­duce the time spent com­mut­ing, to work from home, and/or to walk or cy­cle to work — such com­mut­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties are likely to be good news for em­ployee well-be­ing and re­ten­tion, and hence re­duced costs to busi­nesses.”

All of which brings me to the in­fa­mous McKen­zie in­ter­change, a Min­istry of Trans­porta­tion ver­sion of by­pass surgery — dras­tic, and too late in the dis­ease process. As far as I can see, the ef­fect of the in­ter­change will be to get frus­trated com­muters to their next stop­light and tail­back a few min­utes more quickly.

It would have been a much bet­ter use of pub­lic money if the gov­ern­ment had taken that $90 mil­lion or so and in­vested it in eight or nine $10-mil­lion telecom­mute cen­tres in the West Shore; the en­vi­ron­men­tal so­cial and health ben­e­fits would have been sig­nif­i­cant.

So be­fore in­vest­ing more pub­lic money on a failed 20th-cen­tury ap­proach by build­ing more in­ter­changes, the new provin­cial gov­ern­ment should un­der­take a full im­pact as­sess­ment of telecom­mut­ing, as well as other so­lu­tions such as re­ally good pub­lic tran­sit. We would all be health­ier for it.

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