Trevor Hancock: Build telecommute centres, not interchanges

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?

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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.

 

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a professor and senior scholar at the University of Victoria’s school of public health and social policy.

thancock@uvic.ca

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