Friday, September 21, 2007

Crazy Colorado Drivers

If you've been following the news lately you've probably heard the following regarding driving in the state and the country...

1. Denver ranks 10th on the list of the most expensive commutes

2. Drivers are wasting more time than ever stuck in traffic

3. Drivers in the state are driving more

So why are people driving?

The billions spent on mass transit clearly aren't eliminating our traffic woes. I would concede that light rail and bus service may help, but I'm hard pressed to find stats on the web. What I do know, from personal experience, is that light rail is a combination of inconvenience (taking longer to get from the DTC to downtown than driving in rush hour traffic) and expense ($5 one-way = $10 round trip {more than parking and gas}). Other commuters seem to agree (as demonstrated by the volume of cars on the road).

If commuters had any decision (beyond mass transit) in the matter, with #1 and #2, we wouldn't see #3. Who wants to spend hard earned money and precious time commuting? With everyone "going green" you can add a conflict of conscious to the money and the time spent as well.

Most hours on the road are related to commuting to and from work. In fact, most gainfully employed Coloradans, are compelled to be on the road five out of seven days a week (yeah, I know, how dare anyone want to pay his bills?). Ever drive I-25 on the weekends? Notice the difference? We didn't do TRex to widen I-25 for Saturday and Sunday traffic.

I've asked about telecommuting at a number of places I've worked and the answer is the same.... "We don't have a telecommuting policy" (i.e. "no") or "only for off hours" (meaning "on your own time while it represents additional, unpaid, value to me"). Even while consulting and offering a reduction on an hourly rate the answer was still "no." And of course I was never asking for 100% telecommuting time--most companies that have implemented a telecommuting program have still required some attendance at the office. There are also certain jobs that require a physical presence all the time, I haven't held such a job since college when I was waiting tables.

So why the natural resistance, or lack of planning, or apathy? Simple; managers/owners/"bosses" know they can get more out of employees when they can observe the day in and out work being done. If an employee takes eight hours to complete a task, how would you know if the employee really needed eight hours, or was done in two and took the rest of the day off? The remaining six hours would be lost productivity. Productivity, margins, cost efficiency is what modern corporate America is all about!

For an employer, there is no downside for commuting. Employers don't have to buy a car, insurance, gas, or RTD pass. And notice when the price of those items increases, pay doesn't necessarily increase to offset them. Commuting is not a paid activity (I'm not saying it should be). I would argue that stress, weather, and the occasional traffic incident (doesn't have to be your accident, just one that happened five minutes earlier on I-25) all impact productivity but it clearly isn't a large enough factor to counter the fear of lost productivity. Additionally, this source of lost productivity can be placed back on the employee. The question an employee is asked is "why are you late this morning?" not "why are we needlessly clogging the roadways every single weekday?"

So what can be done? Encourage, don't control...

1. Offer Colorado employers a tax benefit for allowing employees to telecommute a certain percentage (not 100%) of the work week. The State would recover the revenue by spending less on roadway projects, including weather "management" and emergency services. Recognize these employers by listing them on an annual communication about the program. Everyone likes a green pat on the back!

2. Encourage employers to allow flexible work schedules when attendance is required. Things like a 4/10 schedule, half days (half in the office, half at home), or even off peak schedules can help commuters recover lost time in traffic.

3. Provide a State income tax benefit to Coloradans who choose to live within a short distance from work. Anyone who observes traffic patterns on I-25 quickly realizes the huge number of people who work downtown yet choose to live in Highlands Ranch or Thornton. Two years ago I moved to be three miles from work and cut my commute from 45 minutes to 10. Imagine the amount of time and money I've saved! Not to even mention the green house gasses that keep Al Gore up at night.

So there you have three excellent ideas to cut congestion and help reduce carbon emissions but you will never see them at work. They do not raise taxes, offer companies a windfall, or even provide the proverbial "free lunch" for commuters. Ultimately, this is about choices and unfortunately people will continue to make bad ones.

Time for me to go to work! Don't want to late...

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