Urban sprawl revisited: the suburbs

Recently the New York Times ran an OpEd piece on the changes in urban sprawl, particularly suburban sprawl. The Times also asked for comments on the work-at-home aspects of sprawl. Here are my slightly expanded comments [not published by the Times because of length or . . . ].

The suburban sprawl (or not) trend is indeed a mixed bag. While some home owners, or prospective homeowners, may be moving to newly vacant homes in the suburbs, others are moving back into the city to occupy former office space converted to residences. Part of this is a result of the growing disconnect between where one works and where one lives. Just a few years ago the flight to the suburbs was driven by escalating land prices in the central cities; home-owning hopefuls went for affordable housing even at the price of long commutes to offices in the central cities. For many those commutes have since become telecommutes.

Ken Terry [the author of the Times piece] provides a typical picture of the contemporary well-educated telecommuter. We have been measuring the impacts of telecommuting since 1973, during the first oil crisis, and consistently have found that telecommuters of all sorts are more productive and more creative than their in-office colleagues, they take less sick leave and are more loyal to their employers. The bottom line for employers of telecommuters is an annual one-fifth of salary return on investment.

Furthermore, our research shows essentially no effect of telecommuting on suburban sprawl. We have found that some telecommuters move farther from their employer’s main offices, some move closer; the net distance moved is essentially zero. Since telecommuters arguably constitute one-fifth, and growing, of the American workforce, their residential preferences are increasingly important since residential dispersion has energy and environmental impacts.

What hasn’t changed, or has changed only slowly, is the attitude of employers that their employees must be in the office every day, meeting face to face, or (they think) everything will go down the tubes. After all, where employees live isn’t the concern of the boss, they think. Wrong! Certainly some face to face interaction may be vital for some business occasions, such as getting organized on a new project or other situations of high confusion and/or uncertainty. Yet it’s abundantly clear that face-to-face can also be very counterproductive (like the gossip around the watercooler?). Groupthink, not creativity, is the result of constant togetherness.

But back to suburban sprawl. The hoped-for trend in the contemporary environment of sophisticated information technology battling global warming is that workers will move to communities where they can live and work and even (gasp) get out of their cars wherever they are. The millenials seem to have caught on to this. When will the rest of us?

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