Urban sprawl revisited

About 22 years ago I wrote a paper* about the impact, if any, of telecommuting on urban sprawl: that steady creep of suburbs outward around large cities. The paper was based on our measurements, over a period of two years, of residence location changes made by telecommuters. The idea was to test whether telecommuting acted to increase urban sprawl by making it easier to live farther from one’s workplace.

The answer was negative: although the median per-telecommuter annual mileage saving was 2046 miles, the household move distances were essentially a wash—some moved a bit farther away, some nearer to work. So our conclusion was that telecommuting doesn’t affect urban sprawl. Case closed.

Now comes an Op Ed piece by Paul Krugman in the 29 July 2013 edition of the New York Times. Titled Stranded by sprawl, the article explores the relation between urban sprawl and joblessness. Krugman concludes that part of the reason for persistent joblessness among lower income families is that their homes are not where the jobs are and the transportation system, such as it is, doesn’t make it easy to get to jobs. The greater the urban sprawl the worse the problem gets.

This brings us to part 2 of the urban sprawl conundrum: use telecommuting to alleviate the impact of urban sprawl! Successfully send the work to the workers instead of failing to get the workers to the workplace.

Unfortunately I haven’t been able to test this yet. Let me give you an example of the case in Los Angeles a few years later. One of the problems with jobs for the poor is that prospective employers tend to claim that the poor applicants aren’t sufficiently trained to do the work that’s required. In order to get the training the applicants would need to be able to get to the workplace on a regular schedule. But the workers can’t get to the workplace regularly because the public transit system doesn’t go near their homes, either at all or with a proper schedule and they couldn’t afford their own cars. Catch 22!

But aha! What if workplaces could be set up in low income neighborhoods? What if the workplaces could provide training and jobs for a variety of types of work, including information work? They could bootstrap the neighborhoods from drains to contributors, from alleged parasites to real symbiotes, no?

Well, that was my idea in the early 1990s. I’d try to enlist the aid of NGOs that claimed to be working to provide jobs in their communities as well as private corporations that were looking for certain job skills and were willing to invest in some training as part of the deal. Then we could set up cooperative neighborhood workplaces—or at least a test version of one in a likely location—demonstrate that the concept works and then expand it to a number of communities in need.

Except that’s not how it worked out. The NGOs were mainly concerned with getting high-non-profit grants from the government and the corporations were far more interested in avoiding risk than in providing jobs. No one was interested in doing what I proposed and I hadn’t the resources to do it myself. So I gave it up.

A few months later I was upbraided by a councilman for not setting up a program for new jobs in his district as part of our telecommuting work there. When I told him that I had tried for years to get someone involved in just such a plan and had been turned down every time he stopped his rant. But he didn’t give any help.

So telecommuting as a way to alleviate urban sprawl remains untested, at least by me. If you have any information about successful programs please let me know the particulars.

*Jack M. Nilles. Telecommuting and urban sprawl: mitigator or inciter? Transportation 18 411-432, 1991.

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