by John S. Niles, Global Telematics
for the The Great Debate at Telecommute '92, Arlington, Virginia, October 21, 1992.
A continuing ramp up in working at home and in new suburban employment centers has coincided with continued expansion of suburban sprawl. Is telecommuting the solution or the problem? Neither! Telecommuting certainly contributes to sprawl, but sprawl is not a problem. Sprawl is natural. Sprawl is mostly beautiful. What's ugly can be fixed, even while sprawling continues.
Telematics (telecommunications married to computers) and transportation are combining with economic and social forces to make metropolitan Washington DC sprawl into Delaware, West Virginia, and Pennsylvania. Appalachian Mountains, Chesapeake Bay, Ocean City, here we come! Telecommuting and telework help make it happen. In the Great American West, Arizona, Idaho and other beautiful, spacious places are becoming "virtual" suburbs of Los Angeles and Seattle. Sprawl on the patio in beautiful Carefree or Sun Valley and keep your job in LA!
Working at home means more demand for big houses with floor space for the home offices of all household members. Big houses with people working in them all day want to be on big lots with great views, and hence work best when further toward the rural edges of a metro area. Farther away from the office is okay too, because teleworkers don't have to go to the office as often as before. And the other kind of telecommuting -- in satellite offices and neighborhood work centers -- is just one more way for jobs and people to move out to the suburbs.
Survey after survey since World War II shows that most Americans prefer a lower density way of life, offering lots of consumer and recreational choices spread over many square miles. Inner-city residents move to the suburbs as fast as they are able to.
Most U.S. job growth is in the suburbs. Most business start-ups are in the suburbs. Large amounts of cheap, flexible office space, mostly in the suburbs, helps companies grow.
To the degree that suburbs create ugly conditions that people and their political leaders want to try to fix, such as traffic congestion, then the solutions lie in developing high-tech 21st century approaches like intelligent vehicle highway systems (IVHS, lately called ITS, intelligent transportation systems), computer-dispatched jitneys, and small zero-emission personal vehicles. The path of failure is to try to force people into high-rise residential density patterns and budget-busting, high-capacity, fixed-route mass transportation systems based on 19th century thinking that is disconnected from 20th century reality, preference, and opportunity.
And by the way, sprawl is completely compatible with rigorous protection of environmentally sensitive areas, preservation of open space for recreation, and blocking of locally objectionable urban development projects such as new landfills and airport expansion. In fact, sprawling land development across ever more square miles is stimulated and guaranteed by these worthy actions!
Finally, telecommuting and telework open up the opportunity to address critical social and economic problems more creatively. An emerging success story has been the re-employment through telework of people displaced in the rising productivity of the rural agricultural economy. Citibank in New York City has made Sioux Falls, South Dakota a suburb. Rosenbluth Travel in Philadelphia has made Linton, North Dakota a suburb. Now, public policy attention should turn to people displaced by the increasing automation and offshore sourcing of manufacturing. Reverse sprawl into depopulating, falling-density, inner-city neighborhoods is an innovation worth trying. With telecommuting/telework, the need and the payoff opportunity increases year by year for state government and business leadership: in California to make Watts a suburb of Irvine; in New Jersey to make inner-city Newark a suburb of Princeton. Co-locate jobs and training where people need help in entering the New Economy. Let's make the sprawl work for all the people!
Last modified, February 07, 2011