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The Cheapest Commute is No Commute

July 06, 2009 By Conrad deFiebre, Transportation Fellow
There are lots of ways to cut the expense of commuting to your job: drive a more fuel-efficient car, live closer to the workplace, adjust your schedule to avoid costly rush-hour congestion, ride transit to eliminate fuel and parking costs, even hyper-miling or eco-driving to get the most our of every gallon of gasoline, recently demonstrated at the State Capitol.

But the cheapest commute, hands down, is the one where you don't leave home at all. Modern communications technology makes this an option for many, at least part of the time. Now the Minnesota Department of Transportation is launching an ambitious campaign to promote more of what it calls "telework."

It's a $3.2 million package of advertising, online training and free or discounted professional consulting for employers who want to start or expand telecommuting among their workforce.

Obviously, this is not for every business or every worker. You can't build a bridge or repave a road while eating Hot Pockets in your pajamas. Doctors and lawyers have to go to the clinic or the courtroom. But information techies, telephone staffers and other non-hands-on types can work from the comfort of home, well connected to coworkers and clients via the Internet and other electronic links.

By removing themselves from traffic, they'd benefit the rest of us still stuck in the daily slog to the office, store or factory. Even greater benefits would accrue to their employers, said Teresa Wernecke of the Downtown Minneapolis Transportation Management Organization, including "increased employee productivity, enhanced recruitment and retention, reduced costs and improved business flexibility."

Interestingly, the new MnDOT program, called eWorkPlace,, is a small element of the $183.5 million state-federal Urban Partnership Agreement that will bring more familiar gridlock-fighting tools to Interstate Hwy. 35W and Cedar Avenue. These include congestion-priced toll lanes, bus rapid transit and new suburban park-and-ride lots.

"The primary purpose [of eWorkPlace] is to reduce congestion on roadways in and around the Twin Cities by encouraging employers to offer workers the option of teleworking," MnDOT says. "The program goal is to recruit and retain at least 2,700 participants between June 2009 and June 2010."

That seems like a fairly modest target to me, though even if 2,700 participants stayed home just one day a week, more than 1,000 daily rush-hour trips would be eliminated. Fortunately, MnDOT's effort goes hand-in-hand with another workplace innovation that could boost results far beyond the stated goal.

It's called Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE), a movement fostered by two Twin Cities entrepreneurs in a consulting business they call CultureRx. The idea is to drop fixed work schedules and mandatory meetings, leaving the focus on productive output, not hours behind a desk.

CultureRx doesn't even have an office, cofounder Jody Thompson told the Star Tribune. "We work wherever there's a wireless connection," she said. "We always say ROWE is like Tivo for your work."

Does it work? Fairview Health Services' chief information officer told the Star Tribune that ROWE increased his IT staff's productivity by 20 to 25 percent in just a few weeks. If word of that kind of success gets around, commuters could start abandoning the freeways in droves.

And that might ease the pressure on both our transportation infrastructure and rush-hour drivers' nerves.

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