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Home » Culture and Criticism, Stories, True and Otherwise

Congested

Submitted by on April 3, 2008 – 4:03 PM41 Comments

lakeland.jpgMy initial reaction to Governor Corzine's planting the flag on the congestion pricing issue: tough beans, duder. Price you pay for moving to Jersey. You get good schools, you get good trees, and you get a commute that, if it is city-bound, is going to irritate you no matter how it's undertaken, and when I lived with my parents and trucked into midtown back in the day, I undertook every possible route in an effort to find one that didn't erode my sense of well-being. The only quasi-solution?

Switching off every few days between the NJ Transit rail connection to Hoboken (my hometown has a direct connection to Penn Station now, but back then, while they finished building it, you had to train it to the 'Boken and switch to the PATH, in the company of, seriously, 93% of the working-age people in your town); the Lakeland Bus line (the "station" is a concrete hut with no protection from the weather; the terminus is the Port Authority; it's…a bus); and driving myself (bring your own coffee, control the music and climate, and pay out the ass for parking while contributing a clown shoe as your carbon footprint).

And it sucked, but the town is a Wall Street bedroom community; most folks who work, work in Manhattan. It is what it is. Getting rid of the commute has its price too — smaller living space, noise/higher crime, whatever. Anywhere you live has its price, but Jersey commuters and the politicians who represent them have a history of knee-jerk objections to any price increase of this sort.

But once I thought about it for a minute, I had to admit…well, hold on. I still think Corzine is off base, but I don't think he's drawing the wrong conclusion, necessarily; I think he's looking at the problem from the wrong angle. People do move to Jersey to escape the high cost of living in the city (or some of it, at least — the downright nutty property taxes in God's Little Acre won't always leave homeowners with a net gain), and on top of that, Jerseyans already get clipped at tax time for coming into the city to work; it's basically an infrastructure/"for the privilege of working at Goldman, you can help us maintain the water table" levy, and I don't have a problem with that, up to a point. You spend all day here, you can help us fix the roads.

But the problem with congestion pricing is not the pricing; it's the congestion. Which pricing congestion higher will not solve, because people still need to come to work.

Why do people still need to come to work?

Seriously. Why? Yes, of course many people whose jobs involve hands-on tasks — people who work in retail or custodial support — will still have to make an appearance at work. People will still want to take face-to-face meetings with colleagues and clients. You can't sell a car or clean a toilet or handshake-agree on a deal via email; human contact is valuable.

But as much as I liked coming into the TWoP bullpen and shooting the shit with Wing and Alli and Joe about the previous night's programming, I didn't need to do it. I didn't need to come in and preside over a staff; the TWoP staff didn't come in themselves. They live all over the continent. And I didn't so much need to spend 45 minutes each way on an orange-line train that, between 8 and 9:30 AM on weekdays, gets so crammed as to no longer sustain human life, and take longer because of it because people hold the doors, blah blah. Alli came in at 7 a lot of days, to avoid that; I came in at 11; we didn't need to come in at all. The internet is not nine to five-thirty, and my schedule on most weekdays had a burst of activity pre-9 AM, some catch-up work in the morning, dead air after lunch, and another shift from, like, 4 PM to 10 PM. So why exactly do I need to go to the office on a day like that, to rush to get finished and get on a train by 11 AM, and get to the office and have nothing to do for hours? At home, I'd finish my morning tasks, eat a sandwich, and siesta, then get up at 4 and deal from there. Unless I had a meeting, why should I kill an hour and a half round trip?

And it's not unique, that set-up; it's not even unique to me. My first real job out of college, I worked for a company with German ownership, and when the big bosses needed someone on the desk…it's Germany, hello. Six hours ahead. The victim had to get in at 5:30 in the morning to sit on the fax machine; by lunchtime, the big bosses had gone home.

I can think of dozens of industries that either don't require workers to physically appear at all, or could easily get by with telecommuting at least part-time, or split shifting — have employees choose their eight- or nine-hour workday, and come in then. Raising the price of driving is a good idea in theory, and I approve of it in theory, but in practice, if you don't change the congestion part of the equation and the way we as a city culture choose to conduct business, it won't address a damn thing, for two reasons:

1. If you don't want people to drive, you have to make room for them on transit, and based on what I've read the last couple of days — and seen, living here for more than a decade — ain't no more room left to make. Express trains run at max density already, which actually slows them down; the system is full, of trains and people. It makes the commute uncomfortable, and one breakdown will fubar the entire grid for two hours — just one more reason why…

2. People like their cars. Remember that scene in Singles, where the guy is explaining to Campbell Scott that, while his bullet train is beautiful and everything, it's doomed, because people just like to drive? Dead on. The Times article I've just linked to cites a survey in which "the most frequent reasons given by drivers for shunning public transportation were the freedom to come and go as they liked and the ability to avoid dealing with other people."

Not to put too fine a point on it, but: precisely. To get people out of their cars, where they can listen to NPR and not have John Q. Credit Suisse falling asleep on their shoulders, you have to make transit much more appealing; you have to make it likely that they'll get a seat, and you have to get them there much faster and more cheaply than driving would. I'm not saying it's "right"; I'm saying this is how people think, that a lot of people will grumble and bitch and then just pay the extra money because the car has a seat warmer and a CD changer, and the C train doesn't.

Again, I think trying to get people off the road is great. It's good for the environment, it's good for the remaining drivers' stress levels — it's a good idea. But as long as people still have to take their asses into a place of business, it isn't going to have the dramatic effects the government probably expects…and the MTA does not have a proud history of applying budget overages in an intelligent way in the second place, and even if they did, what exactly is the plan here? Buy…more trains? See above. Nowhere to put 'em.

The Holland Tunnel costs twice as much to go through as it did in the mid-nineties, I believe; it didn't do a damn thing to reduce volume that I can see, never has, never will. The people who want to drive will find a way, in their household budgeting, and if your real goal isn't really to get people off the roads but to raise money, I'd propose a selfishness tax on Brooklyn drivers — failure to signal, $250. Double-parking on a non-street-cleaning day, $500 and a boot on the car. You'll have seven new schools built by the end of August.

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41 Comments »

  • Kate says:

    I'm an attorney. An Internet attorney. Do you know what I do most of the day? I surf the Net. I check links. I review websites. I draft UDRP complaints, I sent cease and desist letters, review online policies and draft and negotiate licensing agreements. I work for a big company. My office is a 5 minute walk from my bosses office. When I have no meetings there is no reason for me to be here.

    Yesterday I had an appointment with my doctor. I worked from home in the morning. I started an hour earlier than I usually do (because I didn't have to shower immediate and I didn't have to commute). I got more done. And I did it all with the dog snuggled up next to me on the couch snoring softly. Why do I come into the office? Because it's policy.

    I agree, you want to get the cars out of NYC then do three things:

    1) Start having people telecommute several times a week. There is no reason why people like me can't work 2 days a week from home.

    2) Make all non-commercial vehicles illegal in Manhattan. Seriously, I've been to Fort Lee and it would make an excellent parking lot. People can drive there. Long Island City — same thing.

    3) Make it illegal for anyone living in Manhattan to own a car registered to a Manhattan address. Seriously, the fuckers are rich enough to own a car in Manhattan then they can register the damn thing to the country house in the Hamptons.

    But then again, as a native New Yorker I just don't get the appeal of cars. Ick.

  • Leigh in CO says:

    I agree – it's difficult not to take the driving option. My company recently moved from downtown (a five-mile commute) to the suburbs (a 20-mile commute) and I REALLY want to use public transportation. But darned if it doesn't take me twice as long. There's some benefit in that I get a good hour of reading in each way, but that's a serious chunk of time. I'm forcing myself to do it twice a week. What will help immensely is when NPR moves back to the FM dial later this spring so my Clix gives me my Renee Montagne.

    When they made the move, my company insituted a formal telecommuting policy, allowing for two days a week of work-from-home. It's a big change, culturally, but I'm hopeful they make it work. We have all sorts of tools to allow for this capability, and there's no excuse for failure (except possibly employees themselves, but that's just a whole 'nother topic).

  • jive turkey says:

    Once again, right on Sars.

    I no longer live in NYC (and as such, I have a glorious 15-minute commute – driving OR taking the bus), but I am now dealing with the issue of why I HAVE to come in. I work as an assistant, but the people I support work on flex time. They're often here odd hours, if at all, and most of them have kids and choose to work from home – not to mention the ones who are almost perpetually traveling and rarely make an appearance in the office. It makes no sense for me to be here 8 hours every day when sometimes weeks go by where I don't see a soul. Sure, I have plenty of work to do, but 95% of it is online and it's all stuff I could easily do at home with an internet connection.

    Of course, when the other assistants & I confronted HR about this possibility (which is especially valuable for the parents on staff who have to burn vacation days staying home with sick kids), they said no way. Apparently, our job description states that our positions are "supervised," therefore, working from home is impossible (it has not occurred to them that they could easily, you know, RE-WORD our job descriptions).

    HAAAAAAAATE.

  • CeltZ says:

    As a central Jersey-to-Midtown daily bus commuter, I can not agree with this more. The one thing I think you forgot to point out is that between congestion pricing and raising tolls, not to mention the crazy cost of gas, us commuters get screwed because the bus companies raise the prices to meet the costs. And there's no way I have the option of driving in to work, unless I plan on spending each paycheck just for parking in a garage. (Street parking in Midtown is A MYTH!) I get the pleasure of living in Jersey (yes, I said that with a straight face), but penialized by taxes and trying to use public transportation.

  • CeltZ says:

    I forgot to add, I don't have the option of telecommuting, either, since I work in reception.

  • krissa says:

    Word, from Middle America. There is nothing I do at my office that could not be accomplished from home. My office is in the process of going paperless – and once that happens, there would be no reason at all that 90% of the employees couldn't work from home most of the time…except that it'd be harder to oversee what exactly people are doing, but I feel like even that could be remedied by a weekly/bi-weekly face meeting or something.
    And providing laptops for employees would have to be cheaper than office rent/upkeep on a building…man, I'd love to do this job in my pajamas…

  • attica says:

    I'm a happy commuter. My train into town is clean, on-time, with plenty of seats available when I board. And enough room when all the pickups have been made so that there's nearly always some buffer-seat room to boot.

    Before I snagged my first rail ticket I drove into town. $50-$75 per day to park, sportsfans. The drive home, no matter which route I took, took a full half hour longer than the train ride, and if there was an accident on the George, well, you could age your cheddar.

    I walk to and fro the station in midtown, so I don't have additional bus/subway expense/hassle.

    Bonus? Now I get more reading done than I had for years. And more reading than I do at home, even if I worked from home.

    Could I work from home? Partly. But mostly not. So I commute, greenly and happily.

  • Driver B says:

    Amen to that, jive turkey. I recently moved apartments to lower my rent and in the expectation that some of us would be moving from our way overcrowded university office to an administration building closer to downtown. Now it seems like that deal has fallen through and I'm stuck with my dual-mode, one hour commute. I do appreciate the reading time but 90% of my data work is web-based. . .and I can't work remotely because of 'how the position is classed'. HELLO geniuses, you could solve your space problems AND make us all more productive in one fell swoop. Crying. :(

  • Syne says:

    It's not just a New York thing. Out west in Phoenix, Arizona, we have the same problem with cars and the battle of public transit. Nothing is within walking distance, especially in the summer when the temperature hits 110 degrees and staying outside for longer than ten minutes is enough to give you heat stroke, it's too dangerous and too expensive to build a subway because of the soil quality, and the bus system only runs every half an hour. Can you imagine what it's like trying to convince people to pay $2.50 for the pleasure of waiting thirty minutes in 100 plus degree heat for a bus that doesn't even run close to their home or work?
    I just don't understand how public transit can work so well in other countries with similar, or worse, difficulties (Europe, Japan) but fail so utterly in most American cities.

  • Elena says:

    An interesting sidenote: I work for a trade union in Sydney, and a recent study has found that only 51% of working Australians are in the traditional 9-5 Monday-Friday situation. It would be interesting to know how much of an impact telecommuting has had on that figure, and what the similar statistics in the States would be.

    Managements tend to be leery of employees working from home because they fear the lack of supervision/control, but I suspect that when enough of the big companies find out how much money they can save by not needing to provide workspace for employees, the idea of telecommuting will really start to catch on.

    It's important to recognise the downsides, though. For many people, workplaces are the number-one site for contact with the outside world, and for them to have to work at home would be isolating. Working from home can also add to the work/life balance problem: it can be harder to 'leave work behind' if you do it at home. And it would be very easy for managements to manipulate workers: when you can't see what's happening to other workers, it can be much harder to know if the requests being made of you are reasonable.

    This is not to say that it can't work brilliantly for many people, and god knows, I'd love to be able to make my own hours and work in my pajamas. However, I still feel that there's something to be said for having a place of work that is separate from your home, and for the human interaction that is available to you there. Unless your co-workers are total freakshows, of course.

  • funtime42 says:

    I would love to telecommute, unfortunately I'm the person who supports the computers which make that possible, so I pretty much have to be there. I do however, vanpool to work, spend 30 minutes sleeping on the way in, 30 minutes meditating on the way home.

    There are 15 of us in the pool, and it astonishes us to see lane after lane of huge SUVs (some of them larger than us) with one person in them. Surely, there is someone else going in the same direction, and it's easy to find out who by contacting the state-run matching service. The state also gives tax breaks, emergency rides home, community cars, free bus passes, and other benefits if you car or vanpool, but getting people to give up the "but I might need my car" attitude is near impossible.

  • Kona says:

    Amen. For some reason, what seems to be the majority of companies completely underestimate the effect of a positive working environment, instead hanging on to the mistaken belief that "you're only working if you're physically here." Let me tell you. When I know there's no earthly reason for me to be in the office, it makes me resentful, which makes me less motivated to do more than the bare minimum. However, when I'm working on my couch with my dog and Ellen or Judge Alex or whatever on in the background and some toast on the coffee table, I'm much more focused and willing to hunker down and work.

    40 hours a week at the office is an antiquated way of doing things and the simple fact is that mass transit and the roads are going to suck until the people who run companies learn to really accept it.

  • kw says:

    I unfortunately do not have a job where I can telecommute (I have a brick-and-mortar retail store that pretty much requires a physical location so customers can feel/touch/see what I sell). But at least we moved close enough that my drive is minimal. My husband though, had to pay for it by commuting to work instead (previous to our move, I made the commute though it was opposite of the morning rush hour). His employer finally saw the light and started letting him work from home (previous to that, they told him "if you can do your job from home, it can be done from India". Niiice.)

  • Kizz says:

    Amen to the selfishness tax and feel free to move it into the transit system as well.

    Standing in front of a subway door when there's plenty of room to move in – $50
    Not moving to the back of a bus – $75
    Leaving your bag on a seat – $40 during rush hour, $25 all other times

    etc.

  • Marissa says:

    An argument that doesn't get raised much but is worth thinking about is how this merely transfers the traffic problem from the well-funded city to the less-well-funded outlying areas of the city. Apparently, when it was implemented in London, congestion pricing meant people drove to the last Tube stop before the boundary, parked there, and rode the rest of the way in. Not really reducing their carbon footprint, and really tearing up the infrastructure in these less-wealthy areas. The NYT article touches on it briefly (the bit about Harlem becoming a parking lot), but it's a real downside that there's no real solution for.

  • kate says:

    I totally agree, Sars. I commuted from the shore to the city by train for college and it was 13.00… four years ago and now it's 20.00. If you want cars off the road, stop increasing nj transit and the bus line I would understand if sevice was getting better or I got a seat every night but it's not. I'm so glad I didn't take a job in the city, it just doesn't even out when you factor in the commute for me.

  • Karen says:

    Hmmm. I dunno, Sars. Yes, it's tough to wean people off their cars. Me, not having grown up in a driving culture, I can't imagine anything more heinous than having to deal with a car every day. But I get the American car thing.

    If you start congestion pricing, two things are gonna happen. 1) Some people are going to start taking public transportation instead, which means that public transportation has to improve Big Time. I grew up in Fort Lee, and in order to go ANYWHERE in Jersey, I had to take one bus into the city to get to Port Authority and then catch another out to wherever it was I wanted to go. 2) Most people are going to continue driving in, paying the extra congestion tax, and raising money which [theoretically] is going to go to improve transit, thus aiding the cause of 1).

    The congestion tax also serves, in its way, to replace the very reasonable commuter tax that our idiotic state legislature abolished back in 1999 in a way that made it impossible ever to bring it back (http://tinyurl.com/2qtojr)

    I get how difficult it is to effect change on this sort of thing. We talk such facile talk about reducing America's dependency on foreign oil, but we have no real infrastructure in place other than our highway system; we've got nothing to replace it. Until and unless we have a governmental commitment to creating an effective public transportation infrastructure, we're keeping that oily monkey on our backs. It's going to be a really painful transition no matter how it happens, because American culture is a car culture. It's mindblowing to go to city like Amsterdam or Brussels and see literally hundreds–thousands!–of bicycles parked in neat lines outside the main train stations. We just don't think that way; there's no assumption that that's something we ought to be doing.

    But it's got to start somewhere, somehow. Someone has to have the balls to say, "This far, no farther; let's get this damn thing started." And congestion pricing IS working in London–lord knows they have their share of commuters coming in from the towns in the Home Counties. I've blown hot and cold on Mike Bloomberg, but I admire him for his green initiatives for NYC, and I'm proud that my mayor is dreaming big, and knowing that he's doing the right thing, even if it's gonna be a little painful for a while.

    So, I'm a fan. And I think Corzine is being A Ass.

  • Cyntada says:

    @Syne: Ditto where I live, minus (thankfully) the average 110-degree temps.

    Behind the Orange Curtain, there is nothing that would please me more than to let somebody else negotiate the hurtling SUVs for a while (because even people driving big-ass Hummers usually don't challenge the bus.) I would freaking LOVE to take a bus or train, but there's nothing like planning a 90-minute bus trip for a ride that takes ten minutes in your own car! Or even better, a Metrolink ride that requires a 30-minute car commute to the only station in the area.

    The ironic thing about my industry is that graphic design is *so* work-at-home friendly, but I keep getting jobs in the finance/healthcare sector, which involves lots of sensitive data that I will never be allowed to access remotely. Pity, because I have the same gear sitting on my desk at home, and the coffee is a lot better.

    About to take another 9-to-5 gig for a while, I was just thinking that the best workdays I ever turn in are days that have to end early. There is something about busting a gut for six straight hours and going home that makes so much more sense to me than running out the clock because we "have to" be there until 5:00pm. What if businesses ran two daily shifts, six hours each? Breaks up the traffic, actually increases the total business day, and everybody has a life.

  • Alexis says:

    I have to admit that up to now I've naively accepted (naive because as a transit user and bike advocate I should know from unintended consequences of laws and fees) that congestion charging actually works to both reduce congestion and fund transit improvements that should further allow reduction of congestion. Guess I have to go study up now. :)

    I thought it was also supposed to help close the gap between the expense of driving and the expense of transit (driving is usually already more if you consider insurance, maintenance, depreciation, etc — the problem being that esp outside big cities most people who take transit also drive and thus have those costs anyway), which you cite as important it getting people on transit.

    But I definitely agree that at least partial telecommuting is the wave of the future and can it Get Here Already with the good tools and strategies, even though remote work can be challenging in some ways (less F2F = easier to misunderstand someone, more communication overhead).

    We're allowed telecommuting up to one day a week (or more if your boss doesn't mind), but my boss is so anal about it that I rarely bother — it's easier to come in than to justify to her my desire to work from home, and I have to come in much of the time anyway — due to large files, network access issues, and physical hardware location, mainly.

  • Kerry says:

    The thing with the London congestion charge is that it's SO expensive to park in that area of town anyway (we're talking £25 an hour in some cases) that it had less of an effect than expected. But it did push some people from their cars to public transport. Which is a good thing right?

    Well no. Like NYC, the public transport in London was already full. Though there is room in the system for more trains/longer trains (especially the commuter trains out of town), the transport systems simply don't have the money for the additional rolling stock. They've been losing money steadily since they were privatized.

    The solution? Raise fares on public transport to discourage people from using the train! I live 25 miles from London, and my train ticket costs £370 a month, up 15% from last year. That's about $750 for the right to STAND on a train every day to and from town, because unless it's a bank holiday the train is full long before it gets to me.

    You're right Sars that adding a congestion charge only works if the public transport exists to take up the slack, or if there's a fundamental shift in the way people work. Unfortunately for London, we haven't got either.

  • Jennifer says:

    As a Londoner who takes the tube and the bus to work every day (one hour each way) this completely baffles me. I always just assumed the NYC was the same way. No one I know here has a car, and it works just fine for us. As for weekends, the tube may stop at 1AM but the buses are 24 hours. If I need to get out of the city for a break, I can always take the train or use a "streetcar" that you can rent by the hour/day/weekend. I pay £130 a month for my transport pass, but I have a feeling keeping a car in London would be much much worse.

  • Laura says:

    We don't have public transit out here in semi-rural Texas (at least, not outside of the one bus that makes an inconvenient loop around the city where I live), so I carpool the 30 miles to work (I'm an R&D scientist, so there's no way to work from home). It's good in that I only drive about 20% of the time, and there are only two stops: the Cracker Barrel parking lot for parking, and home/work, but I have to sit next to a guy with chronic allergies and a gum popping habit every day, with no chance of scooting away when another seat opens up.

    Part of the reason I moved away from NJ was to get away from the unpleasant commute.

  • jill says:

    @Syne, Cyntada: Same issues here in Dallas. We have a lovely, not-too-crowded light rail system which I absolutely don't mind using, except that there are only two lines. So unless I'm going straight downtown, there is the ugly issue of buses, which are crowded, poorly-timed, and don't go where I need them to. Also, our temperatures aren't *quite* as high as in Phoenix, but the humidity is not exactly charming. My university provides free transit passes to students, which I really appreciate, but if it's going to take me 3.5 hours each way to get to Fort Worth, sorry, but I'm taking my SUV…

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    If local and state governments offered attractive enough tax incentives to companies that offered employees the option of telecommuting where possible, it would happen overnight. This would also allow companies occupying larger buildings and using larger physical plants to place less strain on the rest of the grid (theoretically; I think that's probably a zero-sum proposition system-wide, but I don't know enough about residential-vs.-commercial usage numbers or how they would change).

    Jennifer has sort of brought up another point: I think sometimes what people *really* want from measures like this is for the city to be less crowded, which isn't going to happen. It didn't happen back in the early '70s, it didn't happen after 9/11, it won't happen during this recession and it won't happen because people have to pay more to use the river crossings.

    But it does seem anecdotally as though traffic has gotten significantly worse even since three or four years ago, when I *did* have a car (you get far enough out in Brooklyn, it is functionally New Jersey vis-a-vis it being a car culture, supermarkets having big parking lots/expecting you to drive there, etc.), and something does need to be done about that. Trying to leave any part of the city by car on a summer Friday between noon and 9 PM has become such an inefficiently dystopian proposition that I won't even attempt it anymore.

  • LisaK says:

    I've also worked for people who insisted on at least a 9 to 5 whether there was anything to do or not, refused to consider working from home at all, and heaven forbid, even though the technology was in place, telecommuting. There was no sensitive data involved and no reason any one had to be in the office, ever. Perhaps a flat tax on employers who aren't doing it for whom telecommuting is a possibility? We could call it the "overcoming the urge to watch your monkies jump" tax.

  • Emerson says:

    I live and work in a suburban, not urban, environment. Thinking about how much sense telecommuting makes gets me antsy–so many costs could be lowered for both my company and its employees. Much less environmental impact. I wish it could happen right now. I know I would encounter resistance if I suggested it, though, for two reasons: 1. Some people come to work to escape their homes–the actual traveling to a different place gives us a sense of importance and purpose. Some of us would be isolated if we worked from home–it seems like the solution is to relearn to interact with one's neighbors, not bowl alone, remake suburbia, etc, but what a tall order. 2. If we worked from home, would we have to be available at any time? Would the boundary that home provides be eliminated? I know these questions are probably paleolithic to some people who have already made this work, but we have to start from where we are, so I'd like some input. The books on telecommuting I've found at Amazon and the library are all about how to work from home as a stay-at-home mom, and they seem bent on pushing the benefits. I haven't yet found an honest assessment of the perks and drawbacks of making the switch. Where to start?

  • FloridaErin says:

    Orlando has some of the worst traffic I've ever seen, believe it or not. Almost worse to take "the back way" then to use expressways, and all the expressways that aren't clogged are toll roads with HORRIBLE toll fees. We have a bus system, but with the distances I have to travel every day and the amount of time I have to do it in, buses are impossible for me. I *could* use them, but it would take me much longer. When I have work and school and still need time to do homework in between, it just can't happen. A good majority of the work I do as a graduate assistant could be done over internet and e-mail, but I don't dare ask, because I'm afraid it'll make me come off as lazy, even though my interest in doing so is almost purely financial. (And a little bit wanting to sit around in my pjs and blast my music, but whatever.)

    So, I spend insane amounts on gas and tolls every week to get where I need to be without a headache. I'm not really sure if that's a fair trade or not.

    A side note on buses, though. They make traffic worse around here because, in most places, we don't have a lane for the bus to pull off when they make stops. Traffic is so bad to begin with that God help you if you get stuck behind a bus. No one's willing to let you go around in the other lanes. :-P

  • Smash says:

    If you really want to dork out and read more about congestion pricing and other issues associated with using existing transportation infrastructure more efficiently, here's a report that the Government Accountability Office issued to Congress last summer:
    http://www.gao.gov/cgi-bin/getrpt?GAO-07-920

  • Risha says:

    I don't know – it's a complicated issue.

    1. I work a job that could easily be fully telecommuted – I've been told that if I asked for it, it would be granted. There's only one person in my entire team who also works in the NJ office, and I don't work directly with her very much. The rest are scattered across Orlando, Cleveland, Newport Beach, London, and India. It's all email, phone meetings, and IM for us. However, I work from home only on Fridays. My concentration is just better in the office; for instance, the only thing I've accomplished so far today is check my email. I know myself well enough to know that I'd fail to ever meet any of my deadlines if I was a full telecommuter.

    Plus, I'd never see any of my friends. My husband telecommuted for a CA company for about six months, and the isolation drove him mad. Telecommuting is not for everyone; all of the literature supports that.

    2. I live in Morris County (Northern NJ) and work in Somerset County (Central NJ). My 29 mile commute takes approximately an hour by car. Unfortunately, I cannot commute via public transportation – it simply doesn't exist. All public transportation in NJ is designed to move you in and out of New York City. To go North/South, I'd need to take the train into the city (or into Newark) and then back out. Not an option.

    3. I cannot car or vanpool. My 40-hour a week job has an expected minimum average of 45 hours a week (seriously, it's spelled out in the hiring paperwork), and I've often had to work 60 or more, often with little notice. (My record, by the way, is 89.5 hours, which included two 24 hour shifts.) This is not that uncommon anymore, at least not in programming. My job is by definition not 9 to 5, and without that you can't car pool. The few people I've seen try it (often by getting back online after you get home) have considered it an abject failure.

    What I think might help would be encouraging companies to allow more flex time, when you can work when you want. Moving a portion of the traffic to other times would make everything move faster, including public transportation.

  • Sarah D. Bunting says:

    "1. Some people come to work to escape their homes–the actual traveling to a different place gives us a sense of importance and purpose. Some of us would be isolated if we worked from home…"

    That is an issue. My parents belong to a country club, and my father has said several times that many of the retired gents spend the entire banking-hours day there, reading or playing cards — and his sense with a few of them is that…how to put this…they are…trying to avoid an excess of marital togetherness. Which sounds kind of bleak and retrograde, but frankly, I can't spend 24/7 with anyone either. It's just not my nature.

    It's for this reason that working at home actually was a great fit for me; I liked some social aspects of a shared workplace, but I also found that those things could bleed time and make it hard for me to focus, and through no fault of the people around me — it's just a different headspace.

    But everyone's different — some people are a bit dislocated by quiet, or by setting their own schedules, and it does take some getting used to, I think — and everyone's job will fit with it in a different way. Writing on deadline is fairly solitary, and even collaborations with Wing were pretty much "let's meet on IM in 3 hours and discuss."

    "2. If we worked from home, would we have to be available at any time? Would the boundary that home provides be eliminated?"

    That's another real issue, one I struggle with at times (one we're struggling with as a society viz. that Vine letter from earlier in the week — does the convenience of full-time, anywhere reachability make it harder for us to relax and be by ourselves, blah blah). Shelter magazines frequently run articles about how to create psychological boundaries with your set-up, and sometimes you do have to set up rules for yourself, that you won't check email after 8 PM or what have you.

    Again, often that will depend on your line of work, your manager's level of involvement with your work, whether you have international clients, and so on. But the U.S. is already in the bottom of industrialized nations in terms of valuing off time, how much vacation we're given, the understanding of how family/flex time may increase efficiency versus forcing a choice between career and family, blah bling bloo, so I think you do have to look out for the possibility that your job will creep into every part of your life.

    "The books on telecommuting I've found at Amazon and the library are all about how to work from home as a stay-at-home mom, and they seem bent on pushing the benefits."

    See above re: the choices that the structure of the American workplace seems to force on families. For some women, working from home is ideal because there isn't that rigid division between being at work and being at home. For others, unless they have a caregiver come in and let them focus completely on job stuff, it winds up harrying them even more. Everyone's different.

    My issue with the whole "you must appear between 9 and 6, regardless of how your work actually flows" thing is…exactly that. If everything is getting done correctly and on time, what difference does it make where or at what time the work occurs? My last office job before TWoP went to Bravo was in a records office, and my managers understood that the best way to deal with me was give me a pile of work, give me a deadline, and retire from the field. Was I doing Dawson's Wrap stuff at work? Totally. But I got my work shit done, so they didn't care.

    I'm not saying the entire office culture has to go the way of the dodo; it's not without worth, and contractors and the like can't really telecommute, et cetera. But you hire people to do a job, and if they're doing it well, promptly, and ethically, the rest of the process seems irrelevant to me.

  • Snarkmeister says:

    I've been telecommuting full time for about six years now. Prior to that, I telecommuted three days a week for about two years, beginning when my son was born. I'm an Internet programmer: I build websites, so there's absolutely no reason on earth for me to be in a specific physical location.

    I love it. I live in the CA bay area, where rush hour traffic can easily double or triple your commute. I currently live about an hour (with no traffic) from the company I work for, but four years ago I worked for a company based in Eugene, Oregon. And there's really no difference when you're telecommuting full time. I keep regular "office hours" (8:30 – 5:30) and I very rarely work in my pajamas. It can be isolating at times, as Elena points out, and I have to make an effort to get out of the house and be around people sometimes, because I can feel myself going into "hermit mode." But it's not really that bad. I am in constant contact with folks from the office (IM is fantastic for those quick conversations — if your employer is worried about security issues, there's a program called Spark that runs a secure IM client on your server). And I do go into the office occasionally (on average once a quarter) for a meeting or a celebratory birthday lunch or whatever.

    Do I fuck off a lot? Hell yeah. But I am also about 200% more efficient when I work at home vs. working in an office, because I don't have all the constant interruptions, the water cooler chitchat, the long lunches, etc. I eat my lunch on the couch, watching my soap opera on the DVR, and I just pause the show if something happens at work that requires my attention. I can get laundry done, or bake brownies, or whatever…all while I'm building a content management system. It's the ultimate in multi-tasking, and it's absolutely ideal for parents.

    In fact, one of the reasons why I first got into this field, at the tender age of 22, was because I figured someday I'd have kids, and I'd want to stay home with them for as long as possible and not become destitute. Since I've always brought home the majority of the bacon, that means I had to continue to work somehow. The obvious solution was telecommuting, so I deliberately put myself in a position to be able to do that. And when my son was born three years later, I was good enough at my job to be able to negotiate the telecommuting thing. It certainly wasn't always a cakewalk — once the rugrat started crawling it got a lot more challenging — but it was absolutely worth it. And now? I cannot imagine ever taking another job that requires me to be in an office every day.

  • Cyntada says:

    I have done 9-to-5 office jobs, work-at-home freelancing, and internet sales out of my house, and they all have challenges. Sars, I am 100% with you: pile of work, deadline, get lost. At home or office, give me the pile and get out of my way! Worst part about the day job is everyone else stopping me to ask when the work will be done. (unless its managers interrupting all the artists on drop-dead deadlines, to have a meeting so we can talk about how busy we are!)

    Working at home definitely requires the discipline to set boundaries, though. I work at home in the wee hours *before* leaving for the full time office job, and I made an inviolate line years ago that the evening belonged to me. I would not work, cook, clean house, run errands, or process website orders unless I wanted to. If that line were not respected in my home, work would be constant and I would never sleep or breathe!

    I actually feel less isolated when working at home, because I get to see daylight and life can happen at its own rhythm alongside work (rather than "instead of" work.) Maybe I just lack the discipline my parents had, but crap in MY life does not happen around a 9-to-5 workday schedule. I still see people that come to work a little early every day, read a book at lunch, and go home, and never seem to have anything interrupt their business hours beyond the occasional dentist appointment. Can't imagine my life being so sane and orderly.

  • La BellaDonna says:

    Sometimes I'm able to grab a ride with a friend. Said friend's hours are such that she has to take the car in; she starts work before the buses and trains run, and is often still at work after they've stopped running. She spends, minimum, a quarter of her paycheck on parking. Not gas, not tolls, not car insurance or repair; just parking. And she has to take the car.

    I take the bus. A lot. Over the years, SEPTA has cut the number of buses it runs on the route, and times – AND the new buses are SMALLER than the old ones, holding fewer passengers! And then SEPTA spends a nice chunk of its budget trying to convince people to take public transit. I have also found, as the crowds increase, and the traffic jams and delays get worse, my claustrophobia gets worse and worse, which affects my asthma. I wind coming in an hour or more earlier just to avoid the crowds, and go home an hour or more later in the hopes that they've reduced. I wind up exhausted at the end of the day, but I physically can't deal with the conditions of public transit when my work day would normally begin and end. And it's not as if I could switch to a car – it takes more than half my paycheck to pay my mortgage every month.

    No. Good. Answers. (Although ice-picking the people on the bus who talk incessantly and LOUDLY on their cell phones would help. Seriously, who the h*ll are you calling at six in the morning to CHAT with?? I'd reach through the phone and strangle the caller, myself.)

  • Jessica says:

    Ex-telecommuter, current train user (I'm lucky; we were able to rent a house five minutes from MARTA and ten from my husband's job), and transportation planning student here. This conversation is fascinating. The objection my friends in Cobble Hill have to the cordon is the same several of y'all have held up — that the MTA and PATH can't handle the extra demand. (I am looking for decent sources on how much the London cordon raised transit demand; I saw 36% in a newspaper article I don't trust. Alexis and interested others: try this and also see if Todd Litman, of the Victoria Transport Policy Institute, has written anything on the subject lately.)

    If we were to encourage telecommuting for jobs that could handle it easily, I think the big obstacle we would have to overcome is employee evaluation. If you're in a line of work where the metrics can be handled online fairly easily (number of medical transcripts processed in a certain time / number of hours spent doing online tutoring / number of idiots booted properly from TWoP boards), then all the manager has to do is round up the numbers at the end of the month/quarter/year. If you can alternate between at-home and in-office metrics (say, for meeting with clients), that works too. It's when a lot of your job is hurry-up-and-wait that I suspect telecommuting becomes hardest, because part of measuring your commitment to the job is your willingness to hurry-up-and-wait at the office instead of somewhere more pleasant.

  • Mel says:

    I know what you meant by "a boot on the car" but I allowed myself a happy daydream where double-parking meant free kicksies for all and sundry and their biggest doc martens to those SUVs that clog Park Slope.

  • emjaybee says:

    As far as the isolation aspect goes, though, if you let it, telecommuting actually frees up part of your day; you can go out and take a long lunch and meet a friend, or do a little shopping in your own neighborhood, or walk your dog. Work out at the local gym. Mow your lawn. Check on your elderly neighbor. Vote in local elections. etc.

    Instead of hanging out by the snack machines and griping about Survivor or what have you during your two designated 15 minute breaks.

    The working-while-parent-ing thing, though, is generally hogwash. Most preschool kids aren't going to let you get anything done, so you end up watching them all day and working late at night, and it's hell. While they're in school, though, yeah; nice to be there when they get home.

  • rb says:

    Here in San Francisco, we are pro-public transport, of course, but so anti-car we don't provide enough spaces to park at public transportation hubs. At every BART station in the system, all spaces are filled by 7 or 7:30 AM. My kids' school starts at 8, so no parking for me. Theoretically I could walk to the bus stop and board that to get to BART, but the bus walk/wait/ride would take longer than the entire BART ride, and at some point, I think we all say f*** it and plug the iPod into the car stereo.

  • T says:

    Oh god. Yeah, I've been commuting to NYC for four years now from Central Jersey, and I used Coach USA for the first year of that. God they were horrible. They couldn't run their buses on time and they kept arbitrarily increasing their prices. I've been taking the NJ Transit bus for the last three years and it's been moderately better, but still, it's so uncivilized, y'know?

    I wake up at the ass-crack of dawn to get on my bus and get into the city. I wait around and hurry so I can be inconvenienced by other people. Mass transit is a wonderful thing, but I am still paying $240 a month for my bus pass, and it hurts. It hurts to think that I am spending that much money to do a bunch of things that I could probably do from home.

    And once in awhile I'll get that four-hour-long commute that should have taken an hour, just because a semi truck decided to flip over at Exit 15E during a freak rainshower. (Also, if a semi truck is going to cause that kind of a delay? I expect to see a neat tempura arrangement of trailers arranged artistically just in front of the 495 toll plaza for my time and aggravation.) I always have a seatmate, which can be sucky but I should really have expected that. And sometimes that seatmate is 350 pounds and/or smells bad and/or can't stop blaring Englebert Humperdinck on their poorly-insulated headphones.

    I do not understand folks who actually drive into Manhattan. Unless you have an actual reason for carting around more than you can carry (textiles, toddlers), there is absolutely no reason to bring a car into this city. It's crazy. My bus pass is exponentially cheaper than gas and parking.

    This is the price I pay for living in a nice, clean neighborhood with reasonable rent.

  • Izzy says:

    I'm loving the telecommuting idea. Did it for a year or so–at a sadly crappily-paying job–and it was great. I'm an editor: I write email, I send email, I sometimes have to come in for meetings or do DB stuff, but meh.

    Plus…I like my office, and I like my co-workers, but I'm not what you'd call attached. They're nice; I wish the best for 'em; but I don't want to socialize that much.

  • Quiconque says:

    I am a native New Yorker, born and raised (and still live) in the north Bronx, in a section that borders Westchester on three sides. Three years ago I learned to drive. Three years ago I was offered two jobs at the same salary: one in midtown Manhattan, one in lower Westchester. I took the Westchester job. Why? Because I was sick and tired of commuting 3+ hours a day on one of the most fragile train lines in the system. (Heavy rain will shut this line down). And yes, many times I spent that commute standing. Now my commute is 10 minutes (thank you, Bronx River Parkway). Even when I have to go into the city for an evening event, I prefer to take the car, because 20 minutes of driving beats 90 minutes on the subway every time.

  • DensityDuck says:

    And, basically, here we see the grim irony of public transit: The only way to do it is to do it HUGE, as in "train going down every single street on a five-minute interval" huge, because otherwise it's just not going to be efficient enough to be worth taking.

    I rode the bus in college, and I loved it. College consisted of a 23000-student campus where everyone walked everywhere, and there was a tiny downtown area where all the bars were, and a crust of condos and apartments around it where we all lived. The place was small enough that buses could go from one end to the other in about 30 minutes–and even at that we needed two dozen buses to provide enough service to keep people from driving. And even THEN you wound up with full parking lots every day; the parking-enforcement group was larger than the security guard corps.

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