Gas prices up? Time to remember remote work again

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Gas prices are once again high enough to warrant a flurry of media coverage. And, inevitably, the pressure that prices put on commuters leads to another round of interest in remote work, interest that in the past has tended to wither away when prices came down. Support for telecommuting is a slowly but steadily rising background hum, but the way much of the chatter about remote work tracks gas prices suggests that many commentators are focusing on remote work as a short-term solution for sticker shock at the pump rather than a long-term trend that might help damp down our gas-price traumas permanently.

Prices shouldn’t control our interest in telework. Instead, remote work, if viewed as an opportunity to fundamentally rethink how we live, could and should control (or at least mitigate) our gas-price sticker shock. That’s what a recent post by Switchbord, the blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, suggests. The piece digs into the numbers at Chicago-based think tank Center for Neighborhood Technology, which maintains a huge database of information on average housing costs, driving rates, transportation costs and transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions in 900 metropolitan and so-called “micropolitan” areas.

Surprising no one who owns a car, the post finds that transportation costs have been putting a squeeze on family budgets for a decade. “Analyzing its current data in aggregate, CNT found that, between 2000 and 2009, US transportation and housing costs increased at nearly twice the rate of incomes.  If you’re feeling squeezed, no wonder,” reports the NRDC blog. But the post goes on to drill down into the data on specific locations and makes the case that those who live in denser but not super-expensive communities are seeing their budgets impacted the least:

The aggregate data show that 72 percent of communities covered in the system have combined housing and transportation costs that under standard formulas would be considered unaffordable for typical families, when median regional household income is compared to average housing and transportation costs. Locations become more affordable, however, in neighborhoods with close access to amenities, jobs, and transit….

Residential neighborhoods closer to downtown where housing-only costs were still in the affordable range but where superior accessibility (proximity to jobs and other typical travel destinations) brought the costs of transportation down to an affordable level as well.

Dense communities take the bite out of transportation costs? There’s no shock there, but what does that have to do with remote work? In short, urban-design experts have argued that the rise in remote work will tend to promote denser communities as workers stay home all day and desire their houses to be in convenient proximity to amenities. In other words, more remote work not only saves you from a hefty gas bill to fuel your commute short-term, but if viewed as a long-term shift in how we work, telecommuting might prompt lifestyles and communities that simply demand less gas, whatever the gas price happens to be.

Fickle, gas-price-linked interest in telecommuting: a perfectly natural reaction to pain at the pump or a shortsighted failure to take full advantage of what remote work has to offer?

Image courtesy of Flickr user Richard Masoner / Cycleicious.

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