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My 32 Minutes 17

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The Greater Toronto CivicAction - a Toronto-based advocacy organization – has launched a campaign to bring attention to the issue of growing traffic congestion and lack of transit funding in the Greater Toronto area.

The campaign is called the “32 Campaign” and asks what you would do with an extra 32 minutes each day.

Instead of telling you what I would do with that 32 minutes, I am going to take approximately 32 minutes to write this blog post which explains how I think we can take it a step further and do much more than merely saving 32 minutes on our commute time.

The purpose of the “32 minute” campaign is to highlight the fact that 3 million new people will be living in the Greater Toronto Area by 2031 and an additional 1.5 million cars are expected to be added to our roads.

The 32 minutes represents the commute time per day that would be saved on average if a comprehensive transit system is built.

The current average commute time in the Greater Toronto area is 82 minutes per day – the highest in North America.

If nothing is done, a study claims that the commute in the Greater Toronto area will increase to an average of 109 minutes per day. If the mass transit system is developed, they say the average commute time will go to 78 minutes – hence the 32 minute savings.

I do believe that mass transit is vitally important in addressing the challenge of moving millions of people with a finite amount of resources. But mass transit requires massive investments to build and to operate, and its costs and effectiveness is drastically limited by the low-density city design that we see here in North America.

To further reduce congestion and our dependency on automobiles, I propose three other approaches that can be employed in conjunction with mass transit.

1) Bicycles

People in Canada don’t generally see bicycles as a viable alternative to a car or mass transit – especially when it comes to families with children.

That is until they see my Dutch cargo bike. Then their perspective changes and they realize a bike isn’t such a bad alternative to a car after all – especially for trips within the city.

A bicycle can move far more people with an extremely small footprint – both in terms of cost, and in physical space – than both cars and mass transit.

Bicycles can also complement mass transit by making it convenient to get from home or work to the transit station, thus making public transit viable in situations where it might otherwise not work for someone.

2) Smaller Spaces

While living in China earlier this year, I had a difficult time finding anything that resembled a North American “McMansion”. A “house” in China more closely resembles a large condominium or a small townhouse and it is extremely rare to see a detached single-family homes in China.

The Chinese generally live in smaller spaces in cities with higher density, which allows them to live closer to their friends, family and work.

To me, it is merely a question of priorities. Is having more space worth losing time each day and being further away from friends, family and work? For many people in North America, it is. The term “American Dream” doesn’t evoke images of living in a 700 square foot apartment.

But if we want to address gridlock, be closer to our friends and work – and if we want our lifestyles to be affordable when gasoline costs $15 a gallon – then we need to consider living in smaller spaces closer to our work.

3) Telecommuting

When I was living overseas, I was working the same job I have in Canada, working with the same Canadian clients, getting paid in Canadian dollars – but doing it on the other side of the world.

It didn’t feel much different than when I work at home in Toronto, or at a coffee shop, or on a picnic table in the park as I sometimes do.

The consulting company I work at has about 15 employees/contractors, all of whom work primarily out of their home offices all across Canada.

We enjoy this arrangement and we work well together using technology to fill the gap from not being in an office together.

I am extremely fortunate and grateful that I have a job that allows me to fulfill my duties anywhere in the world where there is an Internet connection.

As our economy shifts from being a manufacturing economy to an information/knowledge worker economy, the opportunities for telecommuting will soon become the norm instead of the exception.

In this 1983 talk, Steve Jobs predicted that instead of spending time sitting inside cars, people will use computers. Instead of buying music in the record store they would download music to their computers. Instead of driving down the street to see storefronts, they would see a virtual presentation of a street through a computer.

Basically all of Mr. Jobs’ 1983 predictions became true, and some of his predictions were brought to fruition by himself.

In no way am I comparing myself to Steve Jobs, but I would like to make a few predictions of my own.

Live/Work/Play “Plug-in” Communities

I believe that in 20 to 30 years from now, the vast majority of workers will work remotely (or telecommute), and many of them will gravitate towards walkable/bikeable cities and communities that won’t resemble the big-box car-dependent suburbs that we see now.

These telecommuters will work out of their homes or in “plug-in” shared office spaces stationed within these communities, which will be anchored near lakes or other natural sites.

Electric trains will transport people from their communities to other cities and towns, though most people will only use the train periodically as opposed to the daily train commuting we see today.

Owning a car will no longer be the norm. Cars will be shared and people will pay by the hour or by the day to periodically use a car for special occasions.

These “plugged-in” communities won’t force people to choose between living the “American Dream” – but sitting in traffic congestion – and living in a tiny apartment – but being close to work.

They will provide the best of both worlds: people will be close to work, but the homes will be reasonably sized.

Whether this prediction comes true or not will largely depend on economics. If gas prices become unaffordable or road congestion becomes unbearable for the average person, these live/work/play communities will be demanded, and telecommuting will make these communities more viable than they are today.

On the other hand, if we maintain the status quo and continue to subsidize motorists and keep gas prices artificially low, we will continue down the path we are currently headed down, McMansions will still be economically viable, and we will waste away our lives sitting in traffic.

James D. Schwartz is a Transportation Pragmatist and the Editor of The Urban Country. You can contact James at james.schwartz@theurbancountry.com or follow him on Twitter.

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  • http://lovingthebike.com Darryl is Loving the Bike

    I am a strong advocate of telecommuting and think that it is the “old-school” thinking of some business people that prevent it from being done even more in our society.
    Working remotely allows people to tap into the life they really want to live by traveling the world, getting out on their bike more, and spending time with their Family. That time spent commuting to work can be used each day to do more of the things they want to fit into their lives.
    Great post, and I like your predictions.

    Darryl

    • http://www.theurbancountry.com James Schwartz

      Thanks for the comment Darryl. It does indeed take a lot of time for people to change their way of thinking. I think two of the reasons people are reluctant to embrace telecommuting more is because 1) They are afraid that people will end up slacking if they work remotely, and 2) You lose the personal interaction/teamwork. The first one is easy to solve if you have set deliverables of what you expect from people, and the second will gradually be solved by technology that will make people less isolated when they work remotely. And if people end up working in these satellite offices near their homes, that will solve the problem of isolation/limited social interaction. Coffee shops are also becoming regular offices for a lot of people (myself included). This helps us maintain our social interactions but allow us to work more closely to home, or wherever we want to be on any particular day.

      • Agustin

        I worked from home for several years and can attest to the social isolation and teamwork interaction. Even with Skype and phones, etc., there is still no replacement for face-to-face conversations. Maybe one day that will be the case, but not yet.

        I now manage people, and have done so remotely and in person. I definitely prefer doing it in person. Not because we don’t have set deliverables, or because I don’t trust the people, but because there are certain intangibles that can only be picked up in person. There are also inefficiencies associated with managing remotely. And if you have a conflict it is much harder to solve remotely than in person.

        Lastly, we need to remember that if we all have space at home for working, our houses need to be that much larger.

        Having said all that, I do appreciate having the option to work from home or remotely every once in a while.

        And, of course, I share your call for more bicycles and agree that they are the way of the future!

  • http://lovingthebike.com/ Darryl is Loving the Bike

    I am a strong advocate of telecommuting and think that it is the “old-school” thinking of some business people that prevent it from being done even more in our society.
    Working remotely allows people to tap into the life they really want to live by traveling the world, getting out on their bike more, and spending time with their Family. That time spent commuting to work can be used each day to do more of the things they want to fit into their lives.
    Great post, and I like your predictions.

    Darryl

  • http://www.theurbancountry.com/ James Schwartz

    Thanks for the comment Darryl. It does indeed take a lot of time for people to change their way of thinking. I think two of the reasons people are reluctant to embrace telecommuting more is because 1) They are afraid that people will end up slacking if they work remotely, and 2) You lose the personal interaction/teamwork. The first one is easy to solve if you have set deliverables of what you expect from people, and the second will gradually be solved by technology that will make people less isolated when they work remotely. And if people end up working in these satellite offices near their homes, that will solve the problem of isolation/limited social interaction. Coffee shops are also becoming regular offices for a lot of people (myself included). This helps us maintain our social interactions but allow us to work more closely to home, or wherever we want to be on any particular day.

  • Agustin

    I worked from home for several years and can attest to the social isolation and teamwork interaction. Even with Skype and phones, etc., there is still no replacement for face-to-face conversations. Maybe one day that will be the case, but not yet.

    I now manage people, and have done so remotely and in person. I definitely prefer doing it in person. Not because we don’t have set deliverables, or because I don’t trust the people, but because there are certain intangibles that can only be picked up in person. There are also inefficiencies associated with managing remotely. And if you have a conflict it is much harder to solve remotely than in person.

    Lastly, we need to remember that if we all have space at home for working, our houses need to be that much larger.

    Having said all that, I do appreciate having the option to work from home or remotely every once in a while.

    And, of course, I share your call for more bicycles and agree that they are the way of the future!

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  • http://marcelbrown.com/ Marcel Brown

    Thanks for linking to my Steve Jobs article!

    I agree that while face-to-face time can never be completely replaced, there are great opportunities for telecommuting to reduce the amount of unnecessary travel. Imagine if commuters could reduce by 50% the amount of driving they do. And forget 32 minutes. For many people, that could equal 60-120 minutes of extra time a day.

    I also think that self-drive cars will make a big difference. People will be able to use that time to be more productive and self-drive cars will be more fuel-efficient and likely safer.

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