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Instead of Pitting Cars Against Transit, Let’s Rethink Pointless Commuting

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A recent tweet I came across displays an attitude that’s all too common when it comes to electric vehicles.

Before I go on, I don’t want to take Toderian’s statement out of context, cast him as an EV hater, and then attack the strawman. If you click on that Tweet, you’ll find links to a thread where he explains that he’s not completely against electric vehicles, and that he thinks they’re at least part of the solution. He, like many other urban planners and urbanists don’t necessarily want to eliminate all cars, but they’d like to see fewer of them, and better cities that cater to people instead of cars.

I’d like to address both the anti-car argument and the less cars argument, though. The “no cars” argument (which a few people actually do make) is easy to shoot down, because it’s too unrealistic to seriously consider. Like all utopian ideas, reality gets in the way. But, the less cars argument still has some assumptions built in that aren’t as solid as they once were. Without those assumptions, there’s room for a better future that doesn’t rely on taking people’s key fobs away.

We Need To Question A Deeper Fundamental: Commuting

When I saw Toderian’s tweet, one of the first things I thought of was an industry that’s propped up by commuting: the commercial real estate market in cities. If anything, we should never forget that commuting is only here to save big city property owners, and definitely doesn’t do anything for most office workers.

Like doing away with cars, cutting way back on commuting probably seemed like a utopian idea…at least until the pandemic hit. Companies were forced to find a way to deal with closed offices, and found creative ways to keep “non-essential” workers working so companies could stay afloat. But, when people didn’t want to go back, and companies found they could retain workers better by not forcing them to go back to the city during the day, commuting didn’t come back like it once did.

This new reality has left people like New York’s mayor terrified. Back in February, Eric Adams tried in vain to command companies to bring workers back. But, this isn’t China, and the mayor has no say over such things beyond the power of the bully pulpit. Some companies (likely managed by traditionalists) pointlessly returned to work in offices, but many others didn’t. As of last month, Adams had largely given up on the idea, and is now instead calling for business districts to have more residential space to keep the city afloat and balanced.

What does this have to do with cars? Many of the problems with cars in cities are caused by commuting. Roads are packed during the morning and evening rush hours, but in the middle of the day traffic is usually sparse. In the middle of the night, most urban and suburban freeways are nearly empty, because most people are sleeping. Road infrastructure has to be robust enough to handle rush hour, but that extra capacity sits unused outside of rush hour, sometimes entirely.

Instead of pushing for people to come back to the office and bail commuting-based businesses out, cities could take another path. They can encourage more housing be built for the people who need to be in the city, and discourage the continued practice of moving hordes of office workers into and out of the city every morning and afternoon.

To put this another way, we shouldn’t be arguing over what the most environmentally friendly mode of transportation is to move people during rush hour. We should question the practice of doing this at all when it’s really not needed. With the telecommunications options we have in 2022, the only reason to corral people into the office like cattle is to enrich commercial property owners. Given the climate crisis, that’s nowhere near a good enough reason, nor is any other excuse.

Cities Will Be Fine Without Pointless Commuting

There will still be plenty of people who need to go to work. Retail sales, manufacturing jobs, food service, and many other jobs still need to be done in-person. But, when not needing to compete for traffic lanes, bus and train seats, and housing with workers who don’t really need to be in the city, things can be a lot nicer for those who stay there. Current transit, road, and other capacity is more than enough.

There will be people who don’t need to stay for their jobs, but prefer to live in a big city for various reasons. Discouraging commuting without a real need wouldn’t hurt them, and would still leave room for everyone else on the roads and on transit. Housing may be an issue for people who want to stay, but it would still be relieved when the people who really don’t want to be there leave for someplace else and more commercial spaces are changed to residential.

With that relief, some cities would probably keep the transportation infrastructure they have and save that extra capacity for future population growth. Others would probably want to take some of the space back that once was used for commuters’ cars and encourage future growth to use transit instead of cars for transportation needs. This is a decision each city will need to make for itself based on its own culture and what its own people want to do, and shouldn’t be a one-size-fits-all proposition.

EVs Play An Important Role In A Future With Less Commuting

At this point, we need to talk about everyone who stops pointlessly commuting into the urban core daily. Losing the need to commute still leaves them with some transportation needs, and the occasional trip to the office. If they choose to live in an urban core, there’s still a very good argument for using transit (assuming it’s electrified transit, and not some dirty diesel bus carrying almost nobody) and micromobility more. As I said, that’s something each city will need to make choices on.

In the suburbs, or out in the exurbs, people working remotely aren’t going to cause problems with their electric cars the way they do in urban cores full of stressed out, tired commuters. In low-density areas, electric vehicles are the most cost-effective and environmentally friendly choice. You’re just not going to come up with a transit system that provides a high level of service (a vehicle arrives every 10 minutes or less) without driving a bunch of empty buses around most of the day on the taxpayer dime (and by polluting the air everyone breathes). Here’s a long paper that explains this issue.

Killing The Pointless Commute Gives Room For Decisions To Be Made

Any transportation or transit proposal that doesn’t include what we’ve learned in 2020 isn’t worth considering. We know now that pointless commuting doesn’t help businesses and doesn’t help their workers. It only benefits a few people while hurting the rest of us. Perhaps most importantly, most workers who can telecommute don’t want to commute. It’s just bad all around.

Ending pointless commuting doesn’t take anything away from anybody. It doesn’t take anybody’s keys away, and it doesn’t force a car-centric future on cities. If anything, the breathing room we could get from ending pointless commuting makes it possible both for cities to change course (and take some space back), and helps people who don’t want to be in the city have an easier life. It’s just good all around.

Finally, we need to be flexible to even more change. This balance will change more and more as technology improves. While it seems to be stumbling now, concepts like the Metaverse, telepresence, and artificial intelligence not only can, but will make for fewer and fewer people who absolutely must be there to get things done. Cities and monetary systems need to prepare for those changes instead of digging in and complaining when change inevitably comes.

Featured image: a screenshot from the tweet embedded above.

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Written By

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.


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