A reader asks: Why waste time and money commuting?

Robert Thomson
Columnist November 4, 2011

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

An Oct. 22 article by Post reporter Katherine Shaver about proposed dedicated bus lanes in Montgomery County quoted advocates as saying bus rapid transit is the fastest (20 years), most affordable ($2.5 billion today — how much after all is said and done?) and perhaps the only (myopic comes to mind) way to make a significant dent in traffic.

Robert Thomson is The Washington Post’s “Dr. Gridlock.” He answers travelers’ questions, listens to their complaints and shares their pain on the roads, trains and buses in the Washington region. View Archive

Many of us feel that in reality, the fastest, most affordable and only way to make a significant dent in traffic with no disruption whatsoever is teleworking.

This bus rapid transit idea attempts to use industrial-age transportation solutions to address 21st century problems. We need to rely more on the congestion-free, green, safe, energy-efficient and disaster-resilient “information superhighway” than those built with asphalt and concrete.

If a very small portion of that money were spent on incentives to help employers and employees adopt and implement telework programs, this issue would become a nonissue quickly and affordably.

Chuck Wilsker, Rockville

The writer is president and chief executive of TelCoa, a nonprofit education and advocacy group for teleworking. He and I disagree about the need to create a network of fast bus lanes, but not about the value of teleworking as a way out of traffic congestion.

I think a network of bus lanes all across the D.C. region, not just in Montgomery, could offer thousands of commuters a more reliable way to get to work. It’s a better bet than investing in new general-purpose highway lanes or in heavy rail.

I certainly hope the high-occupancy toll lanes in Virginia will be a magnet for fast bus services, rather than just letting some solo drivers pay their way out of congestion.

But to Wilsker, a bus is a bus, and no matter what fancy name you give the service, it’s still old tech in its reliance on oil and a big capital investment — to say nothing of the costs in time and money that individuals incur on their trips to work.

We’ve made some progress in moving toward telework, but it still represents a sliver of the getting-to-work choices that people make in this region.

The 2010 State of the Commute study for Commuter Connections said that a quarter of regional commuters telework at least occasionally. That’s more than twice the percentage who teleworked in 2001.

Nearly three out of 1o workers surveyed said their employers had a formal telework program, but about half said their employers didn’t allow teleworking. One of five workers said they had job responsibilities that could be done through telework and would do so if given the opportunity.

The telework movement has been gathering steam in federal offices, breaking down the resistance of some managers to letting employees out of their sight for a day. But it still needs more encouragement.

There was a lot of buzz this past week about the new federal policy on getting workers home in the event of a snowstorm. Workers would have to shelter in place until the storm ended if they didn’t leave their offices by a certain hour.

This follows the Jan. 26 storm that arrived just as everyone was leaving for the afternoon. The snow crews got stuck in the same congestion as the workers, and nobody moved.

Think how much better off we would have been if the employees had the flexibility to shelter in place at home, doing the same work from the convenience of a home computer and not getting stuck in offices — or on highways.

While public and private employers are coming around slowly to this view of the new work environment, Wilsker told me he thinks many employees are getting the idea.

He said this in a follow-up e-mail: “What’s interesting is that most people with whom I communicate who have been teleworking for a while don’t even call it telework, it’s ‘just work.’ ”

What does your boss say about telework?

Testing older drivers

Dear Dr. Gridlock:

I am a 77-year-old driver and have had a license since age 17. My friends and I try to drive only locally and eliminate night driving. I consider myself a safe motorist but would support testing provided it is brief and fair.

Carolyn J. Mattaino, Alexandria

Many travelers responded to my request for comment on a letter writer’s suggestion [Dr. Gridlock, Oct. 27] that drivers over 70 be required to take new tests to keep their licenses. See more of those responses in Thursday’s column in the Local Living section.

Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer’s name and home community. Write Dr. Gridlock at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or
e-mail drgridlock@washpost.com .

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