Myths That Perpetuate Long-Distance Commuting

One opportunity to prevent environmental damage that has so far been widely overlooked is the opportunity to take actions that would simply eliminate the need for people to commute. As far as commuting goes, all efforts so far have been focused on accommodating it and reducing its impact, not on curbing it. Some say that commuting is not really preventable, but I would argue that this is exactly the sort of attitude that needs to change for people to really help the environment – and our communities.

If getting someone to their vacation destinations is bad for Mother Earth, so is getting them to work every day. Sure, vacation destinations are more remote than most people’s work places: But most people take the trip to work daily, and only go on vacations a couple of times a year. To make things even worse, commutes are often impacted by traffic jams and involve carrying 3 tons of steel (your car) with you – which vacation trips often don’t. And we all know that traffic jams tend to make pollution even worse.

But what can businesses do about commuting, given that they can’t control where their employees choose to live? And do employees really have a choice in this matter?

Myth #1: Businesses need to recruit from large geographic areas, to find the best candidates

While businesses have no control over where their employees choose to live, they do have control over the audience they target when advertising job openings. The conventional wisdom in the past has been that for businesses to stay competitive, they need to recruit from a large pool of talent, which required advertising jobs to a broad audience, spread over a larger geographic area. It was up to the employee to relocate once hired.

When you look at what this “conventional wisdom” has brought, it is hard to ignore its flows. While you do need to reach a broad audience if you are recruiting for a C-level executive, this is certainly not the case if you are looking to fill a more common position of an accountant, receptionist, or technician.

In an effort to reach a “broad” audience, businesses seem to have ended up ignoring their local one. As a result, businesses are reaching candidates in remote communities, but not the equally qualified candidates living right next door. This have exacerbated the commuting problem.

How did that happen? Nowadays, most jobs are advertised with national and provincial media, leaving job applicant in smaller towns and suburbs struggling to navigate through tons of postings on a score of national web sites every day in an attempt to find work close to their homes. As an example, on any given day, there are some 1,000 active postings on the web for jobs located in Newmarket – but aside from the Fairy Lake Jobs search engine (http://www.fairylakejobs.net – which provides an index of all these jobs) no major employment web site lists more than 300.

While navigating through those national web sites, job seekers are bombarded with postings for jobs located outside of their home communities. It is no wonder that job seekers often end up taking one of those remotely located jobs.

Myth #2: People commute because there are no jobs for them in the suburbs

This is another “archaic” belief that is no longer true (although I do agree that there have been issues with urban planning over the past decades): At least in the 905-area surrounding Toronto, there are tons of good quality jobs with major employers – IBM, Procter & Gamble, and American Express in Markham, State Farm and Magna in Aurora, GE, Microsoft, and Siemens in Mississauga, Ford in Oakville – just to name a few.

There is actually a good reason why many major employers moved to the suburbs over the last two decades: In the 90’s, modern communication technologies enabled businesses to perform a wide variety of functions remotely. This eliminated many of the advantages that concentration and being close to the downtown core used to offer. As a result, many companies moved to the suburbs, in an effort to reduce their leasing and property ownership expenses. This trend could have been taken advantage of to reduced the need for commuting.

Myth #3: If you don’t want to commute, you can relocate to a place closer to your office

This used to be possible in the mid 20th century, when jobs were long-term endeavors and when it was common for families to consist of only one income earner. Things have changed since then: Most working families consist of two earners, so relocation doesn’t solve the commuting problem. Here is an example: In a family where both the wife and the husband work, if the wife works in town A, and the husband works in town B, then between the two of them, they have to commute at least the distance between town A and town B every day – no matter where they choose to live.

Another reason why relocating to live close to work is not an option is that about half of all jobs starting today will end within the next 12 months (according to Statistics Canada). You can’t blame people for not wanting to relocate to live close to their offices when they get new jobs: You cannot even rent a home (let alone buy one) without making at least a one year commitment.

In fact, it is strange that the “myth” that people will relocate to live close to work has survived until today, given that the reasons that made such relocations impossible have been around since at least the 80’s.

Myth #4: Commuting is OK for the environment, if only people would drive cars that pollute less

“All you need to do to help the environment is to buy more fuel-efficient cars.” It sounds great, but the reality is not that simple, unfortunately.

Let’s do some simple grade-2 math. To keep things simple, we will assume that the more gas a car consumes, the more pollution it produces – so the gas that a car consumes will be our measure of its impact on the environment.

John drives 100 km to and from work every day. He has a small car that burns 9 liters of gas per 100 km, so he uses 9 liters of gas each day. Mary has an SUV that burns 12 liters per 100 kms, but only commutes 50 kms a day, so she uses 6 liters a day. Who burns less gas each day?

The answer: To do his 100 kms commute each day, John burns 9 liters of gas a day. Mary only burns 6 liters of gas because her commute is only 50 kms a day. So each day, Mary burns 3 liters less gas less than John.

Of course, if Mary did he 50 kms commute in a car like John’s, she would only burn 4.5 liters a day.

So what’s the point? The fact that many people commute long distances to and from work is as bad to the environment as the fact that many people choose to drive gas-guzzlers. It makes no sense to spin our wheels trying to address one of the problems, while ignoring the elephant in the room: A major reason why we produce a lot of pollution is because we drive a lot.

Much of the commuting that takes place today is avoidable, as long as employers and the local communities work together to prevent it. This will require changing the momentum – and some attitudes – but is doable and will not hurt the economy.

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