Trading Places

It's a homegrown, low-cost alternative to commuting via highways and transit. Just add software.

Billions for highways or billions for transit? As the run-up to last week’s election taught us, it’s a debate waged in alternating tones of blind faith and resigned despair. Whoever ponders the question seems to reach the conclusion voiced by King County Council member Larry Phillips: “We are not going to be able to build ourselves out of gridlock.” Highways breed more driving and sprawl, and they fill up. Even urban rail’s boosters don’t promise to reduce congestion, merely to slow the increase.

Against this logic stands a grab bag of cheaper “commute trip reduction” strategies for managing our way out of congestion: car and vanpools, teleworking (a.k.a. telecommuting), shortened workweeks, subsidized bus passes, showers for bicycle commuters, and perks for workers who eschew driving. But most still try to do this the same way cars do: by moving commuters between home and workplace. Part-time teleworking and four-day workweeks reduce trips but don’t change the distance commuters must travel. And however they may suit keyboard-punching “knowledge workers” (for all you know, I could be writing this on a tropical beach), they don’t help the great mass of production, retail, and service workers who change our oil, who have to show up on the floor or at the counter each day.

Many travel much farther to get there than they would in a rational world. That was the realization that struck Gene Mullins 15 years ago, and it inspired one of the freshest ideas in the perennial cars-vs.-transit debate. It struck, appropriately, in a traffic jam. Mullins, who lives in Seattle’s Magnolia neighborhood, was an environmental scientist for a consulting firm that had moved from Seattle to Bothell. As he cursed the traffic, Mullins recalls, he stared at other frazzled commuters heading the other way and thought, “It’s too bad we can’t just trade places.” And then he wondered: Why not?

That inspiration was the seed of a project called “proximate commuting” that has occupied most of Mullins’ time since. It might, someday, make his fortune. And it might take more cars off the road than far pricier schemes. Better yet, it could also give thousands, perhaps millions, of traffic-struck workers a big chunk of their lives back by enabling them to swap places with counterparts performing the same jobs much closer to home. But the slow crawl toward implementing Mullins’ vision illustrates the pitfalls that threaten even the most promising ideas in the thickets of transportation policy making.

Mullins checked state labor statistics and found that 39 percent of Washington and 48 percent of Seattle-area employees worked for companies or agencies with multiple branches. He interviewed employees at 14 KeyBank branches and found that only 17 percent worked at the branches nearest their homes. On average, they resided closer to 10 other branches; one lived closer to 101.

THAT SKEWED PICTURE is typical. Mullins has since crunched the numbers for “more than 20” West Coast employers, including banks, supermarkets, libraries, fire stations, fast-food outlets, community centers, Starbucks, and Boeing. “The numbers fall into place across the board,” he says. “Only about 20 percent of employees work at the nearest locations—only 4 percent of firefighters in one city.” Inspired by Mullins’ work, Daniel A. Rodriguez surveyed bank workers in Southeastern Michigan and BogotᬠColombia, for his University of Michigan dissertation in urban planning and found a strikingly similar result: Only 20 percent worked at the nearest branches.

People get jobs where they can and, only then, as Mullins’ and Rodriguez’s surveys showed, crave to be nearer home, to see their families, and to regain the hours lost on the road. Employers tend not to consider proximity in hiring and assigning, and reshuffling the workforce after the fact would be daunting. So Mullins devised a software package to automate the process. Interested workers could throw their names, addresses, and job classifications in the digital hopper. ProximateCommute, as the application was dubbed, would map out proximity-friendly swaps and transfers. If employees assented, it would notify their prospective managers, who would interview would-be swappers and say yea or nay to any switches.

In 1992, Mullins persuaded KeyBank to stage a trial and the state Department of Transportation to fund it. Seventeen percent of 500 eligible employees volunteered to participate. Only two actually swapped jobs; 23 were waiting to when KeyBank, then immersed in a merger, ended the trial. Another 28 transferred to open positions that ProximateCommute identified, reducing their average round-trip commute from 43 to 15 miles; as many again requested but didn’t receive new assignments. Even unfinished, the trial reduced the entire employee pool’s average commute by an enviable 17 percent. One swapper, Justy Mayernick, saved nearly two hours a day. “Now I take crafts classes, work out, spend time at home, sleep in, and stay up later,” she told me five years ago. “It really makes sense.”

KeyBank managers and just about everyone else who saw the results agreed. The Environmental Protection Agency, Association of Washington Business, and Puget Sound Regional Council gave Mullins impressive-sounding awards for environmental innovation. The University of Washington Transportation Center, which monitored the trial, urged expanding it. A Goldwater Institute study evaluated the gamut of anti-congestion measures and rated proximate commuting the most cost-effective (and light rail the least); other conservative think tanks and publications echoed this endorsement.

WITH SO MANY huzzahs and mounting exasperation at mounting congestion, you might expect Mullins’ big idea to sweep the nation, or at least traffic-shocked Pugetopolis. But it’s only now getting its second corporate-world trial, at Boeing. The fault is partly Mullins’: He didn’t market his scheme for several years and discovered that building a better mousetrap wasn’t enough. He did feasibility studies for Starbucks and Bank of America; both were impressed but, busy with market expansions, didn’t go ahead.

Rodriguez, now an urban-planning prof at the University of North Carolina, thinks the deal killer is the $90,000 to $175,000 price tag on Mullins’ proprietary ProximateCommute program. Though this may seem like chump change against transit and highway costs, Rodriguez says it makes proximate commuting “cost-ineffective,” because only “a small share” of the workforce, “less than 1 percent,” are in “fungible professions that would be eligible.”

Mullins says Rodriguez underestimates both the services included in his package and the much larger share of workers who could swap jobs. Witness the KeyBank trial, where one-sixth of employees who were offered the chance to participate signed up, and Boeing, where he found that 53 percent of employees did not work at the nearest site with job descriptions identical to their own. “I’ve even heard from companies interested in intercompany swaps,” he says. And he notes that proximate commuting might not merely shorten but eliminate car trips: “If you give people shorter commutes with fewer transfers, you make it easier to take the bus, or vanpool, or bicycle.”

The critical factor may actually be public funding. Absent it, says Starbucks transportation manager Cathy Garrison, “I’m not sure a business is going to spend the money without seeing results on the bottom line.” Mullins insists that helping employees work close to home does pay off in morale, stability, productivity, and reduced absenteeism.

Whether or not local governments should pay companies to enjoy these boons, you might think they’d want to set a good example themselves. That’s what King County Council member Phillips thought. “I like these low-cost, high-benefit solutions that we could actually afford,” he says. While Mullins was working on KeyBank, Phillips urged King County’s transportation department to undertake a trial—and stepped on staff toes. “The more I tried,” Phillips recalls, “the more the bureaucracy flexed itself.” Officials insisted on putting a proximate commute study out to bid and then awarded it to a general environmental-consulting firm. Mullins appealed the decision but finally gave up. The study warned of worker wariness about swapping, recommended against a trial, and endorsed telecommuting and shortened workweeks. Once again, nothing got done.

BUT STILL, THE IDEA percolates. The Boeing trial, now in a preliminary stage, might be proximate commuting’s long-awaited breakthrough. Boeing presents hurdles that, say, a bank or coffeehouse chain wouldn’t: sweeping layoffs and uncertainty, union contracts (only nonunion employees are initially eligible). Still, says company representative Anne Gose, “this seems like a wonderful way to reduce long-distance commutes.”

Jemae Hoffman, the city of Seattle’s mobility manager, is equally enthusiastic: “It’s a great commonsense idea we’d like to try, if we can carve out some funds in this difficult budget year.” So proximate commuting might finally get its first public-sector test as well, here in the town that spawned the idea back in the 1980s. And it might be right on schedule, according to a classic model of technological evolution: Twenty years is said to be the lag between a good idea’s birth and implementation.

When ideas catch on, they often escape their authors’ grasps. Rodriguez is trying to put proximate-commuting tools in the public domain. He’s developed a model for calculating potential participation levels and air-quality benefits “without incurring heavy up-front costs.” He’s surveying six types of chain businesses in five cities (including Seattle) as to how much job-swapping they could achieve. Even if results match his relatively low estimates, Rodriguez says proximate commuting would still pay off richly: “Not every program can reduce commuting by 1 percent. And for those who can do it, it offers enormous, life-changing benefits. It’s not a silver bullet. But nothing is.”