Monday, 23 April 2007

Beat congestion - stay at home

With the news today that even the Queen is green, the pressure is mounting for people to take a more responsible approach to travel and its impact on the environment. But, now that cheap air travel has opened up the world to people, it is not easy to turn back the clock and tell people to stay at home. For the wealthy, there is the new trend of offsetting the impact of their trips with investment in green projects (as the Queen plans to do). But for your average Joe, this puts the cost of travel beyond reach and doesn't seem very fair.

Meantime, with increasing congestion in the skies and on the roads, we hear a lot of talk and debate, but don't see much real action. The government wants to introduce road charging to reduce congestion and assures us that this is not another stealth tax but a scheme which will benefit everybody. They claim that when the driving public becomes aware of the real cost of motoring, we will be happy to reduce our time at the wheel. What a load of codswallop.

Most people don't choose to sit in traffic jams morning and evening, 5 days a week. They are there because they have to get to and from work in a country where public transport is increasingly inadequate, unreliable and prohibitively expensive. In a society which requires all schoolchildren and workers to arrive at school or work at approximately the same time every day, it is little wonder there is congestion at peak times.

There are a number of practical steps we could take to improve matters without taxing people. We could stagger school opening times for example, taking the pressure of the school run out of the rush hour. And we could also stagger the school holidays to avoid the travel chaos that occurs every holiday. In light of the inflated travel costs during school holidays, this move would be welcomed by parents and teachers alike I think.

And, rather than penalising people for driving to work, we could reward them for staying at home. Some jobs require a physical presence, such as doctors and teachers and shop keepers. But in our service-based economy a very large percentage of us could use modern communication tools to perform many of our tasks remotely. Not only can telecommuting reduce congestion, but there are proven benefits in terms of increased productivity and enhanced work-life balance. Instead of charging people to use the roads, reward home workers with grants to equip home offices, subsidised broadband and lower taxation for work done from home. Instead of building more roads and airports, invest the money in free wifi and cheap access to video-conferencing facilities in all communities.

A major barrier to the growth of telecommuting is a culture of distrust among employers, a belief that workers will take advantage of the situation and not pull their weight. This is a sad attitude that says more about the employer's lack of self-belief than about the trustworthiness of the workforce. With good communications and efficient performance management, employers will find that workers can be trusted and, with less stress, they will tend to perform beyond expectation. Companies will also benefit from a reduction in the cost of office accommodation and better staff retention. It's a win win situation.

So why isn't it happening? There seems to be an astounding lack of political will to upset the status quo in a way that would reduce our reliance on planes, trains and automobiles. A cynic might say that this arises from the vested interest of car makers, oil companies and the travel sector. That may be the case, but the time when this was acceptable is rapidly running out. When compared to the complicated, costly and socially invasive plans for road charging, the telecommute option appears simpler, less intrusive and rewards people rather than penalising them.

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