Why Carpool Lanes Are Killing Us

The myth of environmentally friendly commuting




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Feb 2007 (San Carlos, CA) - This idea has been kicking around in my head for a while. Some would say it should stay there, but I've decided to give it ink (or electrons at least).

I know many people, environmentalists at heart, that would argue carpool lanes are good for the environment. They encourage people to share rides, thus removing one or two cars from the road each day. Fewer car trips per day means fewer tons of green house gasses put into the atmosphere each year. That has to be good.

While carpool lanes sound environmentally friendly, I've come to believe that the carpool lane concept is destroying our environment.

Three people driving in a car one hour every day from Modesto to Sunnyvale is certainly better than three people in three cars driving from Modesto to Sunnyvale. But the real environmental problem is that three people travel from Modesto to Sunnyvale every day.

Why do they carpool such long distances every day? The easy answer is that living in Modesto is cheap and good paying jobs are in Sunnyvale. The real answer is "because they can."



Long ago we all had to work in physical proximity. That's still true for small companies. When your company is small everyone knows everyone else and close, quick communication helps to move fast. The idea is that being close together brings synergy.

In the old days synergy only occurred when you were within walking distance of everyone else. But when companies reach a certain size, people sitting together don't really work together anyway. In big multinational companies I've worked more closely with colleagues in distant cities and countries than with people sitting across the aisle. I've worked on in a sea of cubicles where I had little idea what the folks on the far side of the building did. And I'm an outgoing, curious individual. Most people had absolutely no idea what other teams did. We used to joke about worlds within worlds, where people walked past each other every day without knowing anything about each other.

These days the working relationships we form with phone, email, instant messengers, remote white boards, and remote desktops make it possible for any company to form a strong team no matter where they work. It's the motivation and intelligence of individuals that create the synergy, not geographic collocation. Yes, collocation can really help, but I've seen many groups of un-motivated, un-skilled people attend problem solving meetings where nothing good got done - and yet everyone was in the same room. The real advances would come later when a couple of the brightest would exchange a few emails or chat on the phone and figure out a brilliant strategy to move the company forward. Synergy does not come from throwing a bunch of people into one pot.

Companies today implicitly acknowledge that collocation is not a requirement to be successful. This is evident in the number of remote sites they use. Product Development is often split between California, France, and Bangalore. Yes, each of those locations needs to have a certain critical mass of people, but they don't all have to be working on the same thing. In fact, the cross fertilization that can come over the lunchroom table when different projects are discussed can add synergistic value to a company.

Of course as companies grow they need more people. These people need more housing. People want to work close to where they live. Housing prices go up. New hires to the company start living on the outskirts of the town and driving further to work. This cycle continues. Eventually we get tremendous urban sprawl, or we get distant remote bedroom communities that cater to those willing to make the long commute.


Where to Grow?

I assert that the default strategy for any company is to keep building close to home. As a company grows at first it is only natural to add more people to the same location. Move into a bigger building. Take two floors. Lease another building next door or down the block. Start a satellite office in Germany. Lease several floors in France. Open an office in Bangalore. Buy your own building. Create a campus of buildings.

Why does it seem easier for a company to open satellite offices in other countries than to start a second plant site outside the urban sprawl? It appears easier to start an office on the other side of the world than it is to start one on the other side of the state. To understand this we need to look at  who really benefits from these super sized centers of a business.

I don't think the top level executives benefit - they spend most of their time on the road anyway visiting customers, sales offices, and conferences. We've seen that it certainly doesn't help the folks at the bottom of the pyramid who have to suffer life crushing commutes every day. I've come to believe that it mostly benefits the mid level executives - those who would have to manage two or three significant sites.

Imagine the mid level exec who makes enough money to live close enough to the first plant site to have a reasonable commute. As the company grows this person is faced with a choice: acquire more local space or build a second site 100 miles away. If this person makes the decision to start a remote site it seems reasonable that they would then have to visit it periodically. So, in exchange for reducing the commute of half of his/her people, this executive would personally have to commute the 100 miles between work sites. Too close to fly, this mid level exec would probably envision themselves making the long drive between sites once a week.

On one side the exec has a nice commute and his people deal with the long commute. On the other side all the people have a nice commute but the exec is stuck driving an hour each way, maybe even staying away from home in a local hotel for several days each month. Is it any wonder that the mid level exec decides to grow the local campus instead?


The Reaction

But what does this have to do with carpool lanes? Remote commuters are voters. They don't like how long it takes to drive to work. They lobby strongly for more roads. Bigger highways. More lanes. Of course this means more cars. More congestion in the core. Eventually there isn't much land left for highways. The smog is hard to live with. Ahhhh, the carpool lane emerges to save us - for a while.

Years of this strategy and now we live with congested carpool lanes, long commutes, and even more congestion in the core.

The better strategy is to eliminate the need for the long commute from thes remote communities. We need to build jobs there instead of here. We need people to be able to work close to where they live. And yet we've seen why this won't happen. We know why it's easier to put a remote campus in Bangalore but not in Modesto.


A Solution

My personal recommendation is to eliminate all carpool lanes. Just remove the signs and let the load of cars suck up all the lanes. Stop increasing the size of highways to outlying communities. Stop building major new highways between communities when the only congested times are commute times.

This simple step of squeezing the commute possibilities will have dramatic, positive effects on our economy and our society.

Companies who choose to expand in the core cities will not be able to attract the workers they need. Those companies will fail. Successful companies will start satellite offices in remote communities where the workers live - or want to live. Big companies will create offices and manufacturing facilities in places the workers can get to. Smaller supplier companies will follow. So will those small businesses that service the companies. Shopping, recreation, and theater will all follow. An entire ecosystem - what we call a "real city" - will emerge.

Another option, of course, is that core cities will build "up" to add more residences. All those two story manufacturing sites in Sunnyvale might decide to add three more stories of rental units to accommodate their workforce. This would also cut down commute traveling.


Side Benefits

Another benefit will be the strengthening of our social communities. In today's world parents have the ability to drive their children to the "better" school that's five miles from home. We can take our kids to the "better" soccer league or swim team or karate class or violin teacher that is on the other side of town. Every day we use our fantastic road system to spread our lives out over a larger and larger area. In the old days a person couldn't get across town every day to go to school - the road was too small, the car to precious. What's changed? Now we have huge roads, with carpool lanes, that facilitate this life sprawl.

Imagine a near future without carpool lanes. In fact, imagine that all four lane highways had one lane removed. Yee Gods! Not only would mom and dad have to work at a job site close to home, our kids would have to attend the local school. We'd have to make use of the local pool; the local grocer, the local softball field. We might even have to become friends with our neighbors since we wouldn't be able to drive across town for dinner on a weeknight.

Holy cow! We'd have to demand better local schools. We'd have to attract a good judo instructor. Our local grocer would have to offer those things we want to buy. We couldn't sit by and see the city around us crumble while we spend our attention and dollars at some other place. We could no longer ignore bad planning decisions by local politicians, knowing that we really don't "live" here - we just have a house/condo/apartment here. We would be forced to LIVE within a few miles of our homes. We'd have to become local activists!

Where would we get the time to be so involved locally? Oh right, we wouldn't be spending two hours on the road commuting every day.

As I see it, no real environmentalist can be in favor of carpool lanes.


Jim Schrempp is a sometimes freelance writer (only Vanity Press will publish his work) living in Saratoga, California. His writings have appeared on numerous pages on his own web site. The opinions expressed in this piece are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent those of anyone else (although Jim wishes more people shared his opinions)