Who needs transit when we have the Internet?
The saga of Oahu's proposed mass transit system is a story that is still unfolding in the pages of this paper. Like an evil specter in those science-fiction movies, we all know it's out there and we know it's coming but we don't know when. The public is crying out for a gridlock solution and the politicians know something has to be done.
As we enter the latest round of polemics concerning mass transit, I am getting exhausted from watching the same old skirmishes. Having observed the cycle of overblown promises, accusations, counter-claims, and the endless pursuit of federal dollars for three decades, I am certain that even a trillion-dollar program will not speed up our commute. We have difficulty enough filling potholes, which admittedly is 19th-century technology. Building and running a Star Wars-era light-rail system seems unimaginable.
Then there's the question of who will ride this 21st-century wonder.
A recent study produced by Randal O'Toole ("A Desire Named Streetcar") of the Cato Foundation (http://cato.-org/pub_display.php?pub_id=5345) reveals that total inflation-adjusted subsidies to transit -- buses and trains -- have more than doubled since 1990. Despite this, total ridership has increased by less than 10 percent. In comparison, urban driving nationally has increased by 42 percent.
This statistic is reflected in Hawaii. The raison d'etre for Kapolei was to create a "Second City" that would distribute the population and lighten the daily commute into downtown Honolulu. Ironically, perhaps the worst gridlock on Oahu is -- yes, you guessed it -- between Honolulu and Kapolei.
Before we squander $10-plus billion (which is what the experts say this will cost over 20 years) we need to rethink this juggernaut. I believe there is a technological solution right beneath our noses that could reduce commuter time immeasurably. What's more, it's already installed and, most of the time, works flawlessly.
It's called the Internet.
One of the most innovative applications spawned by broadband technology was recognized in the early 1990s as telecommuting, or "telework."
Virtually all of our jobs nowadays are done on desktop computers, so why not work from home -- even if it's just a portion of your workday?
The model already is in use in the University of Hawaii system, where a majority of community college courses are available online. I have been teaching online exclusively since 1998 as a part-time faculty member at Leeward Community College and don't go to the campus unless I really have to. Nor do my students, many of whom are working mothers. How would this apply outside the educational community?
Hawaii has more than 70,000 state and county workers whose driving habits have a significant effect on our commuting patterns. If state, county and private employers allowed people to work at home for even a few hours in the morning or two days a week, it would drastically reduce traffic on the H-1.
This is not a revolutionary new idea. It already works in other states such as Arizona, where 16 percent of state workers telecommute. Keep in mind that it wouldn't take more than a 5 percent drop in traffic during the prime commuting hours to make a major dent in congestion.
Improving our morning and evening drive times would not take a multibillion-dollar investment. However, it would take state, city and private entities to establish guidelines regarding what categories of workers might be telecommuting candidates.
If the political will were there, telework would be eminently doable. The technology is there and it's inexpensive. Oahu's broadband Internet infrastructure already is in place via cable and DSL services. When you've got software programmers working out of their homes on Maui and the Big Island for mainland companies, surely there's an opportunity for Bishop Street office workers to telecommute from Kaimuki or Pearl City. Many smaller technology companies (such as my own) already are virtual and can be used as a model. I firmly believe the productivity of a company can actually increase with telecommuting staff.
No, telecommuting is not as sexy as multibillion-dollar Bombardier tilting trains with double-deck electric multiple units. Telecommuting also won't create the kinds of temporary union jobs that politicians love or spawn speculative real estate land booms around metro stations. However, as Arizona has proven, it can make a substantial impact in getting cars off the road. At the very least, telecommuting can be part of the solution. I believe we owe it a chance.
About the author
: Mike Meyer is president of CTA, a high technology consulting firm based in Honolulu, and a founder of Hitech Quest (www.hitechquest.com), a Honolulu-based nonprofit organization dedicated to furthering technology education for Hawaii youth.