Wired to work
Telecommuting won't end congestion, but mobile commuting can ease traffic gridlock
Last week, our civic leaders were still trying to determine the most appropriate technology for the mayor's proposed mass transit system. The choices range from the prosaic (rubber tires or steel wheels) to downright esoteric (magnetic levitation).
What didn't make its way into the headlines was any mention of an existing technology that doesn't involve steel wheels, levitation or building a single yard of new railway. It utilizes a technology that is clean, simple and road-tested. The system harnesses the Internet and is commonly known as telecommuting or telework.
For the purposes of this article I've broadened the concept and called it mobile commuting. This includes working anywhere outside the office with broadband as well as wirelessly enabled laptops, blackberries and other mobile devices.
In the Aloha State, as on the mainland, the concept of mobile commuting is now mainstream. I suspect you won't find a salesperson or an executive in Hawaii who doesn't have a Blackberry or a laptop with a wireless connection.
Likewise, first responders such as police officers, firemen, paramedics or other civil servants such as Board of Water Supply personnel have mobile devices so they can transmit data and voice to and from their offices. For example, Honolulu Police Department officers can access drivers licensing information, motor vehicle data and juvenile offender reports from their squad cars.
City executives are similarly wired. "All our directors have wireless capability from anywhere in the state or the mainland with their laptops and PDAs" said Gordon Bruce, chief information officer of the City and County of Honolulu.
Although first responders and executives utilize mobile commuting, rank and file office workers usually don't have the option to work from home. If they did, the impact on our traffic patterns would be significant. Oahu has approximately 21,000 state and county workers. With approximately 83,000 daily commutes in and out of East Oahu alone, telecommuting could play a significant role in easing the morning and evening commutes.
Naturally, the private sector also contributes to gridlock, but small businesses and corporate entities are beginning to take action. Lou Darnell, founder of ComTel, a local communications technology firm that recently vacated its downtown Honolulu offices and deployed telecommuting solutions for half of its 20-member staff, couldn't be happier. The former Army officer turned entrepreneur now saves his company $10,000 a month on rent. What's more, he says his workers are happier, more productive and no longer deal with rising parking expenses or lengthy commutes.
Currently, the Hawaiian Electric Co. allows as many as 250 employees to telecommute on an "incidental" basis, which includes off hours, weekends and partial days to avoid traffic. According to Brenda DeRyke, senior IT project manager, HECO plans to roll out a program in November that will entail 100 employees working out of their homes three to five days a week. Rick Stuller, CIO at HECO, said that plans are in the works to set up a similar plan for the company's neighbor island subsidiaries on Maui and the Big Island next year.
Although both the city and the state declare that they support telecommuting, spokespeople were unable to furnish any current data regarding deployment of telecommuting.
» How can you encourage your employer to get on board?
Kaneohe resident Pat Katepoo, founder of nationally recognized Workoptions.com and an authority on telecommuting, says that Hawaii residents who wait for an employer to implement a teleworking policy will be sitting on the H-1 until their retirement. "It's up to the individual to take the topic up with their manager," said Katepoo.
» How do we effect change on the government side?
Telecommuting will occur on a large scale only when our state and civic leaders adopt a policy and actively promote it. (Currently the city does have a telework policy in place but leaves it up to department heads to apply. The state's program was recently completed but has yet to go through an approval process.)
Mobile commuting is not the universal antidote to traffic congestion, however, it's certainly part of the solution. Other communities on the mainland have successfully deployed telecommuting solutions. For example, Maricopa, County (where Phoenix is located) has 4,328 county employees participating in a telework program. Why can't our government workers have the same opportunity?
In addition to gridlock, another looming concern that might put telework on the front burner is the potential of avian flu or another pandemic that potentially could shut Hawaii government and businesses down. Because people would be discouraged from congregating or even going to work during a pandemic, organizations would have to be run virtually. A telecommuting program would in effect set up the infrastructure to run a virtual business or government before a pandemic strikes.
The city, state and private industry have done a great job leveraging wireless, mobile commuting applications, but if these entities are sincere about ending gridlock they can start by strongly supporting telecommuting for the larger worker population. With highways clogged, gas at $4 a gallon on the neighbor islands and energy prices going nowhere but up, isn't it about time we get started?
Cliff Miyake is vice president and general manager of the Honolulu office of twtelecom (formerly Time Warner Telecom).