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Alborn: Move Info to Workers, Not Workers to Offices

By Potomac Local June 27, 2012 8:00 am

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I-95 south in Woodbridge. (Photo: Mary Davidson/PotomacLocal.com)

I-95 south in Woodbridge. (Photo: Mary Davidson/PotomacLocal.com)

By AL ALBORN
The Alborn Foundation

The world is a math problem. It is an infinite number of “dots” waiting to be connected. We understand very little about these dots, and are only beginning to connect an immeasurably small percentage of them. We often “miss” the most important dots looking right past them.

It’s time to to connect the “work”, “technology”, and “transportation” dots.

It’s time to think in terms of an integrated system that includes telework when planning for Northern Virginia’s transportation needs. We aren’t doing this today. From what I’ve seen and conversations I have had, we aren’t planning to do it any time soon.

We must demand that changes.

The simple fact is that thousands of people move around on our roads and highways to get from their homes to some arbitrary job site to perform knowledge work that could be done anywhere.

The Prince William County Demographic and Economic Newsletter, January-March 2012 edition, tells us:

“The 2010 American Community Survey indicates that on the average, Prince William County workers continue to face long commute times. Some 25.3 percent of all County workers travel an hour or more one way to work. This figure is more than three times the national number of 8.0 percent and is the 12th longest commute among the largest 818 counties in theUnited States. Of the 20 longest average commutes to work, seven are communities in the greater Washington area. The average travel time to work among Prince William County workers is 38 minutes, an increase from 36.9 and 36 minutes in 2000 and 1990, respectively. The 2010 American Community Survey also indicated that 68.6% of Prince William County workers drive to work alone; 15.5% carpool to work; 5.5% use public transportation; 10.4% used other means, walked to work or worked at home.”

Prince William County residents are locked into an industrial age model to perform information age tasks. They are victims of a 19th Century management model that dictates one must be observed, one must work eight hours a day, one must come to some central location to work with information that literally floats in a rhetorical cloud available anywhere, anytime, anyplace.

Prince William County Government and Northern Virginia Transportation planning groups have the power to free us from this model. Unfortunately, they also appear to be caught in Industrial age thinking.

Whether it be Virginia’s Secretary of Transportation, Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments (COG), Northern Virginia Transportation Alliance (NVTA), or Northern Virginia Transportation Authority (NVTA), these people build roads. Go ahead… check these websites… search for telework. You will be profoundly disappointed.

For a profound disappointment about what our children and grandchildren’s future might look like, browse the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority’s plan for 2040, TransAction 2040.

Anyone remember Joni Mitchell’s song, Big Yellow Taxi? Her line, They took all the trees and put them in a tree museum keeps ringing through my mind.

That’s because people do what they have always done… what they know… what they understand… whatever the mission of their group is defined as doing. If you build groups around people who build roads, you are going to get… wait for it… more roads!

Changing a paradigm is difficult. You often have to change a few people to make that happen.

The old paradigm is moving people to the information they need to do their jobs. The new paradigm is moving information to the people who need it to do their jobs.

We continue to focus our transportation planning on moving more people to the information, the meetings, the conferences, the appointments they must keep within the context of 19th Century Industrial Age thinking.

I’m waiting for someone to “Connect the dots” between transportation planning and technology to move Northern Virginia into the Information Age. I’m waiting for a leader who understands that fundamental to 21st Century transportation planning is a vision that includes taking people off the roads and letting them work anywhere. I’m waiting for those who model our future transportation needs to start creating algorithms and variables for the impact of technology on our models for moving people where they need to be.

Too many people on our roads is the problem. I’m waiting for those who do transportation planning to have that “aha” moment when they realize that technology, telework, and taking people off the roads is part of the solution.

This will make some people’s “heads hurt”. It transitions some of the equity in the road building process (building roads is good business) into the technology infrastructure process (technology is also good business).

People are teleworking today. The President’s Telework Enhancement Act of 2010 is generally a success. Virginia is on board with tax credits and incentives to encourage people to get off the roads. Smart people in Government are thinking about expanding it beyond the Federal Workforce to other domains.

It’s time for Northern Virginia Transportation Planners to revisit their core assumptions, integrate technology into the model, and include strategies that take people off the roads in the solution set. We need some fresh ideas, new thinking, creative leadership. We need a new way of thinking about roads, work, technology, and how those dots connect.

The ultimate “bad joke” would be to continue to borrow money, pave the countryside, and build roads that we won’t need because technology will quietly make them obsolete as telework and technology move forward “in spite of” poor transportation planning.

“Road maintenance” is the tax burden that keeps on taking

We need to integrate telework and technology into Northern Virginia’s Transportation Strategy.

I’m waiting for a hero. I’m waiting for someone to represent the thousands of Northern Virginians caught in that risky, boring, unnecessary, expensive… I could go on… commute to someplace that I don’t really have to be to do their job.

I’m waiting for those we elect to start shouting, “Get my people off the road!”

Addendum: I suggested that the Northern Virginia Transportation Authority integrate telework into its transportation planning in a letter to Marty Nohe in his role as its Chairman. You may find it here. It discusses some of the benefits of this idea. He is interested in this issue.

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