At some point, every day when I commute to Toronto, I think about how much productive time I lose sitting in traffic. It’s not just the loss of a half a day’s work stuck in traffic, and the non-productive time spent in my vehicle during the commute. It’s also a matter of understanding that products, as well as people, are stuck in the mess, and this all hurts the economy.
Every day, commuters are faced with the question: Do I take inadequate transit (which increases my commute time but allows me to at least respond to email) or drive in my car (which is faster and more direct, but one cannot get much work done)?
Others have undoubtedly made the calculation. They figure they are better off buying a condo in Toronto to stay at during the week, and retreat to their non-Toronto properties on weekends. There is no doubt that Toronto has a hot housing market, and this can only make a hot market hotter.
With those stratospheric housing prices in Toronto, it only pushes people further away in search of housing affordability. This pushes people to Durham, Barrie, Waterloo Region and so on. More and more GTA residents are moving away to find a property they can afford. We on the urban fringe had only heard about the ‘Toronto housing market’ until it arrived with a vengeance over the past couple years. Now bidding wars are common place in many markets outside of Toronto, and housing affordability is becoming the Ontario nightmare rather than dream.
Realtors will tell you that demand is robust and supply is weak, which creates a crazy market where prices are skyrocketing. More and more of our family budgets are being spent on financing homes rather than put into the broader economy. This spells trouble down the road for our consumer economy.
At the same time, rural areas are losing their young people and their talent. Graduates are fleeing for the areas that have jobs. Property values in rural Ontario are on the decline, schools are closing, downtowns abandoned, and communities are losing their sense of spirit. And rather than encouraging a reversal, public policy seems to encourage further urbanization.
The policy response is ‘build Ontario up,’ but that building hasn’t reduced gridlock or tamed the housing market. It also hasn’t tamed our addiction to cars, which has obvious implications for Ontario’s climate change action plan. We’re now into the third fiscal year of the ten year $31 billion plan for transit around the province. This follows more than $10 billion spent on “the Big Move” – Metrolinx’s nick name for transit investment in the GTA. Things aren’t getting better fast enough.
The other thing that comes to mind on my drive into Toronto is this question: Do all these people really need to be at their desk? Can some of these people do some or all their work at home? Reframing the question invites us to brainstorm ways to shift our behaviour away from a commuting culture to one that allows us to do more work at home. It also invites us to think about ideas where the private sector plays some role in fixing the congestion problem along with government, not in opposition to it.
Instead of funding “the Big Move,” what if we repurposed that money to fund “the Big Stay?” The twin effects of technological improvements and the fact that now three quarters of all workers are employed in the service sector make the idea of telecommuting much more practical. It’s also an employment trend.
By encouraging more employees to work from home, employers don’t need as many of those expensive office towers. A 2011 report by the Telework Research Network says that companies with 250 telecommuting employees would save about $3 million, which works out to roughly $12,000 an employee. These are some real numbers to boost economic competitiveness.
Statistics Canada reports that telecommuting is a growing phenomenon, but the growth is tepid. The data are dated, but the interesting thing to note is that the portrait of a telecommuter typically is a professional, university graduate, with men slightly more engaged in telecommuting than women. These are exactly the sort of people that make up swing voters in Ontario suburbs, and given that the objective is to have higher university degree attainment rates in the future, the number of millennials that may engage in telecommuting will likely grow as well. In addition, the explosion of technological innovation over the last decade suggests that telecommuting is getting easier. We likely now have ‘an app for that!’
At some point, one must ask why governments are stuck in their old ways of thinking rather than embracing a trend that will likely take hold anyway. Why can’t the government turn tepid growth into a viral phenomenon? For example, there could be tax incentives or grants applied to businesses who successfully get more people to work from home at least one day a week, which would take the pressure off our highways, cool the urban housing market, and keep young people in rural communities that need them. It also is environmentally responsible.
The point is to help employees achieve a better work-life balance and employers to boost their bottom line, all while reducing the pressure for governments to deal with transportation and housing challenges. Applying a bit of policy foresight can allow us to pursue ideas that embrace the future and create win-win-win scenarios for people, business, and government.
This article appeared in Queen’s Park Briefing. Visit QPBriefing.com to subscribe to this publication and stay on top of all things related to Ontario government and politics!