Pods the Answer to Costly Daily Commute (News Article 2015)

Newspaper article: Business Day 17/11/2015
Pods the answer to costly daily commute|

The N2 freeway in Cape Town. We need to rethink our approach to work, where we work and the planning of our cities, says the writer. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

RECENTLY two very different events highlighted the time and money wasted in the twice-daily commute. One was the City of Johannesburg’s Sandton-based Eco-Mobility Month and the other the City of Cape Town’s one-day Congestion Summit.

The aim of both transport events was to get commuters out of their cars in a bid to manage congestion. Both were aimed at tweaking an existing system to manage the problem and repercussions of there being too many cars on the road.

A hundred years ago, it was necessary to bring people together in the same physical space, but times have changed, and doing so is a luxury we can no longer afford.

In a knowledge-based economy, do so many thousands of admin people really need to travel to and from a couple of square kilometres of high-density office blocks each weekday? The issue is that of office workers who travel to a centralised office to sit at a desk in front of a computer. Certainly, they also engage with colleagues, but this does not always have to be face to face.

The time-consuming commute twice a day between the suburbs and central business district (CBD) results in stress, travel and environmental and productivity costs.

In Cape Town it is estimated that the office worker who drives from Somerset West to the CBD and back spends 40 days a year just in commuting. Similar figures would apply in Gauteng.

We need to rethink our approach to work, where we work and the planning of our cities. We need a cohesive approach to the problem, with city and national departments working together to make possible an alternative to the almost endless commute and the accompanying congestion and waste.

We also need behavioural changes. Three are commonly suggested: work from home (impractical for most people), flexitime (also only a partial tweak) and use of public transport. The last option simply spreads the problem and does not resolve it. These changes will only modify the status quo for a while, not change it for the better.

A formal office environment close to where employees live is the answer. Introduce the concept of shared, high-tech, easily accessed and convenient offices close to home, schools, shopping centres and other services. Large numbers of employees could easily work from one of many high-tech “pod offices” situated in suburban areas of a city (and beyond). These pod offices would not be branches, but rather local office environments in which a number of companies would rent office space for their sole use.

In addition, 21st century shared services such as management of safety and privacy, time-keeping, internet and video connectivity, voice-over internet communications, coffee space and limited parking would be provided.

Several employees from the local area, working for one company, doing different work and reporting to someone in a different pod office in another area, would work together in a small pod office. The building would be shared by a number of companies. Working in a shared space with occasional visits to other company offices would eliminate the isolation of working from home.

Managing the issue of the commute should encompass a broader approach. Leaving my car at home would be a lot more attractive if home were close to the schools, shops, doctor and my place of work. The behavioural change should improve the lives of workers notably.

The Johannesburg and Cape Town metros need to lead the way by establishing pod offices near home for their staff. Government tax incentives for companies adopting this approach would hasten the process.

The daily “Great Trek” for any reason is a luxury we cannot afford. The centralised workspace is a mind-set issue. Both the public and private sector need to relook at the often compulsory waste of money of the commute and make use of new 21st century tools and choices.

Childs is Managing Consultant at TransForum Business Development cc