By Atiba Founder & CEO, JJ Rosen; This article originally appeared in The Tennessean
Remember when the biggest problem our city had was what to do about all the traffic?
Those were the days. Families were split over light rails, buses, and higher taxes. There was honest debate and passion on both sides, but ultimately the citizens of Nashville voted to kick the can down the road. The mass transit referendum crashed, and our big-city traffic challenge continued.
Until a couple of months ago, when a new problem arrived.
With the onset of a global pandemic, all the debate over traffic jams has been long forgotten. It’s not just that the health and economic impacts of the coronavirus make the inconveniences of a longer commute seem minuscule in comparison. It’s also that the coronavirus has literally reduced our traffic.
When almost everyone works from home, the need for mass transit solutions and their associated expenses completely disappear. No more rush hours, less pollution, fewer accidents, and less lost time on the road. Although it’s a trade-off no one ever imagined or wanted, being forced to work from home these past weeks has solved many of our traffic problems faster than any of the traditional solutions that most big cities are eventually forced to adopt.
In normal times, the idea of working from home has been validated many times over as a win-win for both employees and employers. Employers have come to realize that less time commuting means more time working and more productivity. And most employees have found that they are happier and enjoy more job satisfaction when they have the freedom and flexibility that comes with working from home.
Until now, though, most of us have not seen the direct benefit that a city derives from massive numbers of people working from home.
Cities across the world are seeing significant air quality improvements. With less money spent on gas and lower car insurance rates being rolled out, costs of living are going down. And for those whose jobs depend upon them getting to a physical workplace, quality of life has improved with their commute times being cut in half while office workers stay off the roads.
It goes without saying that pandemics are not solutions to traffic problems. But its byproducts — a massive adoption of telecommuting and in turn a massive reduction in traffic — can help us reset our thinking about long-term transit solutions.
Since we now know with certainty that a huge shift to working from home is a solution to our traffic woes, how can we promote this approach in a post-pandemic world?
The good news is that the pandemic we are experiencing has forced even the most old-school office employers to realize that working from home is not bad. Lawyers, doctors, and even large corporations that have traditionally been 100% office-based have quickly become telecommuter converts. Working from home is now an easy sell.
But for this new norm to have staying power (and solve our traffic problems permanently), we need to incentivize businesses to make telecommuting a no-brainer.
Offering remote-friendly companies incentives like tax breaks, more access to city government contracts, or even cash payments based on carbon emission reductions would be cheaper and certainly faster than implementing a light rail system. It wouldn’t be perfect, but with working at home easier than ever before and traffic generally worse than ever before, it’s an outside-the-box fix that this pandemic has shown could actually work.
As a recent popular meme has said, when we wish that things would go back to normal, we ought to think carefully about which parts of “normal” we want to get back to. Traffic in Nashville is a norm that we may not want to return to.