The forgotten (and surprisingly simple) solution to long commutes

Crosscut archive image.

Two weeks ago the Seattle Times’ Janet Tu recounted the plaintive tale of a Kenyan immigrant named Simon Nakhale, who was living the low-wage commuter nightmare. Nakhale spent three hours and more than a third of his take-home pay driving 60, 70 and more miles a day between his apartment southeast of Renton and his jobs as a package sorter for FedEx in Auburn and a security guard at KeyBank in downtown Seattle.

The story noted some of the human costs of the daily highway odyssey for Nakhale and others like him: time lost, stress endured, fatherhood forgone, the added financial pressure of leasing a second family car because he’s never home. But it didn’t ask some underlying questions: Why are so many people driving such punishing distances to jobs that are similar — even identical — to jobs much nearer home? Could anything be done to relieve their burdens and the costs of their commutes for society at large — from kids going astray while parents are away to precious highway space occupied, air quality degraded and greenhouse gases emitted?

Something was done 23 years ago to relieve the misery of one cohort of workers: a successful experiment at, as it happens, the Key Bank branches dotting the very territory Simon Nakhale traverses each day. But why did the clever software/HR system that was proven out — invented in Seattle and praised everywhere from the Goldwater Institute in Arizona to the U.S. EPA in Washington, D.C. — then proceed to go … nowhere? Why don’t what sound like good ideas catch on?

Consider Nakhale’s daily drive. At least 20 Key Bank branches are nearer his route than the one he clocks in at. One, in the Fairwood/Cascade district of the Eastside where he lives, might even be within walking distance. All would spare him the extra gridlock grind and parking cost of downtown Seattle.

He’s not the only one driving much farther than he needs to get to the job he does. In the 1990s, a Seattle environmental consultant named Gene Mullins studied the commute patterns of workers at 20-plus employers up and down the West Coast with multiple branches serving similar functions, from banks, supermarkets, fast-food chains, and Starbucks to libraries and fire departments. He found that, on average, only 20 percent — 4 percent of firefighters in one big city — worked at the branch nearest their homes. (Another researcher’s studies in southeastern Michigan and Bogotá, Colombia found similar percentages.)

People take jobs when and where they become available, perhaps because friends work there and tell them about them. Once they settle in, switching seems daunting and risky. Nevertheless, Mullins set about inducing some to try it.

He has said the idea came to him when he was stuck in traffic, on the way from his home in Magnolia to the environmental engineering firm he worked for, which had recently moved out to Bothell. He stared at the commuter hordes crawling into Seattle and thought, “It’s too bad we can’t just trade places.” And then he thought, why not? He developed a package of software and related materials, trademarked ProximateCommute, that would explain the idea to workers, then crunch their job descriptions,, home addresses, and work sites and suggest job swaps that would reduce both swappers' commutes. In 1992 he persuaded the Washington State Department of Transportation to fund a trial, and he got the Seattle and Tacoma offices of Key Bank, which was touting its environmental dedication, to be a test bed.

That trial was a tantalizing success. Twenty-eight of the 85 employees who volunteered to participate were able to transfer to open positions nearer their homes. Only two actually swapped jobs, but 23 were on a waiting list to do so when the trial ended. Together, the 30 reduced their average roundtrip commute from 43 to 15 miles. Four years later, one of the swappers still reveled in the changes the switch brought to her life: “I take crafts classes, work out, spend time at home, sleep in and stay up later. It’s a good idea.”

Crosscut archive image.

Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano's reporting on social and environmental issues for The Weekly (later Seattle Weekly) won Livingston, Kennedy, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and other honors. He has also written for Harper's, New Scientist, and many other publications. One of his books, Michelangelo's Mountain, was a finalist for the Washington Book Award. His other books include Puget SoundLove, War, and Circuses (aka Seeing the Elephant); and, with Curtis E. Ebbesmeyer, Flotsametrics.