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.
Some of the KeyBank job switches Mullins proposed.

Tellingly, many of the inefficient commutes Mullins identified were not between outlying areas like Fairwood-Cascade where non-Amazoid workers can afford to live and the downtown Seattle and Bellevue job centers where they can’t (and where Nakhale works his second job). Tellers were driving between North End, South End, West Seattle, etc. They were the ones proximate commuting might help.

For a few years it looked to be the next big thing. The Puget Sound Regional Council, the Environmental Protection Agency and (strange bedfellows) Association of Washington Business bestowed innovation awards on Mullins. A study done by Arizona Transportation Department economist John Semmens for the conservative Goldwater Institute rated it far and away the most cost-effective strategy for reducing congestion; academic studies found it to be highly cost-effective in reducing car emissions.

King County, Starbucks, Bank of America’s Los Angeles operations and, most recently, Boeing did their own studies or had Mullins prepare ProximateCommute plans for their workers. Only King County’s review came up negative. County Councilmember Larry Phillips, who instigated that study, told me some years ago that the transportation bureaucracy snapped back, protecting its turf. The coordinator of the EPA’s national Transportation Partners program called ProximateCommute a “tremendous idea,” a “win-win solution.” National and local media fawned over it; I was an early adopter and serial cheerleader, writing about proximate commuting for everyone from the Washington Post and MIT’s Technology Review to the Seattle Weekly and an inflight magazine.

And then … nada. Proximate commuting largely disappeared from media view after the 2002 Boeing study. Its traces have grown colder since. Mullins’ website is still up, but a message to its “contact” link brought no response and the phone numbers I had for him didn’t ring.

One watchword has it that it takes about 20 years for new technologies to catch on; think television or the graphical user interface. Proximate commuting, as conceived by Gene Mullins, should now be in its prime. Why hasn’t it caught on?

“It’s been held back by a number of factors,” says Daniel A. Rodriguez, the Distinguished Professor of Sustainable Community Design at the University of North Carolina, who conducted the Michigan and Bogotá studies for his dissertation and has long tracked the idea’s development. “First, the recession. An idea like proximate commuting tends to work in a very tight labor market, but we’ve been in the doldrums for six to seven years.” When they call the shots, employers worry less about keeping their employees happy and healthy, and anxious workers opt to stay put rather than step forward and switch from supervisors they get along with to ones they don’t know.

Compounding economic pressures, adds Rodriguez, “a second, broader trend has taken hold — fungible jobs are declining. Many have very explicitly been replaced by capital investments such as self-service cashier stations at supermarkets.” The fewer such workers a company has, the harder it is to find commute-reducing job swaps for them. “There are big economies of scale — it’s much harder to set up for 30 employees than 300.” On the other hand, Rodriguez notes, the “increasing integration in some of these sectors, with only five or six big supermarket players left in the United States” can provide larger universes of employees and sites to swap amongst.

Economic and industry conditions aside, workers may also have special reasons for enduring grueling commutes. Some do so to boost their careers, even in mundane occupation like banks telling. When Rodriguez interviewed tellers in Bogotá for a hypothetical reduced-distance commuting scheme, he found one who commuted two hours each way to a downtown bank but wasn’t interested in switching to a branch within walking distance of his home. “He said, ‘I’m going to the busiest branch in whole system, so I will be very competitive for the productivity bonus the firm gives. That matters more to me.’ ”

Finally, Rodriguez has suggested, Mullins’ proprietary ProximateCommute approach may have discouraged companies from trying lowercase proximate commuting: Mullins’ price, $90,000 to $175,000, made his package “cost-ineffective” when, by Rodriguez’s calculations, only about 1 percent of the workforce labors in interchangeable positions.

Mullins has argued otherwise, noting that a sixth of Key Bank employees offered a chance to participate in the trial did so and that his surveying found that 53 percent of Boeing employees lived closer to other company facilities with positions matching their job descriptions. He added that skeptics underestimated the benefits for employers of increased worker satisfaction, loyalty and stability and decreased absenteeism, sick leave and on-the-job dozing. But he conceded that he’d sat on his hands rather than marketing ProximateCommute, expecting the world to beat a path to his good idea.

Reducing commutes wouldn’t just aid workers and employers. It offers significant social and environmental benefits, what economists call “positive externalities.” Should governments promote the idea, maybe even offer companies incentives to undertake it?

Trouble is, this requires a cognitive switch that seems to elude many politicians and agencies, however receptive some of their staff may be. Transportation planning focuses on moving bodies, not on reducing the need to move them. Even the transit and density advocates who recite the mantra that “we can’t build our way out of gridlock” with highway lanes urge building our way out with light rail and transient-oriented development. Construction, engineering and labor interests have their own reasons to plump for building rail lines, streetcars, highways, runways, etc. Low-cost, no-build solutions have no such constituencies. As Semmens said, “they don’t give you ribbon cuttings and goodies to hand out to your friends.”

Nevertheless, lowercase proximate-commuting may be spreading, slowly and unheralded. “If you don’t use the software Gene developed but just set it up on your own, the cost is very limited,” says Rodriguez, who himself worked to develop nonproprietary job-swapping schemes. (He’s now working on bringing workforce housing closer to workplaces.) When Rodriguez surveyed banks in Michigan and elsewhere, he found that some already notified employees who lived nearby of positions that came available.

I asked the companies for whom Mullins prepared plans in the ’90s and early ’00s what came of them. Nothing at Boeing; it decided not to proceed, for reasons now unknown but easy to guess at. The company was then occupied with moving its corporate headquarters to Chicago and its 787 component production around the globe, and climbing out of a recession. It was trying to trim its local ties, and didn’t have a lot of attention to spare to making local workers happier.

Starbucks now seems to be starting to deal with the issues it considered addressing via ProximateCommute a decade-and-a-half ago. Last year, a spokesperson says, the Big Mermaid revamped the scheduling system for its North American stores. “If partners are experiencing a commute longer than an hour we will move them to a store closer to their home.”

Back in the ’90s, KeyBank got caught up in a merger with another bank and dropped its successful ProximateCommute trial. But the ripple effects may persist to this day, in keeping with what Rodriguez found in Michigan. “Work-life balance is a priority for us at KeyBank,” John Roehm, the bank’s Washington retail sales leader, said in an emailed statement.  “Although there is no formal program in place related to the 1995 Proximate Commute Study results, we always strive to assign new hires to branches close to where they live. And as positions become available, we post them internally and give priority to current employees seeking to work closer to home.”

That wouldn’t help Simon Nakhale, the road-weary security guard. It turns out KeyBank contracts for its security services from G4S Secure Solutions, which operates around the region and in 120 countries. I asked whether and how it considered commuting distance in assigning guards. G4S’s Seattle district office referred me to its West Coast regional office, which referred me to its headquarters in Jupiter, Florida, which never responded.

UPDATE, 1:26 p.m. I received this information from Cindi Barker about how at least some Boeing operations accommodated worker proximity: "I was a manager at Boeing and our skill team (the group who manages the personnel deployment of specific skill-coded employees, such as manufacturing engineers) had a policy in place where we kept a “geographic preference” list, where employees who wanted to work at a different location could register to be on and then they could be considered for placement when there were job openings. Many of the skill codes I worked with or around had the same policy. So maybe there wasn’t an overarching corporate policy, but it was very active at a lower level. People living in Renton hated the commute to Everett."


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.