Amy Zuckerman 04.18.08, 6:00 AM ET
This year, as the first wave of 76 million baby boomers reaches official retirement age in the U.S., traffic engineers are already anticipating a potential shift in driving patterns that could well have enormous impact on fuel consumption and traffic technology needs for years to come.
Imagine 20 million people in the U.S., exiting the work place in five-year segments over the course of the next two decades. In total, that's half of today's work place. As many as 70% of boomers want to build their own small companies from a home setting.
There are indications from staffing and recruiting companies like global giant Robert Half that corporations are preparing to hire back boomers as subcontractors, but many may operate from homes or small office settings close to their residences. Already, major corporations such as IBM (nyse: IBM - news - people ) and Cisco Systems (nasdaq: CSCO - news - people ) are hiring more home-based workers, creating "hybrid" companies with full-time staff augmented by subcontractors.
Today the virtual work place trend is apparent in college towns across the U.S. like Amherst, Mass., and lifestyle locales like Asheville, N.C., and Bellingham, Wash., which are quickly becoming quality of life destinations for boomers developing their own virtual companies. Rather than experiencing clog ups during rush hour, quality-of-life locales like Amherst are experiencing far more traffic congestion at meal times--particularly lunch--as the self-employed virtual company owner heads to commercial districts for business meetings and to conduct errands. In these sorts of places, it's a return to the 19th century where people live and work close to a town or village center.
John Collura, director of the UMass Transportation Center and a professor at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, has joined the virtual work place as a telecommuter who travels between a home office and the university several days a week. He also maintains what career expert Barbara Reinhold calls a "sidecar company" from his home, so he personally encompasses two types of virtual workers. Like many teleworkers, he has some choice in what times he commutes, whenever possible avoiding peak traffic hours on highways or arterial roads. Collura notes that virtual company owners have even more choice as they can tackle work in a flexible fashion and have the most choice about when to drive.
He's witnessing changes in driving habits, which are contributing to traffic congestion in the western Massachusetts region, particularly at midday along arterial roads and downtown commercial districts. "If I was a transportation planner, I'd make sure that officials in my agency recognized that people are changing how they travel. Fixed routes and fixed schedule like bus services won't meet their needs like they did 50 years ago, because what's inherent in the virtual world is there are no predictable schedules," he says.
So, how will the rise of the virtual work place, where workers operate in small-office settings with PCs and communication technology as key back up tools, affect traffic patterns? And why, with the enormous attention the boomer retirement wave is engendering in the media and among policy makers, is there so little attention being paid to the impact this trend will have on traffic and possibly fuel consumption?
What makes the silence on this subject all the more astonishing is that the boomers are hardly the only ones operating virtual work places. This happening trend includes everyone from the "millenials" to members of the "silent generation" now in their 70s and 80s.
Well, it's hard to focus on a subject without concrete data, and national data on the virtual economy is incomplete, at best. Take a walk through the U.S. Census Bureau's work and transport categories and you'll be carried back in time--say, circa 1975, when many workers commuted to a day job from a suburban split-level, or at least worked 9-to-5 in an office building. Even though countless thousands of Americans make their income from their bedroom or cellar as virtual-company entrepreneurs, the Census Bureau is neither monitoring nor digging deeper into the societal implications of this trend.
That's not that surprising as the mainline media isn't all that clued into niches like traffic engineering. Unless it's a story that has sizzle--say congestion pricing in New York City or gridlock in L.A.--developments in traffic engineering rarely make headlines.
Fuel consumption makes headlines, but no one appears to be connecting the dots to the virtual economy. For example, USA Today recently reported that a slowing economy and rising fuel prices meant February fuel consumption in the U.S. was down 1%. But without viable statistics on virtual work places and the habits of virtual company entrepreneurs, we can only guess that less commuting should lead to less driving and less fuel usage.
Take my own personal experience: At $3.11 a gallon it costs me about $30 to fill my compact Geo Prism. A full tank can last me almost two weeks if I'm just doing around-town driving. My partner, Lew, drives an equal compact VW Golf and pays about $38 a week at these prices to commute to his job about 20 miles away. So, if we can extrapolate from such a limited sample we can infer that commuters could be paying roughly a third to a half more for fuel than stay-at-home workers who are limiting their driving to errands close to their home office.
Isn't it time someone got the real numbers so we can do more than guess? Experts like Collura say that not only are traffic engineers and government officials not planning far enough out for the trends of today that will be tomorrow's world, but this lack of foresight may lead to clogged town and suburban roads, empty highways and lack of knowledge of America's true fuel consumption needs.
It all adds up to the potential for billions of dollars in misspent taxpayer dollars.
Amy Zuckerman is an associate editor of Thinking Highways North America and principal of A-Z International Associates, an international marketing research firm based in Amherst, Mass.