High-tech commuting hell

One aspect of life in the digital world has yet to see the benefits of technological advancement--commuting.

5 min read
In some ways, technology has dramatically picked up the pace of modern life, cutting the time of many daily activities down to a fraction of what once was considered highly efficient. But one aspect of life in the digital world has yet to see the benefits of technological advancement--commuting.

Apple Computer interim chief executive Steve Jobs gave himself the gift of an easier commute this past Christmas, winning the approval of the city council in Richmond, California, to build a personal heliport at a former Naval depot near his office at Pixar Animation Studios. Like so many professionals reporting to jobs in densely populated high-tech corridors such as Silicon Valley or Boston's Route 128, Jobs's trek to work was eating up more than two hours of every business day.

Unlike Jobs, however, most high-tech commuters aren't in a position to spring for a helicopter, and most have little choice but to endure arduous commutes that in some cases negate any benefits of living and working in a high-tech boom town. Ironically, the massive technology infrastructure that built the information superhighway never extended to any type of mass transportation infrastructure that might help tech employees traverse non-virtual superhighways.

But some companies in Silicon Valley are taking steps to alleviate this growing problem. @Home, for example, started a shuttle bus service for employees commuting from San Francisco to the company's headquarters in Redwood City. The service, launched when @Home was located in Mountain View, continued after the company relocated because a growing portion of its graphic design talent was being recruited from the city of San Francisco, according to @Home spokesman Matt Wolfrom.

"[Highway] 101 from San Francisco is a bear," Wolfrom said. "People get stuck there for hours, and right now there's not enough incentives to lessen the number of drivers on the road."

Oracle, headquartered in Redwood Shores, California, has come up with a variety of policies designed to facilitate commutes. The database company offers its own version of a shuttle bus service, which delivers employees commuting by train from Silicon Valley stations to various Oracle sites, according to corporate communications director Lauren Ames. It also designates special garage parking spots solely for carpoolers. Just recently, Oracle instituted a new program aimed at encouraging ride-sharing that picks up the tab on a leased van for any employee who identifies at least six colleagues willing to join in on a vanpool.

Most high-tech corporations at the very least offer employees the options of telecommuting or working within some type of flex-time arrangement as an alternative to facing gridlock and the heightened specter of road rage. Many also offer to pay for cellular phones or laptops so that employees can attempt to get work done while sitting in a freeway hold-up or enduring the all-too-typical delays of Bay Area mass transportation. Also common is the availability of office showers so that employees can consider riding a bicycle to work.

Graphics software developer Autodesk, based in San Rafael, California, is one company that tries to make it easier for employees to avoid going into the office unless absolutely necessary. Autodesk spokeswoman Cathy Tom-Engle said that, in most cases, employees can procure a secondary workstation for their homes, and need only the approval of their immediate managers to telecommute on any given day.

Some Autodesk employees, however, get perks more along the lines of Steve Jobs's heliport. Chief executive Carol Bartz gets an additional $36,000 per year tacked onto her salary solely to reimburse her for "certain transportation expenses," according to a Securities and Exchange Commission filing.

For the average high-tech worker, however, there are few if any beyond-salary financial rewards at the end of the considerable hassles of congested commutes. Some get inventive about making their inevitably long drives more tolerable, investing in books or foreign language lessons on tape. Others shift around the scheduling of their personal activities--eating dinner later, going to the gym earlier--to ensure that their commutes don't consume their weekday lives. In fact, many technology workers--notorious for arriving at work before the crack of dawn and working long into the night--are motivated primarily by the desire to avoid agonizing rush hours.

"There's little things I can do to ease the frustration," said Michael Runzler, director of public relations at Trimble, a provider of global positioning systems located in Sunnyvale, California. "I don't schedule appointments first thing in the morning, so that if traffic is worse than usual I'm not sitting in the car getting stressed out about it. You have to adjust your mind frame and not get stressed out, because it will just shorten your life if you do."

Like many of his peers working for high-tech companies in the impenetrable Silicon Valley, Runzler negotiated a contract that would allow him to telecommute one day per week so that he might get some respite from traffic. He noted that it is commonplace for technology professionals to lobby for commuting alternatives before deciding whether to accept a job offer.

Indeed, transportation perks often are used as bargaining chips in the recruiting efforts of high-tech corporations. Employers frequently offer up reimbursement for mass transit expenses and/or telecommuting alternatives in hopes of offsetting the significant drawbacks--of which prospective employees are all to aware--of doing daily battle with the Bay Area's infamously clogged bridges and freeways.

But even financial compensation doesn't make up for multiple hours lost on the road, and telecommuting often isn't equivalent to going into the office because most home workstations aren't equipped with the high-speed Internet connections that are a must for any technology worker. To make matters worse, as Runzler pointed out, there is no end in sight to the digital gold rush, which means commuter nightmares are unlikely to improve any time soon.

"It's never going to get any better than it is today in terms of congestion," he said. "I see all this area out here that's waiting to be developed, and I just have to wonder, where are all these hundreds of workers going to live and how the hell do you get them into and out of the Valley every day?"