Going down the virtual highway

By Vik Kirsch
Guelph Mercury

GUELPH - Telecommuters travel a different road.

Evan Ferrari's colleagues at a Toronto-based land preservation group are scattered across Ontario. When these field staff members huddle, they do so through an intranet, a private conference site on the Internet.

There are a million such new-age road hogs in Canada alone, and Ontario's strained highway system may stand to benefit.

``The good thing about it is you don't have to travel . . . you're not consuming fossil fuels. You also save travel time,'' says Ferrari, who recently created the intranet work site for The Partnership for Public Lands, an umbrella organization of environmental groups.

``The one odd negative thing I find working from home is you tend to work longer. Perhaps it's because you consider travel time as part of work.''

For the growing number of telecommuters, highway congestion is no longer an issue. ``I have been without a car for six months now and I can't tell you how liberating it is,'' says Ferrari, the partnership's provincial co-ordinator, who works from his Guelph home one or two days a week and takes the train into Toronto for the remainder.

According to Statistics Canada, in 1995 about 1 million people - nine per cent of the labour force - did some or all of their work at home. (That figure is the most recent available and excludes self-employed people.)


`It's not true that people simply stay at home and peck at their computers . . . At the very most, telecommuting might blunt demand a bit . . . What it can signify is transport planners are going to have to plan for all-day commuting.'

- Harry Gow
President, Transport 2000


In 1991, 617,000 people, or 6 per cent of the labour force, worked from home. And since Internet use has boomed over the past five years, that number is certainly still on the rise.

There is debate over whether telecommuting actually cuts down on the amount of traffic on the roads.

It does seems to spread travel throughout the day, says Harry Gow, president of Transport 2000, an Ottawa-based federation of consumer groups promoting alternatives to passenger vehicles. ``It's not true that people simply stay at home and peck at their computers. ``At the very most, telecommuting might blunt demand a bit . . . What it can signify is transport planners are going to have to plan for all-day commuting. That has been noticed already. Traffic is denser outside rush hour than it used to be.''

There are few studies to date on the subject.

In California, studies over the past decade have concluded telecommuting does reduce the number of work trips made. One study found a 60 per cent reduction in car trips and a 77 per cent drop in distance travelled.