Apple's much anticipated iPad tablet computer was announced today, albeit to some mixed reviews. While the iPad itself may or may not succeed, the overall technology trend line is clear: increasingly rich mobile access to the Internet and email. Oddly, this Business Week columnist thinks the iPad may lead to more telecommuting, when what it really favors is tipping the balance for commuters from driving to transit, where the usually "dead" commuting time can become really productive. Most people are already spending more than two hours a day on email and the Internet - why not put those hours at the beginning and end of the day while commuting so you can spend less time in the office and more time with your family?
A decade ago, the workplace was much more call and voice-mail driven, which matched up just fine with long driving commutes and cell phones. But the shift has moved strongly towards email and other data-driven communications (texting, Twitter, Facebook, collaboration applications, etc.). Most messages have multiple recipients and can expect to have a string of replies - something voice mail simply can't handle. People are trying to do this data-driven communication while driving, with very bad effects that are leading rapidly to a comprehensive legal ban.
As more people realize the productivity advantage of a transit commute, I think there could be a substantial shift. But it might not be quite what you'd expect. Mobile productivity favors one long ride in a comfortable seat - no transfers, no standing 'strap-hanging' (like on a subway or full light rail or local bus), and minimal walking (which is not only incompatible with mobile productivity, but also has weather risk and is especially hard on women in heels). That argues for express buses over trains. I recently met with a friend that lives in Manhattan but works in Connecticut. Does he take the subway and then ride the train? Nope - a luxury shuttle bus with wi-fi picks him (and the other Manhattan employees) up right near his apartment and drops him at the front door of work. Point-to-point express buses are the future of commuting. All you need are a couple dozen people that need to get from the same neighborhood to the same job cluster on roughly a similar schedule to justify a daily round trip - and they can all be productive the whole way, whether through individual 3G data connections on their devices or wi-fi on the bus (by far the cheapest option).
While the climate-concerned may cheer increased transit use, an ironic side effect may actually be increased sprawl. When commuting is truly unproductive time, as driving is, people really hesitate for it to be more than an hour a day, which puts a pretty hard limit on how far home can be from work. But if you can be productive on a bus doing work you'd have to do anyway, you might consider two or more hours a day commuting (as my Manhattan friend does) and look at exurban communities you wouldn't have even considered before, especially if they have more affordable or newer houses with better amenities and public schools.
This is the commute of the future, and cities that offer it conveniently, affordably, and comprehensively (all neighborhoods to all job centers) through some combination of public transit, private buses, and HOT lanes will continue to grow and thrive in the coming decades, while those that don't, won't.
This piece is a cross-post from HoustonStrategies.com