Picket Fences

Can government keep up with changes in how we work?


Not long ago workers left their suburban homes in the morning and went to their 9-5 job downtown. For most workers, that's still the case. But a growing number of Americans are working at home at least part-time, and government planners are having trouble adjusting to the changes.

Technological advances and the transition toward a decentralized, information-based economy have made working at home affordable and desirable for many Americans. An estimated 39 million Americans do some work at home now, including 13 million who run home-based businesses. The rise of home businesses is blurring the traditional distinctions between residential and commercial uses. But zoning laws have been based on enforcing those divisions. Running a business out of the home is a crime in many places, though enforcement is usually limited to situations in which a neighbor complains.

"Most zoning ordinances still in effect are antiquated. Even the new stuff is not much better," says Michael Wiley, executive director of the Home Office Association of America.

The city of Chicago recently lifted its ban on home businesses, but Wiley cites the new rules as a prime example of what not to do. Home business owners must pay a $150 annual license fee, employees must be residents of the home, no more than 10 percent of the home can be used for business purposes, and house additions or alternations that will be used for home businesses are not permitted.

Working at home will also create headaches for transportation officials, according to WorkSmart, a new study by the Denver-based Center for the New West for the California Department of Transportation. The study says that most people will still come into the office, but increasingly they will work at home part of the week, work irregular office hours, or take personal trips during the day. They'll make a greater number of shorter trips throughout the day. This will likely reduce rush hour traffic congestion, but will make public transportation plans obsolete.

Ride-sharing programs and mass transit systems are based on the assumption that people will go to and leave work at the same time five days a week. Even when that was largely true, car pooling was extremely unpopular and public transit had to be subsidized. But workers will be even less likely now to lock themselves into a regimented schedule far in advance. Spending billions on light-rail boondoggles or forcing employers and employees to participate in ride-sharing programs doesn't address the changing needs of workers. A Reason Foundation study, Looking Beyond ECO: Alternatives to Employer-Based Trip Reduction, suggests that communities instead allow privately run commuter vans, jitneys, and shuttles to operate.

Cities, counties, and states that don't get with the times may be left in the dust. "Communities that ignore these changes risk becoming ghost towns," says Van Romine, project director of the WorkSmart study.