To Commute or Telecommute
Urban Crossroads #13

Much of the city's activities concentrate on the movement of people and goods. People move (and move things with them) between various places, including places of residence, work, education, shopping, recreation, and culture.

Part of this movement is on foot, but most of it is in vehicles: private vehicles, taxis, and public transportation vehicles. The more vehicles we have moving around the city, the more pressure is placed on its streets, leading to traffic congestion problems. Although Amman generally does not suffer from the chronic traffic gridlocks characteristic of many cities in this region, a good number of its streets clearly have to handle more traffic than they can comfortably accommodate. Moreover, traffic in Amman during summer evenings and nights often comes to standstill, thus providing a glimpse of an unpleasant future we might have to face regarding the city's traffic situation.

Planning officials in Amman have addressed traffic congestion problems through a variety of methods. These primarily have concentrated on widening roads as well as the ubiquitous construction of overpasses and underpasses to replace preexisting traffic-light intersections.

Another approach is encouraging the use of public transportation vehicles over private ones. The city of London, for example, recently put in place regulations that charge a toll on private vehicles each time they enter the inner zones of the city. Although controversial, this solution has had a positive effect in terms of easing traffic congestion in London.

One solution that is gaining ascendancy - though very slowly - is to encourage telecommuting over commuting. A dictionary definition of telecommuting is "the practice of working at home by using a modem and a computer terminal connected with one's office." Telecommuting, in fact, involves much more than this, and includes issues extending beyond working at home, a point to which I shall return. The Internet revolution has allowed us to transmit massive amounts of data at high speeds through telephone lines. In Amman, we soon will also be able to transmit data via the Internet using satellite television receivers and television cable services. Accordingly, the movement of information no longer needs to be accompanied by the movement of people, as is the case with postal deliveries, for example. Among other things, this means that a good number of people in the workforce can carry out much of their work anywhere they wish (a favorite location for authors on the subject is a deserted island) as long as they have access to an Internet connection.

In addition to working from home, the Internet also means we should be able to carry out many of our daily transactions from anywhere with an Internet connection, without having to physically go to the locations offering such services. This includes performing banking transactions, renewing certain official papers and permits, and paying bills. The more we are able to carry out such activities free from locational constraints, the more we are able to save time on commuting, limit traffic congestion problems and the air and noise pollution that accompany them, and save on vehicle maintenance costs as well as on our personal and national energy bills. Effectively utilizing the Internet also means that we will be able to move from one place to the other more because we want to (in order to meet with people and visit places we like) rather than because we have to.

It will be some time before such a virtual world takes root in our society, or for that matter in most societies. Many still resist telecommuting, and prefer to be physically present in front of those with whom they are working or carrying out transactions. There also are many who still believe that work can only be carried out from the workplace and that people claiming to be working from home simply are people who are not working.

Interestingly enough, at my place of work, we rely heavily on telecommuting. This means that our staff members do not have to physically be present in the office at most times. We go to the office for meetings, and we rotate shifts so that one of us is at the office during working hours to answer inquiries or receive visitors. Otherwise, we communicate continuously with each other through email messages and phone calls. Many outsiders can only explain the way we carry out our business by concluding that we do not have enough work to keep all of us in the office during working hours. Moreover, they refuse to accept that we are able to accomplish much of our work from other locations such as our homes.

In spite of this, a change in attitude is taking place. A growing number of people in our society, specially the young, are using the Internet as an essential tool for carrying out both work-related and personal tasks. The question is not if, but when telecommuting will predominate.

Mohammad al-Asad

July 22, 2004