The federal election campaign has not been particularly kind to cities and, by extension, the growing majority of Canadians who live in medium- to large-sized cities. Despite some talk of more support for local transportation schemes, including both rail and traditional road infrastructures, provincial and federal deficits constrain funding growth. The fiscal capacities of municipalities are, in turn, quite limited. So where does one turn?
One avenue being explored more aggressively is to widen the usage of innovative public-private partnerships, so-called P3s. A number of such initiatives successfully underpinned Vancouver’s Olympic Games, notably the Canada Line enjoining the airport and downtown as well as the widening of the key road artery linking the city and mountainous recreation facilities and towns nestled in and around Whistler.
Although such efforts can help, they amount to little more than band-aid solutions for a much larger and growing ailment infecting urban populations across the country: the dreaded and most often automobile-based commute between home and work. The largest cities offer the least inspiring alternatives: crowded public transportation or gridlocked highways.
At least during rush hours, that is. For much of the rest of the day and night, movement is brisk and for the most part uninhibited. What is more than a little worrisome is the mindset of most caught in the confines of peak time commuting. Consider that a March Globe and Mail online poll asked readers what irks them the most while driving, and more people selected slow drivers in the left lane than those distracted by smart phones! As cars become mobile offices, paradoxically seeking to get to a real-time office, how safe can the roads really be?
The smart cities movement over the past two decades has failed to leverage the potential for a more flexible and virtual workplace in increasingly congested urban settings. A cottage industry has long existed documenting the potential benefits in terms of ecology, productivity and quality of life. To no avail, since especially in the public sector, managing people means knowing where people are most all of the time (even as texting and email render conversations across cubicles less and less frequent).
All too often, urban plans aimed at adding density to the downtown core focus on housing and public transportation infrastructure in the hopes that organizations remain and expand downtown and people can live in close proximity to their office dwellings. A much larger piece of the puzzle is enabling the suburban workforce greater flexibility in terms of schedules and virtual work spaces to keep workers at home for part of the time, and have them commute during off-peak hours when need be. The Internet, cloud computing, smart phones, and tablets: no shortage of tools and a compelling business case relative to massive investments in transportation infrastructure.
One perceived risk is that such an effort could lead to a hollowing of the urban centre as work is dispersed accordingly. Yet this concern is dwarfed by the greater environmental and social burdens of lengthening commutes. Furthermore, a mountain of evidence and experience suggests that a vibrant urban core with a mix of economic and cultural activity acts as a powerful magnet for gathering and innovation. What city-regions require is the capacity to empower individuals with greater autonomy and freedom in order to create work patterns that preserve urban attractiveness while mitigating the staggering costs of mindless commuting (estimated at close to one trillion dollars annually by one U.S. consultancy advocating virtual work solutions).
The City of Calgary has recently spearheaded an initiative to better leverage the opportunities from virtual work (www.workshiftcalgary.com). This alternative form of public-private partnership aims to provide companies with the tools to both experiment with flexible work arrangements and gauge and benchmark the resulting benefits. Appropriately, this effort is viewed not as a drain on the downtown core but rather as a means of enhancement.
If companies take the bottom line as their starting point in considering such efforts, the public sector has a responsibility to consider a more holistic set of collective measures that, in turn, nurture the human capital that business so desperately requires. Yet the bureaucratic structures of government render virtual work a niche for a limited few rather than a central element of workforce planning. Case in point: the federal government’s vast expansion of real estate in the Ottawa region currently underway.
Back in Calgary, as a pioneer in new social media and someone committed to a more engaged citizenry, a large payback for Mayor Nenshi may well lie in transforming both the municipality and the wider city via more flexible and creative workplaces that aim to render the rush hour commute a relic of our industrial-laden and bureaucratic past.
Jeffrey Roy is Associate Professor in the School of Public Administration at Dalhousie University (firstname.lastname@example.org).