First Published in The Toronto Star on Sat Nov 17 2012 By: Paul Barter and Robert Brehl

With all the political hot air surrounding the GTA’s Great Transit Debate, you’d think Rob Ford, Karen Stintz, Tim Hudak and the rest would at least mention how telecommuting could be a cost-effective part of the solution.

It’s as if our subway-building, highway-paving, transit-tax-levying politicians are stuck in the 1950s with their transit strategies, instead of looking at 2020 realities. But it does open up great opportunities for Ontario’s next premier, whoever that might be.

Today, work is an activity, not a location; and for many people “going to work” is a complete misnomer. We’re not saying transit infrastructure should be ignored, but let’s make the greenest and cheapest commute possible for GTA residents, namely telecommuting, part of the transit discussion.

The Star has reported that Statistics Canada says almost half of Canadian jobs are telework-compatible and there are more than 1.5 million employees across the country now working from home at least part-time. Jobs are moving home. And these numbers can only increase as Ontario’s manufacturing base shrinks and its knowledge workforce increases.

So why are our politicians missing this frame in the whole transit discussion? Of the $30 billion bantered about for the GTA transit plan, how much of this could be saved if telecommuting was actively promoted? For every dollar incentive paid to employers to empower telecommuting, how many fewer taxpayer dollars would be needed for the transit plan?

Other cities make telecommuting part of their planning to a much higher degree than we do in the GTA. Calgary, for example, set up WORKshift in 2008 in partnership with Transport Canada and the Alberta government. The WORKshift website calls it “a regional initiative to promote, educate and accelerate the adoption of telecommuting in the business community.”

U.S. governments of all levels have been far ahead of us in encouraging bureaucrats to work from home. A U.S. Census Bureau report last month found that over the past decade the number of home-based state workers soared 133 per cent and federal employees 88 per cent.

And yet, the GTA transit debate is all about $30 billion here and subways and LRTs there.

Telecommuting is also inclusive for anyone with a mobility problem, such as some seniors or those physically disabled. Our population is aging and the workforce is getting older. This will only amplify in coming years.

Besides tax incentives to spur telecommuting, inside a transit plan we could use a public education program to dispel some of the myths that still surround telecommuting. Microsoft Canada, for example, this past March found in its Flexible Workplace Survey that Canadian bosses still think workers will goof off if they’re out of sight and out of the office. Such a concept has been proven false by so many corporations and governments that implement effective telecommuting programs. The fact is, corporations and governments reap financial benefits from telecommuting, as do the employees who save on gas, vehicle wear-and-tear and the bodily frustration of sitting in traffic five days a week.

A decade ago Facebook did not exist and 20 years ago very few people used email. In the next decade or two, it’s a pretty safe bet there will be fewer factory jobs and more and more telework-compatible jobs around the GTA.

Of course we need better transit to high density areas, but with increased telecommuting, perhaps transit plans to other areas can be shaved back and planned out better. Our political leaders and decision-makers should, at the very least, be talking about it if they’re hell-bent on spending $30 billion of taxpayers’ money.

Paul Barter, left, writes about digital trends, teaches technology strategy in the MBA program at the Schulich School of Business York University and is the VP Research at technology services company T4G Limited. Bob Brehl is a former Star reporter and a writer and consultant who has commuted from his bedroom to his home-office for more than a decade.