San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo details opposition to proposed telecommute mandate for San Francisco Bay Area — Silicon Valley Business Journal

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Editor’s note: The following guest viewpoint comes from San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo. If you have a response or another opinion, please send it to svbjnews@bizjournals.com.

The Metropolitan Transportation Commission’s recent proposal for a post-pandemic telecommute mandate garnered cheers from commute-weary residents, head-scratching from many employers, and increasing opposition among elected leaders.

I was one of a minority of MTC commissioners who spoke against a requirement that large Bay Area companies keep 60 percent of their employees working from home, a mandate that would keep Zoom stock shares zooming and refrigerator hinges creaking for many years after the pandemic.

Whether you hate, love, or merely tolerate your commute, news of its demise — in the words of Mark Twain — has been greatly exaggerated. The same day that San Francisco Mayor London Breed and I issued a statement of opposition, 15 members of the Bay Area’s state legislative delegation offered their objection to the MTC’s plan in a separate letter. In other words, it’s not likely to happen.

That’s a good thing. At future MTC meetings, we’ll pour into other options, primarily because a telecommute mandate invites a parade of unintended — and severe — consequences.

Among them, economic harm: Many employers have quietly worried whether such a mandate could push their hiring, if not their entire companies, out of the Bay Area. They know that innovation often depends on “creative collisions” in elevators, break rooms and hallways among smart people — whether engineering, designing or codewriting — working within close proximity.

Environmental impacts do not appear all positive, either. Although MTC relied on the mandate to close a gap in the Bay Area’s projected capacity to reach statewide greenhouse gas emission targets, a stay-home requirement undermines residents’ incentives to choose to live near where they work, or near transit. Auto commutes may decline, but by spurring a flight to the suburbs and exurbs, residents will naturally adopt a more auto-centric lifestyle, and the same car will get a harder workout on trips to school, the store or for services.

It would undermine decades of effort to encourage “smart growth” development, and MTC’s goal to have 43% of all housing located within a half-mile of high-frequency transit by 2050. It would penalize those few responsible large employers — such as Salesforce and Google — that invest mightily to co-locate offices near transit, at great risk and high cost. The mandate would also likely create a collective disincentive to use or invest in transit.

Finally, we should not overlook the social impacts of a telecommute mandate. We are social beings, and the isolation endured by residents through this pandemic has elicited a toll on mental health and emotional well-being. Workplaces provide entry-points for a wide range of social connections, from book clubs to softball leagues to service organizations.

In a society in which we are increasingly “bowling alone,” as Robert Putnam famously put it, there are substantial — though hidden — costs in accelerating the atomization of our community. By pushing more affluent workers out of center cities, moreover, we also risk reinforcing historic patterns of economic and racial segregation in housing.

To be sure, changes in state greenhouse gas mandates have put MTC in a tough spot, and they’ve settled on the telecommute mandate to close a large gap in their GhG emission targets. We do still have options to reduce GhG emissions, however, yet none will be easy.

Fellow MTC commissioner Nick Josefowitz suggests regionwide solo commute “trip caps,” which provide employers flexibility for options ranging from telecommuting to transit and cycling. We can shelve several costly — and gas-guzzliing — proposed highway expansion projects. We can use variable impact fees to incentivize jobs-heavy cities like Brisbane, Cupertino, Palo Alto and Santa Clara to build more housing near large tech campuses. We could halt all housing construction in the wildland urban interface where fires pose intolerable, and likely uninsurable, risks to human life and homes. Others advocate to better leverage pricing as a tool — in roadway tolls, parking, and even gas taxes — to reduce congestion and incentivize adoption of auto alternatives.

Telecommuting will play an important role in our future, but we don’t need counterproductive mandates to reach our environmental goals. We can do better. And our innovative region is up to the task.

Originally published at https://www.bizjournals.com on November 12, 2020.

Mayor of San José, California

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