Skip to Content

Trading Places

Three years ago, before she became a pioneer on the transportation frontier, Justy Mayernik did what millions of other commuters do-and hated it. She spent two to three hours each weekday driving between her home southeast of Seattle and her job as a teller at a Key Bank 30 miles north-adding her straw to a staggering load of traffic congestion, air pollution, and costly demands on the transportation infrastructure. She and her husband once lived closer to her workplace, but had moved to one of the last spots in that booming region where they could still afford a house.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to Mayernik, another teller, George Nelson, was driving nearly as far from his home north of Seattle to a Key Bank branch just 20 minutes from Mayernik’s home. Justy and George might still be passing on the interstate, if an environmental consultant named Gene Mullins hadn’t gotten trapped in a daily commuting nightmare after his office moved from Seattle, where he lived, to the suburbs. “I thought there ought to be a better way to match up where people live and where they work,” Mullins recalls. While staring at his frazzled counterparts commuting in the opposite direction, he found himself musing that “it’s too bad we can’t just switch sites.”

Such a switch might not work for a specialized professional like Mullins, who soon quit the long commute and started his own firm anyway. But he began to hear about people who worked in jobs that were likely to be interchangeable with others much closer to their homes. For example, he knew of a data-entry clerk who was driving 60 miles from Seattle to work in Olympia and a receptionist, two tellers, and a truck driver who were traveling nearly as far from Mount Vernon to Seattle.

Mullins had stumbled on a critical fact that transportation planners overlook: proximity is often the last thing companies consider in hiring and placing employees. Workers may seek jobs near their homes, but they take what they can get. “Once people are situated, they tend not to think about where they could be,” says Laurie Turner, human resource manager at Key Bank. And even when they do think about it, they often find that their employers aren’t set up to accommodate them.

To help employers and employees make more rational siting choices, Mullins devised a computer-based “proximate commuting” program and received funding from the state Transportation Department to conduct a trial of the scheme, with a review by the University of Washington’s State Transportation Center. He says he approached Key Bank about being the guinea pig because it was promoting its environmental awareness.

Once Key Bank agreed to participate, Mullins conducted an initial study and found that only 17 percent of employees at 14 Key Bank branches worked at the branches nearest their homes. The rest resided, on average, closer to 10 other branches; some lived closer to more than 100. Mullins next met with workers at 30 branches and showed them how far they lived from their workplaces and other potential work sites, and how much their commuting cost them and the environment. “They’d be astonished at his maps,” Turner recalls.

When Mullins finished his presentations, 17 percent of 500 employees volunteered to participate in the job-swapping scheme. Mullins’s software, called Proximate Commute Mapper, mixed and matched their various locations and came up with mutually advantageous moves, which required the consent of both the workers and their managers. Justy Mayernik and George Nelson were the first to swap.

The results were dramatic. After two years, the average commute for all workers at the 30 bank branches had dropped by 17 percent; at one Tacoma branch, it fell by 69 percent. Participating workers cut their average round-trip commute by 65 percent, from 43 to 17 miles. Mullins estimates that each saved an average of $2,626 in commuting expenses and 216 hours in commuting time, and avoided emitting 5,940 pounds of carbon dioxide and 587 pounds of hydrocarbons per year. Proximate commuting also reduced stress and tardiness and boosted morale. “All the transfers we made have been successful,” says Turner.

Extrapolating these results, Mullins figures that if 5 percent of all Seattle-area commuters were to make such swaps, they’d save 14 million hours and $170 million a year. That’s not an unreasonable target, he argues, since 48 percent of Seattle-area workers and 39 percent of Washington state workers have multi-site employers-and single-site firms, which sometimes share training programs, might also be able to join in proximate job swaps. Baseball teams trade employees, he notes, why shouldn’t hardware stores?
After the Key Bank trial, University of Washington evaluator Cyrus Ulberg agreed, recommending that the state sponsor longer-term tests among different employers and offer incentives to pursue proximate commuting.

Meanwhile, Mullins has won rich praise and a shelf full of awards from local, state, and federal agencies, including a national prize from the Environmental Protection Agency. “It is a tremendous idea for companies like banks and grocery stores,” says Paula Van Lare, coordinator of the EPA’s Transportation Partners program. “In the transportation field, there are very few simple solutions, because transportation decisions are so deeply embedded in people’s daily lives and lifestyles. It’s nice to come across one like this, which can be implemented quickly.”

Transit and carpooling, in contrast, demand sacrifices in time, convenience, and flexibility. Companies must be coerced into providing vanpools and inducing their workers to cease solo driving. Telecommuting, job-sharing, and four-day workweeks are only partial solutions; even telecommuters typically come to the office several times a week, and require changes in workplace culture and the way managers manage. And new rail and other mass transit chew up cityscapes and impose enormous capital costs.

So why isn’t the world beating a path-as best it can through today’s gridlock-to Mullins’s door? Why has no other company adopted Mullins’s scheme? “The idea ought to be able to sell itself, but it doesn’t seem to,” says Wayne Elson, a specialist in pollution from mobile sources at the EPA’s Seattle regional office. Novelty may be one reason: transportation planners seek ways to move people over set distances, not to reduce those distances. The EPA’s Van Lare suspects that businesses don’t see the payoff from something like proximate commuting because “the rate of return is not explicit.” And, she adds, “It’s nobody’s job to think about how people get to work.” So nobody does.

That may change. Matthew McCandlis, transportation supervisor of the Seattle-based Starbucks coffee chain, hopes to offer proximate job-swapping to at least some of the company’s 20,000 coffeehouse workers this autumn. Reducing turnover is a main motive. “We think we can keep them happy, add a lot to our retention rates, and reduce training costs,” he says. Justy Mayernik, still happily working in her new location, would second the notion. “It’s just nice,” she says, “not having to get up at the crack of dawn and dread going to work every morning.”

Keep Reading

Most Popular

Large language models can do jaw-dropping things. But nobody knows exactly why.

And that's a problem. Figuring it out is one of the biggest scientific puzzles of our time and a crucial step towards controlling more powerful future models.

The problem with plug-in hybrids? Their drivers.

Plug-in hybrids are often sold as a transition to EVs, but new data from Europe shows we’re still underestimating the emissions they produce.

How scientists traced a mysterious covid case back to six toilets

When wastewater surveillance turns into a hunt for a single infected individual, the ethics get tricky.

Google DeepMind’s new generative model makes Super Mario–like games from scratch

Genie learns how to control games by watching hours and hours of video. It could help train next-gen robots too.

Stay connected

Illustration by Rose Wong

Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review

Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.

Thank you for submitting your email!

Explore more newsletters

It looks like something went wrong.

We’re having trouble saving your preferences. Try refreshing this page and updating them one more time. If you continue to get this message, reach out to us at with a list of newsletters you’d like to receive.