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L.A. Sends Its Workers Home - to Work

AMERICA'S first city of cars and freeways has embraced an increasingly popular alternative to driving to work - telecommuting - that could save hundreds of millions while sparing the air and unclogging the streets.

One year after Los Angeles City officials began a pilot program allowing 242 employees to work at home using computers and fax machines, a city report dubs the plan a success. It also recommends expanding the idea to as many as 15,000 employees, a third of the city work force.

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``The results of the project clearly indicate that the use of telecommuting should be expanded,'' says the report, released this week by the city Telecommunications Department. Claiming a savings of $140 million in office space and efficiency, the report recommends to Mayor Richard Riordan that he appoint a Telecommuting Implementation Group ``to motivate and coordinate the expansion process.''

``We see it as a means for reducing office-space requirements and increasing productivity,'' says Charles Holt, assistant general manager and co-author of the report. Following the lead of many in the business world, city employees would enter the program by purchasing computers and fax machines and modems.

THE report says the city should step up tests on the formation of satellite work sites that would be closer to where city employees live, and it predicts that 60 percent of telecommuters in the future could be assigned to satellite offices closer to their homes. It also recommends that officials provide incentives for both telecommuters and their managers, many of whom, the report claims, ``are downright hostile'' to the idea.

Part of the function of satellite operations would be to facilitate access to officials by citizens in all parts of the city. Residents in one area of town could go to the satellite offices and be in touch with employees in other city offices.

If 15,000 city workers were to telecommute from home an average of 1.4 days a week, City Hall would meet standards set by the South Coast Air Quality Management District (SCAQMD) without additional ride-sharing or compressed work schedules. Telecommuters would increase their cost effectiveness by 12.5 percent, according to the report, and the city would need 30 percent less office and parking space.

The city telecommuting program was established in 1991 to address requirements by the SCAQMD for major employers to reduce the number of their workers clogging the freeways during peak traffic periods. Beginning in March 1992, special training was provided for 242 workers, selected from 18 city departments by city administrators. Seventy-three percent of the city's telecommuters now own their own personal computers, at an average cost of $1,400.

Besides offering cost savings, telecommuting is seen as helping to free up the 750 miles of L.A. freeways - among the most traveled in the world. Five million new residents are expected by the year 2010, and there are no new plans for new freeways.

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Peak rush hours are already three hours each morning and four each evening - and getting worse. The Los Angeles County Transportation Commission estimated in 1987 that what is now a 90-minute trip down the San Diego (405) Freeway would take three hours in the year 2000. On one particular stretch of the Ventura (101) Freeway, average traffic flow would slow to 7 m.p.h.

``I believe disciplined people can accomplish a great deal at home as telecommuters,'' says City Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores. ``It's a wonderful way to work, especially for employees who want to spend time at home because they have children.''

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