Quake-damaged L.A.'s 'telecommuting future is now,' official says

January 31, 1994|By Chicago Tribune

SANTA CLARITA, Calif. -- Happily secluded from the metropolis 30 miles away, residents of this picturesque desert valley north of Los Angeles are finding themselves trapped in their own paradise.

Many of them had fled up the Golden State Freeway over the last decade in search of a spot where the streets were safer and the air clear enough for a view of the encircling San Gabriel, Santa Susana and Tehachapi Mountains.

Their entire outlook changed at 4:31 a.m. on Jan. 17.

When the 6.6-magnitude earthquake dropped the Golden State Freeway like it was made of toy blocks, people in the Santa Clarita Valley realized how tenuous and how important their sole concrete connection to the big city really was.

Suddenly, half of those in the valley's work force found that, instead of their usual 30- to 40-minute commute, they had to endure five-hour, bumper-to-bumper trips on side roads.

But rather than abandoning their beloved retreat, Santa Claritans soon may lead Los Angeles' urgent, post-quake foray into a high-tech future of "telecommuting," working from home with the help of computers, phone lines and data networks.

Los Angeles officials long have seen telecommuting as a way to reduce congestion on the region's extensive network of freeways.

With the increase in service-sector computer jobs, the prospects of employees working at home have improved, but officials said something was needed to break workers' corporate habits.

"We recognized this technology as the wave of the future, but in light of the damage [from] the earthquake, that future is now," said Los Angeles County Supervisor Mike Antonovich.

Many workers got a taste of telecommuting in the days after the quake -- if they could find a phone line working. And with reconstruction of the Golden State Freeway and the Santa Monica Freeway on Los Angeles' West Side expected to take a year, it's likely to become an increasingly attractive option.

Los Angeles city and county officials on Thursday announced the launching of a Southern California Emergency Telecommuting Partnership with the federal government.

The program will provide incentives such as toll-free numbers, information kiosks and funding to companies that want to get their workers off the freeways.

Officials said they plan to add to the 12 telecommuting centers already in operation in the Los Angeles area, including one north of Santa Clarita in the city of Lancaster.

The first weekend after the quake, Pacific Bell Telephone Co. offered free installation of telecommuting equipment to any interested company and received 500 calls from Los Angeles' six area-code regions.

In the next year or so, Santa Clarita Valley, with $162 million in quake damage, could be a perfect laboratory for telecommuting and other new experiments in getting to and from work.

Among the 147,000 valley residents seriously thinking about phone commuting is Michael Murphy, the city of Santa Clarita's intergovernmental affairs director.

A California native, Mr. Murphy, 38, said what had been a 40-minute commute from Simi Valley is now an hour to 2 1/2 -hour drive. "A lot of what I do is on the phone. Why not do it at home?" Mr. Murphy asked.

Another who may be thinking about it is John Canavan, who spends two hours commuting via shuttle buses and Metrolink to Universal Studios, where he helps design the theme park's attractions.

Transportation officials hope to match San Francisco's experience after its 1989 quake, when one-third of new train riders continued the practice. Metrolink ridership last week soared from 400 to 6,000 a day, and commuters' cars spilled a mile down the road from the station.

But Mr. Canavan was talking about moving his family closer to work.

"I love the mountains. I love the atmosphere here. I don't want to move, but I can't work this way," he said. "This has changed everybody's way of thinking."

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