Back on August 21, I made some comments about the possible value and impact of a 4-day week on urban design and city living.

My starting point was to suggest that many of the negatives of urban living today; mainly focused on failing and inadequate infrastructure could be improved plus, there’s the bonus of perhaps getting a better work-life balance.

This week I’m going to expand the topic and possibly do a little day-dreaming about what might be possible, as well as relating some examples where a 4-day week is already or has been a reality. All of which continues to make me wonder if in fact a 4-day week could be the ‘holy-grail’ to improve the quality and function of our hectic cities?

Let’s start with traffic and urban congestion, that’s something most of us are familiar with. Whether you travel by private car or use public transport, the daily reality of traffic congestion is hard to escape. Traffic has shaped our cities and is a huge issue.

Time Lost

According to research from TomTom Telematics, traffic congestion on Australia’s roads is increasing overall travel times by 28%, costing businesses an estimated $3.54 billion a year with an extra 156 hours of travel time for anyone living in Sydney.

Understanding that this rate of traffic congestion is unacceptable, governments are racing to improve infrastructure. This requires a huge investment and can also, as a result of more tolls, pass on much higher costs for motorists, creating a ticking time bomb.

Locally, Governments have also looked at demand management via the introduction congestion charges, as was done in Singapore and London. In London where the fee was around AUD$22/day, early estimates showed a 20% drop in traffic congestion.

However, extra charges for motorists or higher public transport charges have their limits and raise the matter of fairness, and even the use of best technology can’t simply add more cars to a set amount of road space and capacity.

Options for the use of technology to better manage traffic is another area taking off and involves many of the tech-giants including Google. Technology, while it’s part of the solution, is also part of the problem, as the shared economy may actually be adding to traffic woes, already some cities are looking at restrictions on the numbers of car share drivers being allowed into CBD areas.

While we have big road building projects in Sydney and Melbourne in fact in all major cities, the evidence does not support this as a sound long-term policy responses to improving traffic congestion. We also need to remember that many of the new roads have been built to service a major expansion of housing stock in outer-urban areas 40-60kms from the main CBD.

Building new roads creates lots of employment that’s true, but it also creates an entire raft of headaches and does little to improve congestion. Placing more and extra tolls on roads can push traffic onto other local roads and motorists do not have bottomless pockets of money, even less so if they’ve just purchased a new home in one of those outer-suburbs.

However, we do have to reduce congestion and even small improvements can produce impressive benefits. On congested roads, reducing traffic by 5% can increase traffic speeds by as much as 50%. That means that people, goods and services all operate more efficiently, saving money, time and frustration.

How Could a 4-Day Week Help?

The transport holy grail we need is one that’s both quick and lasting solution that governments faced with falling revenue can fund.

While a solution to traffic woes may be a distant goal, commuters are already changing the times they leave for work or choosing to work from home and re-structuring their entire travel habits to avoid spending long periods stuck in traffic chaos which is now an almost all-day reality.

The trick with a 4-day week is that we could make better use of existing infrastructure by more evenly spreading the load. Most businesses and government agencies would open for 6 or 7-days but, employees would, over time work a core 4-day week, possibly from 8:00am to 6:00pm and for the same wage. Flexibility then is helping to spreading the load on services and infrastructure more evenly.

This is not a new debate. In July 2010, the Sydney Morning Herald ran an article ‘The four-day Week’ and today it still makes interesting reading because one of the key benefits would be better and less congested roads, to quote;

Better roads: Theoretically, the number of cars on the road – particularly during peak hour – should noticeably drop. Traffic congestion will ease, streets will require less maintenance, there will be fewer accidents, and drivers may once again experience what it’s like to reach the speed limit on a weekday.”

At this same time, the American state of Utah imposed a 4-day week.

“Out of a desire to rein in an energy budget stained with red ink, 17,000 government employees were forced to condense their work week into four days. Their total hours and pay remained the same. They just worked longer days. Since that time, there’s been a 13% reduction in energy use; employees have saved $6 million in petrol costs; greenhouse gas emissions have been cut by 12,000 metric tons; operational costs have fallen; employees have taken fewer sick days; and 82% want to stick with the new schedule.”

In September 2011, Utah’s 4-day week ended and results were not as expected partly because energy costs had dropped. However, other American jurisdictions have in-part at least continued the idea, for example Colorado, Wyoming, Florida and Montana have all gone to a 4-day school week.

Much closer to home, in New Zealand in July, management behind the 4-day week scheme at a Kiwi trust management firm suggested that the wider use of the 4-day week model could help to ease Auckland’s traffic congestion. Suggesting that: if you can take 20% of people off the roads every day, that would deliver positive infrastructural benefits. In other words, less traffic and less wear and tear on roads.

The next part of this topic, will look at how a 4-day week might have a direct and positive impact on the delivery and cost of health care, including mental health and the well-being of children and parents in managing child care.