In an experiment with the city of Houston, the Johnson Space Center this spring let its employees work flexible hours. As a result, the average travel time along the NASA Parkway was cut by about 5 minutes- -from 22.7 minutes to 17.5 minutes.

The test was part of a high-profile initiative Houston Mayor Bill White launched back in January. Called the Flexible Workplace Initiative, it grew out of White's desire to see if flexible work practices could reduce traffic during peak hours, increase worker productivity and improve the city's business climate.

Encouraged by the Johnson Space Center numbers, White tested flexible work hours on a larger scale in September. "Flex in the City" became a two-week effort that attracted 140 companies with an estimated 20,000 employees. The companies allowed employees to telecommute, compress their work weeks or shift their commute to before or after rush hours.

According to traffic engineers from Houston TranStar, almost 2 minutes were shaved off the average travel time on two Houston freeways at rush hour, thanks to an average of 133 fewer cars appearing on each roadway. That tally exceeded by 33 the benchmark traffic engineers set for the number of car reductions needed to reduce traffic jams and slowdowns.

On a more personal level, a survey of particpiating employees at the various companies found that a majority felt their commute was faster, stress levels lower and productivity the same or higher. Furthermore, half of the employees said they plan to continue working a flexible work schedule as a result of participating in "Flex in the City."