Daylight saving time in the US ends Sunday, part of the an annual ritual where Americans (who don’t live in Arizona or Hawaii) and residents of 78 other countries including Canada (but not Saskatchewan), most of Europe, Australia and New Zealand turn their clocks back one hour. It’s a controversial practice that became the official standard in America in 1966 and adjusted throughout the 1970s with the intent of conserving energy. The fall time change feels particularly hard because we lose another hour of evening daylight, just as the days grow shorter. It also creates confusion because countries that observe daylight saving change their clocks on different days.
It would seem to be more efficient to do away with the practice altogether. The actual energy savings are minimal, if they exist at all. Frequent and uncoordinated time changes cause confusion, undermining economic efficiency. There’s evidence that regularly changing sleep cycles, associated with daylight saving, lowers productivity and increases heart attacks. Being out of sync with European time changes was projected to cost the airline industry $147 million a year in travel disruptions. But I propose we not only end Daylight Saving, but also take it one step further.
This year, Americans on Eastern Standard Time should set their clocks back one hour (like normal), Americans on Central and Rocky Mountain time do nothing, and Americans on Pacific time should set their clocks forward one hour. After that we won’t change our clocks again – no more daylight saving. This will result in just two time zones for the continental United States. The east and west coasts will only be one hour apart. Anyone who lives on one coast and does business with the other can imagine the uncountable benefits of living in a two-time-zone nation (excluding Alaska and Hawaii).
It sounds radical, but it really isn’t. The purpose of uniform time measures is coordination. How we measure time has always evolved with the needs of commerce. According to Time and Date, a Norwegian newsletter dedicated to time zone information, America started using four time zones in 1883. Before that, each city had its own time standard based on its calculation of apparent solar time (when the sun is directly over-head at noon) using sundials. That led to more than 300 different American time zones. This made operations very difficult for the telegraph and burgeoning railroad industry. Railroads operated with 100 different time zones before America moved to four, which was consistent with Britain’s push for a global time standard. The following year, at the International Meridian Conference, it was decided that the entire world could coordinate time keeping based on the British Prime Meridian (except for France, which claimed the Prime Median ran through Paris until 1911). There are now 24 (or 25, depending on your existential view of the international date line) time zones, each taking about 15 degrees of longitude.
Now the world has evolved further – we are even more integrated and mobile, suggesting we’d benefit from fewer, more stable time zones. Why stick with a system designed for commerce in 1883? In reality, America already functions on fewer than four time zones. I spent the last three years commuting between New York and Austin, living on both Eastern and Central time. I found that in Austin, everyone did things at the same times they do them in New York, despite the difference in time zone. People got to work at 8am instead of 9am, restaurants were packed at 6pm instead of 7pm, and even the TV schedule was an hour earlier. But for the last three years I lived in a state of constant confusion, I rarely knew the time and was perpetually an hour late or early. And for what purpose? If everyone functions an hour earlier anyway, in part to coordinate with other parts of the country, the different time zones lose meaning and are reduced to an arbitrary inconvenience. Research based on time use surveys found Americans’ schedules are determined by television more than daylight. That suggests in effect, Americans already live on two time zones.
It’s true that larger time zones would seem to cheat many people out of daylight by removing them further from their true solar time. But the demands of global commerce already do that. Many people work in companies with remote offices or have clients in different parts of the country. It’s become routine to arrange schedules to coordinate people in multiple domestic time zones. Traders in California start their day at 5am to participate in New York markets. True, not all Californians work on East Coast time, but research by economists Daniel Hamermesh, Catlin Meyers, and Mark Peacock showed communities are more productive when there’s more time coordination. Californians who work on Eastern time require services that can accommodate their schedule and see less of their families on Pacific time.
Frequent travel between the coasts causes jet lag, robbing employees of productive work time. With a one-hour time difference, bicoastal travel would become almost effortless. It might make international business harder, but it’s hard to say for certain. The east coast would be seven hours behind continental Europe, but one hour closer to time zones in Asia. Also, the gains from more frequent inter-state communication might outweigh the cost of extra international coordination.
In 1983, Alaska, which naturally spans four time zones, moved most of the state to a single time zone (except for an Native American reservation near Ketchikan and a few western Aleutian islands). The longitudinal distance of Alaska is nearly equal to the entire continental United States, yet the state functions, albeit with some tension, on one time zone. China has been on one time zone since 1949, despite naturally spanning five time zones.
Spain technically should be on Greenwich Mean Time but it is on Central European time. Many Spaniards believe being out of sync with solar time lowers productivity. But that is because the Spanish workday has not fully integrated with the rest of Europe. One major factor that used to throw workers off was a three-hour lunch break, but this practice of siesta has largely been abandoned in cities. Still, this shows that optimal time zones account for commerce and common cultural borders, not just longitude. The problems Spain has, being on Central European Time, wouldn’t apply to America because states are better economically integrated and already follow similar work schedules.
Sure, moving the continental states to two time zones would cause two-hour jumps between adjacent time zones and America won’t line up with the time zones of countries directly north and south, unless this catches on as a global trend. But the discontinuity ship already sailed when rich Western countries haphazardly adopted daylight saving and most other countries didn’t. Time is already arbitrary, why not make it work in our favor?
Correction: A previous version of this item stated that Spanish workers and schoolchildren still take a three-hour break. It also clarifies the timing of Daylight Savings Time’s adoption in the US.