Time Zones Are Actually Useful

Matthew Yglesias of Vox talks about eliminating time zones:

It is genuinely annoying to schedule meetings, calls, and other arrangements across time zones. The need to constantly specify which time zone you’re talking about is a drag. Commuting across time zones would be more annoying still, which is why the suburbs of Chicago that are located in Indiana use Illinois’ Central Time rather than Indianapolis’ Eastern Time.

Time zones are confusing at times, and when scheduling meetings across them, it can be very frustrating. But it seems unlikely that more than 5% of the U.S. population has to do this on a regular basis. And there are so many websites and apps that make is so simple nowadays. On a personal note, as someone who has lived in Chicago their entire life, I never put together the reason why northwest Indiana was on the same time zone as Chicago instead of the rest of the state.

If the whole world used a single GMT-based time, schedules would still vary. In general most people would sleep when it’s dark out and work when it’s light out. So at 23:00, most of London would be at home or in bed and most of Los Angeles would be at the office. But of course London’s bartenders would probably be at work while some shift workers in LA would be grabbing a nap. The difference from today is that if you were putting together a London-LA conference call at 21:00 there’d be only one possible interpretation of the proposal. A flight that leaves New York at 14:00 and lands in Paris at 20:00 is a six-hour flight, with no need to keep track of time zones. If your appointment is in El Paso at 11:30 you don’t need to remember that it’s in a different time zone than the rest of Texas.

To steal something from Kevin Wildes and Bill Simmons, this is what’s called a “half baked idea”. This makes complete sense in a few specific instances. Someone who is constantly interacting with people across time zones, which again is probably a small percentage of people. It also applies to calculating flight times across time zones, but most people book flights online these days and flight times are listed. It also benefits people who live near time zone borders, which isn’t likely a high percentage of people.

It does not talk about the major pitfalls that go along with this though, and that is travel. More people travel across time zones on a daily basis than have non-regularly scheduled calls/meetings across them. Someone that lives in London would pretty much keep everything the same in this new system. Up around 07:00, lunch around 12:00, bed around 22:30 or whatever. Los Angeles is GMT –7:00, which means that wake up time for them would be 14:00 GMT, lunch around 19:00 GMT and bed around 5:30 GMT.

What happens when someone from LA travels to London (or even New York). A benefit of time zones is that time still makes sense other places. It’s true that a person has to adjust their timekeeper to local time (something that almost all cellphones do on their own), but this takes seconds. Once this takes place, it is easy to figure out what time things happen, because it’s pretty much the same as wherever the person is from (i.e., lunch is around noon, bed is around 10, etc.). Under this new system, a person would totally have to relearn what time things take place. Lunch was at 19:00 in LA, but it’s at 15:00 in New York. That is far more confusing for the average person.

Time zones might have been a strange decision at one point, but they are more practical now than most people consider. And the small use cases where not having them would be an improvement do not outweigh the more common situations where they are necessary.