The phrase,'Unsound Transit', was coined by the Wall Street Journal to describe Seattle where,"Light Rail Madness eats billions that could otherwise be devoted to truly efficient transportation technologies." The Puget Sound's traffic congestion is a growing cancer on the region's prosperity. This website, captures news and expert opinion about ways to address the crisis. This is not a blog, but a knowledge base, which collects the best articles and presents them in a searchable format. My goal is to arm residents with knowledge so they can champion fact-based, rather than emotional, solutions.


Monday, March 10, 2008

Beyond Telecommuting (1994 Forecast)


Conventional wisdom holds that telecommunications is a natural substitute for transportation. Digital traffic on the fiber optic and wireless networks of the National Information Infrastructure (NII) can replace vehicle traffic on the streets and highways of the national transportation infrastructure. For example, telephone calls and videoconferencing can replace travel to meetings, and electronic-mail transmission of documents substitutes for postal delivery.

A leading example of travel substitution is telecommuting, which means using telecommunications to replace commuting between home and work. Telecommuting accounts for 7.6 million U.S. workers as of early 1993, up 15% from 6.6 million in 1992. The U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) estimates that telecommuting by the year 2002 will reduce the annual total vehicle miles traveled (VMT) by just 1% below the level expected to be seen if there were no telecommuting. A follow-up study by the U.S. Department of Energy (USDOE) calculates that the reduction in mileage from telecommuting by 2002 is likely to be even less because of (1) commuters living further from work, and (2) other travelers taking the road space vacated by telecommuters. However, telecommuting is not the only way that telecommunications can act as a substitute for transportation. Other examples of telecommunications substituting for travel include:

* Sporting, entertainment, political, religious, and other live events broadcast to a dispersed audience, rather than requiring that the audience travel to the event.

* Observations from scattered sites collected via remote sensing and transmitted to a central point, rather than sending a human observer.

* People initiating travel to a needed destination only after using telecommunications to find that the trip will be necessary or productive.

* Service transactions carried out by electronic means that require less travel. Such transactions include payroll direct deposits instead of taking paychecks to the bank, and electronic income tax filings.

* Dedicated telecommunications applications that increase vehicle loads and save trips by consolidating freight loads and expanding traveler ridesharing.

* Interactive educational, shopping, and entertainment services, and more television channels with movies on demand, that may convince more consumers to stay home rather than traveling to the mall or theater.

Telecommuting is only a small part of a large and expanding set of processes that govern how the National Information Infrastructure makes an impact on transportation. Present and future NII applications in health care, public education, government, and manufacturing offer opportunities for general societal benefits that are more significant than travel savings.

* For example, an electronically-networked system of specialized national medical centers, regional hospitals, and smaller rural and neighborhood clinics can deliver appropriate levels of care (open-heart surgery, appendectomies, or immunizations) and personal attention at the appropriate location.

* In public education, local teaching and learning can be enhanced by telecommunications providing access to people and information in the next county or on the other side of the world. Telecommunications is also a key resource for extending learning environments into homes, offices, libraries, and community centers.

* Other government services from field inspections to forms processing are amenable to revision through applications of voice, data, and video telecommunications. These applications can be designed to improve quality and access, and reduce or avoid costs.

* Modern manufacturing processes increase the responsiveness of production to the immediate needs of purchasers. Raw materials and finished products are put into computer-coordinated shipments monitored by NII-enabled location tracking systems, reducing dependence on large inventories in warehouses and storerooms.

Because of the popularity and effectiveness of telecommuting as a work practice, telecommunications is becoming embedded primarily as a transportation substitute in the thought processes of transportation researchers and government planners. But a closer examination of the U.S. experience over the last few decades does not reveal a natural evolution of telecommunications substituting for travel. Both grow together, one feeding the other. Travel per household is rising, urban congestion is increasing, and latent demand for travel emerges clearly when new road capacity is opened up, even as the NII is expanding. This report provides additional, cautionary perspectives on the idea that telecommunications is a force for reducing the need to travel. As telecommunications volumes build independently of direct substitution for transportation, an opposite effect occurs, namely, travel stimulation. A number of distinct stimulation effects can be identified:

* Telecommunications causes economic growth, productivity improvement, and income growth at the individual, organizational, and societal level. More money means more travel.

* As the economy grows, the use of telecommunications expands the number and geographic scope of economic and social relationships in which people and organizations engage.

* Telecommunications permits geographic decentralization of residential settlement, and of organizational activity locations. Decentralization leads to higher travel consumption, because trip origins and destinations tend to be farther apart.

* Telecommunications enables rapid response systems that dispatch customized vehicle trips to meet personal and organizational needs. Examples of this are just-in-time logistics, home delivery of fast food, overnight package delivery, and temporary employment services.

* New telecommunications functionality resulting from digital switching and fiber optics supports population growth and a wider span of economic activity in rural communities, leading to growth in travel.

* Telecommunications makes travel time more productive and more feasible for travelers; use of wireless mobile phones while traveling is the leading example.

* Telecommunications makes the transportation system work more effectively and efficiently. Examples of this are air traffic control, computerized airline reservation systems, and Intelligent Vehicle Highway Systems (IVHS).

The deployment of interactive, more functional, higher bandwidth communications into homes and rural areas will allow more telecommuting and other travel substitution practices. But at the same time a better telecommunications infrastructure will probably reinforce the dynamics that make telecommunications a travel stimulator as well. More powerful telecommunications will feed all of the ways listed above in which telecommunications expands the motivations to travel.

Other benefits of the NII are more important to the nation than travel savings: support of health care reform, efficient government, better education for our children, and rising manufacturing competitiveness. Telecommuting, in particular, is a very useful practice for stronger reasons than travel savings. It provides a work environment where workers can be more productive and closer to their families at the same time.

Whether the widespread deployment of more powerful, higher bandwidth telecommunications will lead advanced economies to show growing telecommunications usage per unit of economic output relative to transportation intensity depends significantly on changes in the price-performance of transportation. In the United States, for example, the cost of driving automobiles, based on fuel prices, vehicle prices, and taxation, is declining. This cost trend tends to work against trip substitution even while continual improvements in the price-performance of the NII supports substitution. An analytical, econometric determination of how telecommunications and transportation have been substituting for each other or complementing each other as economic inputs during the past few decades of NII expansion is an important follow-up research need coming out of this study.
A dominant public policy paradigm today is that telecommunications yields telecommuting which yields travel savings. The wide impact of telecommunications on the economy and society in contrast to the limited travel impact of telecommuting suggests that a better paradigm is now needed: Telecommunications yields some travel savings through telecommuting and other travel substitution effects, but also sets up a countervailing mechanism of travel stimulation that needs to be more widely recognized and better understood.

Governments must learn to coordinate public policy on telecommunications, transportation, land use, and capital facilities investment in light of the interactions described here. The overall challenge is to allocate resources and attention reasonably across the entire spectrum of public facility systems that provide support for the transactions and relationships comprising economic and social life. Such systems include the cables, circuits, services, and computers of the National Information Infrastructure; the roads and airports of the transportation system; and physical locations like schools, libraries, clinics, and meeting halls where people interact directly with other people.
A more explicit and complete inclusion of telecommunications in planning processes for improving the overall transportation system is a government responsibility deserving higher visibility at the state and metropolitan-area level and the encouragement of USDOE. Telecommuting and other telecommunications applications cut across both the supply and the demand sides of transportation, and are part of both the problem and the solution of state and metropolitan regions meeting the air quality and mobility goals mandated by the Federal Clean Air Act Amendments and the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act.

Consideration of telecommunications would fit well into a least cost, integrated resource planning (IRP) framework that incorporates travel substitution, stimulation, and system management. IRP transfers ideas and methods that are now successfully used in electric energy planning to the transportation arena.

Also, government policy could focus on promoting and ensuring telecommunications-based alternatives to travel for the inevitable future periods when travel becomes difficult or expensive due to disruptions from special events, weather, disasters, or oil supply interruptions.

Although government policy intervention to accelerate the deployment of higher bandwidth and other more powerful telecommunications capabilities cannot be justified by the potential for travel savings alone, there are many other government roles in developing NII technology and applications that make productive use of tax dollars:

* Development and deployment of government processes that use the evolving NII to deliver more service for less money. Accessing government records from home and library computers is an example.

* Support of NII improvement in disadvantaged geographic areas and for socially-important applications that the market leaves behind despite the economic cost to society at large.

* Legislative and rule-making action to eliminate barriers to the deployment of NII-enabled services for health care, education, and government services generally.

In short, government leaders must take their vision for transportation changes in the information age beyond telecommuting to a much larger set of NII applications that comprehensively affect the movement and location patterns for both organizations and individuals. Basing public policy on a more complete understanding of the new information technologies and their patterns of use will reduce the costs and increase the benefits to our society and economy from the parallel infrastructures of transportation and information.

The articles are posted solely for educational purposes to raise awareness of transportation issues. I claim no authorship, nor do I profit from this website. Where known, all original authors and/or source publisher have been noted in the post. As this is a knowledge base, rather than a blog, I have reproduced the articles in full to allow for complete reader understanding and allow for comprehensive text searching...see custom google search engine at the top of the page. If you have concerns about the inclusion of a specific article, please email for a speedy resolution.