michael-shearMichael Shear is the President of the Broadband Planning Initiative in Washington DC. Having looked at the background facing proponents of telecommuting in the first of a new series of features on the subject, today Michael examines transport and environmental issues critical to a discussion of remote working…

For years, leaders have argued that we have a ‘transportation congestion crisis’. Moreover, while major annual studies (such as the TTU’s Urban Mobility Study) emphasize we cannot build our way out of the problem, planning organizations spend the vast majority of time and money trying to do just that. We have been restricted from finding solutions that capitalize on the power of telecommunications technologies by the limitations of how we describe the problem.

Since the bulk of transportation congestion problems occur in major metropolitan areas, and a major contributor to this congestion is the daily commuter, we should recognize that the nature of work has substantially shifted in the past several decades to information jobs and recast the problem in a broader understanding that what we are dealing with is an ‘access’ problem.

Reframing the problem will allow us to expand the number of potential solutions to include the uses of information technology to expand access with a direct impact on reducing transportation congestion. Without changing the definition of the problem, we are left with only allocative approaches that constrain access and only produce marginal gains rather than adaptive approaches that may yield exponential gains.

The shifting population densities in our major extended metropolitan areas and our substantial reliance on gasoline, have demonstrated that transportation alone is an expensive and losing proposition as the predominant method of access

Classic transportation planning focuses on optimizing existing capacity and expanding access by building new capacity. In addition, as with telecommunications infrastructure, the challenge is to create methods of financing and maintaining capacity in a way that is efficient, economical, and socially equitable. Transportation (mobility) is the predominant focus of community discussions around infrastructure and access. The time, money, and energy devoted to this method of access dwarfs any discussion (if any exist) regarding telecommunications infrastructure.

It is only natural that transportation is a more formalized and familiar focus of leaders and planners, while telecommunications is somewhat of a mystery and therefore fraught with uncertainty and reluctance. Our reliance and experience with transportation bridges centuries and the industrial economy required all the tools of productivity be brought to a single physical location. The shifting population densities in our major extended metropolitan areas and our substantial reliance on gasoline, have demonstrated that transportation alone is an expensive and losing proposition as the predominant method of access.

Joel Kotkin and Wendell Cox have written in The New Geography that these migrations are not producing concentrations into the inner cities as much as more diffuse and widening dispersion patterns around the inner core. This dynamic will further exacerbate the limitations of planning based predominately upon transportation and transit to address access needs.


More recently, communication technologies have evolved rapidly and the nature of work has become more information-focused. Given the rising relevance and increasing capabilities of information technologies in our economy, leaders and planners will need to consider expanding alternative approaches. Finding a balance of methods of access can yield more timely and effective relief on congested highways.

A closely associated debilitating economic impact of the reliance on transportation is the cost and waste of gasoline and loss of time. Economically, these costs are borne more severely on the less fortunate in our communities. At a time our economies are struggling to recover, we are bleeding valuable local economy dollars into our gas tanks. The outcome is that people must learn to live on less disposable income or be paid more. In an age of global labor forces, we can agree they will not be paid more.

Finally, there are the health implications. Air pollution and resulting instances of strokes, lung and heart diseases, and traffic fatalities all add an immense cost to our persistent and limited focus on transportation methodologies to build our metropolitan communities. Once again, these factors affect those of lesser means.


The OECD’s recent findings (OECD Environmental Outlook to 2050) on growing CO2 emissions predict increased world demand for fossil fuels and continued migration of people into already crowded major metropolitan centers to further reinforce the argument that a broader set of approaches is necessary. According to the OECD, the dynamics of this vast migratory shift into metropolitan centers will accelerate over the next 35 years, swelling from 50% to 70% of the world’s population.

The ITU’s Broadband Commission Working Group on Climate Change has released a report The Broadband Bridge: Linking ICT with Climate Action for a Low Carbon Economy [PDF], which claims that ICT (Information and Communications Technologies) and broadband in particular could play a much greater role in reducing the world’s output of greenhouse gases, if the right steps are taken.

The report makes 10 recommendations for (largely government) initiatives ‘to spur the kind of change that will result in a strong, integrated and bold approach to unleashing broadband’s role in the networked, low carbon society of the future.’ And it identifies ‘A lack of awareness about ICT and broadband’s enabling role’ as a key challenge going forward. ‘Policies and strategies will need to consider how to influence individual behaviour and raise awareness to enhance the uptake of broadband-enabled low-carbon solutions among consumers worldwide,’

The report argues that broadband offers unique opportunities to spearhead the transition to a carbon-constrained world and that, to reach its full potential, broadband needs to be a component of climate change strategy, backed up with strong policies in support of economy-wide emissions reductions.

“In many countries, it is this integrated regulatory framework that is the crucial missing link to achieve carbon reduction commitments through the use of broadband networks, services and applications […]

“For broadband to deliver on its climate change reduction potential, a range of obstacles and challenges need to be overcome. Foremost among these is the need to break down the silos that tend to exist between different sectors of society and within governments, through greater dialogue and collaboration […]

“Developing and adopting a long-term view is necessary too, particularly at a time of financial crisis and austerity measures that could otherwise inhibit investment and result in short-term planning.”

The report claims also that the current regulatory environment promotes a ‘silo’ approach in which decisions are made in isolation and separate communication networks are built in parallel.

“There is a lack of policy targeted at, on the one hand, introducing incentives to adopt greener ICT solutions, and on the other, dismantling barriers to implementation like the subsidisation of CO2 intensive industries – a situation that is compounded by a lack of cross-ministry co-ordination. Technological advances are currently outpacing government policy – a gap that needs to be closed by raising awareness of the opportunities technology presents to achieve national climate goals.”

In the end it’s about access

Accessibility is a key ingredient of well-being and prosperity in contemporary societies. The ability of individuals, families, entrepreneurs and firms to exchange goods and services, to be where activities are being carried out, and to interact with people on a regular basis is crucial not only to economic life but also to the quality of life. With the growth of economic and social networks over the course of the past two centuries and the spatial dispersion of activities, transportation has become the backbone of accessibility systems. It is also a crucial part of economic growth and social interaction in most countries. Unfortunately, the adverse effects of transportation have a greater impact on the natural and human environment than two other important mechanisms for providing access: proximity and telecommunications. ”Air Pollution from Ground Polution [PDF], United Nations and World Bank – 2002

The issue of accessibility that will lay the foundation of our economy and society for decades to come.

Read the previous article in this series: Telecommuting: Beyond regional economics

In the next feature, Michael will examine Telecommunications as Infrastructure, why the telecoms revolution did not give rise to a telecommuting revolution – and what the promise of the networked world may actually be for local economies.