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Planning in the
Information Age

Understanding the relationship between location, movement and activities

In most parts of the UK activities like these are going on:

  • groups of planning professionals and politicians are developing and debating strategic planning guidance - regional planning guidance, structure plans, unitary development plans, local development plans (etc)

  • planners and developers are thrashing out planning applications - from major office developments to changing the use of the domestic garage

  • Highway authorities are developing local transport plans - planning investment and looking for ways to limit the growth of car travel.

One thing is fairly certain about all these deliberations: no one is taking much notice of the new information and communication technologies (ICT) and their implications for the way we live and work.

The "death of distance"

The concept of a "shrinking world" has been around for well over 100 years. Mostly this has been seen in terms of the increased speed of and access to transport - steamships, trains, planes and automobiles. Telecommunications (telegraph, telephony) and broadcast technologies have also played their part in shrinking the world, though until the 1970s people rarely talked in terms of "virtual" mobility as an alternative to physical mobility. These technologies were seen and used as tools for supporting traditional ways of doing things.

It has been the convergence of telecommunications, broadcast and information technologies that has brought a substantial challenge to the way we do things. "Where in the world do you want to go today?" asks Bill Gates, as you ride his software around worlds of information. It's marketing hype, but it also expresses a valid concept. There are a host of activities - work, entertainment, learning, using government services - that we can access without (physically) going anywhere. And we are only in the first days of this new online world.

Commentators have spoken of the "Death of Distance" (the title of a book by economist Frances Cairncross). While clearly an exaggeration for effect, it is true to say that many of the obstacles previously imposed by geographical distance need no longer apply. And many individuals and organisations are already behaving as if they don't apply.

For urban and rural planning, this has clear implications. For example:

  • It is no longer a general requirement that people live fairly close to the place that they work

  • Organisations can employ people from anywhere in the world for many of the tasks they undertake

  • Organisations can employ more people in less (centralised) space

  • Goods can be more easily bought and sold over greater distances

  • People in principle do not need to travel as much to access goods and services - though more transport may be required for goods and services to come to them

  • Areas poorly favoured to compete economically due to their location may become more competitive - if the infrastructure and planning policies are supportive

  • ICT-based business development (probably) causes less loss of amenity through noise, pollution, constant vehicle movements etc, than older forms of business - so should the historic restrictions apply?

One of the difficulties is that we are at a transitional stage, where the outcome of these developments is not entirely clear. However, the planning system, like other forms of regulation, is primarily about restraint and limitations. Inappropriate restraints, based on historic preconceptions, may prove to be damaging to the development of prosperous and well-serviced communities. Such restraints may lock in poverty and inequalities while favouring less sustainable business and residential development.

Will people travel less or more in the "Information Age?"

Elsewhere in Flexibility we tackle in detail the questions concerning the effects of ICT on transport. In the research project we have recently completed for the UK Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (DTLR), our conclusions involve dividing up the questions into meaningful bites. ICT underpins more and more products and services. To treat ICT as a single phenomenon is not particularly helpful. It probably won't ever be possible to say whether ICT "as a whole" reduces or generates transport or has a neutral effect. If we could tot up a balance sheet, it wouldn't help in devising effective and targeted policies. The effects are, needless to say, complex.

To unravel the complexity, uses of ICT have to be distinguished and assessed. For example, asking the questions "What transport effects does telework produce?", and "What are the transport implications of e-commerce?", and so forth. These can be subdivided even further - such as "What are the transport effects of particular kinds of telework (home-based, mobile, etc)?", "Are there different transport effects from different models of e-commerce?", or "What are the transport effects of government e-services projects?".

Research into these areas is pretty much in its infancy. But some areas, like home-based and (tele)centre-based teleworking have been extensively measured for their transport effects. The conclusions run something like this:

  • home-based and centre-based teleworking have a direct traffic reduction effect

  • where direct knock-on (or "rebound") effects are measured - e.g. other trips by the teleworker or other household members or colleagues -  this does not substantially reduce the travel savings: in some studies it increases the savings

  • with teleworking employees in most studies working on average around 1.5 days per week from home or from a telecentre, average mileage reductions are in the range of 1,500 to 3,500 miles per teleworker per year

  • secondary knock-on effects, such as relocating further away, latent demand (e.g. other road users occupying space vacated by teleworkers) and increased travel due to use of ICT for non-work purposes are all at this stage based on conjecture, and are not supported by data from measured studies.

  • studies into the travel and transport effects of e-commerce and e-services are almost entirely speculative, and have so far delivered no reliable data.

Research has tended to focus on certain forms of telework because the effects are more straightforward to measure. They've also been around longer than e-commerce.

To some extent, however, the debate about the effects have been dominated by the "substitution/generation" debate: does the use of this or that kind of ICT reduce or increase the number of trips, or miles travelled?

For transport and land use planners, all effects are significant. Trips certainly do seem to be substituted. So whether the net effect is substitution, generation or no difference in total, planners need to be concerned with the fact that different trips are taking place. One way or another, a significant effect is redistribution of travel.

Will people relocate to the suburbs and rural areas?

Geographical studies since at least the 1960s have been speculating that increased use of telecommunications/ICT will lead to an acceleration of people relocating from urban centres and to urban sprawl.

In the research literature, particularly from North America, it is commonplace to associate urban sprawl with the expansion of telecommunications. Historically, this is more contentious. Historians tend to assert the primary importance of an increasingly prosperous middle class and the development of public transport in the 19th and early 20th centuries (prior to mass telecommunications) as key enabling factors in suburbanisation and urban sprawl.

In our research, however, we did not find much beyond general principles and speculation to demonstrate any causal link between ICT and urban sprawl, or people making longer trips as a result of their use of ICT. Many of the studies we reviewed were highly theoretical, abounding in new "paradigms" and "conceptual models". While the ideas may be interesting ("the spatial implications of hyperspace"!) there is a lack of data to support the speculation.

In a few studies of telework, as might be expected, some teleworkers moved house during the time they were being monitored. In no case was telework the primary reason for moving, though some indicated the capacity to telework might influence a decision to relocate. On the other hand, there are many known examples of individuals staying with employers when a company moves, if they are given the option to telework. This leads to fewer trips, but they are longer when they occur. It's the business that has relocated, however. Other factors, such as spouse's occupation, residential and schooling issues, etc, seem to be more important when choosing where to live.

Will business location change?

There is some evidence - as mentioned above - that organisations may become more "footloose" as a result of their use of ICT. Once again, however, this is a phenomenon inadequately measured. For the purposes of economic development, many (formerly) disadvantaged areas have taken advantage of this to encourage inward investment.

In the past, inward investment tended to focus on manufacturing. But more recently, the location/relocation of customer service call centres, data processing functions and even corporate HQs have all been enabled by increased use of ICT. Planning strategies (as well as subsidies and other incentives) have been important to this process.

Is "urban sprawl" necessarily a bad thing?

Urban sprawl is associated with a number of social and environmental ills: decline and dereliction of town centres, social polarisation, increase in commuting, destruction of the natural environment, and so forth. Planners have tried to prevent this kind of effect by a number of means.

On the other hand, the social and economic future of rural areas to some extent depends on halting the migration of skilled workers from the countryside and market towns, and locating more economic activity there. With the decline of primary industries in rural areas (e.g. agriculture, mining, etc), the only alternative is perhaps to encourage more historically "urban" types of employment into rural areas. With the current projections for almost 3 million new homes in England being needed to accommodate the existing population, some degree of "sprawl" or "overspill" seems unavoidable. These cannot all be accommodated in urban areas.

Planning for additional "information age" business space and "wired" homes for people to live and work in may be the best route forward for non-urban areas as well as urban ones. It is important that fear of "sprawl" does not turn into rejection of all forms of relocation.

What should Planners be looking at?

The planning system inevitably serves up revised models of the past, even when trying to move forward in new directions.. The starting point for revision of plans always consists of:

  • previous plans

  • "recent" developments (some of which may be contrary to the plans, but are too powerful to resist)

  • historic data (demographic, economic, transport, etc)

  • a trail of historic documents - guidance from higher levels, legal decisions, etc (which may themselves be in need of revision)

  • historic preoccupations and interests.

In this context, it is hard for new considerations and new principles to be taken into account or given sufficient weight. Take for example the principle of protecting agricultural buildings from development, which is enshrined in many a local development plan. Most parties involved in decision-making know what a farm is (or was). They don't know what telework is.

The previous protection for farm buildings may have become all but irrelevant - in practice what it does is to ensure redundant buildings remain redundant. But taking the step of allowing alternative business/residential uses challenges everything that has been held to be true so far.  Here, habitual conservatism in thinking can be supplemented by "misoneism" (fear or distrust of anything new).

We know of examples from the 1990s where councillors turned down European funding to develop ICT-based businesses, as their policy was to re-open the local coal-mines. The cost of this has been high.

Hindsight, however, provides us all with 20/20 vision. In view of the uncertainties about the impacts of ICT which I've outlined above, isn't it too soon for planners to incorporate assumed effects into land use and transport planning?

The answer is that it is not too soon. Some things are clearer than others, it is true. But here is a quick check-list of measures planners should be getting to grips with:

  • teleworking should be seen as a way of putting flesh on the bones of the somewhat vague exhortation in government guidance (PPG13) to locate home and work closer together

  • economic development policies need to recognise the opportunities offered by new ways of working and service delivery, and offer more flexible approaches to land use

  • it needs to be recognised that new forms of working are not necessarily as difficult to locate close to residences or environmentally sensitive areas - though it may be difficult to distinguish from speculative office development in practice

  • historic formulae for connecting the scale of an enterprise with amount of land required, number of workers and amount of car parking need to be revisited

  • working at home creates new issues for residential use: restrictions in plans or enforcement actions against "business use" may well be over-the-top for new types of working

  • planning policies for social housing typically do not allow for flexible space that could be used for home-based work. This risks locking in social exclusion through antiquated approaches to policy

  • many local transport plans and associated initiatives include references to teleworking. So far, these mostly add up to nothing as transport planers and engineers are far more comfortable with buses and bikes as alternative modes. Innovative research and development is necessary

  • local authorities need to develop comprehensive approaches to teleworking - what is acceptable and unacceptable practice - in order to make provisions in development plans workable

  • plans for new settlements need to require state-of-the-art telecommunications infrastructure, just as they would require other utilities, and require that every home is capable of being connected with broadband

  • plans for new settlements need also to require that accommodation has flexible space for home-based work and home study; ICT provision is available for work and other purposes at local centres; communal pick up points are available for goods ordered online.

Alignment with the rest of government policy

If planners remain sceptical or agnostic about the possible impacts, then existing government policy ought to be a spur. The UK government is committed to making the UK "an Information Society", and is promoting initiatives across the board to promote ICT use: e-learning, e-government, telemedicine, e-commerce and teleworking/flexible working. Objectives range from promoting competitiveness to work-life balance to reducing travel through Travel Plans.

Planning policy is lagging behind. It's barely out of the starting blocks, and urgently needs to catch up.


Further Information

This article, by Andy Lake, was in part stimulated by carrying out a recent research project for the DTLR on The Impacts of ICT on Travel Behaviour and Freight Distribution Patterns.

If you would like further information about the implications of new technologies for transport and planning, you can contact the author on
+44 (0)1223 264485
or via email.




"many of the obstacles previously imposed by geographical distance need no longer apply"



















"Planning inevitably serves up revised models for the past"

















"teleworking should be seen as a way of putting flesh on the bones of the somewhat vague exhortation in guidance  to locate home and work closer together"

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