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)
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.
"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.
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
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
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
effect is redistribution of travel.
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.
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.
"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.
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
"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
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
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
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 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
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
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
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
"many of the obstacles
previously imposed by geographical distance need no longer apply"
"Planning inevitably serves up revised
models for the past"
be seen as a way of putting flesh on the bones of the somewhat
vague exhortation in guidance to locate home and work closer