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
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:
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.
- 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.
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:
- 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
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.
- 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
geographic scope of economic and social relationships in which people and
- 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
- Telecommunications enables rapid response systems that dispatch
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
travelers; use of wireless mobile phones while traveling is the leading
- 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).
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
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
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
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:
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
- 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
of NII-enabled services for health care, education, and government services