Transportation vs. Communication

As cities grow in population, it becomes more difficult to build efficient, environmentally-friendly, and cheap infrastructure to move people.

In North America, the tried-and-tested network is the road network. But roads are expensive to maintain and build, and cars are just about the worst mode of transportation for the environment. Also, the “bandwidth” of personal cars on roads is quite low, especially if cars contain only one or two people. This low bandwidth is the cause of congestion, which makes all road transportation less efficient.

Public transit is used in larger cities to provide a cleaner and higher bandwidth means of transport. The simplest form is a bus, which can use existing road infrastructure. However, buses are as slow as personal cars, and considerably less comfortable, so there is little incentive in North America to use buses—unless one can’t afford a personal car.

Light rail and metro systems are also alternative forms of public transportation. These systems are faster than road-based systems, but suffer from increased capital costs, because they require specialize infrastructure and right-of-way.

As population continues to grow, municipalities struggle to find efficient and cheap means to move people. Perhaps, however, there’s a solution that involves rethinking the problem. What if there are fewer people to move?

I don’t mean to say that the population should be reduced, although that would certainly help (population is the root of many problems). Instead, I mean that instead of transportation, we should consider communication.

It is considerably cheaper to move a couple bits (in the computational sense) around than it is to move a person, and the infrastructure to move bits around already exists across the developed world. How much transportation can we replace with communication? It turns out, quite a bit.

People commuting to work is a large proportion of transportation inside a city. Telecommuting to work is one recent example of an initiative to replace transportation with communication. Instead of driving or taking the bus to work, one works directly from home. This not only reduces the strain on the transportation network, but is also much better for the environment.

With software like Skype, Google Hangouts, and FaceTime, more kinds of work than ever before can be done remotely. And with better automation than ever before, some jobs that can’t yet be done remotely (like construction and cleaning) soon could. Jobs that involve interacting with people—such as salesperson or cashier—will probably still require transportation for the near future. Reducing the number of jobs that do, however, will certainly reduce transportation burden.

Another major source of traffic is shopping and services. Many stores offer products or services that are not sold online. However, in today’s world, this is rapidly changing. More and more stores are selling products online, and now some major retailers are exclusively online. Gradually, shopping will be done mostly online, even for things like grocery.

It’s inevitable that more and more transportation will be replaced by communication, and that is certainly a good thing. But there are some policy decisions that can encourage this revolution. For example, regulations on online services could be loosened to be the same as those for physical, brick-and-mortar places. Small businesses do not have money to hire lawyers to file paperwork to comply with regulations, so this deregulation will help encourage small businesses to start online presences.

Perhaps some money currently used to build and maintain roads can be used instead to investigate how to use roads less. Investing in communication will pay off much more in the long run than investing in transportation.