Adding Telecommunications to the Planning Mix:
Modifying and Tuning Smart Growth

by John S. Niles, President, Global Telematics

A speech delivered to the Cascadia Pacific Heartland Forum

Bellingham, Washington, April 29, 1999


Good morning. Before I start talking about smart communities and cyberspace, I want to thank Robert Tibbs and his planning committee for inviting me here, and also thank Kevin Laverty of GTE for introducing me to Robert and supporting Global Telematics generally.

I do appreciate and want to support by way of these remarks, and throughout the rest of this meeting, the energy and caring directed by civic leaders like all of you to the long-term future of this international Cascadia Pacific Heartland region. The quality of this region will of course be improved by focused efforts from the people who live here and love it. Congratulations to you on getting underway.

I'm here today -- now and in the workshops this afternoon -- to help you grapple with the challenge of making a better, more sustainable Cascadia Pacific Heartland region emerge through civic leadership creatively reacting to powerful developments in telecommunications -- that is, communications among people and machines using electromagnetism across distance: light and other electromagnetic signalling, through wires and cables or through the atmosphere. Telecommunications (or telecom in short form) means rapidly and accurately moving voices and sounds, video and other pictures and graphics, and computer files and other data. Computers are now a pervasive part of telecommunications, a marriage known as digital convergence, or telecomputing, or even telematics, the European word around which I formed my business over ten years ago.

The hottest things going in telecom right now are the World Wide Web of the Internet on one hand, and wireless communications such as cell phones on the other. Growth is phenomenal on both hands -- 5,000 new web sites per day worldwide. More than 17,000 new wireless telephones accounts activated every day in the U.S. and Canada. What will be even hotter is the inevitable, guaranteed convergence of these two threads, when every geographic place and every new manufactured thing and every person (who wants to be) is connected to the Internet all of the time at any location for multiple purposes.

I do NOT mean that we will all be constantly surfing the web through our cell phones with little viewing screens, although this is technologically feasible, and some will do it, although hopefully not while driving at night on Chuckanut Drive, yes? No, computers everywhere will be mostly "talking" to other computers through the Internet. New vehicles, including electric cars and bicycles, will communicate directly with the repair shop as their maintenance requirements and repair needs come due. Newer residential housing and commercial buildings will have communicating computers embedded everywhere for security and energy efficiency and the comfort of occupants.

One present day example is that a Coca-Cola bottler in Australia has equipped 35,000 vending machines with microprocessors and cellular data transmitters that keep track of how much Coke needs to be reloaded into each machine, and whether the machine needs repair (from being kicked too much, perhaps!).

At some point we will learn about movie showtimes, city council meetings and other events, not by finding a web site or reading the newspaper, but rather by speaking an inquiry into a tiny digital communications device on our person, that responds by voice with the place and time and agenda of the event we seek, and then via global positioning system satellite linkage tells us the directions for getting there.

These examples of future tele-stuff are not all here now, but they are coming, along with other capabilities that are just as useful.

There is much uncertainty about the exact shape of what is coming. As planner and futurist Brian Ferren says, "Trying to assess the true importance and function of the Internet now is like asking the Wright brothers at Kitty Hawk in 1903 if they were aware of the potential of airline frequent flyer miles as a way to earn free travel."

In a few minutes, I will tell you about some interesting telecom applications that are available now in Cascadia Pacific Heartland, without having to wait for the new millennium.

But let me first turn to Smart Growth for a moment. As Jim Miller of David Evans Associates explained a moment ago, Smart Growth means many things, but most are various aspects of land use planning with a related emphasis on changing transportation -- how people move about on the land. The Smart Growth concept includes compact, dense, mixed use development, reduced use of automobiles, preservation of open space and farmland, and maintenance of environmental quality. These things are thought to make sustainable development more likely.

Those of us in community telecommunications planning have heard a lot about Smart Communities over the past few years. The Smart Community is a community planning concept that you would think is related to Smart Growth ... Smart Communities --- Smart Growth ... but so far, they largely are not. Herein may lay an opportunity for Cascadia Pacific Heartland to get ahead of the curve.

Let me explain: Smart Communities are those that are establishing civic processes (like this one) that stimulate advanced computer and communication applications; that achieve the infrastructure (wires, cables, switching offices, and cell towers) and education programs required to serve and maintain economic growth and attract a quality work force, and that create action-oriented alliances among the stakeholders who influence and share in the benefits of their success.

At the moment, telecommunications and Smart Communities are barely considered at all in the Smart Growth literature, while transportation is significantly involved. Counting web sites that use "smart growth" 2,255; sites that use "smart community/ies" 845; Sites that use both terms, only four.

Vice President Al Gore -- who likes to think of himself as one of the creators of the so-called "information superhighway" did not once mention it in his recent community meeting in Seattle on Smart Growth.

But clearly telecommunications and computers -- that is, telematics -- is a pervasive, widely-influential technology, and must be considered as a part of any future-oriented community. The challenge for this region in fact is to tie telematics into land use planning, the essence of Smart Growth

While the thrust of Smart Growth land use planning is to make human settlement patterns more dense and more compact so as to reduce the transportation and infrastructure and energy requirements, what is important to understand is that telematics has a market-driven bias toward activity and location dispersal, otherwise known as sprawl. If you let the market work, telecommunications is, in my judgment, not a neutral force in the shaping of land use patterns, but rather, a force for sprawl. Let me provide examples of what I mean:

Example: Telecommuting (working at home sometimes even though you have an office to go to) is a good thing for reducing driving and saving energy and helping sustainability in the narrow sense of reducing commuting trips during rush hour. But consider this: several studies of telecommuters have yielded the finding that telecommuters tend to live farther away from their employer's office than non-telecommuters. In other words, people who live across the street from their office are less likely to want to work at home than people who live 45 minutes away. The downtown Seattle, Everett or Vancouver BC office professional who is able to live in a rural part of Whatcom County because she can work at home four days out of five, could be accused of contributing to a sprawling land use pattern.

Picking up on a point made by Bruce Katz speaking just before me, the importance of this finding is amplified by noting the national and regional surveys that show commuting to work is not even half of the trips we make in our cars. Telecommuters who choose to live in a low density rural area because the don't have to drive to work every day are likely to be generating an above average level of non-commuting trips, in addition to their less frequent but longer commutes.

Another example of telecom contributing incrementally to sprawl: Cellular phones make long, difficult commuting more tolerable, by allowing the time spent riding or driving in a vehicle to be more productive. Calling while driving reduces the perceived time cost of commuting and waiting in associated congestion. That telecommuting office worker who already knows how to work remotely from home, may find working in the car on the cell phone an easy and efficient extension of working hours.

Telecom also increases the attractiveness/tolerance of travel and congestion through the application of computers and telecommunications to driving and traffic management -- called Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS). An example of such Intelligent Transportation Systems are the live video pictures of the Seattle freeway or the Anacortes ferry line ups now available on the Internet that help you decide when to leave on your trip. The CanPass or PACE lanes for skipping the stop at the U.S.-Canada border crossing are another example of ITS.

Now here is another impact of telecommunications on land use that is usually totally missed: I covered this one yesterday for the American Planning Association annual meeting in Seattle. The growth in the number and type and dispersion of retail stores that leads to the kind of retail clusters you see along I-5 in Bellingham and Burlington. Because of the growth of on-line, Internet shopping of the Amazon.Com variety, physical stores with bricks and mortar are fighting back by becoming bigger and more specialized in order to compete with the prices and variety found in online stores. Enormous superstores would not be possible without telecommunications and computers to manage inventory and collect credit/debit card money quickly at check out time. Unfortunately, big stores in order to be profitable require big trade areas from which to draw enough customers to generate the sales volumes that overcome the problem of low margins. Big stores also need big parking lots and clustering into malls and so-called retail power centers in order to increase the efficiency of shopping for customers by letting a trip to the store reach to several stores.

In general, telematics has revolutionary implications for economic/industrial/commercial structure, which in turn influences land use and long run travel behavior: things like more wealth from high-tech jobs and the rise of stock values in the Internet economy, rising expectations of consumers for time-saving services, and just-in-time delivery in small vehicles that come more often than in the days of delivery by the Post Office and UPS alone.

Finally, because electronic networks motivate and facilitate more long-distance and "just-in-time" logistics and travel, there is a predilection on the part of traveling professionals and businesses generally to locate closer to airports on the edge of cities as opposed to central business districts in downtowns.

Although, as shown by these examples and others I could give, the market-driven tendency of telematics is to support sprawl, people in leadership can take deliberate policy steps, including regulations and incentives, to emphasize applications of telecommunications that work against the natural bias of the technology.

Here are some things that civic leadership, people like you, can do to foster compact land use and more efficient, sustainable development.

First, you can use the World Wide Web as a friendly, convenient tool for communications and coordination on Smart Growth topics among civic leadership and your citizen constituencies generally. You can do this now.

Two, look for ways to accelerate the provision of improvements in telecommunications infrastructure serving the key, well-designed real estate developments that are the heart of a Smart Growth initiative. This would mean emphasizing telecom development inside of urban growth boundaries relative to the development outside of urban growth boundaries. I assume the City of Bellingham fiber optics project is in a position to shape its installation toward any unserved, urban geographic areas that are integral to Smart Growth.

Three, promote travel-saving applications of telecommunications specifically, as opposed to being neutral about what happens in the way of applications development as telecommunications is deployed more widely. Global Telematics in 1995 wrote a plan for emphasizing telecommunications as a travel conservation technique within the Los Angeles metro area. The plan envisions ongoing measurement of the travel saving effects of telecommunications applications such as electronic delivery of X-rays and other medical images, distance learning in high schools and colleges, and on-line shopping. The applications showing the greatest travel savings are targets for incentives that invite further replication and imitation. You could do something like this in Cascadia Pacific Heartland.

Four, travelers need to be provided much better information than they can get now to make the attractions within Smart Growth developments more visible. For example: In order for travelers to find good places to shop and eat in well-designed, compact, mixed use developments, the travelers would be well served by wireless in-car information systems that provide drivers with clues as rich as those received by cruising past strip malls. Short range AM radio might do the trick. You can do this now.

Five, if public transportation is part of the Cascadia Pacific Heartland region's vision for sustainability, then resources for telecommunications applications that make bus and shared ride services work better should be actively considered. These include, for example, systems for signalling bus drivers about the location of passengers, and for telling waiting passengers the location and status of buses. You can do this now, and it is important to making low density, infrequent bus service be cost effective.

There are many other ways to leverage telecommunications for the kind of growth a community views as smart. Depending on what you think is smart, economic development leadership may want to invest in telecommunications in a fashion that signals the region as receptive to corporate moves and expansions in certain industries; OR, the emphasis of applications development could be placed on growing the region's local, homegrown, microenterprises into larger, job-producing companies. You can do this now.

In conclusion, my basic message for you is that telematics, advanced telecommunications, is a flexible resource that can be applied through policy and funded applications development toward the support of Smart Growth, however you define it. However, overly broad approaches to telecommunications of the "we just want more" variety, may simply reinforce in ways I have described earlier the market-driven tendency seen everywhere in the world of widespread dispersal of human settlements, the sprawl pattern that is the antithesis of Smart Growth.

Let me end with some cautionary language on the difficulty of understanding telematics. It is pretty clear that the information revolution has been going on a long time. The case for this view comes from Michael Rothschild of the Bionomics Institute, who argues in his book, Bionomics, page 10: "the first information explosion came with the original encoding of human knowledge -- the cave paintings and notched mammoth tusks of Paleolithic man. The second started in Sumer with the improvement of writing techniques. The third was triggered by Gutenberg's press. The fourth and fifth were the scientific and industrial revolutions that flowed from the invention of printing. In the wake of the microprocessor's invention, we are now experiencing the early decades of humanity's sixth information explosion. Each information explosion unfolded at a much faster pace than the one preceding it."

Let me give you an example of how tough it is to say what’s happening next. Popular Mechanics, March 1949 noted "Where a calculator on the ENIAC is equipped with 18,000 vacuum tubes and weigh 30 tons, computers in the future may have only 1,000 vacuum tubes and perhaps weigh 1-1/2 tons."

And are there more information explosions to come? Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, and colleagues at MIT are working on the post PC Internet era, where individuals will be bathed in the ubiquity of the Internet. They say that computing power will be found in the sheet rock of homes and businesses, trunks of cars, and your clothing. Your personal web site will contain 1 million pages about your life, interests, activities and possessions. Every artifact, from the toothbrush you use at night to the pencil sharpener in your cubicle, will have its own Web page.

If your personal web site is going to have a million pages in ten years, now would be a good time to start working on it.

Thank you very much, and I would be pleased to entertain questions.

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