Changing Places

Autos and airplanes have a lot in common with the Web and cell phones. Moving people and information around are both transformative.
by | April 1, 2007

Communication is really a form of transportation. That hit me a while ago. Cars, trains, planes and ships move people or things from one place to another. Telephones, the Internet, the postal service, radios, fax machines and other devices move words, numbers, images and sounds from one place to another.

Maybe that's why the effects of each are so similar. They are transformative. While people use them for purely utilitarian means, both transportation and communication change the nature of places.

They are alike in other ways. Government is heavily involved in both. It sets the operating systems for communication and transportation, be it Internet protocol or rules of the highway. It also does much of the basic research and infrastructure development.

For those in government, this underscores why it's necessary to pay attention to potential developments in both transportation and communication. Getting ahead of the game on either helps a city or state anticipate change or direct it.

In recent decades, our communication systems have taken quantum leaps in their pace, range and capacity. We now move information at unbelievable speed through fiber-optic cables, through the air and through old copper wires, usually in a stream of zeros and ones. That is, digitally. This is the telecommunication revolution.

That's not the case with transportation today. We still get around by car, truck, train, plane or ship, but at speeds and capacities that haven't improved much in half a century or more. In the early 1930s, my late father drove between his hometown of Norfolk and the small resort town of Virginia Beach in a Ford Model A. It took him half an hour. Eighty years later, that same journey takes, well, half an hour, depending on traffic. Intercity train service doesn't speed up that trip. It is less robust than it used to be.

So is air travel. At times, we seem to be descending the ladder of air travel evolution. For short hops, you often board a low-ceiling, propeller-driven plane that requires you to walk across an open runway, even in the rain. You then travel at low speeds for three or four hundred miles. Forget jet ports and jet engines. Soon, they'll be handing out goggles for open-cockpit seating.

Why hasn't transportation, like communication, kept on improving? Hard to say. But part of the puzzle is the shrinking involvement of government in research and advanced infrastructure construction. Oh, we still build plenty of roads. But government has shied from investing in magnetic-levitation trains or supersonic passenger planes. In retrospect, a high water mark was the decision by the U.S. Congress in the mid 1970s to stop funding the development of the Supersonic Transport, or SST, the plane that went on to become the French and British Concorde.

By comparison, most of the amazing advances in telecommunication, including the Silicon chip and the Internet, come out of government investment. Microsoft, Intel and Google built their fortunes by standing on the shoulders of government.

While both transportation and communication tend to transform cities, towns and neighborhoods, they do so in ways that are difficult to predict. The telephone around 1900 was, according to MIT Professor Julian Beinart, supposed to

save the family farm by connecting it better to the outside world. Instead, the telephone, if anything, accelerated the family farm's demise.

Streetcars and subways in the early 20th century were supposed to decongest urban centers. Instead, big cities got even denser as train lines enabled even more people to swoosh in and out of work to and from high-rise buildings. And the car was supposed to bring people closer to nature. Only a few individuals foresaw that when everyone drove, the city would come to the country and nature would recede into the distance.

The Internet was supposed to kill urban centers, because a person could work on a laptop on a mountaintop. Instead, the Internet has led to a resurgence of many cities: Companies are putting a premium on having lots of their talented people in one place.

Given all this, what's a far-sighted city or state official to do? Be alert. Take chances. Municipal ownership of broadband Internet access, for example, is worth exploring for both good business and good public service reasons. In the end, whether you're a city council member or a governor, both controlling and anticipating changes in how we get ourselves and our information around can put you on the right side of the curve. And that's the place to be.

Alex Marshall
Alex Marshall  |  columnist
alex@rpa.org  | 

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