The Smart Phone and the Internet Don’t Make the Bullet Train Obsolete

Oct 16th, 2012 | Posted by

We live in an age of major technological innovation. Twenty years ago hardly any of us had a cell phone and even fewer had a home connection to the Internet. Computers were big, bulky things that sat on a desk. Today all three can be held in your hand.

With technological innovation often comes grandiose assumptions about massive changes to human societies that will supposedly result from new technology. To hear it told in 1992, by today we were supposed to be living in a virtual reality and speaking to each other by videophone. But our day to day realities haven’t changed all that much. 20 years ago someone on a BART train might be reading a paper copy of the Chronicle on their way to work. Today, they’re reading SFGate on their iPhone. But they’re still on the train, in greater numbers than ever before.

Day 88/365 - BART train

The Internet has changed how we communicate – but it hasn’t changed how we get around. With FaceTime, Google Docs, and blazing fast wireless connections to our mobile devices, we should in theory never have to attend another meeting again. Travel should be dramatically reduced. But that hasn’t happened, far from it. Technology is changing how we travel, not eliminating travel. The smartphone can’t be used behind a wheel, and currently it can’t be used on a plane. But it’s a perfect companion for a trip on mass transit.

This is the lived reality for millions of Americans. The smartphone is a fundamentally urban device. It makes urban living easier and more desirable. It eliminates the need for a car, but it does not eliminate the desire to travel. In a world dominated by the smartphone, mass transit becomes more important, not less.

For those who desperately want to cling to the 20th century, who cannot accept that the 21st century’s dominant form of transportation will be the train, the Internet is their way of saying that we don’t need to spend money on subways or bullet trains. That’s the argument Walter Russell Mead makes in the Wall Street Journal:

The infrastructure lobby believes that, from a transportation point of view, the 21st century will be an extension of the 20th.

Thus Gov. Jerry Brown defends California’s indefensible high-speed rail boondoggle by arguing that without it, increased demand for travel along the dense Los Angeles-San Francisco corridor will lead to choked highways and hopelessly congested air corridors.

Is that really where things are headed? The Internet is dramatically reducing the importance of distance in human affairs. Email has rendered the local post office nearly obsolete. Hundreds of thousands of Americans are already telecommuting, and many more have launched Web-based businesses from home. People who used to make three trips a week to the mall do more of their shopping online.

Two things seem clear about the 21st century: Internet connectivity and bandwidth are going to improve so that today’s technologies behind services like Skype are going to change beyond recognition. Each generation of young people will be more accustomed to socializing and interacting online. We are going to have more, better and cheaper alternatives to traditional business and commuting travel patterns, and our society will find it more and more natural and desirable to shift from expensive, time-consuming travel in “meat space” to doing business online.

More sophisticated computer technology will also allow us to use existing infrastructure more intensively and efficiently. This means better air-traffic control allowing more efficient use of runways, and self-driving “Google cars” (already in trial) allowing faster movement on existing road networks. We aren’t going to need 20 lanes in either direction on the New Jersey Turnpike by 2050, or $100 billion high-speed rail projects, to save us from national gridlock.

The challenge isn’t to move more meat; it is to move more information more effectively, and to re-engineer business practices and social organization to take full advantage of the extraordinary efficiencies that the Internet affords. The rush-hour rituals of the 20th century aren’t destined to continue to the end of time. Telecommuting, flextime and mini-commutes to satellite offices will change the way we work.

I’m all for massive government investment in ultra-fast broadband. That needs to happen. But it’s not in competition with bullet trains, and it’s not a substitute for mass electric transit. Mead is living in a fantasy world, not in the real world. We’ve already debunked the notion that self-driving cars are a mass transportation solution. But more to the point, we can see just by looking around us that the Internet and the smartphone aren’t reducing or eliminating the need to travel.

I can speak to this from experience. From 2007 to 2010 I was a telecommuter, working as Public Policy Director for the Courage Campaign. The organization’s office was in Los Angeles, but I worked out of my Monterey home. Most of our work was done online – but not all of it. Some things, such as sensitive political meetings, organizing sessions, grassroots trainings, and team building retreats, could not be done online. They had to happen in person. I spent a lot of time on the train, on planes, on buses, and in cars.

Anyone working in a white collar industry knows this reality, that online communication can never and will never replace the value of face-to-face interaction for effective work. And that’s just in the business world. I love hearing my 2-year old niece’s voice on the phone and seeing real-time online video of her dancing and playing with her toys, but there is nothing like going to Orange County and visiting her in person. People aren’t going to stop visiting San Francisco or Los Angeles because they can see it on the Internet.

Similar claims that technology would reduce the demand for travel have been made before – when television was invented, when radio was invented, when the telephone was invented, when the railroad was invented, when reliable postal services were offered. Over the last 150 years technology has changed the tools we use to communicate, but at no time has it ever reduced the desire of human beings to be in each other’s physical presence.

Further, Mead assumes everyone will be working white collar high tech jobs. In fact, the fastest growing economic sectors in recent decades have been in the service sector. You can’t telecommute to be a Starbucks barista or a hair stylist. And even if we were able to rebuild a broad manufacturing job base, you can’t telecommute to a train factory or install a solar panel via Skype.

Everything we see today suggests that demand for travel will remain high. The smartphone means that travel demand will be shifted toward things other than a car – and even a self-driving car can’t achieve 220 miles an hour like a bullet train can.

More importantly, since travel demand isn’t going to be meaningfully reduced by the Internet, we still have to confront the fact that our current transportation system is too reliant on fossil fuels. The economy cannot survive unchecked climate change or continued dependence on oil that is constantly rising in cost.

A 21st century economy requires a national broadband network – and national high speed rail network. Those aren’t competing needs, they are complementary. A thriving economy requires both. Without either one, an economy will struggle in this new century.

  1. elfling
    Oct 16th, 2012 at 08:57

    As someone who works as a telecommuter, I echo your observation that regular face-to-face travel is required and even makes the value of train travel higher. I can work on a train while I travel to my destination; I cannot work while I am driving a car.

  2. J. Wong
    Oct 16th, 2012 at 09:42

    Would you trust someone whom you’ve never met, but have just talked with through Skype with a million dollars? If you would, I have a Nigerian prince who’d like to talk to you.

  3. John Nachtigall
    Oct 16th, 2012 at 10:30

    It is a gradual drop off not a sudden dive and it is ridiculous to say it is not already affecting travel and will continue to do so it he future.

    If you telecommute you may still go into work, but only 2 days a week so that is a 60% drop. My company policy is video conference as the preference not the exception. It saves at least 3 meeting per manager per year which is very significant.

    This is just really like the post office, the use will drop off lower and lower until you get to the point where there is still use, but the existing infastructure can’t be supported by the current use levels

    This will be true for all forms of transport including trains and cars, but trains will be the first to see the hit because they are already operating in the red

    synonymouse Reply:

    You already see this trend toward local in gambling with Indian casinos in California. That’s why Deserted Xprss is such a stupid idea.

    Robert Cruickshank Reply:

    So why are the Vegas casinos willing to put their money on the line to help get it built? Are they idiots?

    Peter Reply:

    Stop confusing him with facts.

    Paul Druce Reply:

    1. Do we have any evidence that the Vegas casinos are in fact the confidential investors that XpressWest has talked of having?
    2. If the trend is towards more localized gaming, and that such a trend would result in significantly lower revenues, and it is thought that a rail line would help delay, halt, or reverse that trend, then investment of that money would make financial sense.
    3. They may very well be idiots.

    synonymouse Reply:

    Sheldon Adelson putting up his money to subvent an Obama scheme?

    None of these projects has to to particularly function – it is simply a matter of funneling public money to friends. In fact the best way to sabotage real transit is to boondoggle and gadgetbahn. Witness Sin City Monorail, the template for Deserted Xprss. It is your Nigerian Prince on rails.

    Elchu Reply:

    Anecdotally, that is exactly how it works. However I’ve also read studies that suggest miles traveled per individual is actually increasing, not decreasing. Commuter travel is only a part of the bigger travel picture.

    More to the point, though, high speed trains don’t make money from short distance daily commuters – their market is in longer distance travel.

    Nathanael Reply:

    Broadband internet means that people meet and communicate more with people who live *far away*, in other cities.

    Which means that they visit those people more often.

    So in fact, the rise of the Internet means that *intercity* travel — such as travel by HSR — is going to go *up*.

    nick uk Reply:

    in the uk in the last ten years we have also seen an explosion in broadband teleconferencing mobile/cell phones, internet ipads twitter facebook and the list goes on. however rail use has also increased over the same period. national rail and london underground and the docklands light railway are experiencing record numbers. rail usage is now close to that experienced after world war two when the network was twice the size cars few and far between and motorways non-existent. more people are travelling greater distances and using the electronic technology to work and socilalise whilst travelling. even inter city trains are often so overcrowded however that people have to stand over long distances which deters further passengers, pushes fares up and makes it difficult to use laptops, tablets, smartphones and have work conversations.

  4. HH
    Oct 16th, 2012 at 12:06


  5. HH
    Oct 16th, 2012 at 12:09

    Nachtigal should recall? the same was said when street cars then autos and finally aviation. Despite auto and aviation lobby there are signs of swing back to rail (or bus).

    And outside the US that swing would be a torrent except for economic turndown

    John Nachtigall Reply:

    Street cars are dead
    Car use is flattening out if you believe the posters on this blog, especially among the young
    And airline use is down from its peak

    The recession helps trains not hurts them, cars are more expensive than trains.

    So what is your point

  6. Reality Check
    Oct 16th, 2012 at 15:54

    Bakersfield may sue HSRA

    The city of Bakersfield will ask city council members to vote on suing High Speed Rail at their next meeting.

    The city says the High Speed Rail Authority is not following California Environmental Quality Act requirements and is keeping the city in the dark.

    Opponents say if California’s bullet train is built it could put city owned land, infrastructure, and taxpayer money at risk, along with private property lining the proposed routes.

    But the city claims they have no clue to what extent because the Rail Authority is not being crystal clear, which is required by law.

  7. Reality Check
    Oct 16th, 2012 at 15:59

    New from The New Yorker: How a High-Speed Rail Disaster Exposed China’s Corruption:

    The disaster [crash] that exposed the underside of [China’s HSR] boom.

  8. Reality Check
    Oct 16th, 2012 at 16:16

    Burlingame split on options for rail height

    “I think at some point we need to realize it’s not going to happen,” Deal said in terms of the expensive trenching and underground preference of the city.

    Deal was open to raising tracks at the Broadway exchange. Councilman Michael Brownrigg agreed but wanted to engage the public in design if it gets to that point.

    Councilwoman Terry Nagel believes the city could seek funds from a variety of other areas to pay for the more expensive options. Also, she advocated for working with the city of San Mateo which has also expressed an interest in trenching tracks through downtown. Putting the dream aside, Nagel was open to the option of elevating tracks and depressing the street.

    Keighran expressed frustration with the conversation.

    “I agree we need the grade separation. There’s no question about that. But I don’t know where they will get the funding to do it even if we want to do it,” she said, adding that raising tracks could be a future drawback when advocating for depressed tracks during downtown for high-speed rail upgrades in the future.

    Although not in attendance, Baylock emailed her opinion on the topic. She wrote the city should maintain its stand for trenched tracks.

    Derek Reply:

    The city will get grade separations whether they pay for it or not. If the cheapest option is $114 million, and they need grade separation now, then they should get a repayment guarantee from the CHSRA for an inflation-adjusted $114 million. Then they could decide which option they want, sell the bonds, and build it.

    joe Reply:

    Certainly not how Gilroy is working with CAHSR but hey, let’s see them negotiate a repayment guarantee. That guarantee would require the City coordinate their plans with the CAHSRA.

    I expect gridlock – the free trench isn’t going to happen. Any crossing that isn’t trenched is conceding their demand is not realistic.

    Building a trenched crossing is expensive and asking for HSR compensation commits CAHSR to building the trench so they’ll not agree to compensate the project. There’s no law requiring them to make such a guarantee.

    I still say Burlingame is going to do nothing. The Mayor’s clued into the problem. The City has not yet worken up.

  9. nick uk
    Oct 16th, 2012 at 16:39

    on a similar vein in the uk here is an anti hs blog that repeats the inaccucies and wishful thinking of anti hs critics. i am responding to these shortly ! these articles remind me of the so called debate that mitt romney allegedly won by smiling a lot and denying all his own policies ! extreme right winger gets converted to a centrist overnight yeah right ! funny they dont want us to have hsr because of the costs and the debt yet are willing to give the rich tax cuts they dont need, increase military spending by 2 trillion yet gut social programmes. cuts dont work we know that in the uk and europe to our cost. imf now says 1% cuts cause 1.7% drop in growth.

    if the republicans get in the loss of hsr would be small compared with the effect their policies will have on the us and the world hence the concern over here. does ANYONE living in the usa want the us to become the worlds policeman ? can you afford or another war in the middle east ? if israel and iran get embroiled i suspect that oil may be more than $100 a barrel. and they want to push their religious beliefs re abortion despite supreme court rulings and the supposed seperation of church and state. Mind you the uk govt is sounded more extreme and right wing and we cant get them out until 2015. having obama re-elected would help ease that wait !

    Miles Bader Reply:

    in the uk here is an anti hs blog that repeats the inaccucies and wishful thinking of anti hs critics

    Do they use the same “arguments” as anti-HSR nutters in the U.S.?

    nick uk Reply:

    there are quite a few similarities and lack of facts is one common thread. one difference is that the national conservative government is pushing for hs2 and has backing from their coalition liberal partners and the opposition labour party.

    the uk government has also started a widespread electrification of the existing network although this may be due to a realisation that this reduces costs in the long term. i suspect the environmental advantages werent at the forefront as we now have a climate change minister who doesnt believe in climate change and an environment minister who doesnt believe in that either. and another minister who thinks the police are there to open gates for him and swears at them when they dont ! our pm is veering also to tea party positions i am afraid.

  10. nick uk
    Oct 16th, 2012 at 16:42

    oops got carried away with my rant and forgot the link @:

    interesting that the actual comments are mostly pro hs2 yet there is huge support for the article despite it being very one sided and at odds with the facts

    VBobier Reply:

    Sounds like the article is trying to pitch austerity, which like the IMF said, does not work, only will revive the economy by putting people back to work. For every 1% in cuts in spending, You get 1.7% cut in jobs and the economy suffers too.

    D. P. Lubic Reply:

    I also took notice of the disparity between the supported clicks and the actual comments. I wonder why that is so? Are the supporters “harder working?” Also noted among the critical (anti-HSR) comments some people who thought we need to spend the money on local rail and schools and that; truth is, you need both. And several commentors noted that your line just needs more capacity. Might as well go for HSR while you’re at it.

    nick uk Reply:

    i think maybe the anti people arent bothering to comment just vote to support their position. it isnt surprising as they will be the ones having the line built near them so are more vocal. also if you look at any newspaper article particularly here in the uk these days the comments are usually negative and often not really related to the subject. just watching romney explaining why we need to build polluting coal plants and develop all federal land. more drilling a wonderful pipeline from the appallling mess of alberta tar sands.

  11. nick uk
    Oct 16th, 2012 at 16:43

    mitt the six trillion dollar man

  12. jimsf
    Oct 16th, 2012 at 21:21

    Mitt Romney is a complete jackass.

    Nathanael Reply:

    Well, Paul Ryan is also a complete jackass.

  13. JJJ
    Oct 16th, 2012 at 21:38

    The theory that the internet would reduce commuting has been debunked multiple times.

    Its also part of the reason why Silicon Valley is still growing so much. Why did Twitter locate in SF instead of…..Boise? Because thats where the people are, and the employees benefit from getting out of the house and mingling with others. Why did Facebook move from Cambridge, MA to Silicon Valley? Same reason….+venture capital. Guess what, VC doesnt give out money ocer skype.

    Work isnt about data entry, its about working with people Any company that goes 100% telecommuting is going to be at a huge disadvantage to their competitors that innovate, because splitting up the employees will lead to stagnation.

    joe Reply:

    You nailed it here.

    I would clarify that while the SV examples you name do leverage co-location and SV centric HQ, and R&D, there are less integrated collaborations that are enabled with remote work technology. They do pay to bus their workers to the office for free.

    Ironically, these remote work technologies foster travel because without them, the collaboration would not happen. With them travel is necessary to allow face to face interactions between meetings. That’s where internet helps make the trip somewhat useful.

    Lastly, I would worry, really worry if my at home office was my primary work place.

    Remote work 60%, 3 days, from home would only work if the 2 work days were long and coincided with key meetings.

  14. Tom McNamara
    Oct 17th, 2012 at 00:28

    High Speed Rail Back in Texas’ Sights

    The [new] study area overlaps the 115-mile corridor from Georgetown to San Antonio where the Lone Star Rail District hopes to build a commuter rail line on what is now a Union Pacific freight line. Joe Black, the district’s rail director, said the two projects could easily coexist. The $1.4 million in TxDOT money, in fact, comes from $8.7 million that the Transportation Commission had set aside to study Georgetown-to-San Antonio passenger rail.

    High-speed rail, if it happens, would almost surely need a separate right of way from the route that Lone Star hopes to use, which passes through urban areas of San Antonio, New Braunfels, San Marcos and Austin, Black said.

    Interesting that a local transit agency would all but eschew any sort of “blended operations”, given that Austin to San Antonio doesn’t really provide the opportunity for 220 mph service. Wonder if the Trans-Texas Corridor is about to come back from the dead….

  15. CalBear
    Oct 19th, 2012 at 08:55

    Having faster inter and intra region rail will help daily commuters get to work and telecommuters when they need face to face interaction. People will probably seek out cheaper areas where they can afford a home, telecommuting most days, but having pretty quick access to their office when necessary. It’s too bad the CA system will probably be botched in many regards… it could be very useful.

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