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