The Geography of Transport Systems
Jean-Paul Rodrigue (2017), New York: Routledge, 440 pages.
ISBN 978-1138669574
Information Technologies and Mobility
Author: Dr. Jean-Paul Rodrigue
1. Information Technologies and the Material Economy
The diffusion of information and telecommunication technologies (ICT) resulted in several economic and social impacts, notably for activities depending on information processing. This has impacted both the service and manufacturing sectors. Transportation is a service that requires and processes a large amount of information. For instance, transportation users make decisions about where and when to travel, which mode to use and, if they are operating their own vehicle, which route to take. Inversely, the providers of transportation services must manage their assets so that they effectively match the demand (information) sent by various transportation markets. Better sources of information and the capacity to distribute information thus enables transportation systems to function with a higher level of efficiency because of a better interaction between its supply and demand.
Looking at the potential impacts of ICT, such as the Internet, may have on mobility must consider how they can support, modify, expand or substitute the mobility of passengers and freight. It is important to underline that information technologies do not lead to a dematerialization of the economy, which is a common misconception. This is associated with a series of paradigms:
  • Platform corporation paradigm. Usually relates to a corporation focusing on a set of core competencies (high profit tasks) and outsourcing activities perceived of lower value. In the manufacturing sector, it is common to focus on product design and retailing and to rely on a network of providers to supply and assemble parts. A platform corporation thus organizes the production, distribution and retailing of the goods it sells. Through its information network, it indirectly and directly generates large amounts of material flows for the supply chains it manages, but the corporation itself may not be manufacturing any material goods.
  • E-commerce paradigm. Online retailers have challenged the conventional paradigm in the retailing sector by acting as an intermediary between suppliers and consumers. They operate a network of e-fulfillment centers (distribution centers), storing hundreds of thousands of items, processing large volumes of orders that are then packaged and delivered by postal or parcel services. A whole array of online retailers is dependent on material flows with the distribution center as the key component of this strategy.
  • Asset management paradigm. Elements of what has been labeled as the 'sharing economy' are simply more effective means to manage existing assets, such as real estate or vehicles, by linking providers and demanders. Even if the managing platform can be perceived as immaterial, it involves tangible assets that end up to be more intensively used.
The above paradigms underline that the global economy is getting better at producing and distributing goods as well as managing existing material assets by creating extended market opportunities. Efficiency can at times be confused for immateriality.
2. Information Technologies and Transportation
With the emergence of an information society, the transactional structures of the economy have changed drastically towards networked organizational forms of individuals, institutions, organizations and corporations with more intensive interactions, many of which associated with new forms of mobility. The three major spheres over which ICT interacts with transportation involve:
  • Personal. ICT enable individuals to interact through additional mediums (e.g. email, messaging, video conferencing), all of which becoming of common use, which may lead to more interactions, but also to changes over how these interactions are conducted. The diffusion of mobile personal computing devices (e.g. laptops, smart phones and tablet computers) have also enabled individuals to enrich their mobility by enabling them to perform various tasks while in transit or outside a conventional work office setting. Several applications, such as global positioning systems, also enable individuals to better manage their mobility. The intensity and the scheduling of mobility can become highly interactive since users are able to coordinate their mobility in light of real time changes, such as congestion, or changes in preferences.
  • Consumer to business (C2B). ICT enable consumer to more effectively interact with the transportation services they use. A direct form is the purchases of transport services, which is now done online, particularly through booking systems for air and rail transport. An indirect form is E-commerce, which has opened a whole new array of commercial opportunities as a complement or a substitution to conventional shopping, from basic necessities to discretionary goods. It does not necessarily imply that there is more consumption, but that a growing share of retailing transactions are taking place online, resulting in the growth of home deliveries, which is an indirect form of transportation.
  • Business to business (B2B). ICT enable businesses to transact more effectively, which indirectly results in changes in their transport operations. The increasing scale and intensity of business transactions is commonly linked with supply chain management strategies. For instance, inventory management strategies permitted by ICT enables a greater share of the inventory to be in transit ('stored' in vehicles and at terminals), often in line with an increase in the frequency of deliveries.
One of the ongoing tenets is that ICT can offer forms of substitution for the physical mobility of passengers and freight. When this substitution involves work related flows, it is labeled as telecommuting and when it involves consumption related flows it is labeled as tele-consuming.
Telecommuting. Using information and telecommunication technologies to perform work at a location away from the traditional office location and environment. Commuting is thus substituted and it is implied that it took place remotely instead.
Tele-consuming. Using information and telecommunication technologies to consume products and services that would normally require a physical flow to access.
There are obviously various degrees of telecommuting ranging from a partial substitution where a worker may spend one day per week performing work at another location, to a complete substitution where the work is performed elsewhere, such as in an offshore location. The latter is much less likely as the great majority of work tasks tend to be collaborative and require face-to-face meetings. Tele-consuming is more ambiguous and is the main factor behind the perception of a dematerialized economy. For instance, many media such as books, newspapers, magazines, movies and music used to be physically delivered and consumed but are now mainly accessed (consumed) online. Software that used to be distributed through physical means such as disks can now be downloaded. Still, telecommuting and tele-consuming require substantial telecommunication infrastructure and networks to be effective.
Telecommuting has often failed the meet expectations and its share of total commuting movements remained low and relatively unchanged; 3 to 5% of the total workforce can be telecommuting at least once a month. There are many reasons for this enduring low share, ranging from activities that cannot be easily substituted to a loss of direct control from management because workers are not present on site. One major factor is that if a job has the potential to be complemented by telecommuting it is also a target to be relocated to a low cost location either through outsourcing or offshoring. There is thus a large amount of telecommuting that took place as offshoring instead. Also, many workers use forms of telecommuting to work overtime, carry extra work at home or perform other activities that may still require transportation. Therefore, telecommuting allows employers to impose longer work hours as well as insure a higher level of availability of employees to work on an on-call basis outside regular working hours.
3. Impacts of ICT on Mobility
The ICT potential impacts on mobility either involves a modification (different origin, destination, mode or route), a substitution (from a physical flow to an information flow) or a generation of a movement. Such outcome is contingent upon the socioeconomic and geographical context in which mobility is taking place. The expected impacts of ICT on the transportation sector can be summarized by the following:
  • Transport substitution. The rapid proliferation of ICT, such as mobile phones, intranets and teleconferencing, promotes new forms of mobility and the possibility to substitute mobility. Reducing vehicle use is one of the primary expected benefits of ICT, as it is assumed that a form of substitution will take place or that vehicle assets will be used more efficiently. Yet, substitution remains relatively marginal for the physical mobility of people. ICT has simply permitted additional forms of non-physical interactions. The most important substitution effect has been on postal services where online methods of communication and tele-consumption have been associated with a substantial decline in physical mail volumes and their associated transportation activities. While there were in 1990 about 268 billions mail items sent in the United States, this figure dropped to 154 billions in 2015, in spite of an ongoing population growth. Another important form of transport substitution concerns ecommerce where for an online transaction, in-store purchases have been substituted by home deliveries.
  • Navigation and tracking. While navigation devices have been available for a while, the combination of global positioning systems, wireless communication technology to access the internet and mobile computing devices enabled advanced forms of dynamic navigation and tracking. Navigation assistance and real time information about traffic conditions provide accurate estimates about travel times and offer the possibility of alternate routes in case of disruptive events. At the aggregate level, this has enabled notable time and fuel savings by road users, both for passengers and freight transport. Also, it is now possible to track the location of vehicles and consignments, enabling to better estimate times of arrival or delivery or improve fuel consumption. For temperature sensitive goods it becomes possible to monitor the condition of their transport. Tracking, as an inventory management strategy, also allows for a more flexible use of transportation since a consignment can be differed or re-routed depending on the changes in the demand. A forthcoming change concerns self-driving vehicles that are only commercially implementable if they are provided a substantial amount of real-time information about the environment they navigate in through on-board sensors, but also with information feeds supported by ICT. The large diffusion of self-driving vehicles would have substantial impacts on the transport system, reducing the number of vehicles required to meet the existing demand, enhancing the mobility of those that may have physical or financial impairments, reducing the risks of accidents and improving the time and cost performance of passenger and freight flows alike.
  • Transport services markets. Conventionally, many transportation markets could only have been booked through intermediaries such as travel agents or freight forwarders. The development of the internet has enabled users to directly book transportation services such as for air, train and bus travel. For the airline industry, these changes have been substantial, promoting competition and the convenience of air travel with the possibility to check-in online and even use a mobile device to carry a virtual boarding pass. A similar trend has taken place with rail services, particularly high speed rail, but this is also entering the mass transit market, including bike rental services. More recently, the diffusion of ride sharing services (e.g. Uber, Lyft, Didi) as well as car rental services has opened an entirely new array of opportunities expanding the capacity to connect suppliers of transport services and customers. Online platforms are also developing opportunities for the freight sector enabling providers of freight transport services such as shipping lines or trucking companies to auction services or bid for an offered transport demand. At a smaller scale, it is also possible for individuals to offer services similar to ride sharing, but concerning the deliveries of packages, groceries and even meals.
  • Transport asset management. ICT supported transportation services such as ride sharing results in a better management of vehicles, routes and assets (higher load factor, more trips per vehicle, less vehicles for the same capacity, etc.). This is particularly the case with freight distribution with the application of logistics supporting better levels of inventory management and more reliable deliveries. There are numerous applications of ICT in transportation asset management. One concerns appointment systems to terminals (ports and rail yards) and distribution centers. Users are able to use an online platform to reserve an access time slot to the facility, which should improve the efficiency of both the terminal and the vehicle assets. Just-in-time inventory management, which reduces inventory requirements, would not be possible without significant ICT support, including the ongoing automation of terminals and distribution facilities. Yield management and congestion pricing are also common to better manage available capacity in conditions of high demand, but this requires accurate real time information. In the case of yield management, for instance, an airline can dynamically change the pricing of its seats and even request booked customers to delay their travel (in exchange for a compensation).
All of the above underline that although mobility itself has not changed, since they remain passengers or freight flows, ICT has impacted mobility in a variety of ways, often making it more efficient, being able at times to offer a form of substitution to the mobility of passengers and freight, to navigate in a changing environment (e.g. variations in the level of congestion) as well as tracking and managing transportation assets. However, ICT can also have negative unintended consequences. Since 2010, an increase of pedestrian fatalities was observed, particularly in the United States. The main factor for this increase was attributed to distractions created by using portable devices while walking. This all said, there is also the potential to exaggerate the impacts of ICT on mobility, as the issue of telecommuting underlined.
4. ICT and Location
In addition to substitution and mobility issues, ICT have an impact on the location and the operations of economic activities. The most important forces are those of decentralization and relocation. Organizational structures are being transformed from a hierarchy to a network of collaborators. This commonly results in management which is more flexible and able to adapt to market changes, including new sourcing strategies. ICT improves the locational flexibility by offering a wider array of locational choices for administrative, retail and freight related activities. This helps lower office and retail footprints by decentralizing a set of tasks to a lower cost environment, such as the suburbs or at home, or by permitting their complete relocation (offshoring) to low cost locations. ICT are therefore a corporate strategy to improve the productivity of labor and assets through higher locational flexibility.
Central locations and larger building sizes have dominated retailing and offices since the 1950s. Indeed, newer and larger stores overtook smaller rivals and established new distribution structures based on mass retailing. The standard 2,000 square feet market of the 1950s, became the 20,000 square feet supermarket in the 1960s and evolved into the 50,000 square feet superstore of the 1990s. The real estate footprint of retail has increased substantially during that period, particularly in North America. Following a similar trend, the small office of a company has become several floors in a skyscraper located in downtown areas and in time the amount of space devoted to administrative functions has increased significantly. ICT are changing the retailing sector by rendering some location structures obsolete and by minimizing inventory costs. The impacts of ecommerce are particularly salient since they permitted new forms of distribution and new forms of retailing. Since the distribution center is taking a core role for ecommerce, suburban locations are becoming the setting for new types of facilities such as e-fulfillment and sortation centers.
Most corporations see ICT as a way to reduce costs. For office related activities, the costs of providing office space to employees are very high, far more than just the cost of leasing or building the space and maintaining it. It also concerns, for instance, parking which tends to be more expensive in high density areas often related with the clustering office activities. In some cases, it can run as high as 20 to 30% of disbursed salaries per employee. A common outcome it to outsource or offshore the job instead of focusing on telecommuting. For retail, the most important cost is renting store space, leading to the conventional paradox that the locations that could generate the highest sales volumes were also those commanding the highest rents. A factor behind the competitiveness of online retailing firms is their lower rent structure because their footprint is more focused on distribution centers in lower cost locations. They do not have the burden to maintain a retail presence in high cost locations.
ICT have thus become a force shaping land use and transportation. Cheaper space in the suburbs is an important requirement for newer and smaller firms that are users of new telecommunications technologies. A similar observation can be made concerning the distributional structures related to ecommerce, which fulfillment centers have suburban and exurban locations. The growing capability of telecommunications allows businesses and other organizations to locate operations more flexibly, but this may be perceived as paradoxical as ICT may be supporting a more energy inefficient spatial structure.