In January, I wrote about bike share and its potential to become an iconic mode of transport for the 21st century. It had me thinking, what other transport trends might shape the future of movement? The first that came to mind was not a transport mode, but the concept of virtual transport. I define this as various means of telecommunications used to undertake activities that would otherwise require travel.
Virtual transport doesn’t have a long history, but neither is it as recent a phenomenon as bike share. I remember significant speculation in the early noughties about the potential for working from home and tele-conferencing to reduce the need to travel. Indeed, ‘reducing the need to travel’ was a stock phrase, certain to be included in the list of sustainable transport measures in multi-modal strategies and local transport plans. Fewer journeys would mean less congestion, lower carbon emissions, happier and more productive people.
So is virtual transport as transforming as it was expected to be?
Take telecommuting. Reducing car commuting was the aim of many of those plans and strategies. The ability to telecommute has increased over the years. Most office workers could as easily complete the majority of their tasks – corresponding by email, writing reports, building spreadsheets, etc – at home as at a centralised office. Services can also sometimes be delivered remotely. Doctors offer telephone appointments to discuss a patient’s health and may even write a prescription and send it to their nearest pharmacy. I have a friend who teaches over Skype, working with schoolchildren who have struggled in the traditional classroom. Even manual work could be virtual, if robots undertake physical tasks directed by off-site humans.
And yet, for all the potential and technological capability, employers still want to see their employees on a regular basis. Staff often have a desire to keep their home and work environments separate. Or they enjoy being able to socialise and interact with colleagues. Trust built on body language needs bodies present. It seems that in the world of work, virtual transport has its limits.
What about other virtual transport? Virtual shopping for comparison goods and basic groceries is an ever-growing slice of the market. Online sales are up and shop sales down. Yet the result of virtual retail is fewer consumer journeys and more freight and delivery journeys. Purchases must reach their purchaser. We’re not quite at the stage where we want to buy virtual clothes or eat a virtual dinner.
Maybe the generation that will transform transport planning by virtual transport has simply not come of age yet. There are plenty of articles written on the impact of technology on teenagers and young adults, but one of the most-discussed is that they are socialising and spending their leisure time with friends through platforms like Facebook, messaging apps, chat rooms, online gaming, etc. Do they then make fewer social and leisure trips? Certainly, there has been extensive debate that in the face of squeezed personal budgets, they’ll choose the smartphone and tablet computer over buying a car.
However, I am somewhat sceptical that my children will see the end of actual transport. Humans need human interaction, which includes touching each other: shaking hands, kissing cheeks, hugging. Reducing the need to travel should be as much about making places more integrated and multi-use so that work, shops, services and leisure facilities can all be within walking and cycling distance, rather than assuming people should do everything virtually and remotely.
Conversely, most people do some things, and some work, remotely. People go to the office every day, but then check their work emails at home. There are temporary offices and meeting rooms for rent, as well as public spaces and cafes with wifi and charging points, allowing flexibility and convenience on an occasional or regular basis. Such infrastructure for virtual transport is essential for 21st century transport planning. It enables emergency response and economic productivity even in the event of ever more frequent extreme weather events, such as storms and flooding.
In conclusion, virtual transport is here to stay, but as one mode among many. Transporting us without moving at all.