Project Auckland: How high speed broadband gets people out of their cars

By Owen McShane

Part four of the Project Auckland series looks at 'Prosperity and Profile'

Owen McShane.
Owen McShane.

Urban economies are now driven by their network connectivity more than by their size.

The combination of the internet, cellular computing-telephony, underpinned by high speed broadband, will drive the economic performance of cities through the 21st century, mainly by hugely increasing the integration of urban enterprises with skilled labour markets throughout the region, and elsewhere in the world.

Curiously, many urban politicians remain convinced the internet is a plaything for teenagers, while Auckland's urban transport planners steadfastly ignore the ability of high speed broadband to significantly reduce congestion on the roads.

Two major essays in the Project Auckland series have devoted much time to broadband without mentioning its contribution to telecommuting which is driven by broadband - and the higher the speed the better.

Politicians and planners love to tell us: "We have to get people out of their cars and on to public transport."

Forget about public transport. Companies like Sun Microsystems in Silicon Valley have long ago seized the broadband opportunity.

By 2008, 19,000 of their 34,000 employees worldwide (56 per cent) telecommute. That's a lot of cars "off the road".

Oklahoma City telecommuters outnumber all public transport commuters by nearly five to one. San Diego telecommuters outnumber light-rail commuters by 22 to 1, and in Denver by 47 to 1.

Public transport enthusiasts insist that its host of benefits justify the massive extra costs, extra travel time and inconvenience.

But huge investments in public transport have had no impact on fossil-fuel consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, accident rates, air pollution, and general quality of life.

On the other hand telecommuting improves mobility, reduces air pollution, reduces accidents, reduces fossil-fuel consumption, increases "quality time", home-life balance and leisure, and increases employment opportunities for the physically handicapped.

By telecommuting 2.5 days per week, Sun Microsystems' workers reduced their energy used for work by 5400 kilowatt-hours each year. They also saved US$1700 ($2335) a year in petrol costs alone. Over the past six years, the company has saved roughly US$387 million in reduced office space and utility costs.

One of the main beneficiaries of telecommuting are women who want to raise their children at home. They can continue to pursue their career by telecommuting - either full or part time.

Telecommuting reduces the costs of raising children - many who travel to and from work cannot afford school fees and books because of the money they spend on child care and housekeeping services.

Certainly, spending two hours every day commuting in rush hour traffic, fretting and fuming, and wasting time and money hardly contributes to anyone's wellbeing.

Typical telecommuters in America gain about three weeks extra leave a year in actual savings in commuting times. But telecommuters also save time by shopping at off-peak times and generally planning visits to doctors, schools, rest-homes, and other tasks to suit themselves.

The employers can put together the right teams for the job independently of their location.

A period of proven telecommuting ability is a big plus on a worker's CV.

Telecommuters are also being assisted by the spread of Remote Office Centres equipped with the best communication gear, and with coffee machines and a cafeteria for social interaction. Remote workers can "commute" to their local office centre, just down the road, and then "telecommute" to the downtown office.

The leaders of the Auckland Council must ask themselves whether they see Auckland's future as driven by 19th century physical networks or the electronic networks and systems of the 21st century?

Do we invest in rail or in high-speed broadband?

For those who look to the future rather than the past, it's simply no contest.

Owen McShane is Director of the Centre for Resource Management Studies

- NZ Herald

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