If every person in the country cut their car journeys by 10%, it
would save 14.5 billion miles per year. That is equivalent to 3 years
growth in car traffic. And it's not that hard to do, according
to a report from BT Broadband - the role for communications in
That new ways of working and shopping can in principle reduce
travel is not new. Where this report adds value to understanding
of the issues is in marshalling up-to-date transport data, broken down
on a regional basis, to show the effects of congestion and transport
growth, and how broadband can improve the uptake of online activities.
Enthusiasm for new ways of remote working in the past has been
tempered by frustration at slow speed and unreliability of
connections. As we move into a broadband age, with
ADSL becoming available
over 99% of the country by the end of 2005 and greater wireless
bandwidth coming on stream, working from home and other remote
locations is becoming a more natural way of doing things.
Conferencing and e-shopping benefits
Some of the newer research relating to video and audio conferencing
cited in the report is instructive.
An independent survey of the use of conferencing at BT (where it is
used very extensively) found that:
- 26% of respondents stated that their last call had saved at
- mileage savings were 91-100 miles for car users and 94 miles for
- 46% of those trips would have been at peak hours
- around a third of the replaced trips would have been in London
- each conference call is saving a minimum of 22.05kg of CO2
and all calls together are saving at least 20,060 kg of CO2.
Data on home shopping, a phenomenon still in its infancy, is also
enlightening. At the moment home shopping accounts for 4-8% of UK
retail sales, and is forecast to double by 2010.
A survey by NOP found that 78% of respondents had saved at least
one journey through the use of online shopping, with an average net
reduction of 7.1 miles per person. Not massive, but not bad given the
state of the art so far.
Where the report is on weaker ground is in giving high prominence
to older speculative research from the RAC Foundation. Their
Motors and Modems (published in 2000) said that by 2005
teleworking and technology would have reduced commuter traffic by 10%,
shopping trips by 5% and lorry traffic by 16%, rising even further by
2010 and shaving £1.9 billion from congestion costs. These figures are
not widely accepted by researchers.
Telework does cut commuter and business travel, but it has to be
set against continued transport growth in a growing and more
prosperous population. Emerging reductions in shopping travel
brought about through e-commerce has to be set against an expected
increase in truck and light goods vehicle movements.
Simple messages and credibility
In the end, the BT report advocates a simple approach. Use of
broadband telecommunications for work and shopping won't solve the
problems of congestion, but can make a substantial contribution:
"Reducing it to the simplest level, to cut congestion all we need
to do is reorganise how we do things a little. And what better way
of starting than taking one in ten of our journeys and making it
down the digital superhighway?"
In many ways the report is an update of
for the broadband age. It has a similar methodology in working from
studies of telework and national transport data to reach its
conclusions, and highlighting the business, personal and environmental
incentives to replace travel with online activity.
Because of BT's business interest in promoting telecommunications,
some may be inclined to be sceptical about the results. But the
findings are well researched, and though BT broadband is promoted as a
solution, the potential savings are not overstated except in some of
the RAC Foundation figures that are quoted.
The report is given added weight by contributions from the CBI and
respected researchers from Bradford University. It should also be
noted that BT does have credibility in this area, as it practices what
it preaches employing over 9,000 regular teleworkers.
Broadband and broadband
It's worth noting in passing the devaluation of the word
"broadband" over the past decade. It used to mean bandwidths
over 2 megabits per
second - that gives seriously fast connection speeds and the
ability to stream video effectively. Now in government an
BT-speak it means anything beyond simple ISDN.
ADSL is much highlighted, but the uplink is not at all "broad".
This asymmetric service is narrow one way, broader the other and this
acts as a brake on effective videoconferencing. It's fine for surfing
the Internet, but for sending large items of information it's very
limited. The UK's standard 512 or 750 kilobit service is a long way
behind the 8 or 10 megabit services being rolled out in the Far East.
This doesn't negate BT's message in the report. In a way it
reinforces it. UK "broadband" is starting to make a difference.
The next generation, which may take us towards Singaporean or Korean
standards, can make even more of a difference.