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Virtual Mobility

Taking forward the research agenda in the UK

What impact will use of the new information and communications technologies (ICT) have on travel and on the movement of goods?

This question is of great interest to the UK Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (DTLR). If people can carry out activities online that previously required (or otherwise would require) a journey, then there is a transport impact. So far, however, the Department has not undertaken much research in this field.

Lack of research, however, does not indicate a lack of interest on the part of the UK government. Teleworking is actively promoted by the DTLR and the Department for Trade and Industry (DTI) as a means to reduce work-related travel. Ecommerce is promoted by the DTI, whatever the travel effects, as being good for UK business and competitiveness. E-government, and online delivery of public services are also promoted across the board by government departments.

To some extent, then, policy has been running ahead of research and analysis of the very complex relationship between ICT-based activities and transport. To address these issues the DTLR commissioned an extensive literature review to pull together research findings from across the world, to begin the process of building a knowledge base in this field in the UK, and to underpin any future research and policy development.

The research was carried out by HOP Associates and Transportation Research Group at the University of Southampton. Essentially the research:

  • evaluated studies that look at the transport impacts of teleworking, e-commerce and other online services

  • took a rigorous and structured approach to evaluation, looking at how robust the data is in each study, what assumptions are being made, value of the methodology, etc

  • evaluated the relevance and transferability of the methods used into the current UK context

  • assessed the findings on special topics such as

    • the substitution/generation debate

    • spatial implications (e.g. the potential for urban sprawl)

    • effects on public transport

    • relationship of research into virtual mobility to research into other non-car modes of transport

    • implications for transport modelling

  • made recommendations for the direction of future research.

The results

As might to some extent be expected, the research was a mixture of the positive and the agnostic.

In summary, the literature review concluded that:

  • there is a considerable weight of evidence that two forms of teleworking, home-based and centre-based, do have a significant travel reduction effect

  • other forms of teleworking (e.g. mobile) have not been sufficiently studied to draw firm conclusions

  • there is almost no robust data to support the conjecture that these (or other) forms of telework generate significant amounts of other travel

  • there is no robust data to support the conjecture that telework contributes to urban sprawl or decisions by teleworkers to move further away from the workplace

  • there is a great deal of theorising about the effects of ecommerce - but there are almost no studies that use data beyond extrapolation from figures of current supermarket visits

  • many opportunities are being missed to measure the transport impacts of new ecommerce and e-services projects.

In many respects, it is too early to say what the effects will be. The "positive" conclusion is that telecommuting - using new ways of working to replace commute travel - clearly contributes to travel reduction, even when other trips by the telecommuter and household members are taken into account.

One interesting, and possibly controversial finding, is that there is no strong evidence for wider knock-on traffic generating effects. This could be that the data is simply lacking. However, it seems in the literature that a body of (mostly US) experts have concluded in the "substitution/complementarity debate" that complementarity wins.

Nevertheless, however plausible the conjecture about complementarity (or new trip generation), it remains conjecture. A lot seems to be owed to what one commentator calls the "snowball citation method" - one author cites another and it snowballs down the literature until it acquires an apparent authority. But figures factored in for "longer trips due to urban sprawl", for example, date back to very rough guesstimates in a 1993 study by the US Department of Energy.

From a transport analysts or policy-maker's point of view, the substitution versus generation issue is also an over-simplification of the issue. It is the changes of travel patterns - whether it's an increase in trips, a decrease or a redistribution of them, that are important.

There is much research to be done. But in the meantime, individuals, organisations and policy-makers should feel confident that there is value in using telework to reduce travel.

See the conclusions in more detail

Does working online reduce the need to travel?

What about ecommerce - does it increase or reduce travel and freight movements?

And what about electronic delivery of services: entertainment services, telemedicine, e-government and the like?

We report the findings of a global literature review commissioned by the UK government, which will help them to decide the direction of future policy and research.


Further Information

For further information, see the project website at:

The full title of the project is The Impact of Information and Communications Technologies on Travel and Freight Distribution Patterns: Review and Assessment of Literature.

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