Digital Access Can Solve Energy, Environmental And Transportation Challenges

Addressing energy and congestion issues by incorporating digital life into urban design.

by / March 20, 2008

I am an old guy. Well, not really old, but getting older. At 57, I'm middle-aged and entering the final third of my life; the runway ahead is getting shorter. I'm a member of the baby boom generation that's in the queue to retire, and will soon claim the bounty of Social Security and Medicare entitlements.

I am old enough, too, to see that we stand at a unique moment in the history of not only the United States, but the world as well. It has nothing to do with who will win the presidential election later this year. It has everything to do with the fact that we face challenges more daunting than any I have seen in my lifetime. I sense it is a bit like 1960 once more in America: There is a big decade coming.

Transformation is in the air. I can smell it. 

The next decade will be driven by a range of factors, and we will witness significant shifts in how we conduct our affairs as individuals and institutions.  One of those shifts will involve the deliberate rise of digital communities as a strategic choice and public policy necessity. Before explaining, let me highlight several factors that will fuel this shift.

Global Warming
In 2007, in a sober assessment of the Earth's health, scientists on the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that global warming is "unequivocal," and that human activity is the main cause. The IPCC found that carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping greenhouse gases from automobiles, coal-fired power plants and manufacturing emissions have been the main causes of warming since 1950. Many on the panel predicted a doubling of greenhouse gases by the middle of this century unless there's a rapid movement away from these sources of pollution.

This is deeply troubling news. It is our wake-up call - our Pearl Harbor moment.  But so far, it's business as usual. I haven't seen or heard anything that gives me an iota of confidence our nation's leadership has taken this threat seriously; mobilized the citizenry for action; or grabbed hold of the economic, political, environmental and cultural levers of change. 

Planet Urbanization
Urbanization of the planet has gone largely unnoticed. In 2007, for the first time in history, more people lived in cities than elsewhere. There are more than 400 cities worldwide with populations of at least 1 million residents. By 2030, dozens of new urban areas will join the big city ranks, driven by industrialization and fueled by globalization, raising the tally of urban dwellers to 60 percent of the world's population.

The phenomenon of mass urbanization will unfold primarily in Asia, South America and Africa. Rapid-growth cities span the alphabet - from Abidjan, Accra, Bamako and Barranquilla to Wanxian, Xiantao, Yaounde and Zhanjiang. More urbanization will impact the world's carbon footprint and global warming.

The U.S. population has reached a little more than 300 million. A big number, to be sure, but we live in a big country. There's still a lot of room here, particularly when you consider denser population centers in Asia, parts of Africa and western Europe. 

Hearkening back to 1960, when I was finishing elementary school, I recall one of those barely useful facts I was required to learn in sixth grade: In those days, the population of the United States was 185 million. That number is less important than my memory of life nearly 50 years ago. There was more space, more land, more air and much less friction. So I am not surprised today when I face crowds at the airport, on the freeway, in the suburbs or at the checkout stand. There are simply more people in our country - 60 percent more - vying for place and space.   

The volume and velocity of population growth that we will face as a nation in the next 30 years promises to be dramatic. Our country's population is projected to grow to 400 million residents by 2043, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics.

On the global stage, the world's population was about 3 billion people back when I was in grade school.  In 2007, it was an estimated 6.6 billion residents. In 30 to 40 years, the globe will be home to approximately 9 billion people. The growth will have staggering consequences for the planet, the vitality of our communities and the quality of our lives.

Land Use
While the United States is a large country with tremendous blocks of farmland and open space, urban sprawl nonetheless has continued unabated. In some parts of the country, particularly in the Southeast and Southwest, you can argue that sprawl and population growth have exceeded the land's carrying capacity. This is particularly magnified in the Western United States where chronic water shortages loom, but it now also holds true in parts of Georgia and Florida.

I wonder if the 100 million new Americans who will join our population base in the coming years can be accommodated in these regions, or will we see a latter-day Dust Bowl that drives migration and resettlement into the Pacific Northwest, the Great Lakes region, New England and other locations that have more water? How much longer can our nation survive the exodus to the exurbs? It seems to me that you can only truly escape traffic congestion, long commutes, internal combustion engines and high energy prices by coming back into the center.

Think Global, Act Local
I live in Portland, Ore., a city with a reputation for an enviable quality of life. It's a relatively compact and pretty place nestled on the Willamette River at the north end of the Willamette Valley, and is framed to the east by snow-capped Mount Hood. It's pleasantly designed and well served by an integrated transportation system that includes an effective bus system, a growing light rail network, modern street cars, a new tram and an active bicycle population. The city government's tag line is, "The City That Works," and for the most part, it really does. I am a fan of the place. While we've carved out a position as a sustainability leader, we continue to face the same challenges enumerated at the outset of this essay. We, like many communities, are struggling to find the best way forward. 

When I moved to Oregon 30 years ago, the population of the state was a mere 2.2 million. Today the state is approaching 3.7 million people, and the Portland metropolitan area - including our neighbors across the Columbia River in Clark County, Wash. -contributes nearly 1.5 million people to that total.

These numbers are laughably low if you live in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, Houston, Atlanta or New York City. But they are stress-inducers for people who've been here a while. Portland's West Coast location affords many advantages, but it also has drawbacks. One downside is that we're on the receiving end of the Asian Brown Cloud - air pollution emitted from coal-fired power plants in China and India. That cloud accounts for 15 percent of air particulates in Portland.         

The Portland region's trade-sector economy is significant, with more than 400,000 Oregon jobs dependent on the transportation systems for their operation. Oregon is the ninth most trade dependent economy in the United States, making it a gateway to global markets. Despite Oregon's excellent rail, marine, highway and air connections to national and international destinations, projected growth in freight and general traffic can't be accommodated on the existing system. Some projections hold that truck-based freight will increase as much as 80 percent on our roads in the next 20 years, hurting the state's ability to grow

and maintain jobs.

One last thing to add: Portland, with one of the nation's highest residential Internet adoption rates, is home to what I call the "New Wired Majority." The free wireless cloud at our airport and a partially completed wireless cloud across the city may one day position Portland to amend the city slogan to, "The City That Works - Digitally."

Breakthrough or Breakdown?
Portlanders, like residents of cities and suburbs elsewhere, are at a crossroads. The array of population, trade, energy, transportation, pollution and congestion factors - combined with Portland's sustainability focus and digital readiness - are aligning as an opportunity for something new and different. If we believe that "more of the same" is going to provide an acceptable outcome for future generations, then no changes are necessary. However, I can't see how a reasonably informed person could come to that conclusion.  So if "more of the same" isn't the way to go, what is the "something else" worth considering?

I mulled this question over with Gail Achterman, chair of the Oregon Transportation Commission; Gil Kelley, director of Portland's Bureau of Planning; and professor Ethan Seltzer, director of Portland State University's School of Urban Studies and Planning.

Kelley told me that a key to addressing the conundrum is how we think about transportation. If we think about it separate from other dimensions of urban life - like economic and community development, retailing and commerce, energy management, and environmental health - then we tend to treat it as a set of engineering and construction projects. But if we regard transportation as a key element of urban design, it must find harmony, proper scale and appropriate placement in city life. 

Achterman was more to the point:  She said she wants to change the dialog about transportation among policymakers and transportation interests from thinking about capital projects - bridges, lane expansions and light rail systems - to capital ideas about sustainable mobility.  

Seltzer was equally insightful. He explained that there are two core transportation strategies available to us as we confront the various challenges I've presented here.

The conventional choice is predicated on mobility.  It's a facilities orientation that builds roads to allow people to travel by cars - to go where they want to go when they want to go.

A different approach is based on providing access. This is achieved by an assertive urban design strategy that provides residents access to what they need or want - whether it's the store, the doctor's office or the theater - without having to travel there by car. When the residential, commercial and cultural facets of life are located side-by-side, we don't have to drive to the store, the cleaners or a restaurant. They are within walking distance, or within comfortable range for a bicyclist or streetcar rider.

The Digital Imperative
This mobility versus access orientation is a key point. Access as a substitute for mobility is one key that makes digital services and communities viable and attractive. To what extent can we address energy, environmental, congestion and other problems by purposefully incorporating digital life into urban design so residents have access to both the physical exchanges and experiences they want - without using their car - and the high-quality, readily accessible digital exchanges and experiences they seek? 

The country's energy, environmental and transportation policies would be well served to focus aggressively on mining, converting and demassing into digital form many of the physical products and services by which our society operates. Imagine a Digital Manhattan Project - or a Department of Defense-like design competition - that puts us in a race against pollution, global warming and breaking our dependency on oil.

Lest you think me a dreamer or a fool, I understand and accept that many things in modern life require physical presence and physical form. In government, for instance, I want to have the fire department show up when my house is on fire. I also understand that people are social beings who require face-to-face contact and engagement with others.

My point is this: I can't think of a more immediate way to mitigate the nasty problems that face the world than aggressively moving zeroes and ones - rather than people and things.


George K. Beard is a senior instructor at the Hatfield School of Government at Portland State University, a co-founder of WorldC2C and a senior fellow at the Center for Digital Government.

George K. Beard Contributing Writer
George K. Beard is a regular contributor to Public CIO. He is also the founder of GovernmentWise Inc., a management consulting firm; a senior fellow with the Center for Digital Government; and teacher at the Hatfield School of Government at Portland State University.