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Wednesday, 21 November, 2001, 13:54 GMT
Gridlock? Blame the net
As the people who live near Heathrow get used to the idea of a fifth terminal, air, road and rail congestion continues to increase. But the internet has been identified as a unlikely culprit, writes BBC News Online's Giles Wilson.

The airline industry is still reeling from 11 September, but forecast increases in the number of passengers going through London has led the government to give the go-ahead to the fifth terminal at Heathrow.

This is no superhighway
Meanwhile, congestion on London's roads is so bad, from next year anyone wanting to drive into the city centre will have to pay a 5 toll to do so.

And overcrowding on the trains is now a permanent feature, with people having to stand for entire inter-city journeys.

So it seems odd to put the blame on to the internet and the technology which makes working from home possible.

Electronic mobility is more likely to serve as a net stimulus to travel

John Adams
But Professor John Adams, an expert in the phenomenon of "hypermobility", is saying exactly that.

In a lecture on Wednesday, he will tell the Royal Society of Arts that "electronic mobility", a term which he uses to describe e-mail, videoconferencing, phones and text messages, is less likely to prevent journeys than to encourage them.

Prof John Adams jostles with other hypermobile citizens
In short he says the conventional wisdom that technology prevents people from having to make journeys is wrong; it promotes them.

He told BBC News Online: "The countries that have increased their use of the internet fastest are also the countries that have increased their physical mobility fastest, and if you look at any point in time the countries that are most mobile electronically are the most mobile physically.

"And it's not hard to see why, because the travel industry is one of the greatest users of this technology - you use it to find a hotel, you book your airline tickets through it.

"Even the quick phone call - 'Are you there, oh good I'll come round' - leads to a trip that otherwise wouldn't have happened. And I think it's human nature to want to shake hands and have a cup of coffee with the people you do business with in cyberspace."

In hypermobile societies, old-fashioned geographical communities are replaced by communities of interest

John Adams
His assertions, which may well be greeted with some scepticism, appear to be supported by traffic planners who suggest that teleworking can increase the amount of local mileage people do.

Mr Adams's belief in his theories was supported, he says, when waiting for an aeroplane in Vancouver.

"I got chatting to the fellow sitting next to me who was waiting to fly to Toronto, to play bridge with somebody from Toronto, somebody from Edinburgh and somebody from San Francisco. They had met and played bridge on the internet and now wanted a real game.

"That's anecdotal evidence admittedly, but I think it illustrates an important aspect of human nature, that one is unlikely to be content with this ethereal relationship which you are building up with people all round the world."

Internet cafe - now with extra parking
That technology has played a key role as modern lifestyles change is undeniable, and Mr Adams believes an impact has been felt on local communities too.

As people become more used to being parts of virtual communities, and are prepared to travel long distances to work, their involvement in their own neighbourhoods declines.

A Neighbourhood Watch co-ordinator had told him that the first thing which had to be done in setting up a new scheme was to introduce people who actually lived next door to each other.

We spend more of our time, physically, in the company of strangers

John Adams
He sees these trends continuing, which may well be bad news for people living near airports. Evidence had shown fewer journeys were being made by car and bicycle, the rate of growth of car journeys had slowed, but demand for air travel was growing faster than ever.

"In small scale pedestrian societies, everyone knows everyone. In hypermobile societies, old-fashioned geographical communities are replaced by communities of interest - we spend more of our time, physically, in the midst of strangers," he will tell the RSA.

  • Prof Adams will be speaking at an RSA/Pfizer lecture on 21 November.

  • See also:

    10 Jul 01 | UK
    Q&A: Congestion charges
    16 Feb 00 | Business
    Internet sales 'will jam roads'
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