You may think you know a bit about networking. Maybe you even think you understand networks, whether computer, traffic or other types. Well, says Peter Cochrane, in the week one congestion-easing scheme hogged the headlines, think again... You don't have to engage in the design and construction networks for too long to become aware of their many operational and economic quirks. This is especially true of traffic behaviour when individual elements are afforded freedom of action. Bunching, waves and traffic jams turn out to be a naturally occurring phenomenon in all forms of network. No matter if the vehicles are cars, packets of bits on optical fibre or indeed the molecules of a gas in a pipe - the outcome is similar. What is difficult to forecast are the generating mechanisms. One of the most common in telecommunications is coffee, which brings widespread network chaos. The mechanism is delightful and centres on large conference gatherings. An audience is listening to the morning speaker and not making any calls but when coffee arrives at 10:15, hundreds of mobile phones demand network connection within seconds. And, of course, more often than not, the network cannot deliver. In the commuter sense it is more obvious. Too many people decide to travel into a city at the same time and the infrastructure cannot cope. And the knock-on of trains that are cancelled, road traffic accidents and congestion is the generation of more clustered mobile phone calls! There are only a limited number of options to improve the situation. For road traffic you can increase the throughput by adding extra lanes, adopt higher speed limits, restrict or deter the number of vehicles accessing the road. Similarly for trains, you can only invest in more track, trains and carriages, or employ faster trains, or deter people from travelling. The use of IT as a travel substitute is an obvious release valve to remove some physical pressure but it requires companies and people to change their work practices and managers to grow up. And, of course, a lot of people cannot do any element of their job remotely, so the overall change and impact is ultimately limited. In every field of transport the degrees of freedom are always few and limited. Radical change and improvement generally means new and revolutionary technology. In the GDP equation of any nation the ability to move atoms and bits dominates productivity and ultimately dictates all primary wealth generation. If people cannot get to work easily, if they arrive tired and frustrated, if they leave early, then business suffers. If productivity is low, orders cannot be fulfilled and shipped, and if there are logistic delays. If meetings and decisions are also delayed by a lack of physical and bit bandwidth, then GDP suffers. For example the road, rail and air transport congestion in the UK now costs far more than all the national investment in healthcare and education combined. One thing is certain - all traffic problems, by whatever mechanism they are created, can be addressed, bounded and improved by design and investment. But very often the solutions are not obvious and not easy to engineer. Networks always seem to feature some level of counterintuitive solution and/or outcome. So it is with exasperation that I am sitting in a traffic jam on the M25 listening to a government minister on the radio explaining that investing in roads and infrastructure will not improve the situation because it will encourage more cars onto the road resulting in even more traffic jams. In the UK there are about 60 million people in about 20 million homes with about 23 million cars. So straight off the bat we can see there is a finite number of cars and a finite number of drivers. Interestingly, and counter to popular belief, cars don't always create and dominate this traffic jam. Today it is predominately trucks and vans. Another argument that is being put forward is that cars are detrimental to the environment because they create so much pollution and we should all migrate to public transport. Wrong again. Some 90 per cent of all car journeys do not go from city centre to city centre, as do the train and bus services. Nor could the majority of journeys be completed by bus even when local. For the majority there is no alternative to the car journey. The reality is traffic jams cause pollution, not concrete roads. By restricting road building programmes pollution levels are increased, not reduced. Static cars produce massive pollution, moving cars do no. It is journey time that is the all-important factor in the pollution equation. I would like to park my car in this particular minister's drive and leave the engine running for four hours every day – that is what traffic jams actually do. It is interesting that during this programme the argument quickly degenerates into political rhetoric and political correctness, and at no point does anyone mention productivity and the effectiveness of the transportation network. A few days before, I had attended a telecoms conference in the US where the telcos were being harangued for installing too much fibre. Roughly speaking they have 40 per cent over capacity for the actual traffic demand. Again I am amazed that no one has bothered to do the calculations. Fibre costs nothing compared to the civil engineering of installation. It matters not a jot if you install one fibre or a hundred – it is insignificant in the overall cost equation. And in any case, the internet is growing at around 55 per cent per annum and the over capacity will be gone in 18 months. Bandwidth and connectivity cost society nothing – just like roads – compared to the losses in productivity. We should be investing in integrated R&D programmes to realise transport systems that minimise the overall cost of movement of goods and people on an individual basis over relatively short distances, with mass transportation between major cities and nodes. But as long as we have discontinuous and uneducated thinking, dominated by political agendas, and non-holistic studies, we are going to be fed a diet of wrong conclusions and decisions. As far as I can see a continuation of the transport chaos afflicting most of the planet is inevitable, and so are falling productivity levels. After crossing the Atlantic in near record time, we were on hold over London Heathrow for 35 minutes, delayed by immigration queues for 30 minutes and in a traffic jam for 15 minutes on the M4, so this column was typed on my laptop in another traffic jam on the M25 and despatched some weeks later from my home on a dial up 56K modem at 48Kbits. What do you think? You can contact Peter by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org . Peter Cochrane is a co-founder of ConceptLabs CA, where he acts as a mentor, advisor, consultant and business angel to a wide range of companies. He is the former CTO and Head of Research at BT, as part of a career at the telco spanning 38 years. He holds a number of prominent posts as a technologist, entrepreneur, writer and humanist, and is the UK's first Professor for the Public Understanding of Science and Technology. For more about Peter, see: www.cochrane.org.uk. For all Peter's columns for silicon.com, see: www.silicon.com/petercochrane.
Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.