Effect of Information Technology Innovations on Outer Metropolitan Regions

Roger R. Stough
NOVA Professor of Public Policy and
Director, Center for Regional Analysis
Institute of Public Policy
George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia


Current thought on the impact of information technology on society generally argues that it will, among other things, increasingly become a substitute for trip taking. There is also a school that argues that it is also emerging as a compliment to transportation. This paper examines these arguments through a literature review with model development and numerical experimentation. The conclusion is that substitution effects will be sufficient to induce concentration of new growth in U.S. metropolitan regions far beyond the current "edge city" periphery.

1. Introduction

The purpose of this paper is to explore the substitution and complementary effects of information on travel behavior and metropolitan spatial form.

One of the last reports produced by the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment (OTA) before it was terminated in September, 1995 was The Technological Reshaping of Metropolitan America.[1] This report provides a thorough review and assessment of the technologies that will impact urban and regional form. In particular, they focus on the location of employment, location of information-based service industries, location of freight transportation, distribution of manufacturing jobs, and the pattern of transportation and telecommunications infrastructure in metropolitan areas. The general conclusion is that technology is continuing to reduce the friction of distance for the trip to work and for the need for central locations in metropolitan regions. The implication is that the technological forces propelling metropolitan sprawl will intensify and thereby, if left undirected, contribute to the further decline of central cities which is the chief focus of the report's policy recommendations. The report, at best, marginally addresses the policy and management implications for the "cities on the edge" and for the new exurban concentrations that can be expected to develop. The OTA analysis needs to be extended to assess the implications for these outer city concentrations and metropolitan regions as a whole, which is the focus of our analysis and modeling.

2. Analysis

Metropolitan sprawl has long characterized the evolution of the American metropolis. In this part of the paper we argue that technology will contribute to increased sprawl, ceteris paribus. The analysis first defines the relevant technologies and then describes how they may contribute to the reshaping of the U.S. urban structure into a network of relatively equal urban nodes, but of greatly expanded urban regions. Related policy and management issues are examined

2.1 What are the technologies?

To be sure, technology is not the only factor contributing to metropolitan deconcentration and sprawl. Other factors such as lower land costs on the periphery, extensive highway systems lowering transportation costs to outer city locations, residential preferences of Americans for the "marriage of town and country" living styles and the vision of a Jeffersonian rural lifestyle, deteriorating conditions in central cities, and finally a set of government policies that provide subsidies ranging from tax policies to depreciation allowances to implicit subsidies in the form of building regulations and policies that discourage efforts to reuse older urban and suburban land have traditionally contributed to metropolitan decentralization.[2] This is to say nothing of the social issues of race and poverty related to segregated spatial patterns. Yet the rapid development and ever quickening deployment of new core technology in the form of computer and information technologies (IT) are making a continuously changing and ever more spatially dispersed metropolitan economy not only possible, but a reality. By buttressing communication systems with computer technology, a wide variety of electronic communication networks have been developed, including local area networks (e.g., to link workers together in an office), wide area networks (e.g., to link the workforce of a large organization across multiple locations and/or multiple organizations) and the Internet, which potentially could one day link all people and all organizations together in a global communication network.

Networks make it possible to substitute communication for trips and face-to-face meetings through telework, telecommuting, telepurchasing, telemarketing, and telemedicine technology systems. Electronic networks and communication systems also make it possible to adopt practices like just-in-time inventory, continuous adjustment routing and advanced logistical systems. Information technology applied to vehicles and transportation infrastructure (Intelligent Transportation Systems, or ITS) make it possible to increase the productivity of the traditional transportation infrastructure by, for example, increasing the capacity of roads and thus reducing congestion and increasing mobility. However, it would be foolish to think of communication and transportation as pure substitutes; rather, they are complements, making each other increasingly efficient in an ever quickening interactive society. Taken together, this new emerging set of technology systems is now and will continue to restructure metropolitan America. It is increasing the ability of individuals and firms to locate far beyond the metro area as we know it even today.

2.2 Reshaping metropolitan America

The clarity of the core-dominated theory of the city was fading as early as the mid-20th century when complimentary centers began to emerge at suburban transportation nodes. By late century, these centers, as well as new ones further toward the periphery, had become Joel Garreau's Edge Cities,[3] large outer-city concentrations of business and retail activity that rivaled or surpassed their historic geographic core cities in scale, job generation, and range of functions[4] These new competitive "cities on the edge" differed in ways other than just location, e.g., they had "shadow governments" unlike the elected official headed government institutions of traditional cities. In short, metropolitan space is today defined by multiple commercial centers with one or more having greater attraction than the geographic core. These metropolitan regions, unlike the more vertically and linearly structured core-dominated urban regions of the past, may be described as a network of centers, with the core city serving as an important but not dominant node among a system of nodes[5] While the OTA report recognizes this emerging network, it fails to examine the myriad of issues that are implied, choosing instead to focus the policy emphasis on addressing problems of metropolitan core cities. To be sure, this is an important issue. However, it is not the only one. Here the focus is on metropolitan structure as a whole and on the array of nodes in the region, including inner and outer edge cities, new edge cities beyond the periphery of today's metropolis, and satellite cities far beyond the existing development fringe.

2.3 Policy issues of the networked metropolitan region

First, policy at the broad level of scale must be considered in terms of the network; not just in terms of one (e.g., the core) or several of the network's nodes. Second, nodes will play different, yet potentially regionally complementary, roles and the relative importance of specific nodes may vary over time, e.g., the geographic core was dominant at an earlier time; satellite cities may be the dominant growth centers of the next decade as edge cities were over the past two decades. Third, the technology systems that are unfolding are forces that will continue to propel metropolitan sprawl and as these systems continue to evolve and become more widely adopted they will intensify the sprawl effect. Other things, such as current land use and zoning practices at the local jurisdiction level, remaining as they are today, sprawl will be the continuing paradigm of metropolitan development.

Assuming for the moment that land use and zoning practice remain unchanged and that sprawl continues, one should ask what form it will take? Unlike in the past the new technology systems make possible a potential leapfrogging of development centers over the urban fringe to the intermediate and far periphery. Thus, development may follow a spatial leapfrogging pattern with significant growth occurring in existing (satellite) centers as much as 50 to 75 miles out from the urban fringe. These distant exurban concentrations, while often relatively small (10,000 to 20,000 inhabitants) frequently have significant land and physical infrastructures including good transportation connectivity with other closer-in regional centers. Because of this infrastructure and because of the location freeing effect the new technologies are having, it is likely that these exurban centers will become the primary growth nodes of metropolitan areas over the next decade or two. To the extent that there is demand for additional clusters of commercial activity (and there will be in faster growing regions) one can also expect the development of new edge cities in the zone between the current fringe of development and the satellite centers. If one concludes that the new technology makes this leapfrogging sprawl scenario probable, what are some of the implications for all of the nodes in the expanding metropolitan network?

First, existing edge cities will, along with the core, join the older nodes in the metropolitan system and thus will be faced with considerable competition from the satellite and new edge cities that have job and business growth and expansion, and probably a high quality of life for those seeking a better balance between "town and country" preferences. Existing edge cities, like the core, will need to become far more innovative and competitive to hold the jobs and firms that form their economic base, because the new nodes will have a relative advantage, much as today's edge cities have over the core. Existing nodes will increasingly need to create organized economic development and program initiatives. However, edge cities, at best, have limited institutional infrastructure to carry on these types of activities in a sustained manner given the "shadow" status of their governance. To be sure, edge cities have been able to successfully undertake and deliver uni-functional services such as security and police and beautification. However, there are few, if any, edge cities that have economic development programs that go much beyond real estate development initiatives, although some have created non-government organizations to address issues affecting their sustainability, such as transportation connectivity and access (e.g., Tytran of Tysons Corner, outside of Washington, D.C.). Developing and sustaining economic development initiatives while today's edge cities are relatively competitive will be a major requirement for survival over the next decade. Further, here is not apt to be much in the way of federal or even state aid to assist in this survival effort, although local economic development programs may be worthwhile allies.

The vision of a greatly expanded metropolitan network of satellite and new edge cities has significant implications for transportation infrastructure investments. Most of the metropolitan networks have been developed on the basis of a core-dominated metropolitan vision. Thus, metropolitan transportation systems are heavily oriented toward a hub (core) and spoke model. Changes in the last half of the 20th century (especially over the last 20 years) have changed the pattern as today the primary demand for metropolitan transportation is for supporting trips across the system (to link edge cities to one another) rather than to and from the core. The 1990 census showed over and over that commuting patterns were changing from core-dominated to network-oriented. Connecting this line of argument with the vision of the networked metropolitan region of the future suggests that the transportation infrastructure will need to increasingly connect a network of nodes that is intensifying within the existing metropolitan region, while at the same time linking in new edge cities and satellite nodes at greatly expanded distances. Demand for transportation of this nature cannot be satisfied with increased heavy rail and transit which is the solution that many see for the geographic core of the metropolitan area. Nor can it be satisfied with Transportation Demand Measures (TDM). Significant new investment in road and light rail infrastructure will be required which is the only remotely affordable way to address the growing demand for transportation among the expanded metropolitan network of the future.

Specialized nodes of shopping, arts, business services, manufacturing, and R&D are likely to develop in their own right, as are centers with unique historical, architectural, or urban artifact elements. Obviously some of the latter will be and are being obliterated, but some will survive and become gems of desirability and preservation in this system of urban nodes that will make up the new metropolitan organization.

2.4 Managing sprawl and the expanding metropolis

The dominant proposal for managing sprawl in the United States is to adopt measures that will force greater intensity of development within existing metropolitan clusters and intensify infilling. While the OTA policy proposals seem for the most part to subscribe to this perspective, the results of the analysis, as summarized above, show that technology is and will continue to drive decentralization tendencies. Further, given the diversity of forces propelling sprawl, the "political will" to counter sprawl does not seem to exist, although there are some experiments in early stages of development, e.g., the states of Oregon and Washington. There, the state has adopted growth control legislation that permits a metropolitan area to first establish boundaries within which growth will be confined and targeted. For example, Portland, Oregon, has identified 20 centers that are to receive new growth in the region. The problem with this is that technology is likely to make a number of locations beyond (perhaps even far beyond) attractive for commuters and businesses tied to the Portland regional economy. In short, it is difficult to see how growth can be confined to a "socially" or "politically" defined area when the cost and benefit attributes of places outside this area have relative advantages for at least some people and some businesses.

So, what is to prevent the development of broad, decentralized development sprawling out as far as 50 to 75 miles from the centers of metropolitan areas? First, at least some will not find this an offensive vision, provided that the necessary transportation infrastructure is in place to ensure reasonable cross-region access and mobility. To some extent, this may be the Randstad of the Netherlands, with its multiple nodes and relatively super connective infrastructure, but the suggestion here is that this will be on a North American scale. Second, with the Oregon or Washington land use provisions, it will be necessary to greatly expand the development boundaries to encompass the development frame. Obtaining agreement from the outlying satellite cities and county governments to this end and, therefore, giving up local control over economic development and development decisions, will be beyond the institutional capacity of most regions, even with the help of state growth control statutes. Third, a grand metropolitan-wide government might be established to manage the region. This is unlikely, given that the few metropolitan government experiments have been limited to no more than the core county of the region, e.g., Indianapolis or Nashville. Further, no metropolitan government experiments have been initiated in the last 20 years. Finally, cooperative arrangements could be adopted, but this seems improbable, given that, even with state statutory help in Oregon, Portland's attempt at focusing growth seems doomed because the growth boundary will not be nearly extensive enough to accommodate satellite city development that appears to be inevitable as technology continues to make decentralization ever more attractive. This is the same problem that the Netherlands has experienced in its continuing difficulty in developing an appropriately decentralized management structure for the nodal interactions of the Randstad and its peripheral regions. This is in the context of a 100-year development, rather than the more rapid and chaotic development we have seen in North America. Perhaps the most that can be hoped for in the near future is that some of the outer region counties where new centers are formed will adopt provisions to set aside some land for uses other than development.

3. Modeling

Starting from the above analysis, two related models are presented. One is a model of (household) residential choice, the other a model of (peri) urban development resulting from the choice patterns described above. Numerical experiment are conducted that produce the hypothesized outcomes regarding outer metropolitan regional development.

4. Conclusions

This paper develops the hypothesis that urban growth and relocation in the U.S. metropolis will be concentrated in centers far beyond the current "edge city" dominated periphery. While a number of contributing factors are identified, computer-integrated communications technology is seen as the newly emerging factor that will induce the hypothesized outcome. While some supporting evidence is cited, it is insufficient to fully support the type of decentralization that is described. A residential choice and a related urban development model were developed to examine the hypothesis with numerical analysis. The results support the hypothesis about the future changes in U.S. metropolitan geographic form.

Numerical experiments are similar to simulations and, therefore, are not substitutes for empirical evidence. However, the assumptions upon which the models are erected are quite plausible and, therefore, must be viewed as lending support to the hypothesis or thesis of this paper. Nonetheless, future empirical research is needed to test the hypothesis and the related models.

5. Notes

[1] Office of Technological Assessment. The Technological Reshaping of Metropolitan America OTA-ETI-643 (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, September 1995).

[2] Ibid., p. 195.

[3] Garreau, Joel. Edge Cities: Life on the New Urban Frontier, Doubleday, 1991.

[4] Stough, Roger R., Kingsley E. Haynes, Harrison S. Campbell, Jr., "Small Business Entrepreneurship in the High Technology Services Sector: An Assessment for the Edge Cities of the U.S. National Capital Region," Small Business Economics, forthcoming 1996.

[5] Brian Berry in his classic paper on "Cities as Systems Within Systems of Cities" Papers in Regional Science (1964) first presented this concept in an hierarchical framework but Kingsley Haynes, to my knowledge, was the first to use the network metaphor to describe a system of equally important but specialized nodes in a flatter hierarchy for a framework of the new American metropolis.