How Is the Movement of People, Goods, and Ideas Transforming the World?
Without the movement of goods, people, and ideas, cities falter, economies wane, and societies wither. As local economies and their associated land uses have become more specialized, mobility has grown ever more central to the sustainability of human activity. Economic specialization, which has fueled productivity growth and propelled the dispersion of interlinked activities worldwide, is premised upon various forms of mobility, including the migration of labor from low-wage to high-wage places, the daily travel of workers from their homes to workplaces, the movement of materials to worksites, and the distribution of finished products to markets. When mobility ceases, as in the case of a natural disaster, not only do workplaces fall idle, but also people cannot get emergency medical attention, families cannot obtain food, and social gatherings of all sorts are canceled or postponed.
The increasing importance of mobility to local, regional, and global economies and to everyday life is reflected in data showing the relentless increase in many measures of the movement of people and goods (Figures 7.1 and 7.2). In the United States, the movement of people and freight has been steadily increasing.1 At the international scale, human migration more than doubled between 1970 and 2000, with the largest proportion of migrants moving to countries in the developed world (Figure 7.2; Clark 2006a), and climate change is likely to accelerate these trends (see special issue of Forced Migration Review, 2008).
The evidence of steadily increasing mobility runs counter to the claim that distance—and the movement required to overcome it—no longer matters because of high-speed information and communication technologies (ICTs; e.g., Cairncross, 1997). If ICT has rendered distance irrelevant, as suggested by the death-of-distance hypothesis, then people and businesses should have little reason to incur the time and money costs involved in moving themselves or goods over increasingly greater distances. People would rely primarily on the keyboard and mobile phone to reach destinations of interest, and measures of mobility would fall. Although ICT has had impacts on physical movements at the scale of daily travel and may have affected migration streams (e.g., via the outsourcing of software development and call centers to India), the nature of the impacts is complex and generally has not conformed to predictions associated with the death-of-distance hypothesis (Mokhtarian, 2003; Janelle, 2004).
Persistent upward trends in mobility reflect rising affluence in some cases (as in the United States) but can also exacerbate differences among places (as when people move from rural areas to cities); in addition, rising mobility is associated with escalating conflict in some instances (as in refugee flows) and can produce high levels of urban congestion. Because of the strong links between motorized movement and petroleum consumption, ever-increasing mobility also raises concerns about greenhouse gas emissions. Transportation
One exception is residential mobility, which has declined in recent decades. The proportion of the U.S. population that changed residence in any given year has fallen from about 20 percent in the 1950s and 1960s to 12-13 percent in recent years (2006-2008). See www.census.gov/population/socdemo/migration/tab-a-1.xls (accessed January 20, 2010).
accounts for about one-third of the U.S. carbon emissions stemming from energy use. The reliance of the transportation sector on petroleum and its significant contribution to carbon emissions places mobility on geopolitical and climate change agendas.
ROLE OF THE GEOGRAPHICAL SCIENCES
Geographical patterns of human activity, such as settlement patterns or the locational arrangements of manufacturing or services, are shaped by patterns of mobility. With expertise in analyzing connections between spatial patterns and processes, the geographical sciences investigate the causes and consequences of mobility at varying spatial scales. Early work established that increases in accessibility provided through expansion of, and improvements to, the road network fundamentally altered the settlement system; as travel speeds increased, larger places grew, whereas smaller places declined and sometimes disappeared altogether (Garrison et al., 1959). Underscoring the relationship between mobility and land-use patterns, research has also demonstrated that improved access via expanded road capacity leads to increased traffic flows (Sheppard, 1995), which further reinforce differences between and among places. Moreover, some of those impacts are felt in places that are quite distant from the network segments that were improved (Giuliano, 1995). A remaining research challenge is to understand how to increase accessibility without exacerbating the traffic congestion that now plagues cities around the world.
Research has begun to identify the specific aspects of places that are salient to mobility processes and will therefore determine how increasing mobility will change the world differently in different places. Research to date suggests that the causes and consequences of increasing mobility will continue to have certain common threads across places, while also differing in important ways from place to place. However, much remains to be learned about the reasons for and outcomes of those differences.
The spatial separation of specialized land uses—such as food stores or city parks at the local scale or the manufacture of magnetic recording heads for 30 percent of the world’s computer hard drives in Dongguan, China (The Economist, 2008) at the global scale—makes economic specialization and scale economies visible on the landscape. Relatively inexpensive and dependable mobility from the local to the global scales has enabled this form of spatial organization to become truly global, with high levels of specialization twinned with long-distance linkages integrating the global space-economy (Dicken, 2003). Because connectivity varies from place to place (Figure 7.3), these mobility-based globalization processes have contributed to the patterns of inequality discussed in Chapter 8.
Place-specific policies can play a role in shaping the nature of the relationship between geographical pattern and process. At the intraurban scale, Giuliano (1995) showed that the land-use impacts of transportation investments are highly variable from place to place because they depend on local economic and political conditions. For example, the light-rail transit (LRT) built in Buffalo, New York, in the 1970s, failed to revitalize that city, whereas Portland, Oregon’s LRT has been central to a suite of policies that have supported the continued vibrancy of Portland’s city center and helped increase the share of travel made via public transit. Similarly, Mountz (2004) documented how international migration flows, specifically those involving human smuggling, are influenced by the micro decisions of immigration bureaucrats in destination places. Her ethnographic study of the differential receptiveness of places within Canada to immigrants illustrates the importance of governance practices and structures at national and provincial levels.
Geographical technologies, especially geographic information systems, facilitate the tasks of analyzing place-specific dimensions of mobility patterns and processes at varying spatial scales. At the regional level, the adoption of such technologies by planning agencies has transformed the ability of planners to create optimal designs and communicate projected impacts of different planning scenarios to the public (Nyerges, 2004). At the individual level, the rapid adoption of Global Positioning System (GPS) technologies is altering the mobility of vehicle drivers, pedestrians, and cyclists. Still largely missing are comparable systems for wayfinding indoors, as in large retail complexes, and for helping the visually impaired, such as “talking signs.” The potential impacts of the widespread adoption of these technologies are substantial. For example, if everyone is capable of finding a destination, then the destination need not advertise its location or adopt
a location that is prominent in the landscape, such as a street corner. The following research questions provide examples of the types of movement and mobility issues the geographical sciences are particularly well positioned to investigate.
How does virtual interaction reflect and alter the organization and movement of people, goods, and ideas in geographical space?
Just as physical mobility has been increasing in many different ways, so has virtual interaction via the Internet, telephone, videoconferencing, e-mail, cell phones, and text messaging. Despite initial predictions that virtual interactions via ICT would eliminate or substantially reduce the need for movement, research indicates that these forms of interaction are complementary and synergistic, rather than substitutable; in some cases ICT increases rather than decreases mobility (Mokhtarian and Meenakshisundaram, 1999; Mokhtarian, 2003). In the business world, face-to-face contact remains the most essential form of interfirm interaction (e.g., Cook et al., 2007), with e-mail, telephone, and videoconferencing used to supplement rather than replace face-to-face interactions. Because of the importance of face-to-face communication for these firms, business success depends on geographical, not virtual, proximity to other firms, giving rise to a daily movement of workers to dense clusters of firms that fosters growing traffic congestion.
Research has begun to address the dynamic relationship between virtual interaction and the movement of people and goods. Understanding this relationship will be necessary for designing policies aimed at reducing energy consumption, managing urban congestion, and cutting greenhouse gases. Schwanen and Kwan (2008) showed that the ways in which ICT affects individuals’ movements depend on context (type of activity undertaken, place, time, technologies available). The primary impact appears to be that mobile ICT
allows for more temporal flexibility in the scheduling of activities, whereas the Internet allows for greater spatial flexibility of activities, especially work and shopping. As new forms of ICT, especially mobile ICT, are more widely adopted, research can illuminate which kinds of physical movements are most affected and how; for example, such technology can enable new forms of ride sharing that could reduce carbon emissions.
The geographical sciences are also well positioned to assist industries with finding optimal ways to combine increasingly important virtual interaction with the persisting importance of grounded contacts. For example, Aoyama and Ratick (2007), using data from a nationwide survey of logistics firms and from interviews they conducted with logistics providers and users in the northeastern United States, found that although the use of ICT tools is widespread, traditional trust-based relationships remain fundamental to logistics operations.
Research points to the value of examining the complex dependencies between virtual and physical forms of interaction. Further research is needed on how specific aspects of places (e.g., settlement density, cultural norms, network configurations) affect the relationship between virtual and physical mobility. A combination of geographical approaches, including time-space studies of human movement in different environments, can illuminate how, for example, increasing road congestion or energy costs are likely to change the ICT-mobility relationship or how new forms of ICT, including the deployment of GPS systems in cell phones, might alter the ICT-movement relationship. Understanding how the rapidly evolving forms of virtual interaction reflect and alter the organization and movement of people, goods, and ideas in geographical space will require detailed, geospatially referenced information at the levels of the person, household, and firm. One promising avenue is the use of data from cell phones equipped with GPS units; such data have proved effective in measuring the spatial dimensions and intensity of social interactions (Eagle et al., 2009).
How do changing energy costs influence the movement of people and commodities and the geographical organization of the landscape?
The global economy is dependent on cheap, abundant energy. Articles published in 2008 in the New York Times and Washington Post argued that sharply increased fuel costs had curtailed global supply chains and challenged the just-in-time delivery process that manufacturers worldwide have come to rely on (Cha, 2008; Rohter, 2008). The newspaper stories tell of several manufacturers that had recently shifted their operations from China to the United States because of large increases in shipping costs (from approximately $3,000 in 2000 to approximately $8,000 in 2008 for a 40-ft container), which had come to trump China’s lower labor costs. Following classical economic geography theory (Weber, 1929), the industries that are most likely to relocate and restructure when shipping costs skyrocket are those, such as steel and furniture, that produce goods that are high in bulk or weight relative to their selling price.
Relatively little is known about how the mobility behavior of U.S. firms and consumers might respond to sustained, significant price increases in energy. The historical record is not helpful because the United States has not experienced the kind of prolonged, substantial price increase in petroleum that might lead to altered mobility and land-use patterns. The rapid and dramatic, but relatively short-lived, price increases following the oil embargo of 1973 led to a minor, temporary dip in the mobility-growth curve shown in Figure 7.1, and the main midterm impact was the consumer shift to smaller, more fuel-efficient vehicles. Comparisons with Europe, where higher taxes on fuel have made energy more costly than in the United States, are of limited use because the distances to be traversed are far greater in the United States (in part because energy has been so relatively inexpensive) and because mobility patterns are to a large degree culturally specific; the norms in Europe, regarding, for example, bicycling or the use of public transit, differ substantially from those in the United States.
Geographical research can provide important insights into how changing energy prices are likely to affect the movement of people and goods, the interaction of virtual and physical forms of mobility, and the geographical organization of the landscape. Such analyses are not likely to be straightforward, however, because the parameters of the relationships involved are dynamic and place specific, and considerable uncertainty surrounds people’s response to increasing energy prices. Economic theory suggests, for example, that as
the cost of transport rises relative to income, mobility will be curtailed, but recent evidence does not support this contention. Hughes et al. (2008) compared consumers’ sensitivity to increases in gasoline prices in 1975-1980 with those in 2000-2006 and found that the short-run price elasticities for gasoline were significantly lower in 2000-2006, indicating that to effect a reduction in gasoline consumption, much higher price increases will be needed. Whereas these authors model the overall demand for gasoline in the United States as a function of price, geographical scientists can, by disaggregating demand spatially, determine how such price elasticities are related to the geographical characteristics of different places. Spatial analysis that is sensitive to place differences can also demonstrate the range of likely impacts of energy price increases on people’s residential choices and daily travel patterns.
How is migration reshaping local communities, labor markets, and ethnic and national identities?
Migration is a form of mobility that entails a change in residential location and can involve moves from the intraurban to the global scale. Although rising incomes and the ease of communication and return migration have made such moves less difficult for some people, the fears and realities of epidemics and terrorism have rendered migration far more difficult for others, including Muslims, refugees, and people from areas with high rates of HIV/AIDS or Avian flu. Fences in Israel and at the U.S.-Mexico border stand as proof that some borders are hardening, while the relatively recent freedom of movement for workers within the European Union is evidence of other borders softening (Figure 7.4).
Migration changes people, and it changes places. A change in location often brings with it a change in personal identity, with potentially major implications for politics in the receiving place. When migrants who have moved either short or long distances differ from residents in the receiving community, their arrival, especially in large numbers, brings change to that community, whether it is a neighborhood or a nation. In a world of relatively cheap travel, instantaneous communication, and deep divisions among people, contemporary migration poses new challenges to understanding these impacts. Among these challenges are the increasing circularity of migration, in which people return with some regularity to their place of origin, the greater ease of sustained communication with people in the home place, and the speed with which changes in one part of the world are felt via refugee and migrant flows in other parts of the world.
Researchers have traced the impacts of migration on people and communities. In a study of Dalit circular migration within and beyond India, Gidwani and Sivaramakrishnan (2003) demonstrated that migration alters migrants’ identities by broadening their experience and increasing their sense of agency. In the high-income countries of North America, Europe, and Asia, immigration is a topic of great debate, especially as it affects receiving communities. Within the United States, for example, workers have voiced concern that the presence of immigrants depresses wages and takes jobs away from the U.S.-born labor force. Research has not yet settled this debate, however. Using data from Los Angeles, Ellis and Wright (1999) demonstrated that because immigrants and nonimmigrants tend to work in different types of jobs, with newly arrived immigrants and U.S.-born migrants to Los Angeles channeling into non-overlapping sets of industries for work, the presence of immigrants does not lower the wages of, or take jobs away from, U.S.-born workers. In contrast, others have documented a variety of immigrant impacts on native-born workers, including wage reduction (Borjas, 2006) and the movement of native-born workers out of industries that become immigrant-intensive (Altonji and Card, 1991).
Whether migration is linked to altered or unchanged identities will vary from place to place; comparative research can tease out the commonalities in these place-based relationships, which have strategic importance for migrant well-being as well as for political stability at various spatial scales (see Chapter 9). Research has shown how the ethnic makeup of migrant receiving communities can affect migrant identities and migration outcomes (e.g., Western, 2007). Migration can also lead to hardened identities. In a study of rural-to-urban migration in Ecuador, Lawson (2002) found that, owing to the racism and economic hardship that migrants encountered in the city, they tended to retain their ethnic and regional identities from their rural places of origin. This finding is important because these migrants did not identify with other poor people in the city or join
with them to work for improved living and working conditions. The ethnic composition of a migrant’s receiving community affects not only identity but also the degree of segregation among different groups and differences in income levels. Musterd et al. (2008), using longitudinal disaggregate data (1995-2002) from Statistics Sweden, discovered that whereas living in a neighborhood with high concentrations of co-ethnics is initially a boon to migrant incomes, such clustering can soon become a disadvantage. Moreover, the employment status of neighbors from other ethnic groups can have an impact, which is often positive if neighbors are employed but negative if they are not. Additional studies along these lines can identify which characteristics of the local residential environment matter most to migrant outcomes and to the receiving community as a whole.
Where are the greatest points of vulnerability in the transportation network and what are the implications of disruptions at those points of vulnerability?
Mobility depends on integrated, well-maintained transportation networks. Although transportation networks have become denser in many parts of the world,
in the United States some network segments have been pruned back in recent decades. In the Great Plains, for example, many rural roads have been abandoned, in part because of declining rural population densities in some areas and in part because of the increasing costs of maintaining older infrastructure such as bridges. As networks are rationalized, the remaining ones become more vulnerable because there are no alternatives in the event of failure or attack. This problem is especially apparent in the rail network, which has been drastically thinned as the system has modernized and become more cost-conscious, to the point that in some areas the network now lacks almost all redundancy.
Ports are especially vulnerable points in the nation’s transport network. Assessing the impacts of losing major port facilities to disaster and identifying potential alternative trade facilities should be two high-priority research topics. The ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, for example, handle nearly one-quarter of U.S. total exports and 40 percent of all containerized cargo import traffic, a trade volume equal to $256 billion in 2005 (BST Associates, 2007). The importance of these ports to the national economy is further underlined by the fact that more than 60 percent of the cargo arriving there is destined for markets outside Southern California (BST Associates, 2007), and two-thirds of exports originate outside California (POLA/POLB, 2008).
The geographical sciences can also contribute to identifying the greatest points of vulnerability in the U.S. transportation network and document the impacts that would follow should mobility through those vulnerable points be lost. A recent National Research Council report, Potential Impacts of Climate Change on U.S. Transportation (NRC, 2008b), called attention to the vulnerability of transportation infrastructure to climate change, concluding that the most vulnerable places are likely to be in coastal regions. That committee’s first recommendation was, in part, for governments to “inventory critical transportation infrastructure in light of climate change projections to determine whether, when, and where projected climate changes … might be consequential” (p. 192). Transportation networks are vulnerable to far more than climate change, however, and the need to assess network vulnerabilities and their consequences extends well beyond coastal areas.
The analytical tools of the geographical sciences are well suited to this task. Work by Peterson and Church (2008) provides an example of both the potential and the current limitations of such research. Using rail network data from Oak Ridge National Laboratories and freight data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics,2 they developed a rail routing model to assess the loss of a rail bridge. Their analysis showed that, for all traffic going to and from Washington state that used the Sandpoint Bridge, the detours—upon the loss of the bridge—averaged 330 miles. Impedances increased as well, indicating that the selected detour routes were not ideal. Because the national rail dataset lacks data on track capacity, this study was not able to take this important variable into account. Because some routes are already operating at capacity, some freight might not be transported or trains could be forced to take even longer routes if the Sandpoint Bridge became impassable.
Understanding how and why mobility and mobility consequences vary systematically from place to place will be crucial for predicting the range of likely economic, environmental, social, and political impacts of increasing mobility and altered mobility choices in the coming decades. Geographical scientists from several disciplines, including geography, civil engineering, sociology, economics, and political science, are well positioned to take up these questions.
See www.bts.gov/publications/national_transportation_statistics/ (accessed January 20, 2010).