Walter Siembab
Home ] In This Issue ] Search the Review ] National ] Libraries ] States and Local ] Rural ] New Directions ]

Walter Siembab
Lawrence Hecht
Kenneth Pigg
Ron Burnett
Steve Cisler
Jessica Brown
Ryan Turner


Public Transit for the
Information Highway
Walter Siembab  and Siembab Associates are located in Los Angeles.
P.43.jpg (228038 bytes)
Walter Siembab

Most urban communities face at least two challenges to long term sustainability. The first is the near total dependence on the fossil-fueled private automobile which creates unhealthy living conditions through pollution, saps the economy through congestion and makes all of society dependent upon a steady flow of imported oil. The underlying cause of this dependence is the way in which metropolitan areas have been built with housing widely separated from all other urban functions.

The second challenge is the gap between rich and poor which has been widening throughout the post-war years, and the related phenomenon of the spatial concentration of wealth and poverty. One cause has been disparities in educational achievement which tend to follow the structure of household income. Another is the need for access to the digital broadband network infrastructure which forms the means of production in the information economy. Lack of access to this infrastructure is responsible for the so-called digital divide.


"...Blue Line Televillage, a project of Compton and the Los Angeles Metropolitan Transit Authority, is one model that has an international reputation. It is a center with computers, Internet connections, videoconferencing facilities and training classes for its roughly 2,000 members, mostly African American, who pay $10 a year for adults and $5 annually for students and seniors.

Blue Line Televillage is situated next to a public transit hub in Compton as an experiment in creating a "telework" center, according to Walter Siembab of Siembab Associates, a Los Angeles consulting firm that helped get the project started. Siembab advocates the proliferation of what he calls "personal network access facilities" no more than half a mile away from anyone's home, primarily as a way to reduce traffic and air pollution, promote telecommuting and reconfigure urban areas into more convivial spaces." -- Gary Chapman, "Reaching Out to Bring Low-Income Blacks Across the 'Digital Divide,"  April 12, 1999.*

Gary Chapman is director of the 21st Century Project at the University of Texas at Austin. To subscribe to the email list that forwards copies of his published articles, including his column "Digital Nation" in The Los Angeles Times, send mail to:   leave the subject line blank, and in the first line of the message, put: Subscribe Chapman [your name]

Communications policy does not now, but could in the future, address both of these challenges simultaneously, thereby improving the prospects for sustainable cities. I call this policy public transit for the information highway.

At ground level it should consist of a system of shared-use, non-commercial network access centers (NACs), analogous to bus or train stations, located so that no household is further than walking distance from a neighborhood center, and no more than two miles from a village station.

Each network access center can be programmed and staffed to provide the functions (school classes, medical services, work opportunities, etc.) that address the needs of the community.

The NAC should provide non-commercial access to broadband networks, become the destination for many trips that would otherwise terminate outside the community and, in general, become the center of neighborhood or village life.

The prototype NAC, the Blue Line TeleVillage (BLTV) in Compton, California, has just completed its third year of operation.

The BLTV has six elements.

The Computer Center -- in an 800 square foot room equipped with 12 pentium computers, local area network (LAN), and Internet access using four integrated services digital network (ISDN) lines -- has provided public access computing, classes, contract training for local organizations such as day care providers, and facility rental to other organizations interested in conducting their own computer training programs for employees.

The Video Conference Center -- in a 1200 square foot room equipped with a dual monitor group-scale video conference system, seating for up to 25 people, and three ISDN lines with an option for six -- hosted nearly 75 meeting durings its first nine months alone. Video conference sessions included a contract distance education class originating at California State University at Dominguez Hills; library services such as story telling for pre-school children and a book tour lecture by African American author Walter Mosley originating in the Pasadena Public Library; seminars sponsored by the Small Business Development Center; a meeting demonstrating the technology for local artists, and another with a Federal Transportation Administration official discussing possible programs with state and federal agencies.

The Telework Center -- two semi-private work stations, connected to the LAN, with their own telephones and printer -- provides a professional work space for local residents who are home-based or for small and under-capitalized organizations. It is located in the City's Business Assistance Center (BAC) which also includes a meeting room and library, equipped with a VCR and a desk-top video conferencing unit. The latter is intended for local business people to obtain one-on-one training from mentors in Small Business Development Centers located elsewhere in the County.

A Circuit Rider Work Station has been set aside so that representatives of various government agencies (e.g., a benefits counselor from the Social Security Administration) can schedule visits at the BLTV to provide information or directly deliver services to constituents. It has been used by the federal Office of Personnel Management, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and BLTV administration.

Kiosks -- Small stand-alones from the Los Angeles Housing Authority, the AIDS Information Center of the County Museum of Science and Industry, and ATMs for the Wells Fargo Bank and the Bank of America provide additional complementary resources.

The Community Meeting Room -- a large space that can seat up to several hundred -- has hosted numerous large gatherings, including the BLTV planning meeting attended by 150 community leaders, BLTV Advisory Board meetings, a Compton Chamber of Commerce mixer, and a Women's Day Conference. Other organizations have held meetings there in order to tour or to use some other element of the BLTV, including the Regional Business Assistance Network of the Los Angeles Economic Development Corporation.

The BLTV has started the process of becoming a community meeting place -- the Inner City Computer Society holds regular meetings and training sessions, children's services groups have used the Center, and kids gather there after school and over holidays.

One of the lessons learned from the prototype was that an NAC can simultaneously provide non-commercial, community-wide access to broadband networks, electronic versions of a variety of "place-based" urban functions, and a broad program of business and individual support services.

Overall, the TeleVillage designation suggests that the addition of a network access center to an existing center of government and commerce can in time transform the entire complex into a sort of village center, where up to 75% of a community's social and economic needs can be met. Three characteristics in particular distinguish an NAC.

The technology platform is broader than either a computer or cable access center. NACs include computers, offices, cubicles, desk top video, group video conferencing, meeting rooms, speaker phones, collaborative work technologies, DVDs, video and production and editing equipment, broadband communications service as well as furniture, carpeting, and space.

Like a community technology center (CTC) or cable access center, the content of each center provides non-commercial access to the means of production in an information economy -- and an NAC will also provide access to every other urban function that can be put onto a broadband network. This includes distance education programs such as international trade seminars for small business, community college skills training classes, university extension classes, teacher training classes, and contract education for corporate employees. It includes telemedicine services such as medical consultation, remote eye/ear/nose/throat and dermatalogical exams, remote fetal monitoring, pre-natal counseling sessions, and certain components of HMO home-health care. It includes many government services and business services (e.g., banking services from ATMs to automatic loan machines).

The range of activity is especially important because it is this quality of concentrated urban functionality which justifies permanent, structural government support.

And this leads to the third unique characteristic. This suggests that a system of NACs can legitimately claim financial support from a diversity of sources, transportation and economic development funding programs as well as the more commonly-looked to telecommunications and education sources. In fact, the BLTV was funded by the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA, reauthorized in 1998 as TEA21), not by the Telecommunications and Information Infrastructure Assistance Program (TIIAP). Currently, there is substantially more money available for mobility projects than for information technology projects.

While more individual NACs can be developed, the next step in the evolution of a public transit communications policy to support sustainable cities is a metropolitan scale demonstration of a system of three-five network stations.

It may be that the fastest and most cost-effective approach to this scale demonstration is to transform an existing system of community technology centers. An NAC uses a broader technology platform and provides many more urban functions than a traditional community technology center (CTC). Some CTCs are already moving in this direction. Many others have space to expand, a transit-accessible location, and innovative management. It ought to be an appealing possibility for CTC managers and board members interested in expansion.