The Challenge Network

   back   menu   next   

Quandries about transport

Quandries about transport

Transport is necessary. Mobility is liberating. But transportation, like anything which is taken to excess, will generate more negative features than it creates advantage. Policy makers must strive to mitigate the negative features, whilst continuing to deliver the essential benefits with greater efficiency. They must do this without disrupting the core of daily life, for transportation accounts for around a fifth of all value creation in most modern economies. The physical structures and economic systems that we have established are completely dependent on established modes of getting about.

Transport is something which we all encounter every day, and its negatives are well-understood. Vehicles are noisy, dangerous and pollutive. The vehicle fleet and the road system ties up a great deal of capital that could be used in other ways. Communities that at least some of us once valued are disrupted by easy personal mobility. Crime and transport are closely linked together. Older modes of transport - such as river freight and the train - have shaped the layout of our cities, and have done so in ways which are both hard to change and inappropriate to modern needs. The existing reticulation system is often saturated, and congestion is omnipresent in the poorest nations and the richest. It is commonplace to have a portable lavatory in cars driven in Bangkok, and commuters may spend the entire day in a car during a particularly congested day.

The positive aspects of transportation are much less appreciated. When transport relied chiefly upon legs, so sources of food, housing, work and entertainment needed to be but a walk apart. Cities were extremely dense: Georgian London had many families living in the same building, often several to a room.

Mass transit, as embodied in horse-drawn omnibuses, by trams and trains recreated the city. For perhaps the first time in history, suburbia permitted the average family to expect a private life. Mass transit for goods, such as food, water, energy and wastes delivered even greater freedoms. Public health has been synonymous with this form of transportation. Each of these are transported on their individual reticulation systems, giving us fresh springs and sudden lights anywhere, at will. Our voices and our entertainment are transported across the globe for us.

Our shops are crammed with choice, thanks to just in time delivery systems. The average supermarket had around 4000 product lines in 1980, and will typically stock over 20,000 today in roughly the same physical area. The goods that we buy are of a higher quality, are more plural and are cheaper because transport systems give choice to supermarket buyers and to other intermediaries in the value chain. The affect of this has been subtle and pervasive. Time budgets have altered. Families are less common, and those which exist do not live so much in each other's pockets. Individuals can choose the entertainment, friends and styles that they like, and find them easily within their reach. The trend to single person households has also been marked, and around a half of all UK dwellings are expected to have only a single inhabitant by 2010. People have choice in their work and their leisure, their companionship and their consumption, at least in part due to the revolution in transportation.

The positive aspects of transport express themselves as a close link with overall economic activity. Transport needs rise slightly faster than every economy in the world that has not taken steps to prevent this. Libya, for example, limited private car ownership for a while, and this showed itself as an anomaly in what is otherwise a routine recapitulation which every nation otherwise makes of the history of its richer peers. Physical geography may alter the trajectory slightly, and the history of a nation may have predisposed it to lay more or less railway. As each gets richer, however, so its transportation need rise in lock step with this. As each individual grows more wealthy, so their direct and indirect transport needs develop in a highly predictable way. World product will probably double by 2020, and so its transport needs will more than double. Only about a twentieth of the world's population has been in an aeroplane in 2000. This proportion will grow.

We have already touched on why this matters. There are three 'great' issues. Transport is expensive, and it consumes resources. It can be pollutive and dangerous. Traffic congestion is everywhere becoming a significant problem, and its affects add to industrial costs and to pollution. These three issues are, however, largely separate from each other, and are susceptible to different solutions. The most intractable is that of congestion.

There are a number of technical 'fixes' to the issues of resource efficiency and pollution that are already being developed or implemented. Vehicles can be made more efficient and cheaper to own, they and the traffic systems can be made safer, emissions can be lessened and raw materials can be recycled. It is entirely possible to develop light, safe vehicles which have zero gaseous emissions and which make only limited amounts of noise. The energy that powers these can be generated remotely from urban centres - thus dispersing pollution - and there is every reason to suppose that increasingly clean sources of power can be used to lessen this impact. Gas turbines can be made to work at very high levels of efficiency; nuclear power can be very clean; biomass-based power generation can generate zero net carbon emissions. We already have all of the technology that we need in order to do this, and it is regulatory enforcement, the training of the necessary myriad of support staff and the minor infrastructural changes which stand in the way of a full implementation.

The reality of implementation will probably match the slow turnover of the fleet, of the energy infrastructure and of the development of consumer acceptance. Early clean cars will probably be hybrid vehicles, using a small engine running permanently at peak efficiency to power up a battery or fly wheel. (Electrical power is preferred because it is converted to mechanical power with great efficiency, with few moving parts and the opportunity to use braking as a regenerative source of power.) Later vehicles may use fuel cells in place of the small engine, as these are capable of changing chemical energy to electrical power at even great efficiency. The fuel may be hydrocarbons that are 'cracked' on board, or may be hydrogen or compressed natural gas. Hydrogen may be made locally, in the equivalent of filling stations, by electrolysis from water. (Biomass-derived fuels, such as alcohols and light vegetable oils, have had a good press. However, these are unlikely to be competitive on the grounds either of cost or energy density.) Schemes to use Aluminium-air cells have been suggested, where the Aluminium oxide waste is regenerated by remote ocean thermal energy plants, moored in the tropical oceans. Filling a car's 'tank' would consist of buying one or more ingots of aluminium.

These solutions do not address issues of congestion or cost. At least one approach to both is to emphasise the use of mass transit. That is, a number of journeys (such as commuting, or school delivery and pickup) are routine and predictable for a large number of people, and one vehicle can contain them. Studies show that the energy used per mile is less and vehicle density is also less when such schemes are enforced.

However, demand for these services is extremely peaky. These systems are, therefore, innately doomed to over-capacity. They are also extremely expensive to install. They are usually run at a loss, and are thus funded by the public rather than the private sector, thus affecting state monetary targets. "De-peaking" demand is one solution to the issue of over-capacity, and there have been radical suggestions made, such as the abandonment of stereotyped five day working week and 'light of day' working hours. Others have suggested the abandonment of focusing factors, such as public holidays. However, flexible working hours nevertheless require people to be on site in core hours, and a peak distributed remains a peak unless telecommuting eventually becomes a useful reality.

Public transport has another marked disadvantage, which is the point-to-point nature of it. Most car journeys are multi-mission, meaning that drivers drop off their children at school, go on to the shops, store their shopping whilst dropping in on a friend; and so forth. Public transport fulfils this need very poorly, and usually implies discomfort and delay. Assertions that its use is virtuous are less than persuasive to time-poor wealthy societies, and public transport is generally seen as a very unattractive option by anyone who has a choice in the matter.

A third and politically critical factor which weakens the appeal of public transport is the monolithic nature of labour relations within it. Major industries are always unionised, and monopoly employer, monopoly supplier systems are extremely vulnerable to industrial action. History is littered with train and coal strikes that brought nations to a halt in the age of steam. France is still subject to regular disruption as air traffic controllers, rail staff and employees of state air lines go on strike. They do this with predictable regularity during the peak holiday season. One key lesson is, therefore, is to avoid this problem by diversity. Some forms of public transport are a natural 'supplier' monopoly. Rail and air traffic control are the most obvious examples of this, as the idea of there being two parallel tracks laid between two destinations is plainly absurd. However, it must be an object of policy that this must not be allowed to imply that there is a sole operator or employer on that track.

This is not an anti-labour measure, but a policy goal which is aimed to deliver predictable and cheap services. Labour monopolies in the UK essentially killed off major ports - Liverpool, for example - or raised prices until consumers sought other forms of transport. These facts are not appealing to the political Left, which is frequently the most urgent advocate of more public transport. As a consequence, policy to ownership and regulation is improperly thought through, and investment in public transport weakened. The remarkable successes in delivery which have been achieved by Switzerland, Sweden and the Netherlands have been bought at a considerable cost to the tax payer. If they are closed down for any reason - and there is often powerful regulation to ensure that this does not occur - then countries which have built up heavy dependency on these services will be crippled.

Three solutions to this have been suggested. The first two are supposed to lessen the need to travel. The third deters travel, either by making people pay to use the public roads, by absolute bans or by greatly increased inconvenience on the roads.

Travel needs are presumed to be lessened when we can communicate by other means. Historical evidence shows that mail, telephone and vehicle use rise in exact parallel with economic activity, however, and the belief that we substitute telephone calls for travel is simple not born out by the evidence. Rather, we seem to undertake proportionately more activity, at a higher level of quality, as a result of having information technology. We still go shopping when we are informed as to what is on sale, but we are more discriminating as to where we go. E-commerce has also been expected to lower transport needs. In fact, it turns out that both just-in-time commerce and e-commerce reduce order size and increase order frequency; and that we still go out to the shops as much as hitherto. Transport needs actually go up, but we have more options with which to play.

The second approach is less aspirational. It is termed 'densification'; or in the USA, 'access'. Noting the lighter nature of modern industry, and the remarkable just-in-time retailing systems of which we are now capable, urban planners have asked themselves whether we cannot recreate the village shop and the local school, put accommodation close to employment and co-locate entertainment and leisure facilities. We could, at least in theory, walk to most of what we need, much as we did in Georgian London. For this to work, of course, freight transport would need to be rationalised, and there are ingenious schemes by which to do this. One of these will be discussed in a moment. The greatest potential weakness of densification is, however, the question of whether such balanced communities are socially feasible. Each would have to focus itself around some economic unifying factor if people were to be sure of finding employment for their speciality in within walking distance. It may be that London's clothes designers or its programmers will want to all live in the same 'village'. If they do not, however, then the commute to remote work seems to be unavoidable. Densification is, therefore, both a partial and a slow but organic solution to the issues of congestion.

The third approach relies upon the deterrence of transport by road pricing. This can be done indirectly, via fuel prices, or directly through tolls. Road tolls can be simple - where one pays to pass a barrier - or complex, in which automatic systems charge for access in ways that differ with the level of congestion, the locale and so forth. However it is handled, however, access pricing adds a cost to the mobility necessary for economic activity. If the focus of congestion has to pay the "true cost" of that congestion, then by definition and aim, it will become a less attractive destination. The wages of commuters will have to rise to compensate for higher transport costs. City centres and other attractive locations will become even more costly for business travellers and for shoppers, and shops and businesses will tend to relocate elsewhere. The ultimate end of congestion management for its own sake will be to disperse things which are attractive, and with them will go, undeterred, the corresponding traffic.

Naturally, one solution is that of "mode shift"; which is to say, people come to travel more by modes other than the one which is responsible for congestion. Thus, it is said, the logical response to large city congestion is to improve systems of mass transport, and to tax or otherwise induce the users of individual transport to change mode. However, we have already reviewed some of the problems associated with public transport. The public fund their own mobility - through truly massive investment in vehicles, and through taxes - and the cost of duplicating this in a modern city is very large indeed. The fares which would be required to pay back such investment are equally formidable, bringing a sharp light onto the road charge levies which would be needed to shift people out of cars and onto self-funding and modernised public transport.

There is at least one technical 'fix' that may be of great importance. Tunnelling technology has improved markedly, as have automated container handling systems. An unmanned, largely underground system of reticulation could move small freight containers with great efficiency. Specifically, such containers could be bar coded and dropped into local 'receiving units', later to emerge automatically at remote points. A grid could easily cover the inner city, such that all small-volume freight deliveries could be handled by hand-steered electrical trolleys. This would radically change local shops, which could carry product lines to rival large supermarkets, and would all but eliminate the white van from city roads. Not only would densification be enabled, but traffic density could fall and the costs of freight to commerce might also be cut. The implications for light value chains - advertising-design-graphics-printing, for example - would also be considerable.

The picture is, therefore, a mixed one. The solutions are complex and ramifying. There is no one solution, but rather a wide range of technical, social and operational changes which can be put in place that will, collectively, deliver much improved mobility at lower cost and less environmental impact. Air transport, rural movements and mobility between cities are also set to grow, but these have relatively tractable solutions which emerge from solving the less tractable issues that have been described here.

Much of the discussion has been concerned with one of these complex problems, that of urban transport. Many of the solutions which are discussed are, however, as applicable to the poor world as to the wealthy. The fast-growing urban regions of the poor nations will be very large within a generation. We can expect over fifty cities to have over ten million inhabitants by 2020. It is important that these new great cities should not become locked into obsolete models of urban design, or tied to no model. It does not, after all, cost more to plan well; and the truly enormous capital needs of these regions can be met effectively only by excellence and insight. Investment, planning and implementation depend on good governance, and sustainability is essentially synonymous with rational government, with stability and with probity. Transport needs will be with us, and will grow, in all of the regions of the world in which the economy grows. We shall need both generic and particular solutions, blended together with resolution and insight of we are to keep the wheels turning as we need then to turn.

 to the top 

The Challenge Network supports the Trek Peru charity.