Monday, June 27, 2005

The Importance of Transportation

In light of the inevitable energy crisis and all of its attendant implications for civilization as we know it, discussion has turned to the ultimate fate of mankind’s three forms of modern living arrangements, namely urban, suburban and rural living. A number of written articles and online discussions have been penned of late that attempt to gage the relative success (or failure) for each of these areas. Each of these opinions reflects the authors’ personal outlook on the future (gloom and doom, cautious hope or boundless optimism) and as such color the author’s ultimate assessment of the situation. The purpose of this posting is not to provide my personal take on the matter, but to look at the underlying factor that will ultimately determine any given area’s viability.
Although many valid factors have been discussed, viability ultimately boils down to just one key factor:
It’s as simple as that. Each settlement pattern is affected by transportation and a change in it can have a drastic impact on the ultimate viability of the built environment.
The ability to move people and goods from one location to another is perhaps the key to survival. That fact cannot be hammered home hard enough. This may sound alarmist or over-the-top, but the simple act of moving someone or something from one point to another is absolutely vital. The ease of transportation—in all of its forms—is the hallmark of industrialized civilization. This ease of course has been made possible by cheap fossil-fuel inputs and is best exemplified by the modern American commuter driving from one suburb to work in another suburb or by the trucker hauling a collection of inexpensively made Chinese products to the local Wal-Mart.
Being able to move from one point to another is of course important. People seldom live, work, shop and relax in the same place. In order to maintain a functioning economy, people must be able to circulate between the various points that are important to them and do so with ease. In pre-Industrial times, most people got around by foot, horse or boat. Distances were small and trips were few in number. Today in many locations, fossil fuel availability has dramatically increased the distances one can travel and lifted the overall number of trips made.
But transportation is really much more than the movement of people. The truly vital function that it plays is the movement of goods. Goods movement is often overlooked by transportation planners but it includes the shipment of raw materials, finished products and even wastes. Raw materials such as minerals, energy, food and other resources are obvious candidates for transportation as most occur in limited concentrations away from their eventual points of consumption. Movement of finished goods from manufacturers to their eventual end users also requires a well established transport network. Finally, transportation plays a vital role in removing wastes and preventing their accumulation to dangerous levels.
Likewise, most visualizations of the transportation network commonly are focused on road, rail, marine and air-based systems. While this is accurate, it neglects two other important forms of transport: electrical and pipeline. Both topics are commonly discussed as “infrastructure” in planning documents but really need to be seen as another form of transportation. The electrical transmission system makes it possible to instantaneously move large amounts of energy from one location where it is in overabundance to another where it is in demand. Pipelines play the equally important role of transporting liquids and gasses from one point to another in great, uninterruptible volumes.
Transportation is often viewed as a matter of convenience or necessity but in reality its role in civilized existence is far more basic (and vital). According to William Catton, transportation is a social leveraging strategy called Scope Enlargement. What the movement of goods allows us to do is balance the surpluses and shortages of a number of areas, so that all can progress to a higher level of development than would have been possible without it. This has reached a culmination of sorts, with today’s transportation now extending worldwide. With it comes a worldwide dependence on the continued free flow of resources, goods and wastes. At this point many places on the planet are dependent on something from somewhere else.
All parts of this transportation network are of course, energy consumers. Some are very efficient movers of goods such as a pipeline network, while others require huge energy subsidies to exist like commercial aviation. How the entire system continues to function—or not—will determine an area’s ultimate viability. And therein lays the problem.
We are frightfully dependent on the continuation of this transportation system. It allows for the ease of shipment of large forms of usable energy (e.g. crude oil) natural resources (e.g. water, minerals) and food from areas of production to areas of consumption. It allows for the shipment of goods from one location to another, which over the past few decades has taken a global scope, where fewer, larger and lower cost facilities in a handful of locations replaced far more numerous, smaller and higher cost facilities scattered around the world. Finally it permits the wastes from one area to be moved to somewhere else where it could be re-used, recycled or disposed of so that the source location does not get too polluted.
Peak Energy (in all of its forms) is the massive and fatal threat to the modern transportation system. It disrupts the system insidiously at first before ultimately rendering it useless. As energy becomes scarcer, it also increases in price. Over the past few years, those increases have taken a toll on economic activity. In the future they will render whole sectors of the economy unprofitable and ultimately not viable. As bad as that is, continued energy shortages will eventually manifest themselves in the form of actual fuel shortages. When that occurs, hard decisions will need to made on what to ship and when. In an orderly Powerdown scenario, those exact choices would be made based on their relative importance to human life so that no one starves or dies as a result of decreasing energy supplies. Unfortunately, the human track record in dealing with crisis situations has been less than stellar. In all likelihood, government actions may staunch the crisis for a few years, before the level of available energy decline begins undoing the global transportation system altogether.
What that means is that mankind’s strategy of scope enlargement will soon fail us. How that affects you and I personally really depends on where we are located. Those in the suburbs will be hit the soonest and hardest by an energy-driven transportation crisis. These folks travel the furthest on average and are the most dependent on the shipment of all forms of goods and services from somewhere else. Basically, if you live in the suburbs you will eventually find yourself cut off from food, supplies, employment and just about everything else needed to survive. Some attempts may be made to grow or raise food close to home, but for many suburbanites it may prove to be too little, too late.
At first glance it would appear that urban areas would fare better in a crisis. Distances would be shorter and more people could walk or take transit. Truck deliverers would not need to travel as far. Never-the-less, this area is threatened as well. As shortages mount, the transportation and distribution network will no longer be able to ship all of the required goods to all of the urban inhabitants. The larger the city, the larger the problem. Equally important, wastes would not be able to be properly removed and would likely buildup and foster disease. In an urban area with few other acquisition options, increasing hunger, poverty and social discontent could likely fuel the conditions suitable for riots, crime waves and other ill effects.
Those in the rural areas would be the least impacted by declining transportation options. While it is true that transportation interruptions would affect the countryside pretty hard, the low overall population and greater distances from the urban and suburban settlements will serve to protect rural outposts from raiding or looting that could occur as order breaks down. This does not mean that country living will be particularly nice though, especially if you were more accustomed goods and services from all over.
The bottom line is really quite simple. Fossil fuels made it artificially easy for people and goods to move about. That ease of movement allowed humans to enlarge their scope and tap and trade resources from all over to make up or mask local shortages. Unfortunately that free ride will be shortly coming to an end.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fuel shortages will also dramatically impact most school districts. We have gotten away from neighborhood schools in many places in favor of putting the local school on the outskirts of town and bussing every student. In the very near future, the cost of diesel fuel for busses will wreak havoc on school district budgets and lead to tough choices regarding school spending and how much bussing really needs to happen.

Maybe our kids will get to live the real life "I walked 5 miles, up hill, both ways to get to school" story.

6/28/2005 9:37 AM  
Blogger Liz Logan said...

This is a very helpful way to think about the city, suburb or country? question. I'll be blogging about it. Thanks!

6/28/2005 4:24 PM  
Anonymous Southsider said...

You're right about the suburbs, of course, but I'm not so sure about rural locations. In the pre-industrialized world, cities, with their walls, storehouses and militias, tended to be more secure than rurual regions, where small villages were prey for bandits and wandering raiders.

During the transition to a post-petroleum world, the big urban areas could be quite dangerous, but once we are through the transition, I believe towns and cities will be safer than the countryside.

6/28/2005 4:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

protect rural outposts from raiding or looting that could occur as order breaks down.

A 'raider class' will have access and willingness to use transportation and fuel to go to remote locations that lack military marshall law coverage to raid for food/fuel/money.

The government will work as hard as it can to make sure farmers have fuel to run the machines that bring food to the cities - simple policy decision. Fuel/Food and a bit of money makes farms a target.

As much as cities may suck, troops/sensors can exist to cover the city.

"the most dangerous person is the one who has nothing to loose" - after many people who 'were playing by the rules and lost it all' - there will be some who react violently. The trick is to not be in their path - alas, I have no good idea how to not be in their violent path.

6/28/2005 9:19 PM  
Blogger dinopello said...

Now this is Transportation planning! A far cry from what we still do mostly today which is count cars and extimate how many more cars there will be in 10 years (based on growth patterns of the recent past).

I think the city/town/village has proven itself as a robust form of human settlement well before the advent of cheap energy. The question is one of scale. The gigantic (sprawling) megalopolis that we call cities today do not have enough rural land area immediately around them to supply them with food and of course there is hardly any basic manufacturing (shoes, clothes etc) left anywhere on the continent. Transit-oriented development or TOD seems to me to offer a sustainable model of clustering density around rail stops in manageable, walkable transit villages.

6/30/2005 6:08 AM  
Anonymous Southsider said...

Yes, TOD would be great ... except for the fact that between our transit villages we would not have farm land but abandonned sprawl. The real challenge if we want to return to a city/town/village model is disassembling all our subdivisions, big boxes and retail strips.

Once the post-petroleum decline is well along, one great business opportunity will be in salvaging and dismantling most of what we've built since WWII (assuming the socio-economic fabric remains at least somewhat intact) and returning it to agriculture.

6/30/2005 2:36 PM  
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10/08/2005 10:33 PM  

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