The October Thing #13 – Transportation – October 2, 2011


The camel, horse, and water buffalo have largely been replaced by the Toyota pickup truck as the favorite means of moving food and household goods to market in poor countries. With a machine-gun mounted in its bed, it is known as a “technical” and is the world’s most popular heavy weapon.

Capital ships—battleships, cruisers, destroyers, frigates, carriers—remain status symbols but have been rendered obsolete by small missiles fired by small, fast boats released by a large, fast boat or submarine known as a “mother ship.” Container ships and tankers move most of the world’s goods the most miles—on autopilot. Drone aircrafts dominate the military skies and drone-piloting of cargo planes—then passenger planes—is now seriously discussed.

Third in priority, after industrial and military transportation, is multi-mode private (or “labor”) transportation—train, bus, bicycle, motorbike, car, plane. Since the shift from large American-built cars to smaller European and Japanese cars in the late 20th century, there has been only one large shift in this sector—the explosion of motorbikes. People are generally willing to pay about 6 month’s salary for a vehicle and, since it’s difficult to build and sell a car for less than $3000, there is little market for cars in the developing world. But motorbikes, at $150-$600, are in huge demand, and they make sense. A 50kg motorbike can carry a 50kg driver—and groceries—far more efficiently than a 1000kg car can. Thus we should probably stop worrying about a future in which a billion Chinese or a billion Indians drive cars. Eventually, the rising cost of oil will force an end to the motorbike explosion as well. Already, 6% of Portland, Oregon’s commuters have shifted to plain old bicycles. I am pleasantly surprised at the number of super-efficient electric motorbikes in my Florida community. The mountain-town of Boulder, Colorado has a bicycle commuter rate comparable to flat Amsterdam, Holland. Not coincidentally, Boulder has the lowest obesity rate in the U.S.

How far will these trends go? Probably not far, since many new efficiencies are on the horizon, as wind and solar electricities spur new vehicle types. Lighter aircraft and slipperier ship-hulls are coming to the industrial and military sectors. What else is happening?

3 thoughts on “The October Thing #13 – Transportation – October 2, 2011”

  1. Having lived in London for extended periods of time–without a car–I found myself completely satisfied with the modes of transportation at my disposal: my feet, the Underground, buses, trains, taxis. I rarely, if ever, missed having to deal with the hassles of maintenance, security, and parking of a private automobile. And I was in the best shape of my life when living that way. I could go almost anywhere (except remote areas…then I did rent a car for the time I needed it) and conduct whatever business I needed to.
    Contrast this with the greater Los Angeles area, where my children live and work. They absolutely cannot survive without a car, and most everyone reading this understands about the traffic out there. If you’ve never experienced it, I’ll just say the reports you’ve heard are not overstated. Not only is environmental degradation an issue in LA, but life is stressful there. Especially (I’m guessing) for the motorcyclists who weave in and out of the traffic lanes on the freeway at high speeds. They can skirt the traffic, but I can’t help but believe most of them have a death wish. And in LA it’s not just driving that’s a hassle, it’s parking too. We simply must find alternatives to relying on private automobiles in congested urban areas.

  2. Here’s my vote for what we’ll do for transportation during the next generation: less. Less air travel, less shopping travel, less school travel, less sports travel, less recreational travel, even less church travel.

    Not only do we need fossil fuels for our internal combustion engines; we also need fossil fuels to maintain the roads on which electric vehicles might travel (and parenthetically, to maintain the electrical grid). Perhaps we’ll be able to use bicycles, but even bikes will have trouble if potholes go unrepaired. By the end of my natural life (in 25 years or so), the most common form of transportation may be two feet.

    I’m 58 years old today. Happy birthday, Amanda and me! My great-grandparents rarely traveled more than 50 miles or so from the place where they were born. I suspect my great grandchildren will have a similar experience.

  3. I lived in Boulder, CO for a few years and enjoyed the freedom of safely commuting by bicycle. One can bike clear across town and never have to cross traffic; bike paths often go over and under streets. Even while riding in the streets or in the bike lane, the general mentality of the citizens is that the cyclist and the pedestrian have the right-of-way. Despite this being the state law in Alabama, it is not part of the “culture.” Now that I’m Birmingham, I rarely take me bike to the streets for fear of being struck by a careless driver. I usually ride my motorbike, which I consider far more safe than a bicycle (or scooter) in Birmingham.

    Although Boulder has a different mindset than Birmingham, I think the city’s design has a lot to do with it. Sure, Boulder attracts outdoor enthusiasts because of its location, but there are other CO towns that are designed poorly and, likewise, have that “get out of my way” mentality that Birmingham shares. I’m curious to see how mindsets change as cities are redesigned. I recall reading about an urban community that was plagued by street violence. Some folks decided to make the community more conducive to outdoor activities by planting flowers and cleaning the streets. The result was a decrease in crime simply because people were spending more time outdoors rather than staying in their homes afraid to come out.

    I think we’ll see similar paradigm shifts after Tuscaloosa rebuilds and Birmingham’s greenways are built.

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