A friend lent me a book, Energy and Equity by Ivan Illich, which is a collection of essays based on discussions from a 1974 conference in Mexico. It was an interesting look into the philosophical views on transportation and society that are still applicable today.
The Main Takeaways
The Main Takeaways
- There is an optimal speed of traffic, purported to be 15mph, which, if exceeded, results in traffic inefficiencies and time scarcity. Illich calculates the inefficiencies of the automobile industry and comes to the average speed of a car is 3.7 mph.
- Faster forms of transport create more inequalities, explicit class systems and privileges emerge. The better-off take advantage of these forms of transport, leaving the rest behind. Transit becomes more about how you’re conveyed, rather than an equal right for everyone.
- The faster we go, the less space we have. Cities become spokes of giant transportation hubs. Neighborhoods get destroyed for larger and faster conveyances (look at the history of the Big Dig). How much construction space is devoted to parking lots? Who wants to live next to the highway anyway? More sprawl results. The average U.S. worker commutes 50 minutes everyday. With so much time spent travelling, it’s almost as if we’re running to stay in place.
- Bicycles are the most efficient forms of transportation, requiring the least amount of energy to move. This puts humans at the top of the food chain in terms of energy utilization.
The ideal solution proposed, is to construct a society around bikes. Aside from being more efficient, bikes provide a greater freedom for people to travel, i.e. you are not limited by roads. Bikes are compact, environmentally friendly, and relatively inexpensive.
It’s an interesting though experiment, to imagine a city, or world, built around bikes. However, there are some practical challenges:
How do you transport larger objects or mail, by bike? Although Illich only focuses on the transportation of people, he alludes to a similar solution for transportation of goods and mail, but would that mean it would still take a week to get a simple postcard across the country? How long for a fridge?
Weather could be more problematic. Bikes are not optimal for rain or snow, so would people stop riding those days, like current snow days on the east coast? Or, since cities would be more dense, people would just walk and still be able to do business.
If we had concluded the optimal speed of transport had been reached, would technological advances have continued? Throw "better, faster, cheaper" out the window? Many technological innovations came through the advancement of transportation. Without them, the world would be less connected, would there be NASA, or an Internet? Have our technological advances alleviated some of these transportation issues?
It seems we still have a lot to learn about transportation.