The Transportation Trap

March 3, 2008 at 12:21 pm 3 comments

If we look at the modern world and ponder what single element defines it, I would pick transportation. It has been an essential medium for both our technological and economic progress and in less than 50 years we have conquered the distances that used to separate and isolate us. However, judged against the scales of time and innovation, this transportation system organized on the building blocks of planes, trains and automobiles could easily be described as “version 1.0”. And, while I like what our system accomplishes – mobility, I don’t like how we achieve it – through environmental degradation and the consequential social inequity. So, to achieve a sustainable future we will need a “system upgrade”. Unfortunately, our greatest obstacle to sustainability is our child-like infatuation with the current transportation system based on fossil fuels and the resource intense automobile.

The private car is the foundation of our transportation system in America and in my earlier entry, Transportation and Social Equity, I argue that the auto is also a barrier to participation in our greater society. But, if you consider all the pieces of infrastructure needed to support this system, the investment costs become clearer. These pieces include : roads, gas stations, mechanics, driveways, garages, parking lots, land and space, fuel, refineries, pipe-lines, car manufacturers, dealers, junk yards, traffic police, road signs and lights, regulations, the commute time we invest, bridges, tunnels, pollution, injuries, lives (1.2 million deaths/year), labor to build and maintain, insurance and the health care costs that result from the sedentary lifestyle it systematizes.

Even if we develop a car that travels 400 miles on a gallon of water, the costs are too high – the infrastructure needed to support it largely remains the same and continues to be inefficient, wasteful and a source of poverty. What is the alternative? Public transportation seems the obvious answer. The problem with this simplistic answer is that the domination of the almighty car has shaped American society into a suburban sprawl that makes our current paradigm of public transportation ineffective and not a realistic solution.

In our quest to achieve a sustainable civilization, if public transportation utilizing high speed trains, light rail and automated people movers is to become a reality, then we will need to change the paradigm by reorganizing how and where we live. That is to say, rather than build this system to go where people currently populate (the current mindset), we will have to build the system to connect strategic resources such as agriculture and energy, and let people populate along those routes.

Barriers to realizing this “Transportation System v2.0” reside in the public’s mindset – Americans are unlikely to lead the world toward a sustainable future because of our deep association of the car as a symbol of freedom and individuality. In this way our success also becomes our trap and sustainable transportation systems will probably appear in underdeveloped countries first. Why? One, with scarce resources they must be more strategic in their infrastructure choices. And two, neither their egos nor livelihoods are as invested in the current paradigm to resist such innovation.

“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” – Albert Einstein

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Transportation and Social Equity

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Entry filed under: Design, Environment, Life, Sustainability, Thoughts, Transportation. Tags: , .

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