Lean Transport

Transport is the symbol of modernity: pictures of the future show the land, sea and air full of fast-moving vehicles. But that is, of course, an image of the failure of modernity—the relentlessly deepening incompetence of place: local capability has leaked away and collected in giant hubs in which skills and assets are captured and concentrated. In an age of cheap energy and massive material needs and flows, distance is trivial, opening the way to a comedy of errors, in which everything starts off in the wrong place. If Lean Logic’s expectations of future energy scarcity are correct, there is no way in which that depth of transport-dependency can be sustained by being made lean. The Lean Economy will have to start again, thinking about space and distance in a completely different way.

The transport network needed to support a drastically reduced volume of traffic will not include motorways. Whatever we may think about motorways, it comes as a shock to think of them as obsolete and empty. And yet, the history of transport is a collection of stories with abrupt endings: transport systems which have reached an accomplished maturity, supported by skilled labour-forces, generally turn out to be on the point of obsolescence. The Romans’ roads, at the end of their day, reverted to scrub, and later proved unsuited to the heavy loads and heavy horses needed by the cathedral-builders in the Middle Ages. The eighteenth century’s invention of express coaching along 20,000 miles of turnpikes (a breakthrough: paid for by their users, rather than by a charge on local residents) reached its peak of efficiency and speed in 1837: just five years later, defeated by railways, it had gone; the fine roads—dual carriageways thirty yards wide in many areas—were deserted; grass and weeds started to creep in from the margins, leaving a space just wide enough for two vehicles to pass. There is now the prospect of the mass road transport of our own day, too, coming to an abrupt end—to be followed, as before, by a forgiving shroud of grass and weeds.L189

The motorways’ decaying surfaces, unsafe bridges and rotting concrete, their heavy maintenance needs and their massive land use (around 50 square miles, or 14,000 hectares in the UK) will be a curse on the landscape.L190 Rehabilitating the land on which they lie would be desirable, but the scale of the task—including breaking up and removing deeply embedded reinforced concrete foundations and disposing of the spoil—would be not far short of that of building them in the first place. The probability is that the motorway system will be neither maintained nor decommissioned, except by local initiative, which would have the incentive to close off this dangerous ‘no man’s land’ (hard to police, and an express route for crime) and start the long process of bringing it back into use, in the first instance as woodland. Just breaking up the surface would be a start. In practice, the removal of any more than a small fraction of the network may well turn out to be impossible.

Railways are likely to go the same way. With a steep decline in use, the cost per passenger mile would rise beyond the possibility of maintaining any substantial part of the system. Rail makes sense only where there is the potential for mass transit: it needs a lot of people and money to pay for it. This is not an enterprise which can be expected to work on the basis of reciprocities. And its energy source is in doubt. If substantial electrical energy should become available from (say) solar arrays in the Sahara Desert, then electrically-powered railways would be the ideal transport medium. But, failing that, there is a question about how railways would be powered, and where the energy would come from to fuel their infrastructures—making rails and trains.

We may get lucky. It depends on the depth of the collapse following the climacteric. And, so long as the possibility of being able to run a railway cannot be ruled out, the inherited rail network is a crucial asset. It would have been even more useful, the infrastructure of localisation, had it not been for the errors—pathetic misconceptions, according to the transport analyst David St John Thomas—which led to its substantial closure in the 1960s. The prospect of what remains being unavailable to the Lean Economy comes as another shock. The aim of conserving it—or, better still, reinstating some of the lost network—would be a priority if circumstances allowed.L191

The exception to this is high-speed rail, a deeply obsolete technology based on the assumption that society in the future will be based on ever-growing city hubs, requiring mass transit not only between them but to them, within the centralised regions they serve. The case for high-speed rail has turned on two factoids: (1) it isn’t air travel; and (2) journey times are shorter—but that will only encourage people to make more journeys—and, anyway, time on a train is Grade 1 useful time for work, sleep, conversation and thinking. In fact, the convergence of special conditions—cheap energy, large-scale engineering and transport infrastructures, and robust demand backed by high incomes—will no longer exist, either for high-speed rail or for air travel itself. The present drive to build high-speed rail will draw scarce resources away from the undoubted asset of local rail, breeding a new generation of white elephants, like the nuclear power stations. Phantom tracks will be named after their advocate, like the Maginot Line.

As Neil MacGregor reminds us during a brief visit to ancient Persia in his A History of the World in 100 Objects, “nothing tells you more about a state than its transport system.”L192 In fact, the relevant transport system for a localised economy organised on the proximity principle is local roads—backed by lightly-used trunk roads. There may be no alternative to local maintenance, although that is a collective task which, for societies that have valued their freedoms, has never been without its problems and politics, with the quality of the maintenance variable. Local transport may include biogas-fuelled cars, buses and trucks, but the biogas will be sufficiently costly and scarce to make the use of road vehicles the exception, rather than the routine. Some reliable forms of transport will remain: walking, bicycles, horses and sojourn: staying at your designation for a long time, rather than going backwards and forwards; in this way, slow becomes fast—you simply spend less time travelling, for you are already there.

The unanswerable question at the heart of transport is the one asked by the farm labourer standing bemused one day in the mid-eighteenth century at the side of the Liverpool-Manchester turnpike, crowded with urgently-speeding coaches: “Who would ever have thought that there were so many people in the wrong place?”L193 Ivan Illich expresses the matter as an ideal: it is never to be realised, and in the gap between ideal and actuality, the Lean Economy will need transport, but the ideal itself is, in his words,

space that offers to each person the constantly renewed experience that the centre of the world is where he stands, walks and lives.L194

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David Fleming
Dr David Fleming (2 January 1940 – 29 November 2010) was an economist, historian and writer, based in London. He was among the first to reveal the possibility of peak oil's approach and invented the influential TEQs scheme, designed to address this and climate change. He was also a significant figure in the development of the UK Green Party, the Transition Towns movement and the New Economics Foundation, as well as a Chairman of the Soil Association. His wide-ranging independent analysis culminated in two critically acclaimed books, Lean Logic and Surviving the Future. A film about his perspective and legacy - The Sequel: What Will Follow Our Troubled Civilisation? - was released in 2019, directed by BAFTA-winning director Peter Armstrong. For more information, including on Lean Logic, click the little globe below!

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