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New World Transportation

This post is part of a series focusing on Strategic Sustainability for Survival.

When looking at the lofty goals of many organizations when it comes to sustainability, I was struck by their naive optimism, a general feeling that if we make some small changes everything is going to be OK, maybe ban plastic shopping bags and incandecent light bulbs, reduce office paper wastage, but ignore the fact that you drive a gas guzzling vehicle everywhere to do anything!

I’ve created this series in order put words to the thoughts in my head, specifically for the Kootenays, but relevant for the rest of the world as well. Many of the ideas tie together neatly, real estate values and sustainable housing; food security and agricultural clawback. All of them represent a future that we need to be prepared for and ready to adapt to.

Comments and suggestions are welcome.

It’s interesting that people reading this title instantly think of futuristic, even space age modes of transportation. The Jetsons is further from current reality than most of us care to imagine. Considering the lack of viable alternatives to oil based fuels for general transportation here on the ground, somehow I don’t think a future involving people driving around in flying cars is particularly likely.

I’m sorry if I’ve blown all of your childhood fantasies out of the water, but this series is all about taking a long hard look at the possibilities that we face in the coming decades with multiple impending crises.

Back to the Drawing Board

It’s pretty obvious that oil is not the great source of energy that we were lead to believe, and all you read about ethanol based fuels being the saviour for our car-centric societies will come at the cost of the food that we need to eat to survive. I’ll ask the American Nation, which do you want, cars or food? A pretty simple choice for most of us, but when our whole economy and way of life depends intimately on the car as the primary mode of transport, the lobby groups will apply a lot of pressure to see their businesses survive. But at what cost?

We can’t expect that transportation powered by petroleum products will increase at the rate that we have become accustomed to over the past couple of decades, and as I wrote in my last post, we can’t trust the provincial governments to step up to the plate, so what are we going to do? (click read more)

Self Propulsion

This one’s pretty straight forward… ever heard of walking? Or cycling? It’s interesting to note that bicycle sales exceeded those of automobiles in Australia again in 2007:

Cycling Promotion Fund – Media Alert: Bicycle Outsell cars in Australia – sales top 1.4 million

Australia is experiencing its biggest bicycle boom in the nation’s history, with figures released today showing a record 1.47 million bicycles sold in 2007 – outselling cars for the 8th consecutive year.

The environmental and health benefits are pretty obvious at this stage, however, in the future it is likely that a lot more of us will be doing a lot more walking and cycling. Watching a movie the other night about Ireland in the early 1920’s, "The Wind that Shakes the Barely", most people walked, the military drove, and occasionally there was a messenger on a bike if something needed rapid delivery. This was in a country facing economic crisis where resources were scarce. People walked as a result.

I’ve written about the environmental benefits, or otherwise, of walking before in an article entitled, "Duped into walking"; and wrote about the best bike trailers in another article, "Wiking Around – Thoughts on Buying a Bike Trailer". With all of the environmental and social changes that are likely to occur in the future, walking and cycling will come back as primary modes of transport, not just for exercising on the weekends.

Animal Powered Transport

bullock Looking back years ago in western countries, and around the world in developing nations, many animals have uses in transportation, the image to the left depicts a bullock driven cart in the Wollongong region in Australia. Bullock teams were used extensively in early colonial Australia to haul large and heavy items such as logs from the forest to the sawmills. Horses have been popular around the world for both fast personal transport and heavy hauling. Other animals include mules, donkeys, dogs and elephants (think Hannibal crossing the alps!)

Logistically, a move back to animals for transport would be difficult. We no longer have the land required, nor stables to house the number of animals and carts required to replace the vehicles we use today. Likewise, most cities ban the housing of any livestock within areas zoned residential, and some cities even limit the number of dogs you are allowed on one property. These are some of the first laws that should be repealed in the event of a post-peak oil crash. Cities like Seattle are on the way with allowing miniature goats within the city.

Energy Neutral Transportation

Some modes of transport available today are energy neutral once the vehicle has been manufactured. Some examples are solar powered cars, as well as the simple sailing boat. More development is required for solar power for this to become a truly viable method of transport, particularly for more than one person at a time.

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New Technology

Every day there is new technology evolving, hydrogen powered cars, hybrid locomotives, and kite powered container ships. While these are great advances, nothing stands out to replace the current consumption of oil-based products. I’d love to be wrong, and find that in ten years we are all driving around like the Jetsons in some new forma of technology that is remarkably cheap, easy to produce and pollution-free. Unfortunately, like many large sc ale technologies there is a significant ramp-up timeframe that needs to be considered. Looking back through recent history:

  • trains required massive lengths of track to be routed and laid before any significant tonnage could be hauled.
  • cars were not adopted by the general public on mass until after the second world war, see the cars per capita in the right column of this table. Even with a great technology like cars were we can’t expect ipod like adoption of this scale of technology across the world.
  • aeroplanes were prohibitively expensive to run for the first years of the technology. It was only with the adoption of efficiency improvements and larger planes that greater population coverage could be expected. Even still, there are many people in western nations who have never flown on a plane.
  • In the sixties the American Government promised that there would be a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Most people agree that this happened, but the sci-fi dreams of space travel for everyone is still a pipe dream, with each space launch costing billions to run.
  • Hovercraft were hailed the greatest vessel to replace slower ferries in Sydney Harbour. The technology was novel, but is yet to be adopted on a larger scale anywhere in the world.

These are just some of the roadblocks that have plagued transportation technologies in the last century, and I don’t see new technologies having an easier time. If anything the future seems harder.

Mike Thomas

Mike Thomas P.Eng. ENV SP, is the author of UrbanWorkbench.com and Director of Engineering at the City of Revelstoke in the Interior of British Columbia, Canada. If I post something here that you find helpful as you navigate the world of engineering, planning and building communities, that’s wonderful. But when push comes to shove: This is my personal blog. The views expressed on these pages are mine alone and not those of my employer.