20/10/2008 4:57 pmTransportation is invaluable to our mobility-based society, for merchandise as much as for people. Very logically, they are at the centre of economic, energy, environmental, and social issues.
People, merchandise, ideas, epidemics, circulate along pathways of communication. In the United States in the 19th century, the rush towards the West was associated with the development of railroads. In Amazonia, today, roads create openings in forests from which other roads can be opened for deforestation.
In Europe, each person daily travels distances that were still considerable a century ago: on average, each French person traveled 10km to go to work. (1) Products that we purchase downstairs in our homes have traveled around the world, and we only realize it when we look at the label. International tourism has become commonplace.
Each mode of transportation is adapted to certain types of travelling. Largely, planes are adapted to transcontinental traveling, the train to distances on the order of thousands of kilometers, cars for several hundred kilometers, bikes for dozens of kilometers, feet for a kilometer. Intermodality consists of combining several modes of transportation in order to travel in a minimum amount of time with the maximum amount of comfort or efficiency. It is for example when you ride a bike to the train station, then take the bus once you reach the city.
Often cited as a pioneer in terms of soft mobility, the Netherlands have achieved this thanks to an important policy of spatial planning aiming to limit urban spread. Thus, since 1973, the building of large shopping centres outside of towns has been forbidden so as to avoid the negative effects of shops moving away from the town centre. Moreover, the setting up of tertiary services and shops in areas accessible by public transport has been prioritized. This policy is known as the “A-B-C location policy”. According to their location, the number of parking spaces granted to 100 employees varies; it tends to go down in areas that are connected to the public transport network or are accessible by bicycle. Bad weather is not considered in the Netherlands to be a factor preventing cycling.
Air transport, the great absentee from the Kyoto Protocol
Air transport emits 2.5% of world green-house gases; each year more than 29 million flights transport more than 2.2 billion passengers. However, this sector does not pay fines because it is not included in the mechanisms of the Kyoto Protocol. Airlines pleaded the absence of a kerosene substitute, that, moreover, kerosene is not taxed according to Article 24 of the Chicago Convention. (A-B-C)
For shipping merchandise, intermodality is a important issue but difficult to implement. In the same way, piggybacking, namely shipping trucks by train, runs up against the lack of appropriate infrastructures that are costly to build.
Starting in the 1960s, the adoption of standardised containers that can pass easily from ship to truck or train encouraged intermodality. Containers represent a large part of merchandise shipping by boat.
Internationally, roads remain the top way of shipping merchandise. Boats allow the shipping in large quantities of products low in value or unaffected by shipping time. Planes are used to ship goods of higher value.
In the world, with 105 million bikes produced in 2004, bikes remain the most manufactured personal means of transportation, far ahead of the 44.4 million cars released from factories the same year.
Transportations use fossil fuels; they contribute to green-house gas emission. On an international scale, shipping merchandise and people is responsible for 17% of CO2 emissions (5). 79.5% of those come from automobiles, followed by planes, 13%, and sea transport, 7%.
Road transport is crucial to assuring what we call the first and last kilometers. Meaning, for example, carrying a store’s supplies downtown from a warehouse in the suburbs. It is also the simplest mode of transportation in developing areas, when other infrastructures are not available.
Its flexibility and low cost has deeply changed the whole society, in particular all large distributions—it is not rare that a product or its components travel thousands of kilometers by truck before arriving on a set of shelves. The very large use of trucking causes pollution, traffic, green-house gas emission, and local economic market distortion problems.
In poorly served areas and spared by congestion in the countryside when living isolated, cars find their place. It allows one to travel, be independent, and can be combined well with other modes of transport. In some cases, rental or carpooling allows one to use a car without owning one. Carpooling optimizes vehicle usage without increasing their number, which creates traffic jams on roads.
Its use can even be counterproductive: according to ADEME: « one trip by car out of 2 is covered over a distance of less than 3km. » (6)
On the other hand, if one adds the time spent working to buy a car and maintaining it to the travel time, every French person dedicates on average 4 hours every day to their car, according to the environmental thinker, Ivan Illitch. If the total number of kilometers travelled by car is divided by the time dedicated to his car, an average speed is obtained of around 7km/h.
In congested downtown areas, the idea of a man-powered mobility is progressing with the development of public transport but also pedestrian zones and self-serve bikes. Northern European cities (Amsterdam, Copenhagen) are the example and allow us to observe the advantages offered in terms of quality of life. City tolls or other legal measures try to limit car usage.
Risks in transports
Transports are the cause of accidents. The SMO reports 1.2 million deaths and 50 million injured on roads each year throughout the world.
Transport accidents also have repercussions on the environment. An oil tanker that leaks and causes an oil spill, a tanker that dumps its contents in the open pollutes the environment [see sheet on technological disasters]. Transporting dangerous materials calls for numerous precautions.
Transport infrastructures encroachs upon ecosystems. Ways of communication (roads or railroads) separate a specie’s living space, therefore protected passages or ecoducs allow some animals to continue travelling across a territory without being put in danger by a highway for example. The toadduc, that allows toads to pass under a road is the most well known variant of these protective measures but in North America there are passages for bears.
At night, vehicule lights attract animals that die underneath their wheels.
For the sake of saving some species, highway projects were cancelled or dropped as it was the case with the highway project in the Loire region to protect the pique prune (Osmoderma eremite), a species of beetle protected by the law.
Airports bring sound disturbances for river animals.
The predicted increase in gasoline prices could deeply change our societies. For merchandise, it would increase the price of some shipped products and would reinforce the interest in short or local trips, to the detriment of current large distribution models. In terms of transporting people, it would mean the increase in international tourism prices, which would become again what it was at the beginning of the 20th century: a luxury for the rich. Finally, the dematerialisation of trade associated with digital cost savings, videoconference technologies or telecommuting can contribute to limiting transport usage.
(4) World Watch Institue, Vital Signs 2007 – 2008, Chap Transportation and Communications Trends
(7) Dupuy Jean-Pirre, « Pour un catastrophisme éclairé », chap 2 « Le détour, la contreproductivité et l’éthique »