It’s the (economy) everything, stupid

Transport Knowledge Hub logo Published on: 7th September 2021 by Paul Campion.

It’s the economy everything, stupid

How much transport is in your sandwich?

All transport planners are taught on the first day of transport planning school that ‘transport is a derived demand’ and the public debate is beginning to recognise that our personal travel patterns are, to a large extent, designed into our built environments: famously in the case of Anne Hidalgo’s “15 minute city” in Paris. The amount we travel (and to a large extent whether we walk, cycle, take the bus or train or drive) depends on where we live in relation to our place of work, our children’s school, the shops, the doctor’s surgery, the pub, the gym and our elderly parents. Each time we go to the shops we could buy more so that we need to go less often, but until we find a way to grow our own pop tarts and prosecco in the back garden the food will have to be moved from the shop to our home on some sort of regular schedule.

Thinking about what the ‘demand’ is in ‘derived demand’ is a salutary exercise because it is all to easy to focus on personal mobility and underestimate freight, logistics and commercial transport. So often discussion about transport focuses on the commute to work but, even before the changes in (white collar) work patterns brought about by the pandemic, commuting was only 15% of car trips, which were, in turn, 78% of road vehicles miles travelled….in other words about 7 out of every 8 vehicle miles driven were not commuting. In recent years the fastest growing segment of traffic has been light goods vehicles (it has been getting easier to find a plumber, it seems) and, during lockdown, as people stopped using their cars so much, there was a corresponding rise in the proportion of lorries and vans – if you don’t go to the shops then the goods have to be carried to you.

When you think about it, it becomes obvious that everything you consume – every piece of food, every article of clothing, every leisure activity, every chore and every treat – contains embedded transport. Even things that look like they don’t involve transport still do, somewhere back down the chain. What about watching television or surfing the internet (does anyone still ‘surf’ the internet or is that as old-fashioned ‘taking the car for a spin’?) Consuming these things may apparently involve no more travel than is necessary to carry a cup of tea back from the kitchen to the sofa but data centres don’t build themselves; costume dramas require the bringing together of national treasures and their costumes in front of a technical crew; communications networks are built and maintained by people in vans and the very electricity consumed requires, at the very least, the construction and maintenance of solar panels or wind turbines and, more probably, the extraction in far away places of fossil fuels from where they travel around the world to be processed and burned. None of this is possible without transport: everything has transport ‘in it’.

Now let’s face an uncomfortable truth:  unless we can more or less immediately decarbonise every means of transport then to decarbonise transport, as a segment, we will have to reduce our usage of transport. Although there are a lot of things we can do today (if you don’t currently drive an electric vehicle at least ensure that your next vehicle is electric) there is, unfortunately no complete set of technological fixes that will enable us to decarbonise all transport modes quickly enough. This is acknowledged in the Committee for Climate Change’s Sixth budget which assumes a 17% reduction in passenger car miles to make the books balance (and we could imagine that this might be a conservative requirement if any other of their planning assumptions turn out to be optimistic).

Put the two thoughts together: there is transport in everything and to decarbonise transport we may have to reduce demand and we can easily see that this means have to either reduce the amount of transport involved in stuff (all stuff) or we have to consume less. And now, perhaps, you are thinking that I have taken a long way around to make the very simplistic observation that carbon is linked to energy use and energy use is linked to consumption: rich countries, who have higher average standards of living (i.e. use more stuff) generate more carbon.

Consuming less stuff is, at the same time, a really obvious thing to propose and something that always seems politically impossible. When has anyone ever voluntarily chosen to have less stuff (or, to put it another way, to lower their own standard of living?) Well this may be one of the few times when a Second World War analogy is valid: the electorate in many countries were prepared, at that time, to see a sometimes significantly lower living standard for years and years in order to win the war. Failing to win the ‘war on climate change’ would have even more far-reaching effects that losing a world war. “But no-one really believes it’s the same thing” you might reply and people have written (very good) books about precisely this. But, on the other hand, there have been recent elections when an appeal to ‘austerity’ (i.e. voluntarily lowering our standard of living) have been consistent with winning, even if it would be impossible to show that they were the cause of the win.

Even if talk of “less” may not automatically mean people stop listening we still may not be confident that political leaders are ready to risk a very difficult conversation with the electorate (even if opinion polls say that the majority of people believe climate change is real and among the most important challenges to address). Unfortunately, the alternative to a difficult choice now, though, may be to be forced into Hobson’s choice later when the effects of rising temperatures become more frequent, more obvious, more serious and closer to home.

There may be a middle way. Perhaps the dichotomy between transport and no transport is false. When we think of transport revolutions of the past, say the railway mania of the early- to mid-nineteenth century, we see radical changes in infrastructure that enabled equally radical changes in transport networks that delivered, in this case, great increases in living standards. Could there be new ways to deliver transport networks that could minimise the reductions in living standard required to remove carbon emissions from all the transport included in, well, everything? I believe there could. UK startups like Magway are reimagining part of the logistics chains that get stuff from port to distribution centre or store. Instead of hard-to-decarbonise HGVs they envisage electrically powered pallet-sized trolleys whizzing down tubes the size of gas mains or sewer pipes buried underground (or even laid or suspended overground: perhaps an alternative way to reverse Beeching’s cuts without sacrificing the pathways and nature reserves that many of the old lines have become).

E-cargo bikes and similar specialised devices are changing the relationship between transport miles and carbon footprint. And the use of data could change the way we move stuff about; I may not be the only person who, during lockdown, has had the opportunity to watch all the delivery vans arriving to my neighbour’s houses (alright, I admit it: and mine) and have thought how much more efficient it would be to consolidate all those packages into one, or two deliveries a day. This model is hardly new: the postal service has been consolidating deliveries into an eco-friendly-last-mile-next-day delivery for centuries. Organising the regulatory and fiscal environment which will make it more profitable to do it this way rather than the silo-ed competitive model that incentivises every organisation to run its own fleet of diesel-engined vans to get the stuff to us bit by bit is the sort of rather unglamorous work that could make a real difference.

Mobility hubs could be part of a re-configuration of our local areas…well there are any number of other ideas and initiatives that could make a difference. After all, we don’t need a single, transformational technology (I know it was me that just used the example of the railways, which was a single, transformational technology, but cut me a bit of rhetorical slack, will you?) – if we can come up with enough initiatives that each make 1%, 2%, 5% difference and we close the gap to plan.

Trying to make any meaningful contribution to the unimaginable complexity of this topic in 1500 words is the ambition of a fool so perhaps I should stop trying to do that and work on ending on a note of optimism instead. The observation that everything is connected and that transport cannot be separated from the economic and social conditions that it serves is at once both trivial (in that no-one ever thought the opposite), deep (in that it can illuminate why we got into this mess in the first place) and, for me at least, curiously freeing in that it enable us to start thinking about the problem at the top. Rather than trying to unpick the Gordian knot from the middle we can start with the question “What can a satisfying life look like that is also sustainable?” Parts of the answer are lying around all over the place (and we must not forget that the answer will be different for different people) and my instinct is that even those parts that need to be invented need not involve as much of a hair shirt as we may fear. Let’s not think in terms of taking things away; let’s think about how to make thinks differently better. Well, it’s not like there’s much choice…

About the Author

This post was written by Paul Campion. Paul is Chief Executive Officer at TRL