Review: Transport Revolutions by Richard Gilbert and Anthony Perl

August 20, 2010

Transport Revolutions: Moving People and Freight without Oil
By Richard Gilbert and Anthony Perl
434 pp. New Society Publishers – Mar. 2010. $26.95.

Transport Revolutions presents an ambitious vision of a world, 15 years from now, that is well on its way to kicking oil and being run on renewably produced electricity. The book’s authors, internationally recognized transport policy experts Richard Gilbert and Anthony Perl, readily acknowledge the enormity of this challenge, with transport worldwide currently 95 percent dependent on oil. They have no illusions that the transition would be painless. But they nonetheless insist that it could be done. And they seem to have sold a lot of people on their vision: both editions of their book so far have been bestsellers.

The book will appeal especially to those who appreciate the gravity of peak oil—the point at which global oil production begins to irreversibly decline—but who believe that there’s still time to do something about it. It will disappoint the so-called doomers among the peak oil crowd, those who equate dwindling oil production with the end of civilization as we know it. And on the opposite end of the spectrum, it won’t register at all with those who think that peak oil poses no threat and will be obviated altogether by market forces and human ingenuity.

Gilbert and Perl’s analysis excels on several fronts. First, it does a superb job of clearly, systematically defining key terms and concepts. For example, it defines a transport revolution as “a substantial change in a society’s transport activity that occurs in less than 25 yrs.” And it defines “substantial change” as a shift in which “something that was happening before increases or decreases dramatically, say by 50 percent; or a new means of transport becomes prevalent to the extent that it becomes a part of the lives of ten percent or more of the society’s population.”

The book also makes great use of figures, tables and statistical analysis—though this technical material gets a bit too dense in a few places, where it probably would have been better consigned to appendices.

A third strength of Transport Revolutions is its originality. Rather than focusing exclusively on passenger transport, a common oversight by transport scholars at large, the authors note, it includes lengthy discussions of freight transport as well. And in its survey of past transport revolutions, it looks not only at periods of increased transport activity but also at dramatic slowdowns in transport. For instance, it uses the World War Two mass curtailment of motorization to illustrate how quickly and sharply people can reduce their automobile usage when the need arises.

Transport Revolutions’ thesis is that, with the coming of peak oil, the world is on the eve of revolutions that will utterly transform how people and freight move. And the best hope for an en-masse transition away from fossil fuels, the book argues, lies in a monumental campaign to electrify motorized land transport—coupled with drastic curtailment of energy usage—across the developed world. Gilbert and Perl point out that in nations where concerted government efforts have been undertaken to curb oil consumption, electricity-driven solutions are the ones that have overwhelmingly prevailed. However, they take issue with these efforts’ almost complete focus on battery electric and hybrid automobiles. They see far more promise in transport systems that rely on grid connection while in motion.

Grid-connected vehicles include electric trains, trolleys and streetcars, and they draw their electricity directly from the grid through rails or overhead wires. They offer truly amazing efficiency gains over other types of electric vehicles, not only because they’re freed of having to lug around heavy batteries but also because they don’t have to contend with the efficiency losses entailed in charging a battery, which can be as high as 37 percent.

In addition to land transport, the authors also discuss the likely future changes to marine transport and air travel/air freight. They foresee wind energy increasingly supplementing the use of bunker fuel to power oceangoing ships, and both air travel and air freight movement declining precipitously because of how oil-intensive they are.

In the book’s final section, Gilbert and Perl sketch out in profound detail what they believe the state of motorized transport could resemble in 2025. They chose 2025 as a counterpoint to the present mainly because they feel that it is “near enough to provide a meaningful close target date that could motivate action,” and is also “a sufficient period within which to attain significant results from redesigning transport systems.” In the future that they describe, world oil production is down 17 percent from its 2007 level, and the United States has stayed well ahead of depletion by cutting its consumption by more than 40 percent. China, on the other hand, is still increasing its oil consumption—but not at the rate that current projections would suggest, since its days of runaway economic growth are over.

The authors focus on the United States and China in this discussion because they believe that these two countries “present the most challenging cases among what are now richer countries and poorer countries that are striving to become affluent.” America’s challenges lie in the fact that it generates far more transport activity, and uses more oil per capita in doing so, than does any other rich nation. China’s challenges stem from its status as the largest and most populous of the poorer countries striving to become affluent, and also from the fact that it is motorizing more quickly than any of these other poorer nations. Because the United States and China are extreme cases, they bring into sharp relief the challenges and potential rewards of a shift to renewably produced electricity.

The authors are cautious about making specific predictions about our transport future, but they do have many specific, in-depth recommendations. Above all, they stress that all existing highway and airport expansion programs must be terminated immediately. They also suggest that government take a central role in the transition ahead. They believe that through fiscal mechanisms such as investing in infrastructure and taxing oil used for transport, the federal government could relieve much of the pain of the transition.

These federal efforts would be presided over by a new agency called (the authors suggest) the Transport Redevelopment Administration, or TRA. The TRA’s board would be chaired by the U.S. vice president and would also include the secretaries of Energy, Defense, Transportation and Treasury, as well as members representing state, county and city governments. In addition to helping fund transport redevelopment projects, the agency would also be involved in planning and overseeing them.

This book represents a passionate, intensely argued assessment of the world’s prospects as it moves into the post-peak-oil era. I personally find its proposal to be a bit too optimistic, since it ignores the findings of the Department of Energy’s “Hirsch report” (this document, well known among peak oilers, concluded that peak oil mitigation efforts must begin at least two decades prior to peak, i.e., by the early nineties, in order to avert catastrophe). But whatever your particular spot on the continuum of peak oil opinion, this book certainly offers analysis and insights that will prove invaluable during future transport revolutions.

Frank Kaminski

Frank Kaminski is an ardent reader and reviewer of books related to natural resource depletion, climate change and other issues affecting the fate of industrial civilization. He lives in southwestern Washington state near the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge.  

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