Transportation: Transportation in the Post-Carbon World

October 27, 2010

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TRANSPORTATION: Transportation in the Post-Carbon World by Richard Gilbert and Anthony Perl


Successful post-carbon transitions will benefit from understanding the dynamics of transport revolutions.  We define a transport revolution as being substantial change in a society’s transport activity–moving people or freight, or both–that occurs in less than twenty five years.

Successful post-carbon transitions will benefit from understanding the dynamics of transport revolutions. We define a transport revolution as being a substantial change in a society’s transport activity—moving people or freight, or both—that occurs in less than twenty-five years. “Substantial change” means one or both of the following: an ongoing transport activity increases or decreases dramatically, say by 50 percent, or a new means of transport becomes prevalent to the extent that it is made use of by 10 percent or more of the society’s population. By our definition, a breakthrough in transport technology is not a transport revolution. If the breakthrough changes the way in which people or freight move, it could make a revolution possible. Most but not all transport revolutions depend on major technological improvements.

For much of history, people have advanced their capacity for mobility through a long line of modest improvements in their ways of moving about. Tinkering with wheels, sails, and engines has accumulated to produce significant transport advances. But more than such fine-tuning will be required to enable the rapid adjustment of transport systems to impending energy challenges. Transport revolutions, such as those analyzed in our book of the same name, will be needed to keep ahead of oil depletion.2 The changes will have to be far-reaching enough to break entrenched organizational structures and user expectations.

In Transport Revolutions, we examine five episodes of rapid change in mobility. They include the inauguration of modern railway operations in England in the 1830s and the introduction of the overnight package delivery service in the United States during the 1980s. Each one of the five, and others we could have focused on (e.g., the introduction of containers into American freight transport in the 1950s), illuminates differences between radical shift and incremental adjustment that will be relevant for transitions to post-carbon mobility.

Transport revolutions over the next twenty-five years could have two predominant features. Some revolutions will involve maintaining the same or even higher levels of transport activity but in different ways from the present. An example could be continuation of the current level of freight movement between cities but with very much more of it performed by rail than by road. Some revolutions will involve large declines in transport activity. An example would be travel between continents, which could fall steeply because of economic decline or because no reasonable substitute for oil-fueled aviation emerges.

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