The October Thing #13 – Transportation – October 2, 2011


The camel, horse, and water buffalo have largely been replaced by the Toyota pickup truck as the favorite means of moving food and household goods to market in poor countries. With a machine-gun mounted in its bed, it is known as a “technical” and is the world’s most popular heavy weapon.

Capital ships—battleships, cruisers, destroyers, frigates, carriers—remain status symbols but have been rendered obsolete by small missiles fired by small, fast boats released by a large, fast boat or submarine known as a “mother ship.” Container ships and tankers move most of the world’s goods the most miles—on autopilot. Drone aircrafts dominate the military skies and drone-piloting of cargo planes—then passenger planes—is now seriously discussed.

Third in priority, after industrial and military transportation, is multi-mode private (or “labor”) transportation—train, bus, bicycle, motorbike, car, plane. Since the shift from large American-built cars to smaller European and Japanese cars in the late 20th century, there has been only one large shift in this sector—the explosion of motorbikes. People are generally willing to pay about 6 month’s salary for a vehicle and, since it’s difficult to build and sell a car for less than $3000, there is little market for cars in the developing world. But motorbikes, at $150-$600, are in huge demand, and they make sense. A 50kg motorbike can carry a 50kg driver—and groceries—far more efficiently than a 1000kg car can. Thus we should probably stop worrying about a future in which a billion Chinese or a billion Indians drive cars. Eventually, the rising cost of oil will force an end to the motorbike explosion as well. Already, 6% of Portland, Oregon’s commuters have shifted to plain old bicycles. I am pleasantly surprised at the number of super-efficient electric motorbikes in my Florida community. The mountain-town of Boulder, Colorado has a bicycle commuter rate comparable to flat Amsterdam, Holland. Not coincidentally, Boulder has the lowest obesity rate in the U.S.

How far will these trends go? Probably not far, since many new efficiencies are on the horizon, as wind and solar electricities spur new vehicle types. Lighter aircraft and slipperier ship-hulls are coming to the industrial and military sectors. What else is happening?