Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Moving things to pieces of land

This series of posts about moving things around is part of a larger argument that anything you can do with cars, you can do without them. But as I mentioned in that original post, sometimes it's less efficient without a car. Of course, sometimes it seems less efficient without a car, but it turns out to be more efficient.

One potential objection to shifting all intercity freight hauling from trucks to rail and water transport is that roads are more efficient for the "last mile" (or ten) of large loads. Many factories and warehouses are spread out and not near railroads or waterways. If they are, they're not near docks or stations. They would have to be served by trucks anyway.

This argument rests on the idea that land use is constant, which is clearly false if you think about it. Pretty much every factory and warehouse, every junkyard and lumberyard, built before 1950 was located on a railroad or waterway, usually with its own spur, siding or dock. Since the massive postwar boom in highway construction, many of them have relocated to be near large roads.

This is the same as what we see in passenger transportation: development follows the transportation network, which follows government subsidies. Subsidize roads and you get road-oriented development; subsidize rail and you get rail-oriented development.

Obviously we can't just tear out all the truck ramps and loading docks tomorrow and expect the businesses to reconnect seamlessly to the rail network. It will take time for this shift to happen, just as it will take time for the rail network to be scaled up to meet this demand. But it will happen, and if done right it will fit in with the normal replacement cycle for these buildings.

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