Saturday, April 19, 2014

No more freight hostages

Twice in the past few days, someone has tried to pull a freight hostage argument on me.

If you're not familiar with it, the freight hostage argument is a classic muddle-headed transit advocate attack. "Oh, you muddle-headed transit advocates! How will you get your cereal if there are bus lanes everywhere? How will you get your bike parts if you tear down that highway?" For some reason, for years it was always cereal, but lately it's bike parts because that makes us look OMG so much more hypocritical!

The short answer to that is, "Fuck you," because what else do you say to someone who's telling you that your kids may have to die for cheap cereal or derailleurs, and that they have zero interest in imagining any other way things could be? Seriously, why waste your time on a person like that?

If you must engage with these kinds of arguments, you can start with something like, "If we can solve the problem of moving people around without automobiles, we can solve the problem of moving freight." The longer answer is to actually articulate a vision of freight movement that doesn't involve giant deadly trucks all over the roads. That's what I did in a series of posts over the past several years.

The basic idea is to first decide whether something needs to be moved in the first place. Then, borrowing from Chuck Marohn, we decide whether paved areas are highways, streets or country roads. Any freight that goes on a highway should instead be on a train or a boat, or in a pipe. Then we can tear down all the highways. Streets should be for people, bikes and trolleys. Country roads should be designed for small vehicles, moving slow, with generous sidepaths for pedestrians and slow cyclists.

The side effect of this will be that all of the stores and warehouses will have to be accessible by foot or streetcar from a train line. The more accessible they are, the more successful they will be.

There you have it! No more big trucks. No more big highways. No more big-box stores, no more malls. Now who's the muddle-headed thinker?


Charles Marohn said...

You know, I went to Venice a while back and was really worried that there wouldn't be anything to eat or drink and that all the shops would be empty. You see, they have no freight shipments since they have no cars.

To my relief there were great restaurants and shops all full of inventory. It was stunning.

I have no clue how they did it -- maybe helicopter drops in the dead of night -- but it felt nothing short of a miracle.

threestationsquare said...

Yes, your kids may have to die when the alternative is too expensive. There are many ways that money can be spent to save lives, and building underground freight rail sidings is to every grocery store or paying armies of workers to handtruck everything long distances are unlikely to be the cheapest ones. (Current winners for that are probably interventions to prevent/treat malaria and digestive parasites in Africa.)

There's no real need to be so puritanical about it though. The streets used by people, trolleys and bikes can be used in the middle of the night by moderately sized trucks going 10-15mph, with minimal danger or inconvenience to anybody. How fast the freight moves for the last few miles of its journey between the highway exit (or intermodal yard) and its destination has a tiny impact on the cost of shipping, and using streets at night when their infrastructure would otherwise be idle is more efficient than using valuable urban land for dedicated freight infrastructure.

Anonymous said...

Well, as of today moving most of our freight by rail would be impossible without the Cross-Harbor Freight tunnel; otherwise, I believe the southernmost freight crossing of the Hudson is 60-something miles north of the city limits. Building one between the Bay Ridge Branch and New Jersey then complicates Triboro RX, and so on and so forth. It's not as easy as it sounds.

Alon said...

Venice stores are presumably easily accessible by water transport.

Adirondacker12800 said...

when it was rivers or paths through the woods there weren't many people around and tranloading it from the boat to the warehouse could be done by hand. Though I'm sure once someone figured out carts they used carts. And eventually wagons. By the time we were digging artificial rivers in a big way there were lots and lots of wagons around to help with getting the stuff to the consumers. And when railroads put the artificial rivers out of business. Lots of freight could be shifted to rail but there's always going to be trucks.... there's a reason why truck drivers are also called teamsters.

BruceMcF said...

If a street is wide enough for a garbage truck to get to, it is wide enough for a truck big enough to get substantial local freight delivery accomplished.

If that has to be at night, then deal with it.

If you are not on a street that can accept a garbage truck, your material inputs ought to fit in a compact panel van, since otherwise where is all the trash generated by a big delivery truck going to go?

If your garbage is being carted out by light rail, your freight can get to you by a freight light rail vehicle. If that has to be late at night, then deal with it.

If all of that adds 1% to the cost of everything, with the cost increase spread out over a decade, that's 0.1% extra inflation per year.

Steve Dunham said...

I sympathize but I don't think F. you is the right answer, even if it might be the one that's deserved. A lot of people parrot things they've heard and don't think about whether they are true or what the implications would be. Trying to get them to think might be worth the effort.

Matt said...

As great as Venice is, it's hardly a good example. Digging out canals is probably not practical for many cities because of the stuff that's already under streets. I'm sure there must be examples from history or even now.

I don't see that there's a reason to object to small trucks, like Ford Transit Vans or milk floats.

I also don't see that there's a reason to object to armies of workers moving things by their muscles. I've seen pictures from East Asia of people moving a lot of cargo using a bike.

Make traffic safer, pollute less and employ a l;oad of people? Sounds like a winner at election time to me (even better if you can give manufacturing a shot in the arm by making bikes out of recycled metal).

Invisible Man said...

I came to this post through the Twitter discussion about the cost of roads.

The US already does a pretty good job of moving stuff by rail (although few people realize it). The US moves 40 per cent of its ton-miles by rail, against around 10 per cent in the UK. Many of those ton-miles are things like coal, oil and grain but a growing proportion of consumer goods move by rail as well. It would increase the proportion moving by rail if trucks weren't given such heavy hidden subsidies. Higher trucking costs would also increase the pressure on distributors to move goods efficiently and increase the incentives to use smarter vehicles for local deliveries, such as cargo bikes.

I don't think it's realistic or necessary to restrict freight deliveries as much as you suggest. There are freight items that move most efficiently and sensibly in trucks. The issue is that road use is so horrendously mispriced. If New York's drivers started paying 100 per cent of the cost of providing roads (against 56.5 per cent now) there would be far fewer private vehicles on the streets and the delivery trucks would move about more freely and easily. Add some speed and red light cameras to improve driving standards and many of the problems they create would go away.