Transportation, essentially, is a utility.
A utility service that citizens pay for as a perquisite of living in this nation. Mobility and access are every bit as vital to our well being as clean water, sewer, electricity, telecom, or natural gas. Well designed utilities deliver maximum services with minimal cost and minimal risks. Transportation is actually the oldest utility, given that list. Without the ability to go and get things, we would not have survived beyond the bacteria stage.
The second oldest utility is water, first delivered a bowlful at a time, but now delivered by cast iron pipes. River or well water is chemically and mechanically sterilized, pumped to reservoirs or towers above most of the residents in each community. Gravity does the rest.
Water becomes sewage after we use it once, except where water is more expensive than pipe. Water and sewer were initially upstream and downstream along the same creek, and still are, although many county or city sewer systems may deliver water from one river to another. Water and sewer are separated vitally by an air gap between faucet and drain that always keeps clean water above used or dirty water. This ensures that sewer water will not get mixed with clean water. Another air gap is enforced by the “S” or “P” trap below every drain in the US, keeping sewer gases, mostly hydrogen sulfide and methane, from folding the air where we live and work. Sewer pipes leave our houses as 6” PVC or cast iron pipes, and collect to concrete pipes of several feet diameter by the time they reach the municipal treatment works. Sewage is the treated before being released to the river. This is especially important where somebody’s downstream is someone else’s upstream.
Speaking of methane, the first modern utility was natural gas. Once called “town gas”, it initial y could only be piped short distances, and had to be carried by tank wagon or boat to cities that didn’t have local mines. At great risk and expense. Only when large pipelines got airtight enough, even at junctions, could natural gas become a nationwide commodity for municipal use in the 1920s and 1930s. Throughout the country, natural gas, mostly methane, is mined like oil or captured from decomposition at landfills. The vast majority is mined, and the rise of tracking has made it much cheaper than coal as a power source. Biogas has yet to contend with the economy of scale of mining. Natural gas has to be pressurized and delivered to homes via a hierarchical distribution systems of pipes, between 48” and 2” in diameter, and then stepped down in pressure for delivery to homes. The gas meter in your house, if you heave 0on, looks like a flat disc because it is absorbing that pressure and converting it to a pressure that is safe for household appliances. Without it, a stream of stinky gas would be a jet. Houses without pressure regulators don’t last long, as any spark results in a violent explosion.
Electricity, like natural gas, has gone from a local to national commodity. We knew very little about it by 1800, in the 1830s we thought there was no way an electric motor could do useful work (the motors burned out before spinning fast enough to do work), and by 1880 the first municipal electric plants were in place. The first big consumers of electricity were the trolley companies, spreading rapidly through the 1890s. Today’s electricity system generates power remotely at large coal, gas or hydro power plants, steps up the voltage for transmission throughout the region, and then steps the voltage back down for building consumption. The next electricity system will be more distributed, with local wind, solar, and even methane plant providing most electricity for places where we live and work.
Telecom has evolved greatly in the last two centuries, from letter carrying over the past few millennia, to the telegraph in 1844, the telephone in 1876, cable in 1924, fiber in 1965, cellular phones in 1973, and DSL in 1984. These technologies all filtered from the wealthy or the state to the public, inevitably via the richest places first, but widely within years or decades of their invention. Mail was the first impetus for roadbuilding in the US, and other forms of transportation, like rail and air, were sold as better and faster ways of moving mail around the nation. The telegraph, a successor to the semaphore telegraph of 1792, was the first electric form of telecommunications, using a 5 bit system of long and short taps to encode all the letters of the alphabet and numbers. The telephone has gone from a national monopoly to a deregulated set of local monopolies or limited competition between few carriers. Each address on the network is connected by relatively thin bandwidth to a router, which switches for telecom trunk transmissions consisting of thousands or even millions of single host transactions every second.
Each of these utilities started over a hundred, or even a thousand years ago, and spent a long time serving the royalty and wealthy alone before industrialization, automation and markets brought their technology with reach of every one in America. Today. All these utilities are cheaper and easier to use than they were a century ago. I could walk to the nearest tap and get water that millions have died for throughout history. And most notably, all these utilities work by concentrating service and infrastructure, separating the business of production, transmission and distribution. Generally, “wide pipes” serve the multitude, while each of us only need “narrow pipes” for our household needs. These pipes are expensive to set up, and require constant maintenance. This expense is largely why utilities aren’t free.
Transportation is a utility, in that it serves a public need, costs money for infrastructure, and moves goods (us and our stuff) from where it is to where we want it to be. Just as the unit of water and sewer is gallons, natural gas is cubic feet, electricity is watts, and telecom is kilobyte, the unit of transportation is people and goods. The infrastructure should be appropriate the scale of need, but it is way too large. The reason for this is simple. We spent most of the last 20th century confusing transportation with traffic. The road network does indeed progress from local to collector to arterial to freeway and back again for many journeys n and by design. All places built in the last 80 years have had to accommodate cars within their property, a shock for those who thought they were building a domicile or running a business. The unit of transportation in America has been the car, truck or SUV, and we’ve used the space to prove it.
If the unit to transportation is actually people, the infrastructure needs of transportation are mush simpler. Where housing, jobs and shopping are close enough, there is no reason transportation cannot be done with much cheaper walkways and bikeways, with traffic ways sparsely located for deliveries and longer trips. Many places are built to the scale of traffic, and it is perfectly appropriate that a 24 foot wide local road (maintenance budget ~$20k / mile) be their finest scale transportation infrastructure. But there are many places where traffic is an inappropriate burden on the scale of life.
We made a mistake by thinking that the only way any American could get anywhere would be by car. It would be like delivering water to homes by firehose, gas at explosive pressures, or electricity at 12 thousand volts.
Next up, I’ll write a bit more detail on the health implications of traffic.