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Transportation and energy reckonings from Ivan Illich  Jeff Thorne
 Oct 17, 2003 12:41 PDT 

These calculations are circa 1974-1978, so the figures may be a bit off today,
but with cars more expensive and traffic worse, maybe not so far off at that.
Can we confirm that 1,600 hours devoted to getting and driving and maintaining
a car produces 7,500 miles of travel about walking pace)?


Ivan Illich gives a set of very interesting facts and figures when he
discusses his concept of convivial transport:

 The United States puts between 25 and 45 per cent of its total energy
(depending upon how one calculates this) into vehicles: to make them, run
them, and clear a right of way for them when they roll, when they fly, and
when they park. For the sole purpose of transporting people, 250 million
Americans allocate more fuel than is used by 1.3 billion Chinese and Indians
for all purposes.

 The model American male devotes more than 1,600 hours a year to his car. He
sits in it while it goes and while it stands idling. He parks it and searches
for it. He earns the money to put down on it and to meet the monthly
installments. He works to pay for gasoline, tolls, insurance, taxes, and
tickets. He spends four of his sixteen waking hours on the road or gathering
his resources for it. And this figure does not take into account the time
consumed by other activities dictated by transport: time spent in hospitals,
traffic courts, and garages; time spent watching automobile commercials or
attending consumer education meetings to improve the quality of the next buy.

 The model American puts in 1,600 hours to get 7,500 miles: less than five
miles per hour. In countries deprived of a transportation industry, people
manage to do the same, walking wherever they want to go, and they allocate
only 3 to 8 per cent of their society's time budget to traffic instead of 28
per cent. What distinguishes the traffic in rich countries from the traffic in
poor countries is not more mileage per hour of life-time for the majority, but
more hours of compulsory consumption of high doses of energy, packaged and
unequally distributed by the transportation industry.

 Man, unaided by any tool, gets around quite efficiently. He carries one gram
of his weight over a kilometer in ten minutes by expending 0.75 calories. Man
on his feet is thermodynamically more efficient than any motorized vehicle and
most animals. For his weight, he performs more work in locomotion than rats or
oxen, less than horses or sturgeon. At this rate of efficiency man settled the
world and made its history. At this rate peasant societies spend less than 5
per cent and nomads less than 8 per cent of their respective social time
budgets outside the home or the encampment.

 Man on a bicycle can go three or four times faster than the pedestrian, but
uses five times less energy in the process. He carries one gram of his weight
over a kilometer of flat road at an expense of only 0.15 calories. The bicycle
is the perfect transducer to match man's metabolic energy to the impedance of
locomotion. Equipped with this tool, man outstrips the efficiency of not only
all machines but all other animals as well.

 Bicycles are not only thermodynamically efficient, they are also cheap. With
his much lower salary, the Chinese acquires his durable bicycle in a fraction
of the working hours an American devotes to the purchase of his obsolescent
car. The cost of public utilities needed to facilitate bicycle traffic versus
the price of an infrastructure tailored to high speeds is proportionately even
less than the price differential of the vehicles used in the two systems. In
the bicycle system, engineered roads are necessary only at certain points of
dense traffic, and people who live far from the surfaced path are not thereby
automatically isolated as they would be if they depended on cars or trains.
The bicycle has extended man's radius without shunting him onto roads he
cannot walk. Where he cannot ride his bike, he can usually push it.

 The bicycle also uses little space. Eighteen bikes can be parked in the place
of one car, thirty of them can move along in the space devoured by a single
automobile. It takes three lanes of a given size to move 40,000 people across
a bridge in one hour by using automated trains, four to move them on buses,
twelve to move them in their cars, and only two lanes for them to pedal across
on bicycles. Of all these vehicles, only the bicycle really allows people to
go from door to door without walking. The cyclist can reach new destinations
of his choice without his tool creating new locations from which he is barred.

 Bicycles let people move with greater speed without taking up significant
amounts of scarce space, energy, or time. They can spend fewer hours on each
mile and still travel more miles in a year. They can get the benefit of
technological breakthroughs without putting undue claims on the schedules,
energy, or space of others. They become masters of their own movements without
blocking those of their fellows. Their new tool creates only those demands
which it can also satisfy. Every increase in motorized speed creates new
demands on space and time. The use of the bicycle is self-limiting. It allows
people to create a new relationship between their life-space and their
life-time, between their territory and the pulse of their being, without
destroying their inherited balance. The advantages of modern self-powered
traffic are obvious, and ignored. That better traffic runs faster is asserted,
but never proved. Before they ask people to pay for it, those who propose
acceleration should try to display the evidence for their claim.

[from: Energy and Equity. In Ivan Illich: Toward a History of Needs. New York:
Pantheon, 1978.]
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