Transport Security

Energy Security, according to Wikipedia, is “a term for an association between national security and the availability of natural resources for energy consumption. Access to cheap energy has become essential to the functioning of modern economies. However, the uneven distribution of energy supplies among countries has led to significant vulnerabilities.” Therefore, Transport Security can be thought of as a subset of energy security; the relationship between the essential role transport plays in the functioning of modern economies and the availability of the resources required by said transport. In 2005, transport accounted for approximately 35% of UK energy consumption.

The transport security of a country is dependent on several factors, including:

  • Transport mode mix
  • Transport infrastructure
  • Energy infrastructure
  • Energy prices & domestic resources
  • State intervention
  • Density of development

The UK’s transport is currently dominated by one mode; the private car. This domination is a result of several decades of car-favouring infrastructure design, preferential state investment in car infrastructure, state subsidy of the external costs arising from driving and low energy prices. These factors have enabled the private car to become the dominant mode of passenger transport in the UK, despite the significant inefficiency of the private car compared to other transport modes. These factors have had a significant effect the density and nature of both new residential and commercial developments and wreaked havoc on those which were constructed prior to the dominance of the private car. Building preferentially for the private car has also led to road freight becoming the dominant means of moving goods around in the UK (85% in 1998)

The continued decline in the UK’s North Sea oil production has led to it becoming a net importer of crude oil, and the price of fossil fuel-derived energy is set to continue rising. Changing the energy source of cars from burning fossil fuels to battery-electric is often mooted as a solution by both the motor lobby and the government, which has given generous subsidies to the manufacturers and buyers of electric cars. Whilst frequently mooted as a solution to the UK’s transport woes, electric cars have a number of the same problems as conventionally fuelled cars; inefficient use of space (especially in urban areas) detrimental effect on other transport modes, negative health effects to their operators and passengers arising from the sedentary lifestyle facilitated by car dependence and the death or injury of operators, passengers and third parties through improper use.

At present in the UK, electric cars also have a number of problems distinct from conventionally-fuelled cars; much of the UK’s electricity-generation infrastructure is fossil fuel-based and vulnerable to much the same pressures on price as conventionally-fuelled cars and at the time of writing, much of the UK’s electricity generating capacity is due to be retired in the next few years. Whilst there are advantages to burning fossil fuels in facilities away from large population centres rather than within them, the issue of the need to replace much of the UK’s electricity generating infrastructure in the near future (referred to as the ‘energy gap‘) is a major hurdle to shifting cars from their reliance on the inefficient use of fossil fuel-derived energy to the inefficient use of electrical energy. Put simply, a large scale renewal of existing electricity generating capacity taking place at the same time building the expansion in generating capacity required to shift much of the 35% of energy expenditure arising from transport to electricity would represent a significant challenge, especially considering the UK’s emissions targets.

This puts the UK at a cross-roads with regards to its future transport security. There are several realistic possibilities:

  1. Significantly expand, diversify and de-carbonise electricity generating capacity at the same time as replacing much of the existing, fossil fuel-based generation capacity. This will allow personal transport to shift from its current car-dependent form reliant on the inefficient use of direct fossil fuel-derived to a similar car-dependent form reliant on the inefficient use of (cheap) non-fossil fuel-derived electricity. This option does nothing to address the other problems arising from a car-dominated transport system (discussed above) and has the further disadvantage of not offerring any realistic prospect of significant future expansion, due to space constraints. A transport mix heavily dominated by a single mode is also less resilient to unforeseen future stresses.
  2. Replace the electricity generating capacity which is due for renewal without the significant expansion required for a move to electric cars whilst investing in infrastructure required to diversify the transport mix. This can be done by investing in infrastructure which favours more efficient modes of transport, such as walking, cycling and rail. This has the added advantage of addressing some of the issues arising from a car-dominated transport system (discussed above) and has the further advantage of offering a realistic prospect of significant future expansion, due to more efficient use of space. A more diverse transport mix is also more resilient to unforeseen future stresses.
  3. Replace the electricity generating capacity which is due for renewal without the significant expansion required for a move to electric cars, without investing in infrastructure required to diversify the transport mix. Transport will continue to be dominated by the private, fossil fuel-powered car for the foreseeable future. This option does nothing to address the problems arising from a (fossil fuel-powered) car-dominated transport system (discussed above) has the further disadvantage of not offerring any realistic prospect of significant future expansion, due to space constraints and leaves the majority of UK transport (and the economic activity reliant on it) dependent on imported fuels, vulnerable to price spikes and fluctuations in availability. As in option 1, a transport mix heavily reliant on a single mode is less resilient to unforeseen stresses than a diverse transport mix.

In the past, the UK’s North Sea oil reserves and established electricity generating capacity had given the UK the luxury of choosing whether to address the issue of its future transport security or do nothing. Naturally when given this choice, doing nothing is the easiest choice, even if it has significant drawbacks. In the next few years, the UK will be at the point where something has to be done as a matter of urgency. I just hope that we put the work in now to diversify both our transport and electricity generation mixes to ensure transport security in the long-term.

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8 thoughts on “Transport Security

  1. It concerns me that the UK shale gas reserves (and fracking) will be seen as a “get out of jail free card” and delay any real work on transport and energy diversification.

    • It doesn’t look like the UK has the same sort of resources as the US in that department, even though that it what we are being sold. Hopefully the wheels will come off that one before we waste too much time and money on it.

  2. Does anyone have reliable statistics to show the impact of cycle usage in the Netherlands or Denmark on car usage in those countries? Obviously, the question is over-simplified because you have to consider the use of public transport as well, but there should be some connection in relation at least to short journeys made on an ad-hoc basis, like trips to school, shops, work.

    It appears that Netherlands and Denmark have similar levels of car ownership, per thousand population, to the UK, so clearly bike riding is not leading to reduced car ownership. What about use? Another stat I found indicated that the average age of cars in Netherlands and Denmark is older than in the UK – around 5.9 years here and 7-8 years there – which might suggest less mileage ergo greater longevity. However I don’t know where you would look for information on the total mileage/mileage per car or driver which can be found for the UK and which I think is circa 10-11,000 mile per car per year?

    • I’ve struggled to find that kind of information myself too. I have read that The Netherlands has similar levels of car ownership to the UK and that nationally bicycles account for approximately 25% of trips. From that we can conclude that if the Dutch make as many or fewer trips per capita compared to us, car usage is lower and if the number of trips is higher, car usage is the same or greater. I’m guessing the former, but it would be helpful to know for certain. You can never have to much data.

  3. “Building preferentially for the private car has also led to road freight becoming the dominant means of moving goods around in the UK (85% in 1998)”

    Not entirely, what really got the ball rolling was the first world war.

    The government had invested heavily in trucks to carry troops and supplies to the front and these were no longer need. Additionally, soldiers were given discharge money which meant they had the means to buy these trucks. Overnight an unregulated point to point road haulage industry was born which could be much more agile than the railways who were forced to carry anything as “common carriers”… (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_rail_transport_in_Great_Britain_1923%E2%80%931947#Competition_from_the_roads)

    • I think I remember you telling me about that in the pub at some point. At its beginning, road haulage was subsidised by the state and to this day we continue to make our road network accessible to bigger and bigger freight vehicles, and the state continues to allow the road haulage industry to externalise many of its negative outcomes. On a level playing field, I believe rail freight could be very competitive, provided we have the capacity.

  4. Pingback: Transport Diversity | Chester Cycling

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