An Eruption of Unresilience

Michael Dudley's picture
Blogger

Resilience is generally understood as the degree to which a complex system is flexible enough to respond and adapt to an externally-imposed force or change and thus persist over time while retaining its structure and functions. Conversely, a vulnerable system would be one in which conditions are inflexible, key resources comprise a monoculture, there is little learning capacity, and choices for addressing crises are constrained.

We are seeing these concepts being played out in real time in the present transportation crisis ensuing from the eruption of the Eyjafjallajokull (pron. ay-yah-FYAH-plah-yer-kuh-duhl) volcano in Iceland.

With air traffic grounded across most of Europe, hundreds of thousands of people have been stranded at business or holiday destinations, and the halt in movement is threatening to drag down Europe's economic recovery. The airlines are losing hundreds of millions of dollars a day and foodstuffs normally flown into England are running scarce.

In response to the crisis, people have been turning in unprecedented numbers to alternative forms of international travel, including trains and cruise ships. According to the Associated Press:

"In major European cities, travel chaos reigned. Extra trains were put on in Amsterdam and lines to buy train tickets were so long that the rail company handed out free coffee. Train operator Eurostar said it was carrying almost 50,000 passengers between London, Paris and Brussels. Thalys, a high-speed venture of the French, Belgian and German rail companies, was allowing passengers to buy tickets even if trains were fully booked.Ferry operators in Britain received a flurry of bookings from people desperate to cross the English Channel to France, while London taxi company Addison Lee said it had received requests for journeys to cities as far away as Paris, Milan, Amsterdam and Zurich."

Fortunately, Europe has a relatively advanced high-speed train network in several nations; were this eruption affecting North America, where rail service has been denuded dramatically over decades and new investments in high speed rail are only now being planned, the conditions would be more chaotic by several magnitudes.

While we have heard a great deal over the years about the need to diversify our transportation systems to reduce greenhouse gases and to prepare for peak oil, the Eyjafjallajokull eruption demonstrates that our present transportation monoculture is simply not sufficiently resilient even under normal conditions, for it is incapable of responding adequately to unexpected stressors. The lack of diversity and redundancy in our transportation infrastructure thereby threatens the stability of every other system that interacts with it, including food, business, tourism and the countless human needs dependent on it.  

The eruption should be yet another wake-up call to governments that an over reliance on any one transportation system is reckless and short-sighted. Opponents of investments in high-speed rail need only consider how grievous this situation could become if, as in the past, this volcano continues to erupt for a year or longer. The capacity for nations -- and the global economy -- to respond to long-term disruptions to air travel must be taken into account.

For their part, supporters of rail can also look at the eruption for something else: an alternative vision for urban and intercontinental life. With air traffic absent from the sky – and the harried business schedules it makes necessary – many people are finding that the eruption has yielded a silver lining. Doug Saunders of the Globe and Mail finds that London has fallen "strangely, peacefully quiet" as the constant roar of jets has ceased, while others are rediscovering the wonders of leisure time, renewed freidnships and unhurried urban sight-seeing. In the absence of exotic imported food, grocery chains are once again turning to British suppliers, demonstrating the need for viable regional agriculture. 

The eruption in Iceland shows us both the fault lines in our present structures, and a glimpse of what needs to be done. A world in which air travel is less frequent and more expensive, and where rail service is more affordable, desireable and convenient, would be a slower, quieter place. There would certainly be disadvantages, and adjustments to be made. But it would be a dramatically more resilient world, one capable of adjusting more readily to the unexpected or – if necessary – the catastrophic.    

Michael Dudley is the Indigenous and Urban Services Librarian at the University of Winnipeg.

Comments

Comments

Teleworking contributing to resilience

Note that teleworking has contributed substantially to resilience in recent decades, going back at least to the transportation disruptions from the Loma Prieta and Northridge earthquakes in California, and the World Trade Center attacks, the first one and the final one.

Note the commentary at http://www.workshifting.com/2010/04/eruptions.html from a telework advocate.

Advocacy of more North American high speed rail construction as a response to volcanic ash is arguably overreach.

John Niles, Seattle
http://twitter.com/jn_seattle
http://www.globaltelematics.com

Cost-benefit

It wouldn't make sense to spend a whole lot more money on a money-losing system, i.e. rail; just so as to ensure adequate capacity for the once-in-a-blue-moon times like a volcanic eruption shutting down air travel. Air travel, by the way, is a modern success story, highly relevant to the modern economy and well able to operate without taxpayer subsidy and monopoly protection.

Subsidies to Air Travel

"Historically, air travel has survived largely through state support, whether in the form of equity or subsidies. The airline industry as a whole has made a cumulative loss during its 100-year history, once the costs include subsidies for aircraft development and airport construction."
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Airline

Charles Siegel

Cost-benefit not done.

Air travel, by the way, is a modern success story, highly relevant to the modern economy and well able to operate without taxpayer subsidy and monopoly protection.

Maybe on your planet, but not on this one. Unless this was an attempt at humor - in which case, Lolz.

Best,

D

    Since 2002, in California alone, the airlines received approximately $487 million in state and local subsidies that included tax exemptions and low-interest bond financing. For example, the airlines are exempt from state sales taxes on jet fuel purchases for some flights. This exemption for international flights will cost the state and local governments more than $800 million from fiscal year 2005 to 2009. Despite this, the airlines still want to expand the exemption for out-of-state domestic flights.

or

    Historically, air travel has survived largely through state support, whether in the form of equity or subsidies. The airline industry as a whole has made a cumulative loss during its 100-year history, once the costs include subsidies for aircraft development and airport construction.[18][19]

    One argument is that positive externalities, such as higher growth due to global mobility, outweigh the microeconomic losses and justify continuing government intervention. A historically high level of government intervention in the airline industry can be seen as part of a wider political consensus on strategic forms of transport, such as highways and railways, both of which receive public funding in most parts of the world. [references omitted]

I said "well able".

I said "well able". I didn't say that it DOES exist, as a rule, without subsidy. Subsidies of airlines and aircraft manufacturing has become one of the worst examples of politicisation and "beggar thy neighbour" global non-co-operation.

Any nation that has the smarts to run a free market in air travel, and not subsidise any of it that lands and takes off within their borders, ends up benefitting from the subsidies paid to the operators of the airlines that do so, from the benighted citizens of the countries of origin of those airlines.

And Dano, thank you for quoting that stuff about ".......positive externalities, such as higher growth due to (global) mobility......"
That is exactly what I was getting at in my comment above to HealthImpact, about the early economists and governments decisions in favour of public funding of roads, only the positive externalities are reaped at the local level rather than the international. I failed to note to HealthImpact, that the government's funding of the roads is really itself like a "fair share" to cover the positive externalities, with the bulk of transport costs, the purchase and running of the vehicles themselves, being carried by the users themselves.

Michael Lewyn's picture
Blogger

Airlines profitable?

I am perfectly willing to believe that the automobile industry could exist in something resembling its present form without subsidy (although not, perhaps, in smaller country).

Given the ups and downs of the airline industry over the past few years (especially after Sept. 11) it seems to me VERY hard to believe that the U.S. airline industry could exist without public subsidy.

All you need do to see the point is to google "airline industry losses." For example, in 2008 the airline industry lost $8 billion worldwide
http://www.allbusiness.com/company-activities-management/financial-perfo...

About a third of those losses are from North American carriers.
http://www.petergreenberg.com/2009/09/16/dire-predictions-as-airline-ind...

Accuracy on transport subsidies

Rail was one of the most profitable industries in the US until it was forced to compete with massive highways provided entirely by "taxpayer subsidy and monopoly protection" and increasing subsidies to airlines. Freight rail is still quite profitable.

Resiliency is a key concern for transportation systems and disruptions happen more than we realize - due to weather, fuel shortages, local incidents, and the ongoing changes in land use.

Decisions made 100 years ago

Good point, HealthImpact. If only highways had been privately operated concerns right from day one, eh?

It is interesting that historically, the economic debates on public versus private roading, came down heavily in favour of "public" roading. This is apparently because, like Defence and Law and Order, the benefits of a good roading system, funded privately, would be reaped by many people not paying in. And the "roading network" was regarded as almost the most important thing for the growth of any economy, second only to "culture" (which includes strong social institutions, honesty, corruption-free government, the enforcibility of contracts, and so on).

Sure we have lost sight of this reality today, but I actually think they were right, much as I like the idea of as much as possible of the economy being in the "private" sector. I firmly believe that some public money will always be a justified and essential ingredient for road funding, even if mileage charges and tolls become the norm.

I also think they were right, way back then, in running with the flexibility and mobility advantages of roading and private vehicles. I do not believe for a moment that we would have anything like our modern economies today, if the economists and politicians 100 years ago had decided to retain and protect rail as the primary means of transport. I think they did the best thing according to their own lights.

I realise that our priorities are different now to what they were even 30 years ago let alone 100 years ago. But it is unfair to condemn the consensus of the past, that really did result in improvements in all the measures of human condition that mattered at the time. Planners of the past wanted to get people out of the inner cities and into suburbs, for the sake of their health and their children's health, both physical and mental. And they understood back then, that that meant roads and cars; as population dispersion is inimical to the cost effectiveness of transit.

I will comment below on the subject of airline and aircraft subsidies.

Positive externalities

Dano below, kindly reminded me that the term is "positive externalities".

".......positive externalities, such as higher growth due to (global) mobility......"

That is exactly what I was getting at in my comment above about the early economists and governments decisions in favour of public funding of roads. Of course, the government's funding of the roads is really itself like a "fair share" to cover the positive externalities, with the bulk of transport costs, the purchase and running of the vehicles themselves, being carried by the users themselves.

Expand your mind, even after 4/20.

Glad to see you recently have learned that airline travel is highly subsidized.

Best,

D

You didn't "gotcha" me at all, nyah, nyah, nyah.

I never said anything to justify your illusion that I have not known that long since. I said that it was "well able to exist without subsidies". The subsidies exist not for reasons of inefficiency of the mode itself (unlike transit subsidies), but for the same reasons that war sometimes breaks out; inter-national rivalry, cheap jingoism, and rabble-rousing nationalism. "We can't let those Yanks/ Frenchies/ Japs/ Poms / whatever, capture OUR skies or put OUR plane-builders out of their jobs".

The net effect is like a war where both sides suffer casualties and gain nothing.

Are you incapable of grasping my point about the gains able to be made by any nation with the smarts to just throw their skies open to all competitors?

Slums and Different Types of Suburbs

"Planners of the past wanted to get people out of the inner cities and into suburbs, for the sake of their health and their children's health, both physical and mental."

You assume that our usual design for sprawl suburbs is the only way of getting people out of the slums. As a result of the New Urbanists' work, it should be very clear that there are two types of suburbs:

Auto-Dependent suburbs: The typical suburb built in postwar America. Cul-de-sacs and winding streets make it impossible to walk to local businesses. The freeway is the only connection with the rest of the world.

Walkable suburbs: The typical suburb built during the first half of the twentieth century, now being revived by the New Urbanists. A street grid makes it possible to walk to nearby businesses. Both roads and transit connect the suburb with the rest of the world.

The walkable suburbs have all of the positive externalities of the auto-dependent suburbs and far fewer negative externalities.

Were the postwar planners really promoting people's health by building suburbs where it is impossible to walk, or were they helping to cause the current epidemic of obesity? Were they promoting people's health by making people dependent on automobiles that had lead added to the gasoline at the time?

The planners were doing the best by their own lights, but they did great damage because their their ideology was mistaken. James Howard Kunstler is right to say that the sprawl they designed was "the greatest misallocation of resources in history."

Incidentally, there is a history of the early planner's ideology and of the damage it caused when it was put into practice in my new book Unplanning: Livable Cities and Political Choices. Check it out at www.preservenet.com/unplanning

Charles Siegel

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