Tuesday, January 23, 2018

How long will the rich be willing to share the roads with the poor?

In Ray Bradbury novel "Fahrenheit 451" we are told of a world with no private cars (above, a still from the 1966 movie by François Truffaut). Bradbury had correctly understood that dictatorships not only tend to burn books but also don't like their citizens to own private cars. In this post, I argue that the growing social inequality in the West may soon lead to the demise of the private car for the middle class. This evolution may be helped by such concepts as TAAS (transportation as a service). 

In his "The Betrothed", (1827) Alessandro Manzoni tells us of how a dispute on the right of the way led to a bloody duel between two noblemen. The story takes place during the 17th century and it seems that, at that time, whether one should cede the way to another was a question of rank.

Of course, in our (perhaps) enlightened times, this attitude looks absurd. When you see a stop sign at a crossroad, you are supposed to respect it, independently of whether you drive a rusty Toyota Corolla or a shiny Porsche Cayenne. But, if you think about that, the rich must be very unhappy about having to share the road with all those poor people with their clunkers. They might well be thinking of ways to have the street all for themselves, avoid traffic jams, and regain the mobility that cars provided when there weren't so many of them.

Is it possible? Well, think of this: the diffusion of private cars in the Western World, and in particular in the US, took place during a period when inequality was declining and reaching values which were possibly the lowest in modern history. But things have changed a lot since then. Here are some data for the Gini Index in the US (from the US Census Bureau)

The Gini index is a measure of the income distribution: it is between a minimum of 0 and a maximum of 1, but in practice, it is between 0.2 and 0.7. The larger the Gini index is, the higher is inequality. And you see how, during the past decades, inequality in the US has been increasing. Similar trends can be seen in other Western countries. 

So, the concept of "public roads" for everyone was developed in a historical period when the Gini index in the US was around 0.35. Today it is around 0.45. That's a very significant variation which is surely destined to have important social consequences. I was telling you before that in Italy during the 17th century, the right of way was determined by one's social status rather than by "Stop" signs at crossroads. So, what was the Gini index, then? We don't have values for Italy but, according to Ourworldindata, the Gini index in England was of the order of 0.5 in the 18th century, close to the current value of 0.45 for the US. Just like the nobles of that time, our modern nobles may well think that there is no reason for them to share the road with the commoners. So, what may happen?

For one thing, the concept of "public road" is being eroded in various ways. In the US it is done under the name of "gated communities" whereas in Europe you see entire sections of cities declared off-limits to cars by local governments, unless you are a resident. Another way to expel the poor from the street is to make cars or fuel very expensive, that can be done by means of taxes and that's traditionally done in Europe. 

Increased costs may have already reduced traffic in some regions of the world. In Italy, the consumption of gasoline is down to nearly half of what it was ten years ago. But in the US, the situation is far less dramatic. Other regions of the world show intermediate trends. On the whole, private cars are not growing in numbers, but they are not disappearing, either. There are good reasons for this.

The problem is clear: there is no way that you can serve this kind of urban environment at a reasonable cost with conventional public transportation, buses or trains. And, of course, the people living there have no place where they can go on foot. So, they will try everything they can to stick to their cars. It is the only way they have to move around. 

A further, and somewhat perverse, characteristic of private cars is the fact that they have a considerable capital cost. So, once you made the effort of buying one, driving an extra mile (the "marginal mile") is not so expensive. Actually, the more miles you drive, the less each mile will cost and this is an incentive to drive more. 

So, it looks like a no-win situation for the rich, unless they really want to create a zombie apocalypse in order to expel the poor from the roads. But there is another possibility: it is called "Transportation as a service" (TAAS). This is basically a hi-tech rental service. The idea is that you don't own a car anymore, but you rent it as you need. Theoretically, TAAS should be less expensive than the current scheme because you share the same car with other people. And middle-class suburbanites should be happy to use TAAS. 

But, as it often happens, technological changes bring about unexpected social changes. With TAAS, you don't have anymore the "marginal mile" effect, so that in order to save money you have only one strategy: cut the number of miles traveled. With the current trends of rising inequality and impoverishment, suburbanites will be forced to cut all the non-strictly needed trips. 

Not just that: the concept of TAAS allows differential tariffs leading to the possibility of a control of the traffic flow unthinkable today. Want to use TAAS during the rush hour? You are welcome, but you must pay more. Want to drive in a posh shopping area? Again, you are welcome, but you have to pay for the privilege. Want to go to the beach this Sunday? You know what you have to do. But, in exchange, we can offer you a special TAAS deal if you go shopping at the supermarket tonight at 3:00 am. 

In the end, TAAS may well sweep the poor out of the public roads even faster than the current trends are doing. Will we arrive at a point when priority at crossroads will be determined by the social status of drivers, as it was in the 17th century? We cannot say, but TAAS vehicles could be programmed to behave exactly in this way. All traffic lights may be green for those who can pay.

Of course, this is not a fault of the TAAS scheme in itself. Transportation as a service is a good idea that should bring us a more efficient transportation, less noise, and less pollution. The problem it is the result of the increasing inequality in society which, in turn, is related to the gradual disappearance of our energy slaves, fossil fuels. If we don't find a way to replace fossil fuels with something equivalent to power our society, we will return to the kind of world that Manzoni described to us. A world where you could be killed because someone thought he was nobler than you and wanted the right of way.  

Below: an illustration of Manzoni's novel "The Betrothed." It is the scene when two aristocrats quarrel over a question of priority and the result is a duel in which one of the two is killed. 


  1. I believe your title is wrong - it's not a will - but a systemic transformation - no one is responsible (or the way people vote may be). However I tend to agree your content when I look at French example where I see a dual long-range transportation system developing. Long range train transport was during last half of 20th century a mass transport for everybody. In 21st century its price increased to pass at a level where automotive travel is now usually less expensive even for a single driver in his car. At least today a disruptive digital system of car pooling enables lower income people to travel, and a low cost bus network is also developed (which travel takes 7 hours instead 2 by train for example). It is not more than the same split as in the US between bus transport and train or planes where the dual systems exists since a long time. Will difference between the classes of people increase in future with faster hyperloop-type systems for rich, and on other side TAAS killing even current car pooling for poorer? Going back to 1st half of 20th century when people did often dozens of km in bicycle? - with electric bicycles there will be however some progress (my aunt and husband went honeymoon vacation in bicycle across Switzerland in the 50ties).

    1. Yes, of course it is a systemic transformation. The title is mostly to catch people's attention. And, about the railroads transforming into a highly expensive transportation system, yes, I had noted that, too. I didn't include this point in this post but it is part of the same transformation.

  2. I can understand the logic of your article and basic thinking

    but I think you've omitted an important factor.

    Journeys, of themselves, have no value. Only the purpose of the journey---the reason for making the journey has value.

    Thus, we commute to work, get paid, return home, spend those wages on whatever we choose--food, holidays, other stuff. We use our cars for those purposes. the journey itself is non-productive.

    But if as seem likely, we are facing a severely downsized future existence, then there will be little or no reason to make journeys

    Unless they had access to lots of energy--ie horses, coaches etc (wealthy! )---it is unlikely that your/my gggrandparents travelled more than a few miles from their homes. To do so would have been unproductive in lifestyle terms

    Now, commuting 30 miles or more is commonplace, and we think of transport as part of our lives, and permanent

    So I don't think it will be ''the rich'' who exclude us from the roads, it will be economic circumstance beyond anyone's control

    and the ultimate joke will be on the wealthy anyway---because without the commercial infrastructure of mass transportation, (cars, fuel, filling stations refineries and so on) it will not be possible to sustain an ''exclusive'' transport system for the super-wealthy.

    1. Norman, I suspect you are onto something. With any contraction in economic activity there will be a corresponding and somewhat proportional contraction in travel. With enough contraction a number of unemployed people will be driven into a subsistance existance, just as we started to see during the Great Depression.

      When the poorest among us are busy tending a garden or repairing domestic items they won't stray far from home.

      Also we often think of travel, but shipping goods is actually the core activity that keeps us all warm and fed. In the UK about half of traffic in 1949 was passenger cars and taxis. The rest was all the heavy stuff like trucks and buses. Now cars and taxis are about three quarters.


      As an aside, I notice "the rich" are blammed for all manner of ills, when in reality sometimes much bigger trends are driving things without anyone clearly being aware or guiding it. The shifts in transport may be like that. The rich will simply be the last users remaining, whether they planned it that way or not.

    2. the rich as we know them might be the people with access to the last dregs of fuel---this cannot last very long--probably months at best because the fuel infrastructure is universal---
      No amount of money can buy fuel that simply isnt there, no matter how much is offered for it.

      it can never be specific other than in the sense of hoarded stocks---government fuel depots etc. If there i a severe downturn in our lifestyles, civil unrest is certain

      this will lead to government intervention, but that in itself must consume limited fuel supplies---over an unpleasant year or two maybe, but the web of fuel supply is ultimately very fragile, so that will terminate itself.

      No state can hold itself together without the underpinning of consistent energy availability

  3. I don't know whether Ugo is aware that "The Betrothed" (I promessi sposi) has a wonderful twin, at least in its plot.

    In 1882, a British writer, who used the pen name of Ouida, wrote a totally forgotten masterpiece, "A Village Commune", the story of an ambitious bureaucrat in an Italian village after the unity of Italy, who - in the name of Progress - systematically manipulates each person, destroying the social and environmental fabric of the village. And trying to take a "betrothed" away from his peasant rival.

    Sofia Santarelli, who translated the main works of British authors into Italian, made a quick translation of this work into Italian, because she said it was the most important book for Italians to read.

    I tend to agree with her (Ouida also wrote an extraordinary novel about infighting inside Roman families after 1870, when the Papal government was overthrown by the Piedmontese).

    Ouida is buried in the monumental Protestant church at Bagni di Lucca, in an imitation of Ilaria del Carretto's tomb, with her little dog at her feet.

    But she understood more about Italy than most of Italy's famous intellectuals would later.

    1. I know this novel from you, because you cited it in your blog. Probably I should read it, although - honestly - the plot sounds so depressing!!

  4. I was going to say exactly what Norman did...namely that energy decline will force us all off the roads...although the rich will probably be the last to go. Hopefully the rest of us will have developed community close to where we live and won't need to travel far.

  5. One sign of impending collapse is too many elites (noblemen). They take up a great deal of the wealth. We can do without so many. It takes time to level out society again, after reaching such high levels of inequality. Maybe duels between aspiring corporate execs, will make a comeback, and in reinforced high-speed car racing duels, on those nearly empty freeways, like in "Market Forces" - Richard K. Morgan, or in the "fast & the furious" movie franchise.

    1. Historically, society doesn't really "level out". The extremely rich remain so, while everyone else becomes much poorer. In other words inequality grows stronger not weaker. Yes, petty conflicts may kill of a few noblemen, but far more poor folk die each day from infections, hunger, brutal subsistance work, wars... Well you get the idea.

      If anything, the core lesson is that massive growth in per capita energy is what leveled out society, and that is exactly what is fading.

  6. Tell us then, are they too many or too few?

  7. Slightly OT...

    People worried about the environment always talk about the future, which however is hard to pin down.

    But extraordinary things are happening in the present: Saudi Arabia recently became the first country, I suspect in all history, to ban agriculture because of the water it consumes. I think this should make more headlines than stories about beheadings, women driving cars or not, etc.

    Then on April 12, Cape Town in South Africa is going to cut off the water supply. Not for one day, but, as I understand it, in a final manner: it has run out of water.

    I am not sure if there are climate reasons involved, or whether it is simple over use of existing resources, but this again seems something of historic importance.

  8. Well, tax rebates, privileges, government subsidies, and free electricity for a 100K$ car, name it Tesla, while a humble Dacia Logan <10K$ is taxed 'till die, is a good example of this.

    Similarly, Who has the financial muscle and area enough to fill it for electrical intermitent renewables like PV? And who has to pay for the huge costs of intermitency?

    Yes, again the elites, the few, take profit at the expense of the many.

    Electric vehicles and electric intermitent renewables are wealth pumps that increase the inequality.

    Even worse: they are also 'virtue signals', thus this implies that there is also some kind of 'moral superiority' added to that, thus resembling even more to the old times at the end of the Victorian era, where the few used the electricity, while the many get the dirty jobs to mine coal to produce that electricity.

    But our society is advancing to a 'full electric' concept, that is, IMHO, the most clear kind of dependence I can see, where those that can't afford electricity bills will be 'e-killed' by some 'IA algorithm/authority', as some nasty animal (after all, our society is really and deeply biophobic).

    Put all eggs of energy into the electricity basket, and then hand the key of the door to the couple of foxes known as governments and big corporations.

    Add electronic currenty (and ban any phisical type of currency), add the 'big brother' of Google, Facebook, and internet, and that rationing schema kwnonw as 'smart grid', or 'smart anything for dumb citicenry', and you will begin to have a grasp of what is all this about.

    EV's and electric intermitent renewables become the new tools not only of wealth pumping, but also of social engineering, not to mention political shaping.

    And that is only one little side, but others are much nastier, thus I will refrain to explain more. That is enough of a rant.

    I'm sorry, but I could foresee that years ago.



  9. Hello Mr. Bardi

    Have read your blog for some years now. Please accept a "fan mail" type comment.
    I enjoy your blog for many reasons, but one is your variety and range; from serious/studious to almost whimsical at times. To illustrate I have commented to my wife that of the various energy/climatechange writers that I frequent online, yourself (and any others you would wish as company) would be whom most interested in us inviting for dinner.
    Thank you again for your insights,thought catalysts, and educational efforts regarding our Human condition.

    1. Hello! Well, nice to hear this, of course! About dinners, I have to say that catastrophists are normally funny people and it is a pleasure to be with them. Last time I was with Nate Hagens, it was great. But not only him, of course. Maybe one day I can show up for dinner with Nate at your place. Who knows?

  10. Ugo
    I understand that gasoline in Italy is nearly three times the price that in the USA. Apparently this has been due to a longterm policy regarding different tax and subsidies. If I may say so I much prefer Italy, but then I have only been a visitor.
    As a footnote regarding some other comments, I think I asked you before a few years ago about water supply in Italy and you did not envisage a problem.

    1. No critical problems. But I must say that things may become worrisome in the future. Around here, we have a water reservoir of some 60 million cubic meters, this year we are down of some 5 million cm with respect to two years ago. Not critical, but worrisome for the future.

      About taxation on cars and fuels in Italy, and in Europe in general, it has been traditionally much higher than in the US. That has pushed people to use smaller cars, but was never raised to such levels that people would be discouraged from owning cars altogether.



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome and the author of "Extracted: how the quest for mineral resources is plundering the Planet" (Chelsea Green 2014). His most recent book is "The Seneca Effect" to be published by Springer in mid 2017