Transport and adaptive capacity: An integrated approach to UK policy evaluation

This is a guest post from Robin Lovelace (, a graduate student at the University of York, UK. As part of his Environmental Science and Management MSc Robin was asked to pick a policy area and discuss how it could adapt to climate change. Due in part to the Oil Drum, he decided to include peak oil in the discussion, with a reluctant ‘OK’ from Professor Mike Ashmore. Robin is a qualified bicycle mechanic, writing part-time for Interclimate, starting an interdisciplinary PhD in energy research next year and wants to save the world.

Writing about transport and climate change in the UK I soon realized that climate change cannot be viewed in isolation from other phenomena such as peak oil. I also realized that adaptation should not be seen narrowly as coping with new atmospheric conditions. We need to build adaptive capacity in general to deal with a range of pressures (Holling et al. 2002), including peak oil and climate change.

While the central findings relate to local, regional and national policy in the UK, I believe they apply across the industrial world. On the individual level, it shows that we need to integrate our transport choices with the rest of our lives: health, happiness and living near one’s place. In a globalised capitalist economy, some find themselves pushed around the world by market forces. It is now time to follow the advice of a wise man: "Find your place on the planet. Dig in, and take responsibility from there." Gary Snyder.

Central findings

  • Transport policy needs to be integrated into other policy areas, especially energy security, public health and community links if it is to adapt to climate change.
  • Physical and technological limits to change must be considered before creating transport policy to adapt to climate change.
  • The UK’s existing transport system is vulnerable to climate change and peak oil. Considering only climate change may result in ineffective policy.
  • Physical risks threaten the transport infrastructure of the UK. New light railways, walkways and bicycle paths should be located above flood plains.
  • Economic risks can be overcome by a move towards non-motorized transport.
  • Social risks include the possibility that people are unwilling to adapt. Plans must be made now to allow a smooth transition away from the car.
  • Climate change offers a unique opportunity to improve the UK’s transport policy.
  • The central message is that transport policy must focus on simple technologies that are proven to work on a large scale today.


There is an ongoing political furore over the future of the UK’s transport policy. Debates rage over the third runway at Heathrow, EU vehicle emission targets, and recently (March, 2009), a plan to subsidise car disposal.

Relatively little has been said about the transportation sector and adaptation to climate change. Government literature on the subject is totally inadequate. This essay was written primarily to move the debate forward. I hope that the information below leads people to reconsider the sustainability of their own means of transport. By sustainability, I mean “the capacity to create, test and maintain adaptive capacity” (Holling et al., 2002).

This essay aims to show how the UK’s transportation system can adapt to climate change.
For too long climate change has been viewed in isolation from parallel phenomena that may be equally important to human wellbeing.

For example, analyses that ignore resource depletion may recommend resource-intensive solutions to climate change, such as personal flying machines. In the light of 21st century resource depletion, such recommendations would not only be misguided, they would be dangerous.

A comprehensive review of the policies available has been done by the UK Energy Research Council (March, 2009), neatly described on the The Guardian newspaper. The report concludes that behavioural change is likely to be the most desirable option in the short term.

A reality check

“For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.” Richard Feynman
Consideration of physical and technological limits focusses attention on the more realistic options available.

The current transportation system has become dominated by the personal automobile (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Percentage of passenger miles travelled by car, bus and rail between 1953 and 1993 (DfT, 1995). Click to enlarge

Not only do cars transport UK citizens over a larger distance than any other form of transport 4x1011 passenger kilometres, or 88% of the total. The transport infrastructure of every city, town and village is designed around the car. Car ownership is 38% in the UK, compared with 1% in China, and 48% in the USA. The car dominates motorized transport (Figure 2). Obesity, caused partly by car dependence, could cost the UK £45 billion per year by 2050. Adaptive capacity depends on the nation’s baseline health levels and community interconnection (Holling et al. 2002). Therefore car dependence can be seen as an important barrier to adaptation.

Britons fly more frequently than almost any other citizens on Earth, which acts against the build-up of community links and may increase social isolation (Gössling, 2002). Community links make a country resilient to any stressor, including climate change.

Figure 2: Distances travelled by car, bus, rail, tram, foot and by bicycle per capita in a selection of EU member states (CFIT, 2007). Figure 2a is restricted to motorized transport. Figure 2b and 2c are restricted to walking and cycling respectively. Click to enlarge.

Physical limits cannot possibly be broken. It is important to consider physical limits to avoid wasting resources on projects that are destined to fail.

Resource constraints, especially peak oil, will be the most important set of physical limitations imposed on the UK’s transportation sector. With this in mind, the increasing share of the UK’s energy budget consumed by transport is especially worrying (Figure 3).

The current transportation system has become dominated by the personal automobile (Figure 1).

Figure 3: Energy consumption by the transport sector. 3a shows energy consumption by end-user in the UK between 1970 and 2006 (Gasparatov et al., 2009). Transport has progressively burned more high quality fuel as other sectors’ energy use remains constant and even as efficiency improves. 3b shows predicted final energy usage in the UK in 2010 (BERR, 2007). Click to enlarge.

21st century resource depletion means that some of the complex technologies touted as ‘solutions’ to peak oil (e.g. biofuels, electric cars, and hydrogen cars) cannot be effective at the global level on the timescale required and will not be considered further.

Technological limits can be overcome by research. Unfortunately, the timescale between drawing up an idea, and putting it into production is long. Energy systems are subject to an especially high level of inertia and have historically adapted only on inter-decadal timescales (Smil, 2008). By focussing attention on simple, low energy technologies that already work (e.g. walkways, rickshaws, bicycles, and buses), government and industry can avoid wasting scarce resources.

In the long term, complete decarbonisation of the transport sector is necessary as fossil fuels become depleted over the 21st century.

What do we want from the transport sector anyway?

The government’s transport bureaucrats appear to see the sole goal of transport as the moving individuals from one place to another. However, the transport system is more than an array of individual teleportation devices: it is the fabric of our social space (Illich, 1974). The transport sector affects the following goals.
  • Financial viability
  • Congestion mitigation
  • Safety
  • Noise reduction
  • Air quality
  • Climate protection
  • Nature conservation
Adaptation will only be possible if climate change does not exceed a certain level of severity. Therefore a whole range of factors add to a society’s adaptive capacity. Because of this, I would like to add some additional goals to the 7 identified above:
  • Energy security
  • Social cohesion
  • Public health

Risks to the current transportation sector

“A people can be just as dangerously overpowered by the wattage of its tools as by the caloric content of its foods, but it is much harder to confess to a national overindulgence in wattage than to a sickening diet.” Ivan Illich
Some of the physical threats to the transport sector are as follow:
  • Increased frequency, duration and intensity of heat waves and floods pose threats to transport infrastructure.
  • Increased winter-time rainfall may cause increased flooding of roads and railway track.
  • Transport hardware will be exposed to increased risk from flood damage as garages, bike shops and bus and train depots become inundated.
Combine climate change with peak oil and the current global depression: it becomes clear that the UK’s economy is in trouble. The economic threats to the transport sector include:
  • The haulage industry could strike as it did in 2008. Combined with other problems, this could lead to food shortages in some parts of Britain.
  • Oil price shocks could leave car-dependent families and businesses stranded, while import restriction could leave petrol stations dry.
  • Planned investment in transport infrastructure may be cancelled as liquid capital dries up.
Economic turmoil can lead to social turmoil. A possibility is that instead of adapting by finding new forms of transport, people will simply give up and decide that we are ‘doomed’. Such pessimistic fatalism poses a significant risk to the sustainability (capacity to adapt) of the UK’s transport system.
  • There may be a switch in attitudes from ‘there is no problem’ to ‘we are all doomed’.
  • People may become depressed and simply increase their vice-dosage of food, alcohol, porn or television, preventing adaptation.
  • People in a position to help others adapt to new transport systems (e.g. bike mechanics, coach-company operators, politicians) may be unable to act.


“In Chinese the word crisis is composed of two characters. One represents danger, and the other represents opportunity.” John F. Kennedy
One of the major attractions of the personal automobile is that it keeps people warm and dry when the weather is cold and wet. Warmer summers could remove the one of excuses people offer for not travelling by bike or foot.

On the economic side, the lack of money in the system may provide a unique opportunity for people to admit the shortcomings of the current set-up. Already, the uptake of cycling for economic reasons has soared. Continued economic strife could lead a significant proportion of the population to ditch the car in favour of more healthy alternatives. This shift to walking and cycling would increase the adaptive capacity of the UK in terms of: health, community ties and energy security.

The government takeover of the banks may create investment opportunities for the greater good. Schemes such as safe walkways and cycle routes above floodplains rely on such government funding.

Recommended pathways of adaptation

It is now clear that we need an integrated climate policy that tackles the range of problems that we face in the 21st century. A series of isolated and incompatible plans for each UK policy area is of little use to policy makers. These are some of my recommendations
  • Transport in the UK should become less oil dependent.
  • The UK’s transport infrastructure should be made more resilient to climate change.
  • Simple and effective transportation technology should be pursued through government funding of science.
Detailed versions of these recommendations are available online here in a longer version of this report.


The central message is that the focus must be on technologies that are proven to work today.
A complete restructuring of the UK’s transportation sector is needed to increase the adaptive capacity of the nation’s means of transport, economy and society. In the context of climate change and peak oil, current government policy amounts to a cornucopian faith in unproven technology and wishful thinking regarding fuel supplies. If politicians follow outdated transport policies until the bitter end, they lock future generations in to a system that will collapse.

Fortunately, integrated approaches to transport are more appealing than the fossilised approaches they replace. The wide range of actions that could be taken includes measures that simultaneously create jobs and exportable industry, reduce energy dependence, increase public health and recreate broken communities. Action can be taken at many scales, and not just through the national government. The road ahead will be rocky, but it is certainly not impassable or totally new.

It is clear that the industrial car-based model cannot achieve the goals of transport policy in current atmospheric conditions, let alone in the future. We must implement sustainable transport systems now. This essay simply gives some starting ideas.


Banister R. (2008). The sustainable mobility paradigm. Transport Policy 15(2): 73-80

Doll J. (2008). Externalities of the transport sector and the role of hydrogen in a sustainable transport vision. Energy Policy, Volume 36, Issue 11

Gasparatos et al. (2009). A longitudinal analysis of the UK transport sector, 1970–2010. Energy Policy, 37(2)

Gossop, J. (2006). Famine in the West, Available online as an E-book for £2.99 from: This book was reviewed by Jonathan Porritt as “a robust and authoritative antidote to the dangerously irrelevant “business as usual” bullshit that dominates so much of today’s debate about the future of farming.”

Gössling S. (2002). Global environmental consequences of tourism. Global Environmental Change, 12(4), 283-302

Holling C.S. et al. (2002). Sustainability and Panarchies, in Chapter 3 of Holling C.S. and Gunderson, L.H. (2002), Panarchy, New York: Island Pess

Illich I. (1974). Energy and Equity. First published in Le Monde, but now found published in full in various places on the internet.

NHS (2005). Making the case: improving health through transport, Cyberspace: NHS. Last accessed 07/03/09 from:

Smil V. (2008). Moore’s curse and the great energy delusion. The American, November, 2008. Available online on Vaclav’s website:

Hello Robin,

I have posted much before in the TOD archives on my speculative SpiderWebRiding ideas. I reposted below for your convenience my latest text, which was originally posted at the bottom of Nate's keypost on Jay Hanson's Society of Sloth:

A postPeak society of sloth implies the need for great human efficiency when movement is required,IMO. As FFs head toward Unobtainium: smooth riding on steel wheels on steel rails powered by pedalized chain & gearsets offers the best way to move mass/energy expenditure:
Pedal power probe shows bicycles waste little energy
When it comes to efficient use of energy, it's tough to beat a bike.
Bicycle efficiency and power -- or, why bikes have gears.

Recall my earlier posting on the authors of "Bicycle Science" conclusion: HPV record will have to move to rails to advance any further past 82mph. IMO, SpiderWebRiding for vital cargo movement vastly outweighs the Nuhautl Tlameme backpacking scheme.

Bob Shaw in Phx,Az Are Humans Smarter than Yeast?

Hi totoniela,

I'm confused by your message, partly because of this strange txt language you were speaking. I don't understand all of the abbreviations! I presume your point is that bicycles are highly efficient.

There is a brilliant graph of the energy consumption of different modes of transport here.

We need a ten fold increase in cycling rates to:

1) Increase happiness ratings

2) Decrease obesity rates

3) Prevent the collapse of our transport system


Thanks for the article. I find the language and the balance of ideas very accessible.

There was one phrase I stumbled on and I felt could be rethought, which was when you described needing a 'Complete Restucturing of the (UK) transp. sector', which is not to say that I essentially disagree with the statement, but it's the kind of language that makes too many listeners' 'Eyes Glaze Over', particularly I fear, those in policy-making positions who listen to every proposal with a running Cost Estimate filter over it. Maybe that's not really your intended audience, but if it were, I would propose that the opening to a summary paragraph gets extra attention, and needs to use somewhat more lubricating language. For all that, it wasn't a big deal, just a thought.. (in the vein of, 'There are several more things I would like to say on the topic of brevity..')

Bob Shaw's shorthand (above) can be tricky to translate, but it's worth trying if you want to tune in with a very revolutionary mind that's playing with possibilities that others too quickly dismiss. His structures and constructions are very much in the spirit of 'Complete restructuring' of transportation, trying as Sherlock Holmes advised, 'To Eliminate the impossible to arrive at the truth.' Some are not workable in and of themselves, they are just routes out to various fields of thought that very likely have some gems in them, very much in terms of 'Established Technologies that we know work', but might be liberally re-worked or re-apportioned to make them useful steps out of today's conundrum.

Bob Fiske

I found the timeline for UK transport from 1953 - 1993 particularly interesting - pretty well my 'traveling' life that started with walking to first school, then bicycle to secondary school, car to work, then long distance commuting and working abroad (air travel). I presume the last 16 years has confirmed the trends, with a recent small relative increase in rail travel?
Personally, I have given up air travel and no longer commute. But I have seen our relatively remote (for UK) rural area gradually adopt new up-market pocket-housing schemes that could only work with car ownership. It is interesting to see that the latest and biggest wave of these schemes (plural) are sitting finished but empty. I do not expect them to be bought anytime soon.
There must be an increasing number of such 'stranded assets'?
There is a whole lot of development, perhaps the majority that happened this last 30 years, that is vulnerable. Greater London expanded by radial rail routes, and while radial commuting is still vast (how vast?), in London and elsewhere there has been a huge expansion in school and work and shopping travel criss-crossing in all directions. Similarly, when the old industries closed all over the country, work and people got dispersed. It is hard to imagine such 'local employment' these days coming back on a sufficient scale. (I can more easily imagine shopping patterns changing.)
I agree with you about the health value of walking and cycling to work (I belong to a Heart Support Group). Do you have info on the relative proportion of journeys that are short and need not be taken by car?

Hi Phil,

Thanks for the comments. I think local employment can be increased substantially by better farming and stronger regional economies.

I found some info on the relative proportion of journeys that are short see here.

From the data, I created graphs available here for those who are interested.

The data show that over half of all car journeys made are less than 5 miles long. Thus around half of all car journeys made could be made by bicycle. This proportion will increase as the economy becomes more regional.


Alas the Royal Mail has just announced that it will replace British postmens' bicycles with vans! In order to save money. I can't think of a better illustration of how far out of touch decision-makers can be.

A Times article quotes a trade-union spokesman as saying, "We support in principle the introduction of vans on delivery because it gets weight off the shoulders of postal workers and would remove thousands of private cars from delivery routes." That's cause for wonder - do UK postal workers drive their own cars on their delivery routes?

Hello Robin (huh),
Your post doesn't seem to have attracted much comment (yet). I speculate that that may be because it is rather out of line with a lot of the trend of thinking at theoildrum.
Myself, I was for years involved in cycling campaigning, secretary etc of the cycling campaign in Birmingham.
The police tolerance of pavement-cycling was introduced following a letter I had published in the Guardian in the 1990s, showing the previous policy to be utterly counterproductive with no positives.
I published this article about excessive mobility in 1998:
So I can see where you are coming from and see the sense (up to a point) in what you've written.

Mr Pywell who designed your cycling wonderland in York moved to Bham to supposedly put pedestrians first and cars last, but the reality has been tons of pedestrian obstruction barriers being put up.

Reading your post I guess you are a bit young, have never spent any time outside the institutional/voluntary-sector fantasy world, and indeed been confined to a rather untroubled cocooned existence. I'll try not to be too harsh, though I do have to do a lot of upturning of assumptions.

Your article (and also your career trajectory) appears very much premised on assumptions of BAU (business as usual) rather than a fairly soon collapse of the institutional system. Assumes the possibility of a government that's actually in the business of solving problems rather than just more of the same worthless Criminalocracy:
On and my (just being put together) are some of the reasonings against those assumptions.

People have been making sensible proposals about transport for many decades. "Motorways versus Democracy" (by John Tyme I think) was published thirty-five years ago. Don't just take my word for it, check out the facts I provide in substantiation that: trying to persuade governments to do anything useful is an utter waste of time; and it is now too late to do anything but prepare ones' lifeboats to ride the waves of collapse of the globalised-corporatised-creditised-oilised life-support system we all now hang our lives on.

It goes without saying that no "university" or "professor" therein is going to be remotely friendly towards such ideas. Tough.

You talk of "collapse of the institutional system", how are you using the term institution? Do you see a difference between say a publicly owned corporation and a university? Are you suggesting the institutional system is more susceptible to collapse than the corporate system (if indeed you are differentiating between the two)?

Perhaps I should have said corporate system there. (I'm not brilliant with words.)

It appears to me that universities are very much inseparable from the rest of the globalised-corporatised-oilised etc world. They too are large heirarchical organisations, are also dependent on long-distance transport of personnel and goods, and the globalised hi-tech such as advanced computer networks, and other big suppliers. And have crucial mutual links of dependency. Big biz needs institutions to provide its "trained" (sorry for my cynicism) workforce, and to provide its ideology propaganda (e.g. Mellon Institute founded to give "authority" to Andrew Mellon's fluoridation hoax; more recently the hugely profitable hoax that hiv causes aids). Meanwhile universities need the money from big biz, medical schools for instance funded by big pharma.

So if/when the globalised-corporatised etc system has a terminal breakdown (from e.g. oil/food/credit market paralysis, electricity blackout, hyperinflation) then the universities would go down with them (and all large organisations similarly dependent).

You'll be aware that at the moment record numbers are enrolling in uk universities, but that that is liable to change when (a) the money becomes short and/or (b) people lose hope of seeing any recovery for their studies to be paid back from. On that basis perhaps it is conceivable that educational institutions may start to bankrupt even before Tesco et al. (Food is always going to be higher priority than qualifications.) (Off to sleep now.)

Hi Robin

Yes, bang on with the young, and still relatively idealistic branding. I read in your book the future is here about the corrupt nature of British politics. I see your your point that presenting useful suggestions to a band of crooks is like giving the Ku Klux Klan a practical guide to nonviolence.

The new generation is naive to the political battles that preceded us. The present is presented as an airbrushed, perfectly competitive free market: everyone can buy their car, their house, their processed food and 10 pints of Stella to drown the alienation that accompanies life in the Brave New World wherever you go. (We can also choose not to.)

A continuation of this is what I would refer to as Business As Usual (BUA), not the rather utopian statist vision of my article. Yes it is politically naive, but it is certainly not business as usual.

I obviously must make the assumption that there will be a future if I am to talk about the future. Otherwise it's as simple as saying "we are all doomed" and then drown away your worries with whatever vice you fancy.

Trying to stay positive,


A continuation of this [the "American Dream" scenario -rpc] is what I would refer to as Business As Usual (BAU), not the rather utopian statist vision of my article.

I appreciate the distinction you make there. My (and others') use of the term BAU is pretty vague but I think users of the term usually have in mind something much more radical than a transformation of government/society thinking away from consumerism, growthism etc.
More like some sort of collapse of the whole system.

I obviously must make the assumption that there will be a future if I am to talk about the future.


Otherwise it's as simple as saying "we are all doomed" and then drown away your worries with whatever vice you fancy.

Disagreed. Rather it's as simple as saying "many/most are doomed, particularly those who haven't a clue what's coming". Huge difference because it means one can work at helping or being one of those who are not doomed. And one is in the remarkable position of being one of the few with a clue.

Trying to stay positive,

I agree. It's a steep learning cliff which far too many are proving unable to climb. I don't want to rule out the possibility you may yet make it! The positive electrode of your camera's capacitor will give you a nasty 10kV shock if you touch it, but it's still positively useful nonetheless.

I see some positive in that you ventured to raise the eyebrows of Prof Ashmore, in a situation where many others would be fearful, careful to avoid doing so.

On my "your future" pdf in progress is just about to get to the point of explaining why I consider a total system collapse to be almost inevitable within a few months or years. Sorry I can't be quicker about this but my illness makes everything get done at geological time-scale! (Hopefully the dentist in York will at last liberate me from this situation.)


Your email address appears not to work


The hosting company of that domain is getting useless. I'll have to extricate it to another company somehow. Meanwhile there's rpclarke53[at]btinternet[dot] com

I have meanwhile sent you a reply. I'll just copy here a bit of the correspondence that seems of relevance.

>but no one likes to be told they will be attacked for riding a bicycle in the future. Harsh and totally counter-productive.

Really? On what evidence? I would think many people would be very grateful for an honest non-cocooned discussion of how the future will work out (and that point of mine was unremarkable by tod standards). Being in denial is what is counterproductive, not the honest stating of what is being denied about. [....] my main travel mode is my bikes (and I'm an expert in bike tech rather than qualified) but I am glad I am not unaware that the day may not be far away when that becomes useless history.

Relating back to the original article I find it interesting that there doesn't seem to be any effort to work towards "multi-modal" transportation -- i.e. equip the rails to easily transport bicycles or segways or other similar low impact vehicles -- as a way to connect "suburban like" communities where many people live. It seems that in many suburban areas in the USA and maybe in Britain one could take a lane from the expressway and turn it into a rail line without much decrease in the post peak oil road congestion. My understanding is that people may be willing to walk up to two to four blocks, or bicycle up to two to four miles without too much complaint. More than that seems too much of an effort. I have seen no discussion of rail-bike (or Segway) links anywhere, except of course, this one I just wrote.

Today I was playing with ways to put cyclists on trains conveniently, and without making the station stops too long. I'm sure there are good solutions out there, but it's tricky.

One was a rail car with bike racks all down one side, seats/benches down the other.. but unless you have several extra doors on the car, the entry and exit process could be really tangled.

I've sometimes considered mounting a pair of skate wheels onto the rear rack so you can stand your bike and roll it self-standing around like a trike, which could make moving around in a crowd a bit more feasible (have to secure the front wheel as well, and flattening the pedals and handlebars might be desirable, too)

I think this conversation is a couple steps beyond the ones of basic acceptance of where we're heading with PO and such. First, to get the message out that there's a looming supply crunch, most likely a permanent one. But in the meantime, some of these contingencies are worth testing, designing and refining, if you want to have your proposals 'shovel-ready' when people realize finally that there's a real need for something like that.


ps There were a few hits on Google with 'bikes on trains' .. here's one,


It sounds as if you're keeping the bike by the rider, so this would be a problem. How about a separate room with bike racks: put it in, take a number (automatic key), and then go to the people only compartment. When you get off, bikers could get off one at a time through one or two doors. This way, you wouldn't mix bikes and people without bikes.

Just a suggestion.

Minneapolis has one light rail line. But it does have a neat feature for bikes. Most cars have a little area next to the door with a hook near the roof for the front wheel. You pop your bike up onto its back wheel, roll it onto the train and hook it into the top and take a seat near your bike.

Now, that works on trains that are not packed with people. But in that case, the bike areas make good standing room.

Something like a Brompton folding bike is another good solution.

Have you seen bicycle park-lots in Japan, especially Tokyo?

In Tokyo, a lot of people do use their bikes. In the morning, they would bike to their closest rail station, park their bicycles, and take the train to work. I guess most of the jobs are nearby another station so walking or company bus would be able to help the last leg of the ride.

In the SF Bay Area, we do allow bicycle on our train but only during off hours. There are bicycle "parking lot" in one of the station (Berkeley) but not in other stations.

Here's a photo I took at the station in Cambridge, UK last year:

There are 4 hanging bike spots per car on newer model Portland Oregon Max trains.... typically two cars per train, so 8 hanging bike spots per train

Sometimes people squeeze in a few more.

Standees are "required" to let bikers hang their bikes.... in my experience they always do.

This is a good idea--you should develop it further. In my little town, the public transit system allows people to bike to the stop and put their bikes on the bus for the longer trips. It would make sense to exclude cars from the core city and allow only walking or bikes; allowing personal transport, perhaps, for distances of between 10 and 30 miles, then requiring bus or train transit for longer distances.

I liked your article, particularly its emphasis on adaptation (which is the only viable path, I think) over mitigation (which is impossible in practice). You will no doubt encounter criticism from mitigationists (and doomers).

I'm not certain I understand what you mean by the statement: It is clear that the industrial car-based model cannot achieve the goals of transport policy in current atmospheric conditions, let alone in the future.

Surely you mean the ICE family-sedan sized car or any and all cars? Couldn't smaller, one or two-person cars (sort of like motorized bicycles, perhaps, but with 3 wheels for balance and maybe an enclosure to protect from the weather) be used effectively?

Maybe, also, we need diversified means of travel, with walking and bicycles (or tricyles) used for local transport (1-2 miles), small cars for (2 to 5 miles), and then public transport (bus or train) for longer distances.

Hi Dayahka,

Yes I think cars will always play an important role as they are so useful for getting around. David MacKay (chapter 20 on shows that electric cars can be 5 times more efficient in terms of final energy consumption than fossil fueled vehicles. However, electric cars in most places at the moment should in fact be called "coal-powered cars". This is because the electrical energy comes from coal-fired power plants.

There are other problems with a car-dominated transport system including:

1) Increased isolation from the natural world and the rest of society

2) Obesity - why walk if you have a car?

3) The embodied energy of a car which is around 4 years worth of driving.

I do not recommend the total annihilation of cars, just their replacement where possible. I like your short-medium-long distance suggestion, sounds good to me.


There are significant reasons for expecting that cars will cease to be a mode of transport at all in the not too distant future. Partly this depends on the predicate of there being a system collapse. Motor transport tech (not least road maintenance) is heavily dependent on the complex industrial/social/etc system for its functioning.

But even assuming a non-collapse future, even before the roads have degraded to uselessness (2025?), most people will no longer be able to afford to drive. They're starting to become skint already. Vehicle miles are already in decline.

And when a reasonably large proportion of people find themselves horrendously "deprived" of their "birthright" of going everywhere by 300-horsepowered peeis-extension, any remaining "fortunate" people who venture out by car are going to find it not worth the bother due to the high rate of ambushes. End of a very nasty story (I won't be shedding any tears). Cars are by far the worst invention in all of history, responsible for more deaths than all the weapons put together, and that's not even starting on the universal 24/7 regime of fourwheeled terrorist intimidation, and the stupendous destruction of community life and decency it has imposed on the world.

Ten years ago I emailed to my then MP Saint Lynne Jones (Lab), asking did she endorse the precautionary principle, that I should be prevented from buying (the utterly harmless) vitamins (on which my life has depended for the past 30 years) until proven safe. She replied yes (that I should be thus prevented from safeguarding my health, as big pharma profits are of course far more important).

So I asked in followup: so therefore she must presumably also agree that cars should be banned until proven safe? (After all, instead of huge evidence of harmlessness, they kill huge numbers of unwilling innocent third parties), let alone the many more seriously injured.)

I don't quite recall her response but I do recall that one reader commented that it was absolutely outrageous for an MP to address her constituent in such a manner. And they haven't even had the decency to prohibit cars from being painted the grey to black colours which make them so much more hazardous for all. So much for fiddled living expenses, they're just professional crooks full start-to-stop!

And here's Jeremy Clarkson's own "doomer" conclusion very competently and starkly spelled out:
Live video:
Written "car review" article with comments after:

A few days later the BBC imposed a regime of pre-moderation on him. Needless to say they didn't say why.

And when a reasonably large proportion of people find themselves horrendously "deprived" of their "birthright" of going everywhere by 300-horsepowered peeis-extension, any remaining "fortunate" people who venture out by car are going to find it not worth the bother due to the high rate of ambushes.

I guess this has happened before, Russia in the early 90's, Iraq, Argentina... Do you know of any well documented examples of a what did happen when a society's vehicle miles significantly declines?

I think that was a thesis put forward by Kunstler, but it's always good to look for such evidence in support or against. In the case of 1990s Russia it's probably not a great parallel because most of the population were non-motorists anyway, with quite adequate public transport coverage, and because of the very real "police state" more controlled society. There was an account on the web somewhere of one man's considerable experience of Argentina (but sorry I don't remember the details).
A suggestion of possible zeitgeist is Dmitri Orlov's suggestion re housing that you could be pleased to have your plush house reallocated as a "police headquarters" so that you can remain living in the adjoining garage.
I also suspect an important variable is how socially vs individually-minded the population are. There are shown above examples of Japan, Netherlands, Germany, Cambridge, where people are by nature liable to be much more community-collaborative (the r/K variable (which is why those are more culturally-advanced societies).

Richard Heinberg ("The Party's Over", "Peak Evrything") and James Howard Kunstler ("The Long Emergency", "World Made By Hand") and Christopher C. Swan's "ELECTRIC WATER" are suggested reading. Railways do in fact have a role in the winding down of motor transport, just as railways got us well enough off to launch the age of automobiles.

The bicycles have a place in Californis Capitol Corridor trains, running from Auburn at the edge of the Sierra Nevada, thru Sacramento, to Oakland. You can either bring the bicycle on BART to ride subway under San Francisco Bay to stops along Market Street, or ride train to Jack London Station, and write 1/2 mile to ferry boat ride, my wife's usual preference. Wonderful invigorating boat ride to restored Ferry Building at foot of Market Street.

So trains are a friend to bicycles, or can be. See the books above, and also, as a further look at trains, see articles 374 and 1037. This writer is rather urgently advocating re-institution of the railway branchline network, serving thousands of smaller towns in the USA and England too, until after the freeways and motorways squeezed the branchlines off the map.

The British firm,, offers USA Rail Map Atlas volumes, so stateside transportation advocates can look at lines nearby they may wish to rehab. It is the same in England, first researching, then re-establishing the corridor footprint. Where bicycle trails may reside on old railbed, we must avoid falling into trap of bicycle vs. railway conflict; railway also assures cargo/victuals for enroute residences and way can be found to enable bicycles, usually.

Robin, your graph 2c is particularly interesting. There appears to be an order of magnitude difference between the UK and the Netherlands and Denmark. We might do well to see just how those two contries have managed there urban transport and try to learn some lessons. It must be possible to achieve Danish cycling rates without the total collapse of civilization. The Danes have done it.

Netherlands and Denmark aren't noted for their car industries. And big industry rules. Meanwhile the collapse of civilisation (or more accurately the corporate etc system imposed on top of our civilisation) is unlikely to be related to increase of cycling. But decrease of cycling might be unavoidable if ambushing/hijacking becomes common due to social breakdown. Cycling is exceptionally vulnerable to lack of co-operative social order, not to mention suicidal motorists.

Also Netherlands and Cambridge (and Denmark?) are notoriously flat as a pancake, and cycling is much more popular in hill-free locales. This surprises me because I find the (England-sized) ups and downs and resulting scenery make cycling much more interesting, and also a better form of exercise.

The average altitude of Denmark is about 30 m (98 ft), and the highest point is only 173 m (568 ft). Denmark and Netherlands are also similar in size, 43,094 and 41,526 square kilometers respectively, though Denmark has a third the population density of Netherlands. The UK is about six times the above size but still has a population density about twice that of Denmark. Nothing insurmountable about a huge U.K. increase in cycling but possibly the prevailing attitude.

For comparison my little out of the way borough is near half the size Netherlands but has less than 100,000 people, spread all around it with roads climbing a 1000 feet in a couple miles regularly. I can't see my area maintaining without lots of oil but then 10-20% of what the U.S. uses passes through it every day. Getting food here during a major upheaval would be a problem though.

RobinPC, the upheaval you envision would flow out of sudden disruption of oil flows, don't you think? Hardly hard to imagine with a mere 500 or so big tankers serving to move crude over the world seas. Sure this requires irrational use of force, but if the first world feels it is being strangled that seems a likely outcome. Just in time delivery of EVERTHING ceases if the tankers stop. The ensuing scene probably could not be contained by martial law long, I don't want to see it. By the time the human activity subsided to a point where mere ambushes were a problem things would have changed a whole lot.

How to prepare, in the broadest sense, infrastructure? There are some important policy considerations that could be driving transport.
Just a few examples:
1. More equal societies are healthier and some of these like DK do a lot more cycling.
(UK Cambridge students bike a lot, - great pic above - the city looks more like Netherlands, and the bike tradition and temporary 'equality' among student and graduate community, could help?)
2. Future-proofing could be helped in UK if government policy to encourage electrification of most of the rail network is carried through. (Next government, however, looks as though it will go for Very High Speed, expensive and energy inefficient, eye-catching rail project.) Despite supposed rail electrification, present government still thinks in terms of 'growth' using air and roads.
3. Security and method of future electric power generation hang in the balance here as elsewhere.
4. Planning rules have been powerful feature of British modern landscape. These have favored all uses of the motor car. (And I guess contribute to economic and social inequality, despite the appearance of a 'unity' of a car-owning, house-owning democracy. We have increasingly shared ills similar to recent decades in USA of social and material infrastructure: indebtedness, pseudo-prosperity, increasingly 'at-risk' non-discretionary family expenditure [e.g. car?] combined now, again, with economic insecurity, etc.)
Seems like the 'cognitive capture' of government (and academia?) during 'modernization' of recent decades needs serious challenging by vigorous well-informed young. Car-park [sic!] at Cambridge railway station seems like good place to start?