How hyper-mobility can change the world

By investing in faster and cheaper transportation, we can truly realise the dream of a global village.

Colin McInnes

Topics Science & Tech

The bricks and mortar of the United Nations may well overlook the East River in Manhattan, but the best view of the family of nations is to be had from the Avis car-hire depot at the edge of Heathrow airport in London. From the perimeter road, tail flags of national carriers can be seen lined up in sequence on the taxiway, a broad spectrum of the world’s people as colourful as any UN convention. This is where the citizens of the world really come together.

It is the easy mobility of people between nations for work, leisure and trade enabled by air travel that is the cultural glue of globalisation. While some abhor the increasingly globalised world for its apparent potential for cultural homogenisation, in its broadest sense globalisation is the means by which we can build a sense of shared human values, forged through mutual understanding, interdependence and economic advantage.

The driver of globalisation has not been the United Nations, secretive meetings at Davos or even corporate global power. Geographer Vaclav Smil cleverly points out that the prime movers of globalisation are the high-bypass turbofan jet engine and the multi-megawatt marine diesel: one for transporting people and the other for transporting containerised goods. Importantly, it is the ideas in the heads of people that are being transported and it is the mix of these ideas that is globalisation, not just imports and exports stacked into standardised shipping containers.

In the 1960s, passenger manifests on jet aircraft mostly comprised royalty, cabinet ministers and the Beatles, the exclusive and unashamedly elite ‘jet set’. Since then, the fuel efficiency of civil aircraft has improved by a remarkable 70 per cent. These continuous innovations in efficiency have led to a reduction in operating costs and, consequently, the democratisation of air travel on a truly massive scale. Low-cost airlines may well be pilloried, in some cases quite justly, but they are liberators more than exploiters. In the developed world, the low cost of air travel relative to incomes has allowed mass participation and an enriching of the lives of many. We are all potential jet-setters, even if the 1960s idiom is now embarrassingly retro.

While we should welcome the availability of low-cost travel, some are far from happy. Although aviation makes a minimal contribution to global greenhouse gas emissions, plans are afoot for socially regressive measures to use taxation to limit opportunities for travel. However, attempting to tax air travel out of existence in the name of saving the planet will simply result in a return to the exclusive jet set of the 1960s and the end of mass participation.

For example, travelling by budget airline to Prague or Dublin for a weekend trip is often identified as a symptom of the excesses of prosperity and the profligate consumption of energy. It is in fact a direct consequence of improvements in the thermodynamic efficiency of gas turbines. Advanced, high-temperature metal alloys allow the turbine of a modern jet engine to operate at astonishingly high temperatures, leading to a reduction in fuel consumption, engine emissions and – importantly -operating costs. That city break is a direct, but entirely unexpected consequence of continuous advances by metallurgists. We should toast their genius with every glass of Staropramen or Guinness.

Militant opposition to the expansion of air travel is a worrying symptom of a deadbeat, stay-at-home society. It has little to do with the environment and everything to do with imposing an ethical worldview which does not approve of mobility for the masses. Likewise, some now complain about the so-called hyper-mobility of the modern world, the ability to travel where and when we wish, while quietly forgetting the suffocating hypo-mobility of agrarian village life which we have left behind. During the UK winter snowstorms of 2010, stranded travellers were criticised by some for having the audacity to visit family and friends over the holiday season. Rather than invest in snow ploughs to clear runways, we were told to invest in a good book and stay at home.

In order to sell the future growth of aviation, concepts for green aircraft are currently in vogue as a response to public concerns over environmental impacts. These are seen as ultra-efficient machines which will reduce emissions. But reducing fuel consumption, and hence emissions, is nothing new. It is the means by which costs have fallen and utilisation has soared. We need to understand that emissions are a sign of energy inefficiency, not of extravagance.

The future should see even more efficient aircraft, not just because they are cleaner, but because they are better. This is the path of innovation rather than taxation. By investing in innovation we will deliver socially progressive low-cost travel and environmentally progressive clean travel. These are not mutually exclusive choices. For example, in the long term, ultra-high speed flight may well be enabled by engines burning clean, energy-dense, pure hydrogen with trans-atmospheric vehicles cruising at many times the speed of sound on the edge of the atmosphere and leaving little imprint on the environment.

While it is widely believed that demand for long-haul travel will fall as growing use of the internet for video conferencing and virtual information sharing displaces face-to-face meetings, the internet is more likely to increase the demand for travel. Through modern communications we can learn of cities we wish to visit, companies we wish to trade with and can easily book local services through multilingual web interfaces. History shows that since the electric telegraph, communication bandwidth and passenger miles have been growing almost exactly in parallel. Communications provide the motivation to travel while transportation provides the means.

As for motivations, the global village of the early internet pioneers may well be here, but we now want to go and meet our new neighbours. What’s more, views on the future of travel tend to be lamentably obsessed with the developed world. We should recognise that there is a rapidly growing, affluent middle class in many developing nations, and they want to come and visit us. We should be ready to welcome them as fellow citizens of a globalised world.

It appears that it is the development of technologies for high-speed travel, whether air or rail, that fuels the growth of modern hyper-mobility. However, while technical innovation has led to transitions from domesticated horses, to steam locomotives, internal-combustion engines and gas turbines, our personal travel behaviour has remained remarkably unchanged. Industrial physicist Cesare Marchetti notes that, averaged over an entire population, we invest approximately 60 minutes each day in travel, some people more and some less. This appears to be a historical invariant, so-called Marchetti’s constant.

Walking at five kilometres per hour, a 60-minute investment in travel time corresponds to a radius of action of about 2.5 kilometres, to make a journey and then return home. Interestingly, this distance corresponds to disparate metrics such as the average spacing between Greek villages and the maximum radius of medieval walled cities. As the speed of transportation grows, this average investment in travel time remains fixed, but the available radius of action stretches. With the advent of railways and cars, cities could grow, while low-cost air travel and ultra-high-speed rail allows conurbations such as the eastern seaboard of the United States and much of Japan to operate as a single economic unit. It is the increasing speed of travel that allows cities, regional and continental economies to form, even though, on average, we invest no more time in travelling than we did in the past.

The final stage in the development of travel could well be hidden in Marchetti’s constant. The average 60-minute travel-time budget, a behavioural relic of our Neolithic past, wonderfully, is not too far from the 90 minutes taken to make a single orbit of the Earth. While our distant ancestors would invest 30 minutes or so walking to the next settlement, in future perhaps we will invest 45 minutes in sub-orbital travel to the other side of the globe. Then, finally, the world will have been properly globalised.

Colin McInnes is professor of engineering science at the University of Strathclyde. Other articles can be found at Perpetual Motion.

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Topics Science & Tech


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