Transportist: April 2020

Welcome to the latest issue of The Transportist, especially to our new readers. As always you can follow along at the or on Twitter. The armageddon of the month, Covid-19, is rearing its logistically, not exponentially, growing head. (I am sending this early, since at this rate, there may be no April.)

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Locally, we went to all-online mode at the University of Sydney, as did many other universities, and all our travel and other operational expenses were frozen (this was before the international aviation system more-or-less shut down), so I won’t see many of you in person this winter/summer as I had hoped. I am also sad because we had to switch my Transport Policy, Planning and Deployment class’s game night from being an in person (board game) activity to one where students played electronic games. Maybe one day, spatial distancing will be the problem, and they will want us to huddle together again to improve our immune systems.

We saw lots of other novel behaviours this month.

Hoarding was perhaps the most remarked on at first. Toilet paper hoarding in Australia became a thing. Remember, the only thing to fear is fear itself. But if everyone thinks everyone else is afraid, it is rational to be afraid (and hoard). I would argue hoarding and shortages are the natural consequences of a just-in-time economy transforming into an inventory-based economy. This is not inherently irrational when supply interruptions (due to possible store closures, illnesses taking out the supply chain, etc.) are considered. It is derided as selfish, I think that is needless moralising. Now needless moralising may itself be rational for society to engage it, to convince everyone to behave well, or to signal you align with society, but I prefer facts.

Is everyone so panicked because they have been primed by decades of dystopian media and Zombie Apocalypses that they think *this* is the big one? Will we be better prepared when (not if) a much more fatal epidemic hits? A twitter poll says 2/3 of you think so. I remain skeptical. If the response is successful, and fewer than expected/threatened die, people will believe collectively pushing the self-destruct button and blowing up the world economy (people’s lives and employment, not just their retirement portfolios) an over-reaction. If it is unsuccessful, and many people die, there may be more hope for people taking the warning signs more seriously in the future. It’s a dilemma.

As in the table below, we are collectively fucked unless the virus is a lot weaker than evidence suggests (and people don’t get it yet). (The virus, of course, is what it is, though there is uncertainty about that (since as of this writing, we don’t know the true infection numbers, as most people who have been infected have not been tested), it is only our collective reaction that we collectively control at this point).

The stock market crash (which takes coronavirus as an organising principle, but was long overdue) brings it nearer in line with long-term trends (it had been seriously overpriced, as readers have been warned. [The Precarity of Our Situation][What a Logistic Curve of the S&P 500 Tells Us]).

Oh and oil prices collapsed too. If this sustains, bad news for the environment and public transport. In the mean time, the economic collapse buys us a few extra days of CO2 emissions I suppose.

Incoming President Biden (10 months away if the gerontologically-challenged leadership of the US survives intact), (we’re all thinking it) obviously a fan of high-speed rail, should consider renationalising all the mainline US Railroads and strip them of right-of-way for his HSR system if their low stock prices persist. It would be cheaper than negotiating piecemeal. (I first suggested this 11 years ago). Commercial railroading is in long-term decline with its main commodity, coal, on the downslide.

“Let’s consider a reevaluation of the situation in which we assume that the stuckness now occurring, the zero of consciousness, isn’t the worst of all possible situations, but the best possible situation you could be in. After all, it’s exactly this stuckness that Zen Buddhists go to so much trouble to induce….” 

— Robert Pirsig from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance 

In happier matters, I am thinking about a Reviewers Guild to help break academics from their subservience to the for-profit journal publishing hegemony. An editable Google Doc is available to read at the link. Let me know if you are interested in participating.

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