The Transportation Experience: The Video Experience

I have used The Transportation Experience as a primary text for my Transport Policy, Planning, and Deployment class at Minnesota and Sydney for a number of years, and a few other schools use it as well. Over that time, the presentation has evolved. In 2019 I decided to flip the class for 2020, so it would be less of me lecturing, and more interactive. That proved fortuitous planning, as we soon went online, and asynchronous lecturing became standard.

There is no good reason to keep the videos bottled up, knowledge should be free.  I don’t think I will lose any students or book sales by making these videos available more widely, so I am making them available more widely.

To that end, the videos accompanying The Transportation Experience are now online, you can find the YouTube Playlist below, and the specific videos by chapter listed in the Table of Contents. Happy viewing.




Table of Contents

(with accompanying [Video] links)

Preface  [Video]

Part One – Wave One: 1790–1851
1. Rivers of Steam [Video]
2. Design by Design: The Birth of the Railway [Video]
3. The Turnpike Era [Video]

Part Two – Phase 1 of the Life-Cycle
4. Inventing and Innovating [Video]

Part Three – Wave Two 1844–1896
5. Maritime Modes [Video]
6. Railroads Deployed [Video]
7. Good Roads [Video]
8. Transit [Video]
9. Telegraph [Video]

Part Four – Phase 2 of the Life-Cycle
10. Magic Bullet  [Video]

Part Five – Wave Three 1890-1950
11. American Shipping  [Video]
12. Taking Flight [Video]
13. Railroads Regulated [Video]
14. Bustitution [Video]
15. Public Roads [Video]
16. Urban Planning: Who Controls the Turf?  [Video]
17. Telephone  [Video]
Part Six – Phase 3 of the Life-Cycle
18. Aging  [Video]
Part Seven – Wave Four: 1939-1991
19. Logistics  [Video]
20. The Jet Age [Video]
21. Railroads Rationalized [Video]
22. Interstate [Video]
23. Recapitalization [Video]
24. Lord Kelvin’s Curse [Video]

Part Eight – Life-Cycle Dynamics
25. Lifecycle [Video]
26. Meta-cycles [Video]

Part Nine – Wave Five: Modern Times
27. Energy and Environment [Video]
28. Higher-speed rail [Video]
29. Internet [Video]
30. Technology: Hard and Soft [Video]

Part Ten – Beyond the Life-Cycle
31. Policy [Video]
32. Speculations [Video]

Part Eleven – Afterwords: Reflections on Transportation Experiences
33. I-35W [Video]
34. Design of a Life [Video]
35. Commencement [Video]

Part Twelve – End Matter

The videos were produced by Bahman Lahoorpoor, who synchronised audio and video, and helped extend the slides I had previously had. 

Review of The Transportation Experience

Frank Manheim at GMU reviews The Transportation Experience, Second Edition.  [copied below from Journal of Planning Education and Research 36(2) p.271-72 (behind a paywall)]

The Transportation Experience: Second Edition
The Transportation Experience: Second Edition

Garrison, William L., and David M. Levinson. 2014. The Transportation Experience. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 605 pp. $92.00 (paperback). ISBN 978-0-19-986271-9

Reviewed by: Frank T. Manheim, George Mason University DOI: 10.1177/0739456X16644800 

The Transportation Experience offers unique breadth of scholarship in describing the history of US transportation. Its erudition and insightful links with other aspects of societal evolution are improbably combined with an informal, colloquial style that makes most of the book widely accessible. However, a curious omission emerges as the narrative reaches the modern era. The senior author acknowledges in his afterword that he deliberately minimizes engagement with politically controversial subjects.

The first paragraph already demonstrates the book’s flair for dramatic impact. It describes actions of Thomas Jefferson, head of the US Patent Office, on August 26, 1791. Four applicants sought patents for complete steamboat designs. “Solomonically dividing the patent spoils kept any from dominating the market and developing a large enough market to succeed” (3). The multilevel insights from this anecdote reveal that Jefferson, the brilliant inventor, naturalist, and intellectual and political leader, made a decision that impeded people and progress he wanted to encourage. The primary source of such erudition is the senior author, William L. Garrison, a professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley. His peripatetic studies over more than a half-century (Garrison was born in 1924) complement the book’s detailed account of transportation with insights from tangential fields like history, engineering, economics, and social psychology.

This second edition is completely restructured, extensively rewritten, and augmented in comparison with the first edition of 2005. In contrast to the first edition’s prefatory discussions, this book has no preface, introduction, or discrete acknowledgments. It is far more tightly organized. After a detailed table of contents, the treatment is divided into parts, thirty-five numbered sections that run through five overlapping “waves” of chronological developments, and “phases of the life cycle,” that the authors initially describe as brainstorming sessions.

Grounded as it is in deep scholarship, the colloquial style of the book probably reflects contributions by the junior author, David Levinson, a civil engineer and professor at the University of Minnesota who has special interest in transportation. But addressing readers more personally also appears congenial to Garrison. He closes by offering an invitation to readers to “have fun imagining alternative development pathways that will exchange today’s problems, both obvious and obscure, for new ones” (p. 524).

Wave 1 (1790–1851) is subdivided into three sections: “Rivers of Steam” describing the early history of the steam

engine, the steamboat, and inland waterways; “Design by Design: The Birth of the Railway”; and “Incentivizing Investment: Roads through the Turnpike Era.” Subsequent waves deal not only with new subjects like maritime transport, including trading companies, ports, cargo and passenger vessels, and biographical detail on the great marine engineers, Marc and Isambard Brunel. They update developments in earlier transportation modes like railroads (Wave 2, 1844–1896) with topics as diverse as “Trial and Error,” “Learning about Freight Rate-Making,” “Cornelius Vanderbilt,” and “Comments by Social Critics.” Waves 3, 4, and 5 encompass the periods 1890–1950, 1939–1991, and “Modern Times,” respectively.

The waves focus on but are not limited to their time period. Events are often placed in historical perspective by chronological profiles extending to the present.

Many of the book’s figures and tables qualify as what l call leveraged illustrations. Such illustrations compress important insights and in-depth research into simple and eas- ily understandable figures. For example, Wave 2 includes a plot of total US railroad route kilometers from 1830 to 2010, peaking in 1920. Subsequent declines in route kilometers have an inflection point marking accelerated losses after 1970. Most other advanced nations experienced losses but none as great as this country.

“Life cycle” discussions clarify factors affecting transportation and related fields. Phase 1 of the life cycle discusses inventing and innovations. Phase 2 introduces the concept of the “magic bullet,” which refers to innovations that make possible reductions in cost, and often make gains in convenience and accessibility. Henry Ford’s assembly line is a classic example. Impactful generalizations allow readers to independently discern nontransportation as well as transportation applications. For example, I identified the supermarket, Amazon, and Ebay as non-transportation magic bullets.

Phase 3 of the life cycle, titled “Aging in Place, Aging sans Grace,” describes a central problem for transportation. “As systems transition from innovation through growth to maturity, the administration of the systems transitions from entrepreneurs and engineers to managers. Organizations become more and more risk averse; taking chances tends to be punished.” Section 18 includes a summary of leading theories and strategies for coping with the problem.

The authors like evocative labels for their waves, such as “Lord Kelvin’s curse” (in Wave 4, 1939–1991). This “curse” is defined as work that puts emphasis on numbers rather than thinking. Among examples, the authors cite the advent of the Universal Urban Transportation Planning System (UTPS), which created a “clean break from precursor planning systems.” However, modern UTPSs “ignored the well-honed planning techniques for arterial roads and local streets lodged in urban public works offices.”

Section 24 provides a brief discussion of theoretical topics such as temporal and spatial dynamics, the network design problem (NDP), “Macro-Economics vs. Life Cycle Economics,” queuing models, metacycles, and historic path dependence. Section 26, “Meta-cycles,” which closes Wave 4, deals with capital, cyclicity, and the new role of innovation in the production function.

“Wave Five: Modern Times” faced a challenge because of difficulty in addressing the vast literature and complex controversies over environmental change and energy in limited space. A good opening of this topic is provided by reference to George Perkins Marsh’s pioneering and influential book Man and Nature (1864), which warned Americans about abuse of the natural environment (the date of its first edition is erroneously cited as 1850). The ensuing treatment provides basic data such as energy consumption and use by auto, air, and rail transportation after World War II, but this section largely ignores a huge rhinoceros in the living room: government policies and sociopolitical issues.

The great strengths of the book are already suggested in its first paragraph. Heading these is its formidable scholarship in transportation history. Next, wide-ranging technologies, evolutions, and human responses encountered in the development of transportation systems are described with an irreverently colorful and informal writing style. The authors have the rare gift of using detail to clarify and enliven rather than to complicate and obscure generic concepts like “disjoint incrementalism.” Disjoint incrementalism refers to improvements or expansion of technology in one area that ignores possible adverse effects on others. It is illustrated by truckers’ adoption of high-pressure radial tires that disproportionately damage roads. No other book offers as great a wealth of historic detail, presented in vital and candid ways. Consistent clarity in explaining terms and concepts while the narrative builds a detailed framework of knowledge makes the book highly recommendable for non- specialists and beginning students as well as a basic historical reference for professional practitioners and academic researchers.

The startlingly and inappropriately minimal space given to law, politics, and governmental policies is due in large part to the authors’ stated principle of not commenting on “today’s debates and actions” (p. 412). The senior author says about this policy in his part of the Afterwords: “I wear one hat when judging whether or not to enter ongoing affairs. I wear a second hat when debating goals, programs, opportunities, etc.”

Garrison’s honesty about avoiding politically contentious subjects is consistent with the book’s open style and contrasts with some academic studies that simply dance around sensitive issues. But what is the point of devoting such concentrated thought and space to nonpolitical transportation issues if they are overridden in importance by government policies and politics? Rietveld and Stough (2007) indicate that it is possible to address sensitive topics like regulatory reform (or deregulation) while retaining scholarly objectivity. These authors as well as Black (2003) review important insights from European nations’ experience, another area largely omitted by Garrison and Levinson. Author Levinson would apparently be readier to grapple with politics, judging from his account in the Afterwords of the failure of the I35W bridge over the Mississippi River at Minneapolis. He cites existence of 72,500 structurally deficient bridges in the United States, concluding that “Americans can seem good at short-term tactics but poor at long-term strategy. This needs to be rectified.”

The critical role of government for good or ill is hard to overestimate. Excessive regulation helped undermine the United States’ passenger rail system (Gallamore and Meyer 2014). The Clean Air Act Amendments (1970 and later) were effective in reducing air pollution but had unintended adverse effects on urban areas’ transportation planning systems (Garrett and Wachs 1996). Uncoordinated proliferation of permitting authorities in response to environmental concern in the 1970s is described by Manheim (2009) as a key factor in delays and increases in the cost of transportation and other major construction projects. The Chrysler building, a revered jewel in New York City, was completed in twenty months from 1928 to 1930. Contrast this with Boston’s scandal-ridden Big Dig. Permitting began in 1982, final approval was received nine years later, and highway I93 was fully opened only in 2005.

The book by Garrison and Levinson can be warmly recommended as a mine of information on US and early UK transportation development in a broadly based historical framework. The twenty-seven pages of references provide documentation of the book’s data. However, they do not provide balanced coverage, leaving out reference to authoritative and influential transportation authorities like William R. Black and John R. Meyer. Finally, the book does not provide adequate treatment of contemporary transportation problems or foreign experience.


Black, William R. 2003. Transportation: A Geographic Analysis. New York: Guilford Press.

Gallamore, Robert E., and John R. Meyer. 2014. American Railroads: Decline and Renaissance in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Garrett, Mark, and Martin Wachs. 1996. Transportation Planning on Trial: The Clean Air Act and Travel Forecasting (Metropolis & Region). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Manheim, Frank T. 2009. The Conflict over Environmental Regulation in the United States: Origins, Outcomes, and Comparison with the EU and Other Regions. New York: Springer.

Rietveld, Peter, and Roger Stough, eds. 2007. Institutions and Sustainable Transport: Regulatory Reform in Advanced Economies. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar.

An S-Curve for All Knowledge

Just as we draw the life-cycle of technologies as a logistic function or S-curve, presumably there is an S-curve for the accumulation of knowledge.

S-Curve  (from The Transportation Experience, Second Edition, (Garrison and Levinson (2014)).
S-Curve (from The Transportation Experience, Second Edition, (Garrison and Levinson (2014)).

In principle, if the universe were finite, there would be a sum total of all possible knowledge. If there were a fundamental particle, this would be something like the position, velocity, acceleration (in all dimensions, with all possible moments, in a physics well-beyond Newton’s) of each particle now, and its entire history – since while the future may be determine from the present, there may be multiple pasts which could generate this present.

It is possible this could be reduced with some intelligent compression algorithm, for instance knowing the fundamental equations, the appropriate coefficients, and the initial state of the universe.  I am nevertheless doubtful that with a complete description of the initial state of the universe we could actually explain and reproduce the production of this blog post.

Suffice it to say this information would require something more than universe size to store it, since the universe stores its present state, but perhaps not it’s past states (i.e. it is Markovian).

The knowledge we actually have is a very, very, small subset of this, perhaps only 1 googolplexth of all knowledge (if that much). (If a hundredth is 1 / 100, a googolplexth is 1 / a googolplex).

We are in no danger of discovering all that needs to be discovered. We are still in the early, “birthing” stages of knowledge acquisition.

Get back to the knowledge-mines ye academics, there is much to do.

Cars and Civilization

Jesse Ausubel sends along a link to his recent article: Cars and Civilization (pdf).

Rising incomes mean rising speed at all social levels. The rich, of course, accelerate more than
the poor. While poor means slow, even the slow today speed when compared with Queen Victoria.
In industrial countries, a poor man has a car and mobility superior to an ancient nobleman and at least equal to the Great Gatsby. When new travel modes are introduced, such as supersonic Concorde planes or maglevs, they will first be the province of the rich.

Worth reading if you like S-curves, travel time budgets, and other Macro-transportation topics. (Which of course, I do.)

Electric Antecedents: How the Electric Vehicle Evolved | The Transportation Experience

Adapted in part from Garrison and Levinson (2014) The Transportation Experience: Second Edition, Oxford University Press. This provides additional background on the topic of  yesterday’s post Electric Avenue.

The Transportation Experience: Second Edition by William L. Garrison and David M. Levinson
The Transportation Experience: Second Edition by William L. Garrison and David M. Levinson

The automobile was the obvious technology of the future. It had been forecast and developed for nearly a century before mass production. Yet when the patent application of  future Congressman Nathan Read, an early steamboat developer in Connecticut who proposed a steam-powered automobile in 1790s, was read aloud in the House of Representatives, members struggled to suppress laughter. A century later some practical vehicles entered the market. The path was trod in fits and starts. In 1835 Thomas Davenport of Vermont built the first rotary electric motor which pulled 31-36 kg carriages at 5 km/h. In the late 1830s Robert Davidson of Scotland built a carriage powered by batteries and a motor, and later an electric coach, the Galvani, running on rail tracks. In 1851, Charles Page built an electric locomotive reaching a speed of 30 km/h. Those experiments ended without widespread market success. In parallel with steam and electric experiments, the Internal Combustion Engine(ICE) was patented in 1860 by Belgian engineer Jean Joseph Etienne Lenoir, who applied a coal-gas and air burning version to his three-wheeled Hippomobile. Nikolaus Otto developed his engine in the 1870s and Karl Benz used Otto’s engine to power a 600 watt (0.8 horsepower) three-wheel carriage in 1885. While today, the automobile is widespread and mostly employs the internal combustion or diesel engine, that technological outcome was not obvious to many of those in the field as late as 1900.

The electric grid, developed by Edison and others, was necessary for practical electrical transportation. Electricity was first widely applied in transportation to the streetcar. By 1879 Siemens and Halske built a 2.6 km line in Berlin. Battery trolleys were tested in early 1880s in places like the Leland Avenue Railway in Philadelphia, but by 1887, a New York financial syndicate funded Sprague Electric Railroad and Motor Company to build a 19.2 km line in Richmond, Virginia. Over the next three decades trolleys exploded across US cities. The electric streetcar, and other electric railways, transmitted power to the vehicle via a cable, a technology not suited for the automobile.

1893 World’s Columbian Exposition displayed six automobiles. The only one from the US, by William Morrison of Iowa, was electric. Yet the energy density of the battery remained the principal constraint on the electric vehicle’s market share. By the turn of the century, range and the energy per unit weight of battery compared with gasoline engines were already defined as key weaknesses by the best engineering talent of the time.

Battery-powered vehicles have more limited range (distance before recharging/refueling) than gasoline-powered vehicles due to energy density. The limits to battery technology result from battery weight. Each additional battery reduces the effectiveness of all the others, as they must spend some of their stored energy moving around other batteries instead of the rest of the car and passenger. Diminishing returns set in quickly. (The same issue affects liquid fuel of course, but it is not as severe since the energy density is higher).

While longer distance touring was a relatively small market, people consider the extreme use for the vehicle they buy, not the average, hence the personal trucks we see on urban and suburban streets. A vehicle must be usable in a maximal number of conditions. People imagined traveling longer distances than an EV could run. Other problems were the under-developed electric grid (as late as 1900 only 5 percent of factory power was electric) and lack of charging stations, especially at homes.

The plug to connect the car battery to a wall socket was not developed until 1901, prior batteries had to be removed from vehicles, no trivial task. While some electric utilities encouraged EVs and helped charge and maintain them at central stations, promoting local EV sales, most utilities saw these customers as nuisances rather than a source of business. Range (c. 1901) was about 4 hours, so charging was a frequent event. Fast charging (a charging time of one or two hours was considered fast) deteriorated the batteries. People thought of solutions. For instance, a charging hydrant, dubbed an “electrant.” located every few blocks was proposed, but never implemented, to permit travelers to pull over and pay for a metered amount of electricity. These ideas have been reappeared in recent decades as people seek to solve the same problems with electrics. Again, the number of charging stations remains quite limited, as no one wants to invest in a network of charging stations until there are many plug-in electrics requiring charges, and few will buy plug-in electrics if the cost and convenience does not match its technological competitors.

Another concept, developed by L.R. Wallis in 1900 was to have a parent battery company, from which batteries would be leased, and then swapped out when needing recharging for already charged batteries. This idea has been revived with Shai Agassi’s company Better Place in the 2000s, which hoped to develop a network of battery exchange centers, before entering bankruptcy. Similarly, electric garages, modeled on livery stables (for horses) were established to limit the owner’s need to deal with the difficulties of charging and maintaining the car.

While range and charging issues were obvious downsides, the primary advantages of electric vehicles at the time had to do with user interface. Charles Kettering had yet to develop the self-starter, so gasoline engines required the user to get out and crank. This was a non-starter for upper-income women, who thus preferred electric vehicles. EVs were often marketed to women, but this feminizing of the product may have discouraged men. An emerging middle class of urban professionals, managers, and white-collar workers formed a market for a new type of transportation.

The best-selling Oldsmobile sold only 425 vehicles in 1900. The market was still minuscule, but growing exponentially. Detroit in 1900 was much like Silicon Valley in the 1970s, with its HomeBrew Computing Club that begat Apple Computer and Microsoft. By 1912 Model T sales reached 82,388, in 1914: 200,000, in 1915: 400,000. Despite Edison’s encouragement of Ford’s gasoline-powered car, as noted in the opening quote, later Edison and Ford worked together in a failed attempt to bring about an electric car that was competitive with gasoline-powered vehicles.

In 1900 and 1905 the 1,200 electrics sold were fewer than 10 percent of all vehicle sales. Ultimately EVs fell further and further behind as economies of scale drove down the relative cost of its competitors, attracting a greater and greater share of consumers. Like Internal Combustion Engines (ICEs), EVs were rising in sales, but at a much more modest pace, growing to only 6,000 vehicles in 1912.

Because of the difficulty consumers had with charging, Salom and Morris of the Electric Storage Battery (ESB) Company proposed a fleet of rental cars (an antecedent to car sharing), where professional would charge and maintain the vehicles. Individuals would still rent or lease a particular car. However, this failed to get critical mass, and required picking up the car, rather than storing it at home. In the end this became a fleet of cabs, where instead of recharging batteries in the vehicle, batteries would be swapped in and out, and charged (slowly) out of the vehicle.

Owner of New York’s Metropolitan Street Railway Company, Henry Melville Whitney consolidated the electric vehicle industry beginning in 1898, acquiring ESB, combining with Pope, and absorbing the Riker company, with the aim of establishing a fleet of 15,000 electric cabs to serve urban America. This “Lead Cab Trust” began to fail when the batteries, designed for smoother running streetcars or stationary operations did not do well on bumpy road surfaces and the frequent charging and discharging use of cab service, rather than the more sedate private ownership. Batteries deteriorated with use along with age.

The Edison Storage Battery Company aimed to develop a nickel-iron alkaline battery to replace the lead-acid battery. Edison’s competitor, ESB, tried to perfect the lead acid battery. The New York Electric Vehicle Transportation Company, part of EVC (the Lead Cab Trust) was probably the largest consumer of such batteries. It also developed its own central station and substation, and started running electric buses on Fifth Avenue as well as other routes. Other subsidiaries of the Trust fared less well, the New England and Illinois branches of EVTC folded in 1901. Edison hyped his battery for years, but it was not widely used once it came to market, as the cost-energy density tradeoff never worked favorably.

The self-starter for the automobile was modeled on the newly motorized cash register, by National Cash Register engineer Charles Kettering. His company DELCO was acquired by General Motors. This seemingly modest innovation made the gasoline powered automobile usable by those without the strength to turn the crank, and thus as easy to start as an electric. After Kettering, the automobile become an electric system in miniature: Its generator (with the battery) was the central station, which distributed current through a network for uses like starting the car, but also for headlights, and later radios and other purposes.Battery makers thus boomed not from selling batteries to makers of EVs but from selling to makers of gasoline-powered cars containing an electric self-starter.

Electric Vehicle in Kyoto
Electric Vehicle in Kyoto

It would be nearly a century before EVs became popular again.


  • Hoffmann, P. (2002). Tomorrow’s Energy: Hydrogen, Fuel Cells, and the Prospects for a Cleaner Planet. The MIT Press.
  • Koppel, T. (1999). Powering the Future: The Ballard Fuel Cell and the Race to Change the World. Wiley.
  • Lienhard, J. (2006). How Invention Begins: Echoes of Old Voices in the Rise of New Machines. Oxford University Press.
  • Nye, D. (1992). Electrifying America: Social Meanings of a New Technology, 1880-1940. The MIT press.
  • Schiffer, M., T. Butts, and K. Grimm (1994). Taking Charge: The Electric Automobile in America. Smithsonian Institution Press
  • Sperling, D. and D. Gordon (2009). Two Billion Cars: Driving Toward Sustainability. Oxford University Press, USA
  • Swift, E. (2011). The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Peak Shopping and the Decline of Traditional Retail

Cross posted at the OUP Blog

Shopping trips now comprise fewer than 9% of all trips, down from 12.5% in 2000, according to our analysis of the Twin Cities Travel Behavior Inventories. They are down by about one-third in a decade.


When we want to eat at home but not prepare the food, urban dwellers have options. Some restaurants offer Delivery as well as Take-Away, others offer Take-Away but don’t Deliver, and some specialize in Delivery and avoid the storefront. For the customer who is not out and about, Delivery is more convenient. For the customer who is passing by the restaurant anyway. Ordering ahead and doing Take-Away makes a lot of sense, since there is no waiting for the delivery, the additional distance is small to nil, and tipping charges (or delivery surcharges) are avoided. Drive-thru is Take-Away for fast food (though you can still go into the establishment and take-away as well), which avoids the pre-ordering step, arguably at the cost of food quality.

When we want to consume non-food items, we also have options. There is of course the store.

The block I live on mostly single family homes with some duplexes and apartments, in a quiet Minneapolis neighborhood once had two small grocery stores, founded before the days of cheap at home refrigeration and before larger grocery chains took off. One is now housing, the other a small restaurant.

If we did not have easy access to the store, or its storage capacity limited in the number of goods, we could order from a catalog. The Sears Wish Book being one of many, and delivery, especially enabled by Rural Free Delivery, was as fast as the supply chain of the time (which is to say, as fast they could, but nothing like today). Door-to-door sales was also common in this period, as there would be more likely to be someone at home to sell to.

Catalogs were replaced by the Internet, and Sears by Amazon. Not only can we do the same thing differently, we can do many more things with the technology of the world wide web. Amazon is now nearing twenty years old, so we cannot really consider this new anymore.

The early dot com boom had a number of firms attempting same day if not same hour delivery. That didn’t work out as well as hoped, but like video conferencing and automated (if not flying) cars, it is an inevitable part of the future. There are lots of models out there: lockers, peer-to-peer delivery services (friends will pick up goods for you), and so on, but we already have 3 national networks doing delivery which are cost effective for many types of goods (USPS, UPS, FedEx), as well as specialists (local stores that deliver their own products (furniture, appliances, grocers, newspapers, milk), though one can certainly imagine some others emerging. Amazon is trying to patent pre-cognition, sending you what you are going to order before you order it.

What goods will you have delivered? Anything that is standardized, commodified, and whose delivery is easily automated. Amazon entered the market with books, and decimated the big box book sellers like Borders and Barnes and Noble (who had earlier acquired and then put-down many mall-based neighborhood bookstores (Walden, B-Dalton), which had themselves pushed out the independent neighborhood bookstores). For the book reader, we now have access to many more books than we did 20 years ago. For the nostalgic, we obviously lost something as well. Such is progress. Books were relatively easy kindling for this revolution, the ISBN code had been around for a long time. There is a long-tail of desired, but still standard items. There are economies of scale. They are easy to ship (and even easier to ship in electronic versions).

Music is seemingly similar. Once there was the neighborhood record shop, then the national (mall-centric) chain, then big boxes started to get in on the act. The technology of music changed faster than the book, moving from vinyl to tape to CD. In contrast with books, customers digitized and shared their music before the music industry could get their act together. Ultimately Apple’s iTunes brought prices down enough that listening to music is again more legal than illegal, and then new distribution mechanism (internet radio) changes the market again. Music is standardized, commodified, and the sequence in which you listen is automatically customizable using services like Pandora and iTunes Radio, among many others. While there is copyright-violating sharing of eBooks, it is not of the same order of magnitude as music. (Just search for your favorite book followed by PDF, you might be surprised to find it on a non-US website). Is downloading my own book illegal?

And then we get other items, all commodified though not digitized, that are amenable to the new distribution system: from clothing to lightbulbs, from batteries to baked goods, from Kindles to kites, which can all be ordered and delivered within 48 hours (if not sooner). Even custom goods get sold on places like Etsy. While used (and new) items both standard and non-standard are offered on Ebay.

All of these deliveries reduce my travel to the store, while increasing travel in the logistics supply chain, but generally reduce travel overall.

The decline of shopping travel is one aspect of the decline of personal travel overall, and has many knock-on effects. We need fewer roads. We need less parking. We need fewer stores and shopping centers. We inventory more at home (delivery might entail different economies of scale than fetching from the store). We might engage in other out-of-home activities to substitute for shopping as “entertainment”, but it won’t fully substitute.

Eventually we may have replicators, or pneumatic tubes, or good 3-D printers, and delivery as we think of it now will also decline. Or we may decide to consume less overall. But we can fairly safely extrapolate that, for a while, our 20th century retail infrastructure and supporting transportation system of roads and parking is overbuilt for the 21st century last-mile delivery problems in an era with growing internet shopping.