The Fuse

The Structure of Transportation Revolutions: Clues of the Next Paradigm?

by Hart Schwartz | April 10, 2018

What is a true technological revolution? In a world of ride-sharing, autonomous vehicles, electric vehicles, and similar emerging technologies, will they eventually usher in a revolutionary change in the way that Americans travel? One way to explore these questions is by looking at the past. Randal O’Toole, a transportation scholar, has characterized five major paradigms in the history of American transportation, in his book Gridlock: Why We’re Stuck in Traffic and What to Do About It.

American transportation paradigms, every 50 years (1800 – 2000):

  • 1800: Humans and Horsepower
  • 1850: The Canal, Steamboat, and Rail Revolutions
  • 1900: Railroads and Streetcars
  • 1950: The Automobile Revolution
  • 2000: Superhighways and Jetliners

What’s striking about O’Toole’s categorization of eras is not only how qualitatively different they were—one does not need to be an expert to know that an Interstate, a horse, a streetcar, and a steam railroad are very different travel modes—but also how quantitatively measurable the changes have been. O’Toole characterizes each era by travel speed, annual travel distance, and per capita GDP.

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When plotted on a curve, the above data takes on a nearly exponential shape. For travel speed, the above chart shows a doubling from 1850 to 1900; a tripling from 1900 to 1950; and another tripling from 1950 to 2000. Similar multiplier patterns can be seen for average annual mobility and per-capita GDP.paradigm2

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Beyond the numbers: the structure of revolutions and role of “anomalies” 

Yet, these statistics only tell part of the story. Qualitative questions beg exploration: What constitutes a true revolution? What are the mechanisms by which paradigmatic change comes about? Historian Thomas Kuhn explored such classic questions in an influential 1962 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn challenged the prevailing model of scientific progress in which it was held that incremental improvements yield major progress. Instead, Kuhn proposed that breakthroughs depend upon small, persistent gaps in an existing theory which eventually lead way to an entirely new way of seeing or doing something. Kuhn called such a sweeping new model a paradigm, and the paradigm-inducing gaps “anomalies.”

Today the transportation world is dotted with new technologies that don’t fully seem to “fit” the perspective of previous years.

Anomalies arise when a small fact stubbornly refuses to fit the prevailing framework. Over time, anomalies accumulate, joined by additional non-fitting facts and observations which the prevailing theory cannot satisfactorily explain, until acquiring overwhelming force and compelling the need for a new theory. For example, a medieval flat-world theory could not account for circumnavigation of the globe, nor for many gravitational calculations, and became superseded by the round-globe theory.

Analogously, today the transportation world is dotted with new technologies that don’t fully seem to “fit” the perspective of previous years. Do ride-sharing and autonomous vehicles play a similar role to the anomalies noticed by Thomas Kuhn vis-à-vis science: inconsistencies that will eventually lead the way to sweeping new paradigms?

Adopt-and-discard: U.S. transportation culture

“Adopt-and-discard” has become almost a defining feature of American attitudes toward innovation.

In Crabgrass Frontier, an authoritative history of American suburbanization, historian Kenneth Jackson noted the rapidity with which Americans in the latter half of the 19th century would enthusiastically adopt a new transportation technology, systematically and fully, only to discard it a decade later when a new technology became available. This rapid adopt-and-discard cycle happened with the horse-rail, the omnibus, the cable-rail, and so on, and would later occur in the middle of the 20th Century, when streetcar systems were ripped up root-and-branch in nearly all American cities, in favor of automobile expressways. Adopt-and-discard became almost a defining feature of American attitudes toward innovation: extraordinary receptivity to novelty and edgy impatience with oldness. In contrast, many western European countries kept certain travel systems for decades longer.

“Creative destruction”: Novel combinations of existing products can create new paradigms

Is America’s adopt-and-discard cycle beginning to happen again? If Kuhn’s “anomalies” are acting within a realm of extraordinary openness to transportation innovation in the United States—Uber has become a household name in less than a decade—when will the full paradigm arrive, and how?

The process of paradigm displacement, in an economic sense, has been famously described as “creative destruction.” Economist Joseph Schumpeter coined “creative destruction” in his 1942 book Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, in which he described the critical dynamic by which novel combinations of existing components may in fact form viable new consumer products which displace and ultimately destroy old products. Some combination of antecedent factors, possibly all known already in some form, may result in unexpected new paradigms decades from now. The steam engine, the electric motor, the light bulb, the telephone, and many other revolutionary inventions depended upon parts and components incrementally invented over long periods of time.

The iPhone: Today’s preeminent “combination”

The iPhone is perhaps the foremost 21st-century example of “combinatorial” consumer product innovation. When first released in 2007, it seemed almost instantly to unleash a new paradigm. The most important aspect of the iPhone was not any one component, but rather the way in which existing technologies—cell-phone, computer, Internet, camera, word processor, wireless, portability—were all combined together in a highly useful package where the whole is truly greater than the sum of the parts. In this way, the iPhone followed Schumpeter’s “creative destruction” process.

Transportation not the same as consumer products? “Heavy” vs. “light” technologies

Many commentators, noticing the smartphone-dependence of the Uber business model, equate the amazingly rapid adoption rate of iPhones with hopes for inducing sweeping change in the transportation industry. But a critical difference often goes overlooked: Transportation is a “heavy” technology while portable telecom is a “light” technology. Transportation involves infrastructure; communication involves handheld consumer goods.

Transportation may have longer “natural cycles” of paradigm formation than telecom.

Consequently, transportation may have longer “natural cycles” of paradigm formation than telecom. Building and maintaining an asphalt road, or a house, or a skyscraper, in many ways constitutes a far more permanent and hard-to-alter change to the “built environment” (the world of all man-made things) than a transition from a land-line phone to a cell phone, or from a flip phone to a smartphone. Infrastructure can only be changed with much higher cost and effort.

Implication for fuel consumption: blended layers? How much “creative destruction”?

Given the “heaviness” of built infrastructure, is ride-sharing a true “anomaly” which marks the path toward a new paradigm, where the previous paradigm gets eliminated? Or by 2050 will ride-sharing, autonomous vehicles, and other current trends that don’t “fit” turn out to co-exist permanently with other, more traditional forms of transportation, instead of replacing them?

For transportation, does innovation need to destroy in order to create? How strict is “creative destruction,” and can it be blended with some amount of underlying permanence? Do new combinations of travel modes necessarily need to annihilate the old modes? Or will the years 2050 and 2100 reveal—for a myriad of practical reasons—a blend of modes not too dissimilar to 2000 or 2018? Only time will tell what paradigm we are “en route” toward.

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