Wednesday 25 January 2017

Snarl up

I made a throw-way comment about the cost of transport in a rant about public housing. I could make it because the back of my mind was processing some info I had picked up in an NPR interview of Edward Humes. Humes has written a book Door to Door The Magnificent, Maddening, Mysterious World of Transportation which deconstructs the costs of the global economy. On a superficial analysis the global economy is great because it delivers stuff to our homes as cheap as cheap can be. But how does it work?

We sit on our bums ordering stuff rather than getting to walk downtown to buy a book. We shift the work to someone else. We do Amazon because it is way cheaper than buying a book downtown in a bookstore but there are anti-economies of scale here. Rather than HarperCollins delivering 20 boxes of the latest hot Hester Blumenthal door-to-door to five bookshops in Dublin, FedEx/UPS/Shippalola is sending trucks for miles and miles through suburbia delivering each book to its final destination. It's taking longer and longer to drive to work or drive the kids to school because the roads are full of logistics trucks. UPS routes their trucks to minimise the number of left turns [across the traffic] because each left turn adds seconds to the timeline and each second 'lost' costs money even if a R R R R route costs more fuel. The slightly tubby UPS drive[R] and his van have driven a million miles in rural Texas over the last 22 years.

Interesting insight on  the number of useless mouths in 20thC logistics. Logistics is the shipping industry, getting stuff from one place to another place. It can be done with more efficiency with economies of scale. If enough companies sign up it is more likely that a truck which delivered a load of spigots from Ohio to California, can find a load of widgets needing to go (more or less) in the opposite direction. Making the connexions used to be brokered by people on telephones, increasingly they are brokered by algorithms on computers. "Problem is, one man’s efficiency is another’s unemployment."

This is in contrast to the hours we spend on the phone typing in account numbers and security codes rather than talking to a person at the other end who is key-punching the data. If I have a complaint about  the efficiency or failure of whatever e-commerce outfit with whom I've last shared my credit card details, I have to spend 25 minutes on the phone: punching the air or punching in codes, numbers and account details and listening to voice synthesisers telling me what to do next.
But notice the common denominator: we the punter is sitting at home doing what used to be done by employees. And of course we are all getting incrementally tubbier as we eat the pizza which just got delivered. All that instant gratification being shipped is pounding the roads to the 4th power of the axel weight.

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