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Transportation Technology Strategies for Developing Regions

UCD-ITS-RP-85-02

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Suggested Citation:
Sperling, Daniel (1985) Transportation Technology Strategies for Developing Regions. ITS Review 8 (2), 4 - 8

The land transportation system of the United States was designed and built in a previous epoch when energy was inexpensive and the high environmental costs of a freeway-and-auto-based land development scheme were not foreseen. Economically less developed but rapidly urbanizing countries are following the development path of the U.S., but in a radically different physical, economic, and cultural environment. Cities such as Jakarta, Bangkok, Caracas, and Mexico City already suffer traffic congestion and air pollution that are worse than anywhere in the U.S., even though only a fraction as many people in those countries own automobiles.

What happens as auto ownership continues to increase? Congestion and pollution can be reduced, but the cost is substantial—more than most countries are willing to divert (and rightfully so) from other sectors of the economy such as health, housing, industry, and education. Third-world countries are being pulled along a development path that is tied to widespread ownership of conventional autos, a path that threatens eventual urban and economic collapse.

Why do those countries follow a path which is clearly inappropriate? What other options are available? To begin to answer these questions it is necessary to understand that technologies evolve in response to a local setting—that is, in response to local knowledge, resources, politics, geography, topography, economy, and culture. They do not appear instantaneously as the brainstorm of some genius—contrary to folklore stories such as that of James Watt inventing the steam engine by watching a steam kettle in his mother's kitchen. In the U.S., for example, large, comfortable, but relatively poor-handling automobiles evolved in response to low energy prices, large family sizes, and concurrently with the development of a high-quality road system. The design and deployment of the Interstate Highway System was a response to the institutional nature of road financing and administration, the long travel distances in the U.S., location of military suppliers, and other factors. In contrast, the Republic of Columbia, because of its mountainous terrain, developed its air transport system first and only later developed a road system, while the Soviet Union emphasized rail rather than road transport because of the country's emphasis on heavy industry and de-emphasis of consumer products.

An important observation I would like to make before discussing alternative technology development strategies concerns the absence of general laws that govern, explain, or predict the evolution of technologies. Transportation technologies are part of what Nobel laureate Herbert Simon has called artificial systems. Artificial systems are human-built, designed to behave in response to the goals and purposes of society, as codified in rules, regulations, and standards. Natural systems obey immutable laws; artificial systems do not. Thus there is a need to specify the role and purpose of each transportation technology. There is no optimal or universally ideal system that can be designed in one setting and simply transferred elsewhere: it may not, and probably will not, be an optimal system elsewhere. There are no magical "laws" of transportation that can be used to design a system.

One may characterize three general approaches to improving the productivity and fit of transportation technologies in less developed regions:
  • design of technologies appropriate to the local setting
  • initial imitation of foreign technologies followed by gradual adaptation of those technologies to the local situation
  • accommodation of unchanged foreign technologies
This essay was adapted from a paper in Spanish presented to the Conference on Transportation Engineering, San Jose, Costa Rica, July 19 - 21, 1984.