My youngest learning tricks of the trade.

My youngest learning tricks of the trade.

I used to play drums in a band called The Retractions. I purchased a piccolo snare drum because, you know, I loved the sound; it had a high snap to it that really fit my style of playing. Once I bought the drum, however, I found that I needed a new case for it since it didn’t fit the case for the old snare drum. So I bought a new case, but then I found that the drum didn’t fit well on the old snare stand during extended playing. That became an opportunity to reconfigure my snare drum stand, something I had been thinking about for a while.

The reconfiguration required me to purchase a new cymbal stand with a counterweight that I then cantilevered my snare drum into position with. That prompted me to buy a new cymbal – ultimately a new cymbal case – and also made room for a double bass pedal I had been coveting. Of course, all this hardware didn’t fit in the old stand case and so I had to purchase a second one. Ultimately, I couldn’t fit it all into my old car and so I would up buying a bigger vehicle, which I also kind of wanted anyway.

And on and on and on….

One initial decision induced a cascade of other decisions – each logical and desirable at the time – but which I never would have done had I know where it all would lead when I started down the path.

During Big Box Stores Week, I received the proverbial semi-trailer comment. Chuck, I agree that we need to look at street design, but we can only change things so much because we need to accommodate semis. So logical yet so wrong.

Go back to the early days of the interstate highway system, originally intended to be the ultimate road (connection between productive places). Prior to the highway, if you were a sugar beet farmer in Minnesota’s Red River Valley, you received whatever the price of sugar beets were in Duluth at the time your beets reached there, minus transportation costs. That’s because your only real option was to put your beets on the monopoly railroad system and ship them to Duluth. After the highway went in, you could ship your beets by truck to a different rail line, perhaps one to Minneapolis or Chicago, and receive the price there.

Markets changed dramatically. Farmers could pick the best price. Railroads had to price more competitively. Wholesalers could now choose product from wider market areas. This was a revolution that later adding some turn lanes, a second travel lane or a separated interchange could only marginally improve upon. A byproduct of this revolution was that the tractor trailer became a ubiquitous and indispensable part of our economy.

An inefficient meal in Venice. Photo: Jorge Royan /

An inefficient meal in Venice. Photo: Jorge Royan /

Consider the American city of this era. Or, for a more extreme modern example, consider Venice today. Are the people of Venice unable to obtain food without semi tractor trailers? Of course not; I’ve eaten some of the best food of my life there. How is this food distributed if not by tractor trailer? More slowly, one delivery boat at a time, the same way stuff was distributed in American cities during the first half of the 20th Century.

Ugh…how inefficient.

Efficiency is one of the core values of our economic system. We don’t care if we’re doing the right thing or not – or, more precisely, our economists assume we are – so long as we do it more and more efficiently. Hauling one big load of merchandise is far more efficient than hauling multiple, smaller loads. Thus whoever can configure their operation to take advantage of this efficiency should win, right?

Consider the egg, ham and cheese breakfast sandwich on an English muffin. In 1950, the corner diner selling this breakfast delight would likely have acquired the eggs from one or more local farmers. Same with the ham and cheese. The English muffin would have been baked by someone up the street and delivered each morning. These were a lot of small trips back and forth. Not very efficient.

Now consider the Egg McMuffin. One semi tractor trailer can visit dozens of egg farms each day, collecting their eggs and delivering them to a central facility where they can be turned into the egg for the McMuffin. Same with the ham and cheese, which can be acquired, processed and transported in bulk. These are then combined into the ingredients for the McMuffin and – this is where the magic happens – one truck can leave the facility each day and make deliveries to a dozen or more individual stores. One big trip instead of many smaller trips. Much more efficient.

And a more efficient supply line too, where prices are driven down across the entire production, processing and distribution system. Now we have one huge egg farm instead of many small ones. One huge cheese production facility and one huge pig slaughter house. Efficient. Efficient. Efficient.

Let me reiterate: It’s not like they don’t eat in Venice or didn’t eat in pre-Depression American cities. They did. They just acquired their food in a way that was less efficient.

What are the ramifications of this? Well, for the consumer, we can get things a lot cheaper. In fact, improve the efficiency of that whole supply chain and we can go so far as to outsource jobs to countries where people will work really cheaply and then we get those products back here at really low prices. For American consumers, this is a huge win.

Very efficient. Photo from Wikipedia.

Very efficient. Photo from Wikipedia.

For workers, not so much. That chicken farmer either bought up ten of their competitors and is now deeply in debt but still in business, or they sold out and switched careers. Likewise to all those local truck drivers with the small loads; they are either the one with the long haul route or have also had to find something else to do. That diner….well, you can’t really compete with the Egg McMuffin, can you?

How about the taxpayer? They get to pay more to “improve” the transportation system to accommodate semi tractor trailers everywhere. It’s not just enough that we can transport goods between cities on our major highways, but we also need to tap taxpayers to widen out our local streets and intersections to accommodate all that efficiency. Of course, that is going make local streets less safe – especially for those outside of a vehicle – but it will have the side benefit of allowing us regular folk to drive more places even faster.

As for property owners: most will see their property values stagnate or decline from what otherwise would be, except for owners of a small percentage of land which is now accessible and well-suited for exploiting all this efficiency.

And finally, government. If you’re the type of government that makes its revenue off of transactions (sales tax and income tax) then this efficiency of transport is a great system. If you’re the type of government that makes its revenue from wealth creation (property tax or land tax) and/or has to take on the long term liabilities for serving and maintaining all the developed land area, this isn’t going to work out so well. Increasing liabilities with stagnating per-acre revenue is the path to insolvency.

To receive federal and state transportation dollars, your city may be forced to design local streets so as to accommodate semi tractor trailers. For streets funded with local dollars, however, that decision is a local one. If you choose not to make accommodating the efficiency of tractor trailers your primary design criteria and perhaps decide that wealth creation, solvency and safety of residents are more important, just know that – while there will be some wailing and gnashing of teeth – nobody in your city will starve.

(Top photo from Walmart via Flickr)

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