There is a town in the centre of the United Kingdom that is, in most respects, so very normal. Most of the six thousand or so residents are neither rich nor poor, their houses neither grand nor falling down. It is, by almost any measure, completely ordinary.
But in this town is a prime example of the quiet miracle of our modern life. It is a supermarket. On it shelves sits the most amazing agglomeration of the World’s produce. Infusions from the sub-continent, fruits from South America and Africa, meats from the other side of the World. And all this is freshly available seven days a week, 363 days a year, whatever the season, whatever the weather.
So perfected is this miracle, and so gradually has it been introduced, that the population of the town never, ever stop to consider the wonder that has appeared in their midst. Other peoples, in other points in history, would surely be staggered by this achievement. Such a vendor would be the pride of ancient Rome, the great Phoenician traders would be humbled by it’s choice and variety. They would then be dumb-founded to discover that stores like these could be found everywhere in the modern World.
To fully comprehend the amazing achievement of our modern transport system try this mental experiment; Imagine that this ability to move product around the globe happened suddenly. One moment we are relying on what can be made or grown just a few miles from home, then the next day we have everything the World has to offer, available cheaply and delivered right to our door. It would be a front page headline everywhere. It would be like man landing on the moon, or finding a cure for cancer.
If human society is a body then transport is it’s life blood. We already call our main transport routes arteries to reflect this. Indeed whenever a society faces acute need, like during a war or natural disaster, it has an urgent need for good transport, a rapid infusion of which can literally mean life or death. And like our blood, transport hides in plain sight. Ask most people to identify the organs of modern society they will talk about industry, government, science and public services, just as they would talk about the heart and lungs of the body. But all of this can only function with the life blood of transport. It’s always there, hardly noticed, ebbing and flowing through societies arteries, veins and capillaries. Whilst we are awake and during our sleep it brings both our essentials and our luxuries, then whisks the waste away after our consumption. We only notice it when it fails or appears in the wrong place. The vast majority of the time it does it’s job with such quiet equanimity that we don’t notice this miracle. This miracle that meets our needs and desires from all over the World.
And like all parts of society it is made of people. So this article is in praise of all those countless souls who make up our transport industry. It’s to say thank you to all those managers, planners and innovators, constantly working to hone the system. It’s to the warehouse workers and fork-lift drivers beavering through night and day. It’s to the pilots and captains of planes and ships, guiding the colossi of the transport World. And it’s to the drivers of the vans and trucks, the bedrock without whom there would be none of this wonderful, miraculous, everyday logistics miracle.
Here’s one of mine. Picture this; I’m on a two lane motorway (freeway for Americans) like the M11 and I’m in a 40ft semi truck driving at the speed that my speed limiter is set at, so 56 mph. I’m gaining on three or four cars, led inevitably by a Nissan Micra, that are bumbling along at about 53mph. I reach the rear of this little queue, check my mirrors, it’s clear, I pull into the outside lane to overtake. At first I’m doing OK, a few speeders have caught up and are stuck behind me, but I’ll soon be past the Micra and out of their way. Then…
I’ll contend that if you are driving up the M11 at 53 mph in your Nissan Micra your mind is probably not on driving so much. You’re deep in conversation with your passenger about your grand-kids, or are enthralled by Gardeners Question Time on Radio 4. You are almost certainly not ‘looking in the mirrors’ in the accepted sense, but your outer periphery detects a change, maybe a simple change from the bright Essex sky to a big dark shape. This fails to imprint a concious thought on the brain (e.g. a truck is overtaking), but does manage to reach deep into the sub-concious and find a little used fight or flight reflex. “Could be danger” the reflex whispers “put distance between you and it”. So, without thought, interruption in conversation or disruption in gardening information, the right foot moves down just a few millimetres. The black shape fails to get bigger, the flight reflex is sated and sub-concious goes back to sleep again.
Back to me in the truck. The Micra is now doing 56.2 mph. My overtaking has had the same sub-concious effect on the other bumblers, and they’ve bunched up behind it leaving me stranded out in lane two with now a long queue of Audi’s and the like behind, all no doubt cursing ‘the truck driver’ for holding them up. I can’t accelerate because of the limiter, slowing up risks dangerously bunching up the traffic behind even more. After waiting a bit to see if the Micra driver wakes up (some hope) I put my left indicator on and wait for one of the other bumblers to realise that 44 tons of metal wants to be the space he is and lets me in. The Audi queue flashes past shaking their fists at me and everything is flowing again.
Then the Micra slows back to 53 mph…