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Roman Poop: From Solution to Infrastructure

The Uber of Ancient Rome

Rome may have been the first city to reach a density in which providing basic levels of hygiene required technological investment. Aqueducts were their Uber: They solved a burning, urgent issue. Without them, Roman residents would have left home each day planning their particular hygiene needs: where to drink, where to poop.

Throughout history, similar stories have played out in areas like heating, lighting, communications, food, and many others. Services that were a major concern for most people became easier and easier until they subsumed into the background infrastructure of the civilisation.

Transport becomes Infrastructure

Transportation is going a similar way. On a macro scale, commercial trucking accounts for about 5% of GDP in advanced economies. It’s big, and it is complicated. Cargo moves in a variety of different shapes, sizes, and dimensions. It moves in thousands of different laneways, and each load has its own critical schedule.

But no one said infrastructure means simplicity. Much of infrastructure is complicated yet requires very little attention to detail. Pouring out a glass of clean, drinkable water from the tap requires a highly complex system to work together, as does providing electricity and internet connections. More labour intensive activities have been absorbed into infrastructure as well: Delivering the mail or collecting garbage are complex social and technological systems that work together in order to make them effectively invisible.

Their invisibility is the point here. There are many things that are as large, ubiquitous, and complicated as trucking. Buying a personal home is an example. But trucking can become an infrastructure because to perfect it is to render it invisible. People do not want to worry about transportation. In an ideal world, things just move so reliably and cheaply that we hardly notice the miracle of their disappearance and reappearance. That is exactly the situation with trash removal or sewage.

But can commercial trucking become another basic infrastructure? Containerization and improvements in technology have already improved execution quality. Shipments that would have taken weeks and cost a fortune two generations ago are now next-day and nearly costless. Many retailers are offering same-day delivery in urban areas where half the population lives. The underlying trend is for greater levels of service at lower costs.

Where does such a trend take us? If the price continues to improve and service continues to increase, the focus will shift to minimising effort. In other words, a trucking move may hit some fairly hard lower bound on cost, and be very consistently of good service, and then the transport management community starts talking about having to expend less and less effort per move. This is the first entry into a road that leads to trucking as an infrastructure.