Parallel One-way Roads and Ecosystem Functioning

Maybe one-way roads aren't such a bad thing after all


Ecosystem functioning is a hugely important topic of research for humans but I’m not sure whether the researchers think to apply their research to humans. It seems to be written in the context of all animals. But that’s not a bad thing as it provides them a way to do research without having to think of all the human-specific special cases and exceptions. I think the main idea is hugely important to learn to see in our everyday human lives:

In the meta-system theory, diffusion across a landscape is inhibited by local, within-patch negative feedback (Figure 1). That is, positive and negative feedbacks operate within local patches [4]. In the self-organized systems theory, the positive feedback is local, and negative feedback manifests itself as tension among local clusters of species that prevents further dispersal (Figure 1). Landscape-scale patch structure thus emerges in self-organized systems theory as a consequence of local positive feedback and landscape-scale inhibitive or negative feedback [5].

Global urban population is increasing dramatically, from 13% in 1900 to an estimated 70% in 2050. These processes of urbanization pose a significant impact on a global scale. Important issues such as humans’ quality of life, food and energy consumption, health, climate, and hunger vulnerabilities urgently require knowledge regarding the spatial dimension of urban growth.

Termite movement away from the colony seems to be activated by the need to find food, and movement is eventually inhibited when individual termites encounter and compete with members of another colony [16]. Amazingly, this behavior may lead to quite regular spacing of termite colonies across the landscape [14].

The combination of nutrient supply for primary plant production, and the translation of plant nutrients into herbivore and predator secondary production mean that termite mounds also become hotspots of ecosystem productivity. These hotspots are preserved through the interplay between activation and inhibition of spatial movement of all of the components of the ecosystem. Thus, the landscape displays a regular pattern of high and low productivity that mirrors the regular patterning of termite mounds. Further statistical modeling suggests that this form of heterogeneity results in greater net productivity than would be expected if the termite mounds were irregularly clustered across the landscape [14]. This derives from the statistical property that when patches are regularly spaced, no single point is very far from a mound, so the productivity of all points when averaged is greater than would be the case when patches are highly clustered or randomly dispersed [14].

In this particular case, a very non-charismatic species of fungus-cultivating termite that lives predominantly below-ground seems to create biophysical and biotic conditions that lead to the evolution of aboveground trophic structure and parallel self-organized dynamics in the higher trophic levels. This would, in turn, suggest that the loss of any one of the parts would cause the parallel dynamics sustaining overall ecosystem functioning to quickly collapse.

If you think about it for a while, it’s really amazing how quickly the human population is growing. We doubled in number from 1950 to 1987, and although we aren’t growing as fast as before we could still reach 10 billion by 2050. We could easily create 1 trillion humans by 2500 but at what point do we stop? We have already extended ourselves far beyond the natural equilibrium of a few million that the foraging lifestyle would support. I wouldn’t be surprised if in the next few years we could figure out how to convert raw sunlight into some kind of pleasant human food. It might seem a bit far-fetched right now but we’ll take it in stride the moment it is discovered.

edit 7 Aug 2019:

wow this happened a lot sooner than I expected. I guess it’s already possible

How many people think twice about a leaf? Yet the leaf is the chief product and phenomenon of Life: this is a green world, with animals comparatively few and small, and all dependent upon the leaves.

Patrick Geddes

Humans also are dependent on leaves. We are first and foremost dependent on and responsible to our local ecosystem. We have muddied that idea with our tens thousands of kilometers of rail and road, the cost of which thought about by neither the average person nor the CEO.

The monetary cost itself is low on paper and most of our businesses and international corporations are built within this system of regional manufacturing and global distribution so no one sees it as a problem. But this Distributionism is the root cause of inequality—upon recognizing this we should also recognize that there is no easy way to fix this problem. We may encourage local business and support our neighbors, but there are often great cost savings (or the symbolic gain of luxury imported goods) via exploiting the spatial inequality. Only the most affluent and the most poor communities can prefer products all of their own local.

We have to recognize the affects of distribution and automation for they are as real and even more destructive than toxic factory effluent. We need not stop in our tracks but we need to reduce the spatial inequality that we are creating and exploiting.

My main point is that we are dependent upon our local environment: whether we realize it or not, whether we import goods and thus modify our local environment, whether we export goods from our local environment in exchange for something—in all cases we are dependent on the spatial phenomenon of local. We can never access anything outside of local. When we travel, when we use the phone or internet, even when we plant an herb garden we are redefining what is local but we are still restricted to this spatial phenomenon.

The natural land cover of our local environment can be used as an indicator and estimator of the types of resources, activities, and emotions that humans will access and experience while within a neighborhood. Of course, there may be hundreds, thousands, even millions of tons of imported goods and materials in a neighborhood, but first and foremost the natural world takes precedence simply because there is far more of it (and we still don’t have control over some things like weather).

Laotian drivers are on the better side of the driver scale. Of course some of this stems from the local culture of conflict-avoidance via conflict precognition. But also the roads here in Vientiane seem to be designed to be a little more forgiving and safe. There are no complex intersections. Many of the trunk roads are one-way and so it’s easier to be patient because driving in a simpler environment is less stressful.

Cars on trunk road Rue Samsenthai travel one-way, East to West while cars on trunk road Avenue Souphanouvong go West to East. Vientiane is not perfect but cars flow along these roads in a very predictable manner. If you need to turn around then you get on one of the short two-way roads that lead you to the other long one-way road.

Like a roundabout, a one-way road makes it easy to turn both left and right, without any of the costs for turning onto oncoming traffic that you would have to do on a two-way road. Of course, two-way roads aren’t going away any time soon because they have their own merits but it does make me wonder whether it’s possible to build a road system using only a combination of roundabouts and one-way roads in a way that is not confusing to anyone driving without a GPS. I don’t necessarily expect trip-throughput or speed or even safety to be higher in such a system but I still think experimental designing of alternative systems could provide some useful results.

When (autonomous) cars can only do one or two “behaviors” on a street then it makes walking outside a lot safer. Traffic becomes much more predictable and easy for a pedestrian to keep an eye on. The reason why people like “U-turns” is because any turning on American roads is stressful, especially left turns. If turning was easier and faster then we really don’t need to support complex behaviors like “U-turns” on our roads.

Complex behaviors help a few people travel faster at the expense of the complexity, speed, and safety of the whole system. “U-turns” are always only used when someone makes a navigational mistake; the exception being complex road design. Autonomous vehicles will rarely need U-turns as there are typically faster and safer ways to get to nearly all destinations.

36% of all accidents occur during a turn or within an intersection. To me, it makes more sense to ban two-way roads than to ban turning left. It would be interesting to see if we could design a city where every road was one-way but every even road allowed you to turn right or go straight, and every odd road allowed you to turn left or go straight or something like that. Okay it’s probably a bad idea but I just want to get the idea out there somewhere—just make the whole street a roundabout fractal.

hmm ok it looks pretty awful…

I don’t think 1 trillion people on earth will be a bad thing if we adapt our current lifestyle. The American lifestyle is definitely not sustainable nor particularly enjoyable at the current population density of many American cities. It doesn’t work very well… there is just way too many cars and everything is so far.

It isn’t a such a big problem when everyone in a rural community needs to travel 10 km to go to the grocery store or to go to school. But if you have a city of 10 or 20 million where everyone needs to travel 10 km in their single passenger SUVs the traffic, pollution, and other affects is multiplied to completely insane amounts.

But I understand that cars aren’t going away any time soon, especially in the US where cars have been integrated into all aspects of everyday life. For instance, it’s common practice in America to go on a short car ride to help a child fall asleep. Cars aren’t just useful for going from one place to another but they are also useful by themselves as a form of recreation like night cruising. Will there be an “explore mode” in fully autonomous cars which moves the car within an isodistance of the origin point? When parking becomes rare, will the default mode for some autonomous cars be to endlessly flow along the streets as a free storage? Maybe this isn’t such a bad thing for cities with limited space—The space of roads is wasted every second that a car isn’t directly on top of it. The solution to the problem of clean energy is already mostly solved, we just need more nuclear reactors and electric cars.

Rietkerk, M., & van de Koppel, J. (2008). Regular pattern formation in real ecosystems. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 23(3), 169–175. doi:10.1016/j.tree.2007.10.013