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On ya bike![1]

by Michael Keizer on May 8, 2009

In some ways, this post wants you to consider the opposite of my previous post (on the use of airships in aid logistics). Don’t ever let it be said that I am not a fence-sitter.

Airships are great at integrating what was a multimodal[2] (part of a) supply chain into a monomodal one: instead of using various transport means, they could in many cases deliver from origin to destination in one go where before we would have to use several transport means.

However, the use airships for aid is still some time away, and even when it finally arrives there will still be destinations that will be very hard for airships to reach. The most apparent of these are dense urban settings: a large airship, although it needs less landing space than a wide-body plane, still needs considerably more space than e.g. a helicopter. As a large part of aid work takes place in these dense urban settings, we will need to look at other solutions for the last mile. This is all the more true for health logistics: as populations urbanise, more and more of the health effort will need to be concentrated in the cities and towns – and in most developing and middle-income countries these are very densely built up.

The easy solution is of course the tried and true combination of truck and car. However, for various reasons this is actually not appropriate in many settings:

  • Cars and trucks are relatively expensive means of transport: not so much in purchase cost (although those are not negligible), but especially in running costs and maintenance.
  • Maintenance might not always be possible: especially in developing countries it is at times difficult to find the necessary spare parts or the skills to maintain cars[3].
  • Trucks and cars add significantly to air pollution, which is already a problem in many cities in developing and (especially) middle-income countries.
  • In the most densely built-up areas, even cars can be impossible to manoeuvre.

So what solutions can we look at?

By far the oldest one is the use of raw manpower: human porters that carry goods wherever they are needed. Obviously, they can get anywhere where people can go, and where labour is cheap this is often the most economical way of transport. However, unless managed very well, porting can be punishing for the people involved, and lead to serious long-term health problems.

A much better solution is the lowly bike[4]. Like porters, it can get almost anywhere  where there are people; if not by riding it, then at least by pushing. It can bear much larger loads (more about that later) but with negligible stress on the body of the biker. And finally, bikes can be repaired by almost any technician worth their salt[5].

New developments in bike design mean that they can be used for much heavier and bulkier loads. A good example is the Big Boda load-carrying bicycle, a design from Worldbike. Bikes like this can successfully compete with cars and trucks in many settings, and should be considered seriously when designing logistics systems for health or aid.

(Images by Kees van Mansom and Worldbike.)


[1] If you wonder what I am talking about: have a look at this list of Australian English vocabulary.

[2] Multi-modal transport in this sense refers to transport using more than one means, e.g. train and truck, or ship-train-truck, etcetera. Strictly speaking, the term is reserved for when we have only a single transport contract, but I will use it in a slightly looser sense here.

[3] This is becoming a serious issue as cars are ‘computerised’ and more and more models cannot be maintained without expensive diagnostic machinery and specialised skills and knowledge.

[4] Yes, I am originally Dutch. Why do you ask?

[5] Obviously, I am not talking about your Bernard Hinault Special.


Continue Reading 0 comments }Aid and aid work, Logistics, Public health

Air logistics: are we on the same Page?

by Michael Keizer on May 6, 2009

Wouldn’t it be great if we could transport our goods from one place to another using just one transport means from place of dispatch until the spot where we deliver aid (thus eliminating time and capital intensive loading and unloading activities), staying high above conflicting parties until we have reached the very place where we want to land (thus avoiding highway robbers, pirates, lacking infrastructure, and roadblocks), at relatively high speeds (130 – 160 km/hour), with excellent fuel efficiency (thus dramatically decreasing transport costs) – and all this without having to invest in very expensive infrastructural works?

Well, the technology is there. What we need now is someone to invest in it.

After the dramatic holocaust of the Graf von Hindenburg, airships were off the map for anything remotely interesting. This lasted for quite a while, but the early 1990s saw a resurgence in development efforts for airships. Most of these were unsuccessful and ended in financial problems. However, there are some successful examples as well, e.g. de Zeppelin NT. What is still missing is a large, long-range airship: the ones used now are much smaller than their pre-WWII cousins, and have a much shorter range.

The problem is that the market for the sort of airship that would be useful for aid work is very limited: only activities that normally have high numbers of transit points, have issues with roads leading to their destinations, and have relatively high cargo and passenger number requirements, would be able to sustain these much larger and farther-ranging airships – and that leaves very little but the humanitarian aid effort and the military (and yes, there has been some interest from various military powers in airship development).

So the question is: would we be able to support the development of an airship model suitable for aid work? Or have someone do it for us, e.g. a big donor? It will be clear that supporting the development of a big airship will be impossible for almost any aid agency (with the possible exception of one or two UN agencies) – but would there be a case here for a consortium of aid organisations and/or donors to put money in it?

A number of initiatives have sprung up that seem to answer this in the affirmative; but none have been very successful, possibly partly because support from aid organisations and donors has been totally absent. The potential advantages of using airships for aid work are immense; but nothing will happen without that support.

It is about time we start being less conservative about aid logistics and look at possible revolutions instead of only looking at incremental evolution. And perhaps, in some years, this will not be the only Zeppelin involved in aid:

(Image courtesy J. Rohrer)


Continue Reading 1 comment }Aid and aid work, Logistics