Here's an idea that's been slowly crystallizing in my mind. I've posted earlier stabs at this idea, but here's my current thinking about it. It's about what kind of transportation infrastructure we want knowing about global warming and peak oil.
I'm pretty sure most of you believe that global warming is real, but I know that not everyone accepts the idea of peak oil. I'd rather that you were right than me, but you have to wonder why we'd be mucking around with deepwater oil drilling, tar sands and hydrofracking if we didn't have an energy supply problem.
Wind, solar, hydroelectric and maybe nuclear energy will take up some of that slack, but global warming limits the usefulness of coal, tar sands, and other fossil fuels. In fifty of a hundred years it's likely that our ability to move large heavy objects will be significantly reduced.
It's clear that a lot of people are aware of the implications of peak oil and climate change for transportation of passengers and freight. It's not so clear that very many people have thought about the implications for manufacturing and construction.
First, think about all the infrastructure components that are made out of oil: plastic car, bus and train parts, synthetic fabrics. Well, they were once made with renewables like wool, wood and rattan, and abundant, recyclable minerals like metal and fiberglass, so that's not such a big deal. But roofs and roads are made with tar, which comes from petroleum and is in limited supply. Substitutes are a lot more expensive and not always as effective.
Then we get to the question of manufacturing. We will probably have enough energy to manufacture bicycles and horse carts, but will we have enough to make automobiles, buses, trucks, train cars and ships?
Finally, there's the facilities themselves. If we're having a hard time maintaining the roads, railroads and bridges we have now, how are we going to be able to maintain a larger system with a fraction of the energy?
Imagine that it's the year 2111, and your great-grandchildren are trying to run a decent transportation system. Think about the energy currently available for transportation operations and maintenance - moving all those cars, trucks, trains, boats and planes on all those roads and railroads to all those docks and airports. Now imagine that your great-grandchildren have to run the system with a tenth of the energy that we use now.
With a tenth of the energy available, which do you think they would want us to have left them: the Joel Kotkin "people's choice" system of sprawl and highways? The Aaron Renn "balanced" system with some rail lines and some highways? The Walter Hook "cheap mobility for all" system of crowded buses on asphalt?
I don't want any of those. I don't want my great-grandchildren to ride donkey carts over crumbling ten-lane interstates. I don't want them to have to spend valuable energy replacing concrete roadbeds over and over again for buses. I don't want them packed into aging buses. I want them to inherit the most efficient transportation system that humanity has ever devised: a network of compact, walkable and bikeable cities and towns connected by multiple, redundant rail lines. None of the three infrastructure plans I mentioned above will do this. The only thing that will is to pull as much money from road construction as possible and throw it into rebuilding our rail infrastructure. The President's proposal and the Mayor's research are promising; let's see how much further we can go.
We don't have much time before the oil runs out. In that time we need to put together a system that can be run and maintained on a fraction of the energy that we currently use. That's why we can't afford to indulge outdated fantasies of sprawl and the open road. That's why we can't afford to do it half-assed out of a phony sense of balance. That's why we can't afford to do it on the cheap out of ill-timed egalitarianism.
I'm a pragmatist. I know that the roadbuilders and the pseudo-American Dreamers will fight my vision with everything they've got. And that's exactly why I don't want people like the Urbanophile and the ITDP giving them any ammunition. If you think there's a chance we could run out of oil, you shouldn't be supporting false balance or false economies. You should throw your weight behind building as much rail as we can, and building it to last.