Friday, January 18, 2013

We don't want a Frackin' Zee Bridge

Environmental advocates are doing a great job educating people on how horrible hydraulic fracturing is - in particular, it means hundreds more big, dangerous trucks on the roads - and building an ever-growing movement against this technique for extracting natural gas.

Unfortunately, current projections are for our energy use to grow, not shrink. Many fracking opponents also want the government to shut down nuclear power plants like Indian Point, which will further increase the unmet demand for energy. And many environmentalists support converting to vehicles powered by electricity and natural gas. Where will those come from?

Some of this demand can be satisfied through less destructive, renewable sources like wind and solar, but not enough. As long as the demand increases there will be pressure to frack, and we will not necessarily be able to resist forever. To really head off hydrofracking we need to reduce our demand for energy.

We can do some of this by switching to more efficient forms of electricity generation, lighting, heating and cooling, but those measures only go so far. We need to tackle one of the top areas of energy inefficiency: transportation. If people keep driving at anywhere near the rate they're doing now, in a few years most of that fracking gas is going to go right into the power sockets of our electric cars.

We could make a huge dent in our energy use if we shifted most of our freight and passenger trips from cars and trucks to trains, buses and boats. We can cut it even more by shifting those trips to walking, bicycles and elevators. To make the most of it, with convenient walks and transit trips, people would need to move their homes, jobs and stores to within walking distance of train stations.

It's at this point that someone usually brings in a Joel Kotkin-type argument about people really wanting to live in the suburbs or the country and avail themselves of "the freedom of a car." It's nonsense, of course. People also want to live in town with the freedom of walking. People want all kinds of impossible and incompatible things.

People respond to economic incentives. If you build lots of free or low-cost highways and parking and fight massive wars to keep the price of gas low, then people will drive. If you let people deduct part of their housing costs from their taxes, then big houses on big lots out in the suburbs or the country look great. If you make streets big and sidewalks narrow or nonexistent, people won't walk. If you limit the size and number of apartment buildings and require lots of parking to be provided for every home, business and transit station, people aren't going to build walkable communities, and the walkable communities that exist will be expensive. More driving, more fracking.

Now, as gas gets more expensive for people and roads get more expensive for governments, people are cutting back on their driving. Driving has been declining for the past few years. If it keeps declining, we may well see an easing of this pressure to frack.

One of the biggest incentives to drive is wide, low-cost highways. Since it was opened in 1955, the Tappan Zee Bridge has been an incentive to live far from transit and drive everywhere. Governor Cuomo is planning to widen the Tappan Zee Bridge, but he has pledged to keep the tolls low, increasing that incentive to drive. More driving, more fracking.

If you really care about hydrofracking, you won't just tell Cuomo to stop the fracking. You'll tell him to stop the Frackin' Zee Bridge.

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