Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Peak oil, climate change and transportation infrastructure

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.


Anonymous said...

If we could put a fraction of the people who work in the construction industry toward rebuilding rail, we would be there. Theres so many people in the areas where the housing boomed out of work, because they have spent the last 30 years doing nothing but building new detached houses.

I do honestly think that the market will favor rail once price shocks start to come stronger and more frequently. The important thing, to me, is to keep the government from imposing further subsidies to "help the consumer/help the homeowner/help the taxpayer". The government already insulates consumers from energy price, if they do the same thing for the shocks, Americans wont wake up until its a major budget item. (right now its spread out into different government areas so "energy subsidy" doesnt show up as an obvious item on the budget) By then, you may be right and it definitely may be too late.

The Urbanophile said...

Peak oil is a problem that will take care of itself. Clearly the oil market is rife with speculators. If they determine a pending future shortage, they'll bid up the price now. I think we can forget about what people like you or me think about peak oil, but those guys put their money on the line, and so do some serious due diligence on the issue.

Think about it, we've already seen oil spike from the teens per barrel in the early 90's to over $100 barrel in recent years. A few more years of performance like that, and you won't have to sell anybody on alternatives. Their wallets will do the convincing for them.

Cap'n Transit said...

I don't think you get my point, Aaron. Let's assume that it's the price shocks that drive people away from oil, instead of long lines caused by pandering price controls. How many people do you think are going to want to drive on all those roads you want to build?