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Peak oil and public transportation

Michael Lind is the Policy Director of New America’s Economic Growth Program and a frequent contributor to Salon.com—a publication (and writer) whose perspectives I usually agree with. The new America website is quite good.

However, Mr. Lind recently published an article at Salon regarding the future of transportation—fixed/high-speed rail, specifically—that I take issue with. I do so not so much because his information might be incorrect (and I don’t dispute his knowledge and information on the subject), but I disagree because he offers up an attitude regarding our approach to transportation and automobiles that can only cause us more problems as we confront Peak Oil. It’s an all-too-familiar refrain Peak Oil proponents encounter, and is one we find especially distressing in light of the challenges Peak Oil is going to impose upon all of us.

Lind begins his article advocating more government spending on infrastructure—a position with which I wholeheartedly agree. (Readers familiar with Bob Herbert’s op-eds in the New York Times—which I’ve referenced in several posts—will recall that Mr. Herbert is likewise a passionate advocate of our need to repair, maintain, and enhance infrastructure spending for a host of sound, well-considered reasons.) Enough studies are out there demonstrating the many positive benefits and effects those spending priorities have on our economy and employment numbers.

Despite his advocacy for this essential governmental strategy, Lind criticizes support for high speed rail. In doing so, he raises common objections to funding and planning for alternative forms of transportation. While factually there may be merit to his arguments, the problem is that despite the rhetoric, the reality of Peak Oil is going to make the stated objections entirely irrelevant.

There is little chance that we’re going to devise a perfect public transportation solution, but to dismiss the approach outright because we’re too spoiled to recognize the need for change is at best foolish. We’re in need of some serious attitude adjustments, and transportation woes are another consequence of Peak Oil that we can either prepare for voluntarily, or have imposed upon us. Something is going to have be done. We can either throw our hands up and keep hoping, or start taking steps to figure out the solutions that just might work. It seems quite obvious that public transportation is going to have to be part of that mix.

Lind observes that

“As nations grow more affluent, their people prefer the convenience of personal automobile transportation to the inflexibility of mass transit.”

Of course they do! I much prefer jumping in one of our cars to run errands or to go to our beach house or do any number of other things when I feel like doing so rather than walking up and down my lengthy and very steep hill and then figuring out how many different modes of public transit I might need to get where I want to go. Millions and millions of other car owners harbor their own legitimate reasons why they favor the comfort and convenience of their own autos.

If fossil-fuel supplies were unlimited, inexpensive, and always-at-the-ready, we would not be having these discussions. But facts are annoying—especially the true ones!

All of the factors this blog and other writers have set forth regarding the imminence of Peak Oil tell us that unlimited, inexpensive, and always-at-the-ready oil is not going to be an option for much longer—some reports suggest in as few as a couple of years. Many writers have already noted one of Peak Oil’s many obvious warning signs: we’re drilling thousands of feet deep in the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere because “cheap” and easy-to-find oil no longer exists. It’s just one sign among many. “Affluence” isn’t going to buy anyone bonus points when it comes to oil supply and demand … the transportation needs of the rich won’t stave off Peak Oil.

So when the ever-diminishing supply of unlimited, inexpensive, and always-at-the-ready oil is a factor with which we are all contending every day, preferring “the convenience of personal automobile transportation to the inflexibility of mass transit” won’t be worth the paper that comment is printed on. Peak Oil doesn’t much care about our “preferences,” or whether long-distance air or passenger car travel is “more practical,” as Lind also argued.

That’s simply not going to matter … not a little, not a lot, not at all. It’s nice to discuss preferences and wishes and hopes and all the rest, but geology and reality are what they are, and soon enough we are not going to have anywhere near the amounts of inexpensive oil readily available to each of us so that we can drive wherever and whenever we want. That’s a fact. Wishing it away is a nice sentiment but utterly meaningless. Peak Oil doesn’t much care for wishes and prayers, either.

So objections notwithstanding, we need to be thinking about, planning for, and finding ways to fund, create, and construct the types of public transportation we’re all going to need in the decades to come. It’s painful, but it’s that simple.

It’s no doubt true that implementing passenger rail and other forms of alternative transportation (and sources of energy, which Lind also criticizes) on a scale even remotely approaching the levels we’ll need in the decades to come is a jaw-dropping, almost unfathomably expensive proposition … until you realize we will have no rational alternatives other than to truly shrink our growth and become a nation of many local economies.

There is going to be a lengthy list of items and services and needs that are going to have to continue to be fulfilled by an ever-declining amount of crude oil, and I daresay that your and my carefree choices to run a couple of errands on a near-daily basis or visit with friends on the weekend aren’t going to have much priority on that list of who gets what, when, and how much.

Those who are waiting for a low-cost, ideal alternative to our current forms of personal transportation are in for a very rude awakening somewhere down the road.

Likewise, Lind’s urging that we devote more financial resources to enhance freight transportation on our roadways is just as misguided. Truckers won’t be exempt from Peak Oil’s impact … no one will. He is unfairly and inaccurately dismissive in suggesting that all of our urgings to provide more funding for high-speed rail and the like is so that we can “cut five minutes off the daily commutes of office workers in New York and New Jersey.” Enough high speed rail proposals have been put forth, and the Obama Administration has at least opened the door to enough other high-speed rail projects, to dismiss Lind’s snarky contentions outright. That’s something I’d expect to hear from someone on the Right, for whom facts are all-too-often useless and/or irrelevant when choosing to perpetuate narrow-minded ideology instead.

“Focusing on freight infrastructure improvements means that, among other things, we need to build more highway lanes and in some cases new highways for the trucks that will continue to carry most freight.”

I’m hard-pressed to understand how that could possibly be a legitimate solution. Not only will not be able to afford that; higher gas prices and declining supply will leave less cars and trucks on the road. What a waste of limited resources!

And despite Lind’s claims about asphalt as some kind of magic solution, the truth is that asphalt is one of the countless products derived from crude oil, or from the energy-intensive and more expensive extraction process of the tar sands. (See this Oil Drum post for a discussion of asphalt.) Less crude oil equals less asphalt—as some cities have already witnessed first-hand.

Thinking that the enormous population increases expected in the coming decades is going to be properly addressed by building more roads and creating more suburban sprawl where owners are going to be left entirely dependent on automobiles they won’t be able to regularly or readily fuel seems ass-backwards at the very least. Asphalt is not nearly the savior Lind asserts it to be.

Two items of note on this subject from an extremely informative 2009 article by Phillip Longman (a Lind colleague) in The Washington Monthly [1]:

“The Environmental Protection Agency calculates that for distances of more than 1,000 miles, a system in which trucks haul containers only as far as the nearest railhead and then transfer them to a train produces a 65 percent reduction in both fuel use and greenhouse gas emissions. As the volume of freight is expected to increase by 57 percent between 2000 and 2020, the potential economic and environmental benefits of such an intermodal system will go higher and higher. Railroads are also potentially very labor efficient. Even in the days of the object-lesson train, when brakes had to be set manually and firemen were needed to stoke steam engines, a five-man crew could easily handle a fifty-car freight train, doing the work of ten times as many modern long-haul truckers.”

and

“Failing to rebuild rail infrastructure will simply further move the burden of ever-increasing shipping demands onto the highways, the expansion and maintenance of which does not come free. The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (hardly a shill for the rail industry) estimates that without public investment in rail capacity 450 million tons of freight will shift to highways, costing shippers $162 billion and highway users $238 billion (in travel time, operating, and accident costs), and adding $10 billion to highway costs over the next twenty years. ‘Inclusion of costs for bridges, interchanges, etc., could double this estimate,’ their report adds.”

And Lind wants to increase freight transportation on our roads?

As for his urging that we build more airports … seriously? In a few short decades—as things stand now and for the foreseeable future—we’ll be lucky to have one-third the number of airports now existing. It’s also quite likely that only a very small percentage of the population anywhere will be able to afford air travel in any event—assuming jet fuel remains available in any semblance of reasonable supply. How is that a solution?! Ignoring the effects of Peak Oil isn’t going to get us much except more difficulties.

Lind urges us to consider a “harsh reality” that makes no sense in light of Peak Oil:

“The greatest economic crisis since the Depression shows no signs of ending soon. A major, long-term program of public investment is needed more than ever. But the public investments must pass the reality test. And the harsh reality is this: There isn’t going to be a significant high-speed rail system in the U.S. in the near- or medium-term future. There isn’t going to be a continental electric grid permitting solar panels on condo buildings in Berkeley, Calif., to power heirloom-poultry farms in Maine. Most Americans are not going to sell their cars and move back from the suburbs to the cities in order to live in tiny apartments or condos and ride the rails to work. These are romantic daydreams that Democrats could afford to indulge only as long as they were out of office and were not responsible for results.”

So how does he reconcile those statements with the fact that majority of the world's population already lives in cities, with estimates suggesting that as much as 75% of the world’s population will reside in cities by 2050? [2] Hate to say it, but “romantic daydreams” or some reasonable approximations may very well be our only options in the not-too-distant future. That is the very harsh reality we will have to contend with in the face of Peak Oil. The fossil fuel choices he seems to think we’re going to endlessly possess are simply not going to be available to us. Ignoring that truth is an option … just not a very good one.

Lind is absolutely correct that we need a massive commitment to our woefully ill-maintained infrastructure. (See this and the referenced links therein.) But his assertions that we need to rely on more roadways and more fossil-fuel-consuming trucks is not a solution. We will cater to consumer demands or for more suburban sprawl at our collective peril. We won’t have those options once Peak Oil is upon us, either.

Again I’ll emphasize how critical it is that we begin considering alternatives to transportation, the nature of our infrastructure, and our sources of energy. The dislocations will be challenging enough; let’s not make them worse by waiting for some “better” day to get started. (And let’s not forget that putting into place the infrastructure and technologies needed to make the transitions a reality are themselves going to require a lot of fossil fuel. We’re simply not going to have enough to do all of that and still maintain our lifestyles and industries as we do now. Something is going to have to give.)

While Lind is correct that

“There is no public support in the U.S. or any other industrial democracy for the combination of self-imposed austerity and massive subsidies that would be necessary to create an economy based on renewable energy,”

that is likewise not going to matter. Who among us wants to sacrifice the lifestyles we’ve come to insist upon?! The real issue is that when Peak Oil is here, lack of public support (predicated on selfishness and an unwillingness/inability to make sacrifices voluntarily) won’t matter either. We either suffer from the harsh impact of Peak Oil by choosing to do nothing, or start working on the next best options, whatever they may be (while understanding those undefined options are no guarantee of harsh-free changes).

I fully recognize that the energy, affordability, and efficiencies derived from fossil fuels/crude oil are as yet unmatched by any forms of alternative or renewable sources of energy. That’s a major part of the challenge of Peak Oil: there will be no seamless transitions to something else to keep life going as it does now because we don’t have that option. Changes—perhaps even drastic ones—are looming.

So do we wait until we’re really battered and beleaguered by Peak Oil, or do we make a national commitment (and act upon it) to finding some reasonable means of supplanting fossil fuel usage—especially for transportation, given that it’s going to take us many years (decades is more likely) to effectively and permanently transition away from oil? We’re already too far behind, and we have no guarantees of finding a successful solution in any event. Is waiting and doing nothing the better option? Is that our legacy?

There are no easy fixes. There are no inexpensive fixes. There are no quick fixes, either. But we clearly can no longer rely on what got us here.

The sooner we all understand that and begin acting on that knowing, the sooner we can begin digging our way out of a mess our own successes and innovations have created.

Sources:

[1] http://www.washingtonmonthly.com/features/2009/0901.longman.html - Back on Tracks: A nineteenth-century technology could be the solution to our twenty-first-century problems by Phillip Longman

[2] http://www.slate.com/id/2256666/- Nimble Cities: Help Slate make transportation in and between cities more efficient, safe, and pleasant by Tom Vanderbilt

Editorial Notes: About the author:
I’m a former attorney and financial advisor, living in Massachusetts with my wonderful wife and our 3 children (two of whom are now in college). Having given up on corporate America, I’m now making my way through the world as a writer and a fledgling advocate of peak oil.

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