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Post-Peak Oil (PPO) and Climate Change: A Call to Peaceful Arms
23 Nov, 2007 11:34 am
This is a short article on community transformation in a time of preparation for a post cheap oil future. On the face of it, post-peak oil and climate change don't share many common threads, beyond being derided as hysterical prognostications by some of their non-believers. However, climate change is finally starting to be taken seriously by some of its former nay-sayers. We shall have to wait and see whether post-peak oil will continue to be dismissed as a crackpot conspiracy theory.
The United States should begin an acceleration of the already existing, but incremental efforts at restoring our nation’s passenger rail system. The installation of new passenger rail corridors along with Light Rail Transit (LRT) systems in both our older long-established areas such as Jersey City, N.J., or newer faster growing areas similar to Portland, Oregon, are already reaping rewards not only in terms of passenger patronage and profits, but also in terms of targeted, mixed-use real estate development that encourages the utilization of public-transportation. The advantages of travel by rail includes less need of a car, hence a lessened demand for land-intensive parking facilities. The valuable square footage, that would have been dedicated to parking facilities, is freed up for the prospective developer to build additional (and more profitable) housing and retail units – all in close proximity to a passenger rail station.
Another economic benefit of transit-targeted development permits the redevelopment of abandoned industrial “Brownfields”, returning them to the various municipal tax roles and future viability as commercial enterprises multiplying to a greater employment base for the host city. Many “Brownfields” are centrally located in close proximity to existing passenger or freight rail trackage.
Between 1890 and 1930, the interurban streetcar lines served vast areas of our cities and surrounding metropolitan areas. These wonderful energy efficient (and electrically powered) lines even made their way out to the countryside. Farmers became the beneficiaries of freight sidings located on their property, where they could place produce and milk, bound for the urban market centers. The interurbans also provided electrical hook-ups to their trolley wires, providing farmers with a form of rural electrification, long before the Tennesee Valley Authority was a glimmer in anyone’s eye.
Unfortunately the interurbans were obviated by a combination of market forces (mostly based on cheap and abundant oil) as well as the punitive treatment imposed on them by the cities and municipalities that their lines ran through, where in addition to taxing their right of ways, burdened them with the exclusive responsibilities of maintaining the entire city streets (i.e.filling in automobile induced pot holes and snow plowing beyond their own narrow right of ways). However the coup de grace for the interurbans’ demise was corporate corruption. It is not my intent to detail this scandal, as it has been ably chronicled by many journalists and investigators. In essence, a consortium of companies, led by General Motors and Standard Oil of California, pleaded guilty to charges of monopolistic practices associated with the purchase of numerous street-car lines, and their subsequent abandonment; these were explicit violations of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. Outside of collecting a pittance on the fines for this conspiracy, the government did absolutely nothing, opening up the way for the liquidation of the same lines, and subsequently cementing a future, exclusive automobile- centered transportation society, that had become manifest by the early 1960s.
The Interurbans Today At the conclusion of World War II, the remains of our interurban street car system was in it’s final death throes. Our population stood at just 130 million people back then. Today our national population is expected to pass the 300 million mark, by the end of this calendar year.
Returning to the theme of incrementalism, and the coming age of petroleum based scarcity, perhaps it is time to use our existing railroad and Light Rail systems as a template for the expansion of this nascent public transportation network.
With 85% of our nation residing in urban or suburban areas (including the most sparsely populated states), we can begin an expansion of this network, where potential passenger rail corridors can be expanded, often using under-utilized freight railroad branches, by simply adding an additional track through contract with the host private rail freight carrier.
Another potential area for possible expansion involves public utility right-of-way lines. Excepting the steepest grades, many of these utility lines possess property easements wide enough to accommodate a double-track passenger rail corridor. Additionally, many of these utility corridors run in close proximity to existing (developed) residential and commercial property zones, of various cities and their close-in suburbs. The utility line-based rail passenger expansion could eventually be extended to the newer, automobile oriented suburbs. Much of this can be accomplished with a minimum of property dislocation, since the existing property easements would not require condemnation. Not so incidentally, some of these same utility easements are located on the abandoned rail beds of the aforementioned interurban lines. The new system will address land use patterns, concurrently permitting higher densities and walkable communities in proximity to the stations. High Density Development doesn’t need to be a disturbing concept, as many areas of Europe demonstrate, the most recent Light Rail and Commuter Rail introductions have almost all contributed to enhanced property values in areas close to their stations.
Of course the benefits of a fuel efficient form of transportation that removes hundreds of automobiles from our maintenance intensive highway network as well as the attendant benefits of cleaner air, can only contribute to a healthier, more resource efficient society.
The incremental approach can be most effectively implemented with a regional approach to planning. As a nation, we still need to have the dreams of achievement that are justifiably recalled with pride when associated with NASA’s successful lunar program. We still need the passion of these dreams, but as a nation, the incremental approach provides the impetus for economic and political cooperation, in a time where we simply do not have the funds, or over-riding political consensus for a massive one- size- fits -all program. But the results will speak for themselves, and for the future of our nation; because we can and we must begin a land-use and transportation based “hybrid” change in our mobility, living, and working patterns. Whether referred to as “Smart Growth” or “New Urbanism”, this is an off the shelf technology that we can begin expanding upon today. The other “hybrid” is the “hybrid” car, such as Prius, this is a laudable start in the right direction, but is limited by it’s inability to address land-use patterns, that as currently constituted are destructive or at least adverse to developing ourselves into a truly energy efficient nation.
At the risk of being dismissed as a “technophobe” who is afraid of the future, I firmly contend, that this journey will redound to our society’s benefit, much sooner than any “hydrogen-based economy” (which itself is derived from fossil fuels), will deliver us from global warming and possible looming fuel shortages. Wind, thermal and solar power will of course all need to be implemented. However, it is in our transportation system and spatial-land use patterns, where true national security can be implemented and demonstrated.