A Strong Criticism

From Diana Christopulos at the Roanoke Valley Cool Cities Coalition:

Hollins University and the Darci Ellis Godhard Fund for Social Justice present “The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of the Oil Age, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century” with urban planning expert, social critic, author, and journalist James Howard Kunstler

  • WHEN:     Wednesday, November 11, 2009, 7 p.m.
  • WHERE:    Niederer Auditorium, Wetherill Visual Arts Center
  • COST:       Free Admission

With a critical eye and a provocative, entertaining voice, Kunstler explores the sweeping economic, political, and social changes that will result from the end of access to cheap fossil fuels.

“Kunstler, like George Orwell, understands that being honest about the past and present is the only way to prepare ourselves for an uncertain future.”  —Professor David Ehrenfeld, Rutgers University

I’ll be there.  Kunstler has been an outspoken and harsh critic of urban sprawl and progressive design of public space, as illustrated by this presentation (warning:  Some of Kunstler’s language is as strong as his criticism, so be forewarned).

A Question of Efficiency

Last week, I was invited to lunch at On the Rise with James Glass, local developer, real estate guy, cyclist, and all-around creative-type, for an informal discussion of what RIDE Solutions does, the growth of bike culture in the valley, and issues of energy and transportation in general.  Though the conversation pleasantly meandered over everything from domestic energy production to global economics and the true cost of investing in renewable sources, one topic that stood out was the issue of efficiency – both in terms of technology and behavior – and to what extent just making responsible use of the energy we are currently generating could go a long way to cutting our consumption.

That got me thinking about an issue that often comes up when discussing transportation and energy:  the difference between efficient transportation and efficient transportation systems.  That is, the difference between hybrids and carpools.

When I first took the position at RIDE Solutions, we had a significant portion of our website dedicated to “going alternative,” with information on hybrids, electric cars, scooters, motorcycles, etc.  It’s still there, significantly subdued compared to its predecessor, and in the next website update it’s going to come off altogether.  It’s a lot of fun to talk about the whiz-bang excitement of new technologies, and its a worthwhile pursuit to continue making vehicles more efficient, but its my opinion that hybrids (and electric cars, and smart cars, and scooters, and segways) aren’t the answer to the energy problem.  Or, at the very least, they’re a distance second.

Here’s why I think that.

The first is a simple financial issue:  How many people can afford to trade out their cars for a brand-new hybrid?  Even if the infrastructure existed to provide resources for electric or hydrogen fuel-cell vehicles, how many people could reasonably be expected to be in a position to swap cars?  My minivan is only five years old and has a ridiculously small number of miles on it; so long as that engine rumbles to life, I’m going to squeeze every ounce out of it I can.  That’s just responsible budgeting.

An automobile is an expensive piece of machinery, and hybrids more so.  Even if every new car coming off the line was a super-efficient marvel of technology, it would still take decades for the vehicle market to turn over enough that everyone will have traded up.

The second issue, and probably the more important issue, is that the energy consumed in our transportation system isn’t just a function of the vehicles themselves, but of the infrastructure and development patterns that come about as a result of their use.  Suburban sprawl is one of these – cheap gasoline made it realistic to abandon the urban core of cities and expand into the suburbs, because it made more economic sense to drive the extra distance for the cheaper land and bigger house.  This not only had the effect of decimating urban centers (many of which, like Downtown Roanoke, are now roaring back to life with a vengeance), but of creating very energy-intensive transportation systems.  People drove farther.  Suburban sprawl made mass transportation options inefficient or impossible, so more people drove alone rather than used a bus or train.  The energy required to maintain the infrastructure increased – asphalt, streetlights, paving, bridges, etc.  The energy required to build and maintain utilities increased:  new water and sewage systems, new power lines, storm water management, etc.  There are tertiary impact as well – the need for more  and smaller schools, services, shopping, etc., and the loss of efficiencies that could be had in denser areas all resulted in more energy consumption, driven by the cheap, long distance commute.

Simply swapping out old inefficient engines for new efficient ones does nothing to address this last problem and in fact exacerbates it, or at least maintains it.  It does not encourage density of development and contraction of suburban sprawl; it does not encourage taking cars off the road by providing optimum conditions for transit and rail, or provide short enough commute distances to allow for biking and pedestrian commuting; and it results in continuing to dedicate enormous amounts of money to road building and maintenance.  Remember, it is the weight and number of cars that wears down and congests our infrastructure system, not their mileage rating.

I doubt one would be any happier stewing in a 30-minute traffic jam in a Prius than I would in my Dodge Caravan, though the Prius owner would be paying a little less for the privilege.

This, in brief, is why RIDE Solutions is more interested in the (admittedly more difficult) realm of behavior change and transportation mode rather than new technologies.  It is, first of all, fairly easy to adopt; carpooling, biking, transit, telework, almost everybody in the region has some access to these modes for at least some period during the week, and rather than requiring a significant financial investment any of these modes will almost instantly save you money.  More importantly for the long term, though, RIDE Solutions (and organizations and advocates like it) sees the biggest gains from addressing transportation energy from the demand side.  Keep the car on the road and make it more efficient and you’ve only addressed one aspect of transportation energy.  Take cars off the road, however, and the energy savings multiply across the system in numerous ways:  no consumption from the vehicle taken off the road, less consumption from the remaining vehicles who can move more efficiently with less congestion, less wear-and-tear on the roads, and so forth.

So, yes, if you absolutely, positively, without-a-doubt have to drive, drive a hybrid or a Tesla or whatever you can get your hands on.  In the meantime, if you’re concerned about energy (and your pocketbook), hopping in a carpool or onto your bike a day or two a week will have a much broader impact, and save you a lot more money, than that Prius.