Grasshoppers and Cars

“Growth, growth, growth – that’s all we’ve known … World automobile production is doubling every 10 years; human population growth is like nothing that has happened in all of geologic history. The world will only tolerate so many doublings of anything – whether it’s power plants or grasshoppers.” -- M. King Hubbert, 1975.

In “Va. Needs straight talk on roads,” Ronald W. Kosh of AAA posits these data: “In the 1990’s, Virginia’s population grew by 11 percent …, but the number of cars on the road increased by 22 percent. Even more problematic, the number of vehicle miles traveled rose by 32 percent.” These astonishing numbers deserve our most strident attention. Mr. Kosh has evidentially given them much consideration, as he concludes we must “immediately devote the resources needed to expand and improve Virginia’s highways.”

While the data may be indisputable, methinks an alternative conclusion might be more in order.

The recent history of our nation’s transportation patterns, say over the last fifty years, have emphasized automobile travel to the near-total exclusion of other means. For almost any trip; to the store for some beer, to Kevin’s soccer practice or Sally’s dance lesson, to Tom’s Kiwanis meeting, or to see Grandma Betty in Richmond, chances are good you need your car to go there. Transportation has always driven the design of communities. Today’s highway network, combined with a seemingly endless supply of affordable fuel, has transformed our communities from tightly-packed, pedestrian-friendly cities to endless sprawl development. Cars dominate our lives in significant ways and virtually no construction, either residential or commercial, is done without addressing the needs of cars ahead of people.

Today’s suburban development, according to social critic William Howard Kunstler, represents “the greatest misallocation of resources in human history.” The cruel irony today is the quiet we sought in the suburbs ended when everyone moved there. The convenience of drive-through food and banking is negated by overwhelming traffic. Have you ever wondered why that new highway never seemed to solve any traffic congestion problems? It’s because it quickly spawned new development to take advantage of the excess capacity. Succinctly, we have a transportation problem not because we have too few highways but because we have too many cars.

Our automobile fixation has had extensive negative impacts on us. Hundreds of millions of cars pollute our air, foul our streams, contribute to Global Warming, and prevent us from getting the daily exercise we need leading to an epidemic of obesity. We willingly pave over millions of acres of prime land for highways and parking lots, yielding endless frustration and rage in communities we hate. But worst of all, we imperil our national security by overdependence upon oil, a resource we cannot control.

Almost thirty years ago, facing a nation reeling from recession brought about by the OPEC oil embargo, President Jimmy Carter urged us to wage the “moral equivalent of war,” to secure our energy independence. “Beginning this moment,” Carter said, “our nation will never use more foreign oil than we did in 1977 – never. From now on, every new addition to our demand for energy will be met from our own production and our own conservation.”

So much for that. In those days, roughly 30% of our petroleum came from foreign sources. Today, the number approaches 60% and it’s still growing. To what lengths our nation will go in its quest to satisfy this addiction should terrify us all.

As with power plants and grasshoppers, the world will not tolerate our current megagrowth of automobiles. We are entering a period when, due to peaking international supplies of petroleum, our automobile fleet will by choice or by the hand of nature, begin to diminish. Gasoline is destined to rise in price inexorably and dramatically over the coming years. Every dollar spent on new roads will prove to be wasted. It may be politically untenable to say so, but traveling down the same road of yore is an economic and environmental dead end. Our best hope for a mobile future is a rapid, radical reallocation of transportation resources towards more diverse and efficient mix of transit, rail, bicycling, and walking. These will re-localize and magnetize our communities, bringing new development to population centers rather than in the farms and forests at the perimeter as in our current paradigm.

Incidentally, this essay’s prelude was penned by M. King Hubbert, famed for proposing what is now known as “Hubbert’s Peak,” the mathematical postulation of oil production. According to Hubbert, oil, like any fixed resource, will yield production numbers plotted to resemble the famous statistical bell-shaped curve, with a rise, a peak, and a decline. Hubbert is deceased, but many experts continue his work and predict the international peak year is nigh. On the terrible, interminable downhill slope, we’ll wish we’d invested more in efficient options.