Reengineering Our Community For People, Not Cars

It’s all in the engineering.

There are few hot political topics these days that almost everyone can agree on. But let’s venture this: our nation, the community of man, and the planet would all benefit if we could find a way to reduce our gluttonous consumption of petroleum. We are by far the largest worldwide consumer, but only a bit player as a producer (“Producer” itself is a misnomer: petroleum is extracted, not produced.). The Gulf War, the war in Afghanistan, and countless other conflicts have been rooted in this disparity. The strength of this nation lies not in its military but in its economy. Both are fueled and lubricated, both literally and figuratively, by petroleum. When, not if, the taps tighten, we’re in trouble. How shall we wean ourselves?

The problem is, our society has been conditioned emotionally and economically to the notion that consumption of oil and prosperity are linked, hand-in-glove. If we can at least stretch the tendrils of this link, we stand a chance.

Since transportation is the greatest consumer of oil, that’s the obvious place to start. Humans have historically had the need to move themselves and the stuff of their everyday lives from place to place; from rural areas to towns to major cities and back. The choices made in the modes of doing that are based upon individual and collective (governmental) decisions in travel options. The foundation of this essay is that transportation decisions define the structure of development, not vice versa, and determine how consumptive we are.

Any armchair historian can trace America’s development from a scarcely populated wilderness to today’s bustling nation by the growth of commerce nodes coincident with the prevailing transportation option of the day. When river travel ruled, Fall-line cities like Richmond gained prominence. With the railroads, cities like Roanoke and Bluefield became overnight sensations. Today we have an automobile based transportation monoculture, spawned by Henry Ford’s assembly line, accelerated by the availability of cheap oil after World War II, and given its greatest boost by the Eisenhower era decision to lace the nation with Interstate highways. Americans and our goods, with few exceptions, move by car, bus, and truck over our highways.

Traffic abhors a vacuum. The undeniable truth in this statement manifests itself in ways more subtle than Connie commuter finding that the just completed road will take her to work five minutes faster than the old one. Patterns of urban and suburban development graphically illustrate how each new road built spawned more traffic in a cyclical, self-fulfilling way. Alex Marshall in his important book, How Cities Work, illustrates how, as the amount of insulation engineered into a new building dictates how much energy it will take to heat or cool it, so does our transportation engineering dictate how much energy it will take to move people and goods. Highways are development de-magnetizers, fostering -- almost forcing -- dispersed growth. Unprecedented mobility allows people to live, work, school, and shop at great distances. Commercial development today follows by being auto-centric. Since highways poison the communities they bifurcate, people are further encouraged to leave. This is the model of an Atlanta or a Nashville, with endless highways and sprawl and depleted downtowns. The irony, as discovered by people who live in such cities, is that the highways can never be built rapidly enough to outpace the need, not merely because they can’t afford them, nor because they no longer have convenient places left to put them, but because highways create their own need!

Conversely, other means of transportation such as high-speed rail, light-rail, bicycling, and walking, are development magnets, creating tighter commercial spaces at hubs. Cities that honor these as legitimate transportation options have bustling downtowns, reduced sprawl, and reduced per-capita energy consumption. Many Americans are astounded by the vitality, charm, and character of European cities, which actively discourage automobile use in favor of walking, bicycling, and transit. Here, even the most determined, most well intentioned traveler has few options.

Humans are adaptable creatures and will use the options that fit their needs. In the last 50 years in most of America, alternatives have not been given the opportunity to be competitive and thus successful. The solution to every transportation problem has been either a new superhighway or expanding of an existing one: witness VDOT’s zeal to keep Interstate 73 and the widening of Interstate 81 on track despite their unfathomable costs and a dearth of funds. Doing so in the name of “economic development” is a fallacy, as highways do not enhance the economy; they merely redirect it.

With the combined strength of the highway, petroleum, automotive, and trucking industries, it is easy to see why this path has been taken for so long. It has only worked as well as it has (at least for those in our society affluent and physically capable enough to own a car) because of the availability of an endless supply of affordable oil. It is unconscionable to heavily subsidize the highway industry while requiring that Amtrak, our national railroad, be self-sufficient.

The time for a new direction is now. Need we remind ourselves that the September 11th terrorists were from the oil producing nations of Arabia; one of the world’s most politically unstable and unfriendly places. At what peril will we continue our access to it?

The solution is clear: we must immediately re-direct our transportation resources to a more balanced system of options. We must stop building highways now; not tomorrow, not after we finish your road. We must raise the price of gasoline to worldwide standards to allow more efficient options to become more competitive. And we must break the emotional bond between energy consumption and prosperity. Real prosperity lies in real security; the future belongs to the efficient.