EDK writes on Forbes about the changes we’re going to need to make for a better environment and to deal with Peak Oil.

The car culture we’ve cultivated since Eisenhower’s highway project won’t survive when gas prices get too high, and even the electric car requires power generation, which requires coal.

It’s not likely that solar and wind can power the vehicles of the future unless those vehicles drive a lot less. Alternative modes of transportation, such as rail, are a key ingredient.

Redesigning our cities to be more dense, walkable, and green will be another key. And the political forces arrayed against solar quite literally pale in comparison compared to the thicket of political resistance to improving zoning laws, increasing dense urban development, and putting an end to the suburban model of city planning.

I have to confess that I do have a little bit of a knee-jerk reaction to proclamations that the solution to a pressing problem (or more than one) are to redesign a society in a way that we would prefer society be redesigned even without the pressing problem(s). There seems to be an astonishing correlation between those who believe (a) suburbs are culturally dreadful places and (b) they will just have to change their ways because of such-and-such problem.

In a previous piece, I asked what if suburbanism and increased oil prices are not incompatible? Because they might not be. Granted, our current car culture is environmentally wasteful and may indeed be unsustainable. But this treats the question as an either-or. We can still be reliant primarily on automobiles and still consume a lot less resources than we presently do.

The issue with the car culture is not entirely one of a lack of density and public transportation. People can choose to live closer to their jobs, for instance, and still drive. Decisions within the car culture are presently being made with comparatively inexpensive gas in mind. As gas prices go up, people may start making different decisions. Those decisions may be something other than holing up in a condo or row-house less than half the size of their current abode.

The last three places we’ve lived have all been chosen specifically to be near my wife’s work. Walking distance, really. But she drives. And if gas were $20 a gallon? She’d still drive. Walking takes too long and biking isn’t an option for much of the year due to ice (at her previous jobs, ice wasn’t an issue but personal safety was). And $20 a gallon doesn’t add up all that quickly when you’re refilling your tank once every couple of months.

My commutes have, historically, been much longer. If gas had been $20 a gallon, that would have factored pretty heavily into my decision to work. I might have been more eagle-eyed towards finding work near me, but more density wouldn’t have been all that favorable to me seeing as how I worked and lived in different towns. For three straight jobs, I did this.

A lot of long (and therefore gas-eating) commutes are not the subject of the typical suburb-to-city (which is to say, sprawling-to-dense) situations. And when you can live within a few miles of your work, you can afford some pretty expensive gas. And, if we run out of gas, electrically powered cars fueled by other fossil fuels, nuclear, solar, or whatever.

When we talk about the things that make our day-to-day cost of living, one of the big ones is real estate. Sprawl, for all of its faults, can help keep real estate prices down. Maybe you can ease housing costs in the dense areas cheaper with ever-more and ever-higher construction, but I still maintain that there is a really strong chance that the price tensions will result in less density as jobs relocate and satellite offices are opened up in places more near where people actually live. And rather than a thousand corner markets opening up, people may instead make monthly trips to Walmart where they can get everything in a single trip.

In conclusion, tough decisions are going to need to be made. A world in which people have to live closer to their work would result in sacrifices. But those sacrifices are not necessarily the ones that urbanites are expecting or hoping for.

-{Originally posted on NaPP}-


Category: Downtown

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5 Responses to A Modified Car Culture

  1. web says:

    My concessions to car culture:

    – I live within 10 miles of work (best place I could find that was decent house, close-ish to work, and not in a damn war zone).

    – I try to carpool. But that only works if others from your work live near. And more importantly, if you can get to places quick enough not to ruin your evening on the carpool.

    My problems with “redesigning society”:

    – I don’t always know, leaving the house in the morning, where I will go after work. I might go home or might not.

    – The things I like to do are generally (a) not in the direction of home and (b) much further away than my workplace.

    – Public transport in Colosse (and generally, the culture of the area) is complete shit. As in, what it takes me 20 minutes to drive to, would take 2 hours and 3 bus transfers to reach. IF I had a way to take a bus to/from work in 20 minutes each way, that might be do-able… but even being 10 miles from SoTech, the Colosse and State road commissions are so effing stupid that the major highway I take to get home doesn’t even have a damn frontage road.

  2. trumwill says:

    Well, the urbanites would have it so that places like Colosse cease to exist, at least in their current form. It would be retrofitted with a more robust public transportation system and such, so a lot of the reasons you drive would theoretically be negated. Have a hard time imagining Colosse being so retrofitted? I know I do. In fact, that’s been true of everywhere I have lived. There’s not enough A-to-B travel, as you point out. It’s A-Z, or AAA to ZZZ. The cities were meant for driving. And more people live in those cities than live in Manhattan.

    As far as frontage roads go, though, that’s an area where Colosse does really well. I’ve learned since leaving that the kind of frontage road infrastructure Colosse has greatly exceeds other places, where I missed turn can mean a 5 or 10 mile round trip.

  3. SFG says:

    America’s more spread out than Europe. Much as I wish there were more Manhattans out there, it doesn’t make sense given US geography.

    As I recall, one of Ike’s reasons for trying to spread the country out was to protect against nuclear war. Drop a nuke on London and you’ve pretty much knocked out much of the English power structure and maybe a third of the country. Drop a nuke on NYC or DC and you’ve still got 290 million Americans who now want to kill you.

  4. stone says:

    Anyone with the anti-car philosophy, I curse with the following Curse of Tone:

    “You must live, work, and seek allies and mates in a population rife with the bottom 20 percent of society, with no “filters” available to give you secret little links to the top 20 percent from which you probably come.”

    Walkable, my sweet patoot. That’s only good around Cambridge or the Microsoft campus, or some other little boho trustafarian community. Most of us need cars to protect us from the rifraff.

  5. trumwill says:

    That was Ike’s ostensible reason for the freeway system, though arguably it was mostly because in the 1950’s it was easier to say “We should spend all of this money for our national defense” than virtually any other reason.

    Cambridge actually just came up in another conversation with regard to car-culture and parking.

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