Fuelling a Revolution

Fuelling a Revolution

In "Transport Revolutions: Moving People and Freight Without Oil," Richard Gilbert and Anthony Perl outline what life will be like as we turn away from oil.

With a climate-change crisis and depleting oil reserves, the world is facing a period of great uncertainty and potential upheaval.

As scary as that sounds, for North Americans, the end result could be happier, healthier towns and cities.

Two Canadian experts have sketched a scenario for the future that is riveting, one that politicians and urban planners have yet to candidly discuss.

In Transport Revolutions: Moving People and Freight without Oil (Earthscan, 2008), the authors outline what life will be like as the planet moves to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and turns away from oil as world reserves begin to decline when “peak oil” occurs in 2012, or thereabouts.

Richard Gilbert and Anthony Perl, both urban planners and academics, contend that conventional automobiles are on the way out. Their demise will be part of a transportation revolution as significant as the one that occurred when society turned from horse-drawn carriages and big sailing ships.

Oil-Free Energy

Transportation currently is fuelled almost entirely by petroleum-fed internal combustion engines. Such engines are the driving force behind freight transport and most of public transit, as well as cars.

With oil being depleted, transit options clearly have to change.

Still-plentiful coal is not a viable alternative to oil because of concern about greenhouse gases (coal is the fossil fuel with the highest uncontrolled CO2 emission rate).

A shift will have to be made toward electrically fuelled transit modes with power generated by renewable sources such as hydro, geothermal, photovoltaic, wind, tidal, and solar.

Let the Conflicts Begin

Gilbert, who lives in Toronto, and Perl, in Vancouver, outline a transition they say will take place roughly from 2010 to 2025.

It had better happen soon, they warn, noting that “a lack of preparation and difficulty in keeping modern mobility functioning during oil depletion could trigger massive social unrest, economic decline, and international conflict.”

At present North Americans are addicted to their cars. In Toronto 79 percent of people drive (for work and other reasons), 15 percent take public transit, and 6 percent cycle or walk. In Chicago 88 percent drive, 6 percent use transit, and 6 percent walk or cycle. Over the next few decades people could find themselves and their freight moving quite differently.

The Power of Electricity

Within communities, electrically fuelled transit vehicles are likely to dominate: trolley car, light rail, conventional subway systems, and what Gilbert and Perl call PRTs (personal rapid transport systems).

PRTs would feature a new type of vehicle, with room for between one and six passengers, that will move along a dedicated transportation corridor, connected overhead to electrical wires. These “e-cars” would provide “direct origin to destination service on demand.” For cargo, the authors envision deployment of solar-powered airships, water-based transit using wind power, and electric rail cars and trucks.

Aviation would be far pricier and thus more limited than today, restricted to larger, more fuel-efficient aircraft travelling on fewer, higher-volume routes.

All of this suggests a huge transformation in our urban environment.

Cleaner, Quieter, Friendlier

Can you imagine how deliciously quiet communities will be without the sputter and revving of vehicle engines? Without the honking and other noise associated with what we’ve come to know as traffic? Noise, note the authors, has been linkedto sleep loss, high blood pressure, and heart disease.

Air pollution will decrease. Levels of carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, particulate matter, sulphur dioxide, and volatile organic compounds comprising a pollution stew that people have lived with for decades will be no more. Cars also have been a big contributor to a depleted ozone layer.

People can look forward to less water pollution from oil spills at sea and less runoff from highways containing road salt and other pollutants.

Think of all the fragmentation and destruction of natural habitat and soil erosion that has resulted from North American highway infrastructure.

The use of electrical grids for transport could result in fewer road accidents, deaths, and injuries.

Urban sprawl that has flowed from expansion of auto use is likely to be curtailed. Communities will become denser, and possibly, feelings of isolation and societal alienation will diminish.

Citing a 2001 US study, the authors note that “the strength of the social bonds of adults in a neighbourhood varies inversely with the extent of the residents’ car dependence.” Urban communities designed around pedestrians are someof the most appealing places in the US,say the authors, pointing to Beacon Hillin Boston and Greenwich Village inNew York.

US Sun Belt cities that were built around the car, such as Houston and Atlanta, will have a harder time adjusting than older, Rust Belt cities such as Pittsburgh and Detroit.

Gilbert and Perl predict a population migration in North America from new areas of settlement to older places.

Phasing Out Commutes

If air travel becomes a luxury and cars are phased out, chances are individuals will be more reluctant to leave family and friends behind to take faraway jobs–which could be healthy.

Slower modes of travel will be used more often, but people will be trading speed for comfort, Gilbert and Perl posit. No more airport hassles. New long-distance transit modes will almost surely offer such amenities as Internet hookups and stylish onboard eateries.

While the dislocation will be enormous and the adjustment difficult, in the long run there will be positive spinoffs, the two urban gurus predict.

In the short term, people need tostart recognizing and accepting the enormous overhaul coming in their transportation networks.

Governments had best stop embarking on “boondoggles” such as Heathrow Airport’s new Terminal 5 or highway and port expansions similar to the Pacific Gateway Strategy in British Columbia.

“The logic,” they write in their book, “is that of no longer digging once the determination to get out of a hole has been reached.”

The Future is Now

Early in 2008, Israel’s government endorsed a plan by a private entrepreneur for the world’s first electric car network, by 2011. Renault-Nissan will provide the electric cars and the government will provide tax incentives for Israelis to hop aboard. The plan was hatched by Shai Agassi,a 39-year-old Israeli-American techie.

A private company will operate a recharging grid across the state to keep lithium-ion batteries goingand going.

Israel is considered an ideal testing ground for the electric transit experiment because it has high fuel prices at $1.70/litre, dense population centres, short commuting distances to anywhere in the country, and a supportive government.

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