In my final column of 2011, “A Year From Now You Will Wish You Had Started Today”, I summarized a number of significant and troubling trends in our energy and food supplies which I believe will dominate global events over the coming decades. Wandering a bit into the political realm (as I do from time to time and will also again today) I also stated my pessimism about the potential leadership from the federal government on preparing for the challenges we face. However, I do believe there are important and effective actions which we can, and should, take locally.
When the Chapel Hill 2020 visioning project was announced I was rather excited and anticipated that I would participate. I have been following the project and applaud and thank all those involved. Bringing people together to share ideas and attempt to come to a consensus for the goals of the town is a noble task and an example of a community functioning a very high level. However, despite my positive feelings about the project I have not actually gotten involved, and I think I know why. While I understand that setting goals for 2020 is important, the types of issues that interest me have longer time horizons. 
Starting this week I am publishing a multi-part series called Chapelboro 2050 in which I discuss what I believe we need to start doing now to be in a position to prosper in 38 years. When, incidentally, I’ll be 84!
This week I am addressing transportation. Generally speaking I think we all know and accept that limitations in the oil supply are going continue to make gasoline and diesel more expensive such that, in the future, we will need to have more trains, buses and bike lanes. However, our words and deeds on this front are woefully lacking in both a sense of urgency and the breath of scope.
From the late 1800’s through 2008 the petroleum market followed the classic sort of supply-and-demand behavior that we all learned about in Economics 101. When demand increased, prices went up, so people built more oil wells, increasing supply, which kept prices in check. However, in 2008, when global oil extraction approached 89 million barrels a day, things changed. Despite the fact that prices reached an all time high of $148 per barrel, supply could no longer be expanded. This lack of oil supply was the fundamental cause of the 2008 global economic meltdown. I know that most new sources cite housing bubbles and the collapse Byzantine deals called credit default swaps, but these were symptoms not causes. Loans on real estate, and secondary mortgage instruments, were given based on the steadfast assumption that economic growth would continue indefinitely.   But, if you can’t grow the oil supply you can’t grow the economy.
Since 2008 we have consumed a lot more of the world’s one-time endowment of petroleum. Further we have continued to extract oil at a rate much faster than we have discovered it. The implications of these to phenomena are clear. Global oil supply is never going to be more than ~90 million barrels a day and is soon going to start declining for the first time. Future history books are going to note this peak in petroleum extraction a major milestone in world history. It’s sadly ironic that we are living through this milestone largely without either seeing it, or perhaps, ignoring it. At least of the readers of Common Science are in the know.
Here in Chapelboro, we are generally aware that we need to begin to adapt our lifestyles to accommodate reduced petroleum supply. However, our current pace of action is rather timid seemingly consistent with the view that the price of gallon of gas will slowly drift up from its current level of $3.50 per gallon to perhaps $5.00 per gallon in 2020. I suggest that the price of gas in 2020 will be more like $10 or $12 per gallon and the supply will be significantly diminished. Our car-based infrastructure will be significantly underutilized as these prices. We must take bolder action to reinvent our transportation systems. My recommendations are listed below.
  • We need to rapidly move forward on all fronts for regional trains which should be powered by electricity. Decisions like those being faced by Meadowmont about whether to run the train through population centers or around them should elect for the “through” option. In large part the reticence about moving forward on large public transit projects stems from concern regarding the sustainability of public funds. True political leadership would look at the trends on petroleum and proceed with confidence that funding and public support for regional transit will grow dramatically in coming decades as gas prices quadruple or more.
  • We should power our bus fleet with natural gas. Cars can run on natural gas too, but it would be exceedingly expensive to build the widely distributed network of natural gas compressing stations which would be required to allow long distance car travel. A centralized natural gas dispensing station is a great way to power a fleet of vehicles which stay in a limited geographic area like buses and other municipal service vehicles.  To its great credit, Chapel Hill has made some steps in this direction, but, as I stated above, bolder action is called for.
  • We have to get serious about bike lanes and they need to be designed for commuting and shopping not for recreation. Like many people in Chapel Hill I work in RTP. During the warm months, I bike to work, though this can often be a harrowing experience.   A great way to jumpstart the creation of a true regional bicycling network would be to install bike paths from Chapel Hill to reach the bike lanes along MLK in Durham which interconnect with the American Tobacco Trail and the RTP bike network. 
As your read through these recommendations, you are sure to note that there are already many committed people in our community advocating for and working on these issues. In the local political realm, Ed Harrison has been a sustained and clear voice on these issues. So the question isn’t really what to do or how to do it, but how to get people to support the necessary funding.
I told you up front that I was going to wander into politics, so here we go. Rebuilding our transportation network will require massive public investment which will require substantial tax increases. Nationally, tax increases are a hard sell as a large portion of our citizenry view taxes more as government theft than as our collective investment in our communities. Here in Chapelboro, we are generally open to modest steps to increase public revenues if the benefits are clearly laid out. Here is a bolder option to consider. While Orange County may not have the resources to build a rail system by itself, we can build a network of bike lanes designed for commuting and shopping. Since this is within our control, I suggest that building a bicycling network should be our number one transit priority and that specific, significant, and designated funds are raised for it.
Additional benefits beyond improved transportation infrastructure would accrue. Unemployment in Orange County would be reduced as people are employed in building the network.   A true bicycle network will also attract tourist dollars, since people who bring their bikes with them on vacation are often noted as being among the types of tourist with the greatest disposable incomes. Heck, we might even get more exercise.  I could discuss the details of several potential taxation approaches, but the details don’t matter unless the public supports investments in non-car based transportation systems, and support them wholeheartedly.
I must say that I am not terribly optimistic about near-term action. Groups of people generally have difficulty being proactive.   So even here in Chapelboro I think we will need a significant crisis coupled with inspired political leadership to fundamentally change our transportation paradigm.   Of these two requirements, one is certain to arise, as for the other, we’ll see.
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