Road Scholar Dictionary
Troubled Bridges Over Water: time for transportation triage
Federal Highway Laws
Presidents Johnson & Nixon
National Forest Roads
Peak Oil &
The J. Edgar Hoover highway:
by Mark Robinowitz
Road Scholar is an effort to help communities in the United States of America prepare for the end of cheap oil by stopping the rush to massively expand highway networks. Instead, the shift from cheap, abundant oil to expensive, scarce oil means that maintaining existing roads and investing in trains to transport people and goods (trains are far more efficient than personal cars and trucks).
As the world passes the peak of global petroleum production, gasoline prices are likely to increase to the point that traffic demands on roads will be reduced. While it is impossible to accurately predict the price of fossil fuels five, ten, or twenty years in the future, it will be surprising if gasoline is not rationed on the downslope of the Peak Oil curve (either directly by ration cards or indirectly by pricing it out of reach of many who currently consume it). US federal transportation law requires that new federal-aid highway projects consider the traffic demand twenty years in the future -- so the reality of Peak Oil and climate change means that the continent wide rush to build more bypasses, wider bridges, Outer Beltways and NAFTA Superhighways will not be needed.
This website suggests some political and legal strategies to prevent this trillion dollar misallocation of resources so that real solutions can be implemented:
National Vehicle Miles Traveled (VMT) has Peaked
Three dollar a gallon gasoline caused the constant increase in traffic to stop, four dollars a gallon gasoline has precipitated an overall decline in traffic levels.
US Department of Transportation
chart about "Peak Traffic"
national VMTs peaked about two years ago
The Post Carbon Institute is one of the few organizations that has acknowledged Peak Traffic (most environmental groups have avoided this, since few have a focus on Peak Oil).
Oregon state highway VMT data from
1973: dip due to Saudi oil embargo
The current dip is not temporary, it is more like climate change, a permanent shift in the way things work.
Alternative fuels and plug-in hybrids won't stop Peak Traffic
Renewable energy systems are largely focused on generating electricity. Transportation systems are almost entirely based on burning liquid fuels, which are not generated by solar PV power or wind turbines.
A bigger problem is that by the design year of 2030, natural gas supplies from the western US and Alberta are likely to have dropped so low that they will no longer be able to be used to generate electricity -- the remaining gas will be needed to heat buildings, especially in the colder climates where the gas is extracted from. Whatever renewable energy systems are installed between now and then will need to replace the substantial inputs that natural gas has for the western electric power grid at the same time that there is less available energy to manufacture solar panels and wind turbines.
All of the major car companies have developed much more efficient vehicles (Greenpeace, “The Environmental Impact of the Car,” 1992), with many models around 100 mpg. VW even has a small model that is highway rated that gets about 250 mpg -- the VW CEO drove it to their annual stockholder meeting a few years ago. While technological shifts may help mitigate the energy crisis after Peak Oil, it cannot eliminate the problem. There are no factories to make these vehicles. There are no capital investments to fund the conversion of existing factories to make hyper-efficient cars. The existing fleet of vehicles are not going to be instantly eliminated in favor of efficient cars, as the owners have invested heavily in their current models -- someone who bought a $50,000 SUV is not easily going to be able to absorb the loss by purchasing a new car that is more efficient. At best, the investment in more efficient vehicles may slow the decline of VMTs on the Peak Oil downslope -- but it cannot prevent that decline. There is also the problem of substantial use of oil and mineral ores to manufacture new cars, even efficient ones. Carpooling is a more promising short term mitigation than hoping for 100 mpg cars.
Electric cars, even if a hundred million were instantly produced and distributed (in factories that don't exist), could not substitute for food delivery trucks, tractors, freight trains, most Amtrak trains, container ships that bring us cheap crap from Chinese slave labor factories, passenger planes, cargo planes, war planes, petrochemicals for non-transport purposes, fossil fuels used to heat homes and run factories, depleting natural gas used to power part of the electric power grid, oil use at mines and many other uses that show we are not addicted to oil -- we are extremely dependent upon it and the "alternatives" are less concentrated and therefore unable to substitute completely.
Road Scholar has a state-by-state database of freeway fights, both historical efforts (successful or not) and current campaigns. Blocking wasteful, overpriced, destructive highways is one of the most difficult citizen action campaigns, but the experiences of other democratic efforts can help organizations learn from the successes and failures of others.
The NAFTA Superhighway project is a series of north-south interstate highways across the U.S. These new and expanded roads would stretch from Canada through the U.S. to Mexico (excepting certain East Coast routes that would merely connect to ports on the Atlantic or Gulf coasts). The initial proposal for NAFTA Superhighways was in the 1991 "ISTEA" Federal transportation law, but has now expanded in scope to encompass several "superhighways on steroids." These oversized roads would have many car lanes, truck only lanes, parallel freight train lines, passenger train lines and utility corridors (electricity, oil, natural gas, water, etc). The planning for NAFTA Superhighways is predicated on continued cheap and abundant gasoline -- an assumption about to receive sobering reality from the underlying geological limits of petroleum production. NAFTA Superhighways are essentially a key component of further "globalization" of commodity production intended to homogenize local communities and further centralize control over manufacturing.
The End of the Age of Oil
Peak Oil does not mean that civilization is about to run out of oil. Instead, we are near (or at) the point where continued growth of petroleum combustion no longer can be maintained, which will have profound consequences for the global economy that is dependent on exponential growth of nearly everything (especially of money supplies). Energy creates the economy, a physical limitation rarely acknowledged by economists. Peak Oil is also the point where the maximum amount of economic "growth" is reached -- and ideally a turning point where we can decide to use the remaining half of the oil as a bridge toward a more sustainable way of living. It would require enormous energy, money and people power to reorient away from NAFTA Superhighways toward investing in bullet trains, away from dirty fossil fuel technologies toward efficiency and renewable energy systems, away from resource wars and toward global cooperative efforts to reduce our collective impact on the planetary biosphere.
Troubled Bridges Over Water:
The notorious collapse of the I-35W bridge in Minneapolis in 2007 points out the dangers of deferring maintenance in favor of building more and more roads -- a change in priorities is long overdue.
We can choose as a society to either expand the highway system some more (NAFTA Superhighways, more Outer Beltways and bypasses, etc) or focus on making sure that the existing network can be maintained after Peak Oil. Unfortunately, few politicians highlight the need to make AMTRAK a serious transportation system for efficiently moving people. A national priority for quality train service would create a lot of good jobs, reduce energy consumption, and make it more likely that the United States will be able to mitigate the inevitable impacts of the end of the petroleum era.
It is likely that about $1 trillion has been spent to destroy the nation of Iraq (if preparations for the conflict are included), home to the planet's second largest oil reserves. This is more than half of the cost that has been estimated for rebuilding the tens of thousands of deficient highway bridges that are aging and becoming dangerous.
There are several serious - but languishing - proposals for high speed rail in the United States that would be similar to European and Asian networks. Building all of them would probably cost less than the money spent on the War on Iraq.
million [poor] people are invisible because America is so affluent, so
rich; because our expressways carry us away from the ghetto, we don't
see the poor."
Community organizer Byron Kennard, who helped with efforts in the early 1970s to defeat the Super Sonic Transport (SST), wrote in "Nothing Can Be Done, Everything Is Possible," of the strategic benefits of stopping a dangerous technology before it has wreaked havoc, especially if it is peripheral to society.
The SST was defeated by a decentralized network of citizen activists who constantly pestered their elected representatives until they stopped subsidizing this billion-dollar boondoggle.
Highway fighting is difficult - but not impossible. RoadScholar.org documents some of the many successful freeway fights that have stopped dumb roads, and some lessons learned from unsuccessful or partially successful campaigns.
contact info: mark at permatopia dot com
last updated 2008-06-21