Apocalypse? Now?

While the I-40 shutdown hasn't caused chaos, it does raise questions over the freeway's necessity

With few exceptions, the long-anticipated 12-month shutdown of I-40 through the middle of downtown kicked off last week with more whimper than bang. A simple malfunctioning signal caused the most noticeable backup after the closing. The loudest complaints, so far, have been from the folks who live within earshot of the construction site, not commuters sitting in traffic. And the biggest story of the shutdown has been the surprising lack of one—a serious embarrassment for WBIR, who borrowed a chopper from an Atlanta station to better cover the epic chaos everyone predicted.

Almost everyone, that is. When TDOT first started formalizing plans for reworking the center-city's aging chunk of I-40 a few years back, a small cabal of downtown and Fourth and Gill residents suggested it would be better to do away with the damn thing altogether. I scoffed, I have to admit. No matter how much I might wish the freeway gone, there was no way Knoxvillians would give up 40 years of ingrained driving habits overnight. Or so I thought, until I saw the SkyCam footage of traffic streaming along I-640, smooth as ever.

TDOT never seriously considered the alternative of not rebuilding the road, or even reducing it down to an at-grade boulevard. Such drastic steps were predestined to be too radical for an agency so tight with the state's powerful road builder's lobby and dependent upon dedicated gas-tax revenue. Still, the state agency everyone loves to hate did put an unprecedented amount of thought into alternate routes and providing advance notice to the public, so TDOT does deserve some credit for averting a traffic snarl of apocalyptic proportions.

Diehard doomsayers needn't be discouraged, though. SmartFix's true test won't come until football season. In the interim, take your pick from the plethora of apocalypses competing for the public's attention: everything from climate change and killer asteroids to pandemics and peak oil.

Predicated on the theory that worldwide oil production is currently at or past its all-time high, peak oil is why urban snobs such as myself get an odd thrill every time we putter by the corner convenience store in the Prius and notice that gas prices have nudged higher yet again. What price point, we wonder, will finally drive a stake in suburbia's heart? $4.00? $5.00?

Peak oil's appeal, like a lot of apocalyptic fantasies, is that its pain and punishment will supposedly strike the wicked, not the true believer. Living in a loft, shopping at the Farmer's Market, and boring everyone to death with long-winded stories about how little we drive, it's not our problem if some schmuck out in Farragut has to shell out over a hundred bucks just to fill up his Hummer. That suburbia's death spiral would probably drag the entire economy, the nation, and perhaps even the world down with it, we try not to think about that.

Such is the setting of James Howard Kunstler's new novel World Made By Hand, however. Self-described curmudgeon and sometime prophet of New Urbanism, Kunstler spoke last year at UT about what he sees as America's coming "Post-Oil Future." The book is that thesis breathed to life, taking place in an unspecified but relatively short time after society's overall collapse from causes attributed primarily to peak oil (although even Kunstler resorts to a couple of terrorist nukes to nudge things over the cliff). Set in a small town in upstate New York where life has contracted back to a largely local level, electricity is intermittent, pharmaceuticals almost nonexistent, and subsistence farming the primary occupation. Yet, so far, there's no Mad Max anarchy and the world remains oddly recognizable. It's been strange to read it this week against the backdrop of I-40's shutdown. Combined, the two have made me wonder which might be more shocking: the end of the automobile or how we manage to get along without it. m

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