commentary (2006-09)

But not to oil: to driving

Addicts All Around Us

by Matt Edens

We are, in case you haven’t heard, a nation “addicted to oil.” The pronouncement, like most the president utters, missed the mark somewhat. We don’t crave filling our gas tanks any more than a junkie craves sticking a needle in his arm. It’s the buzz the addict is after, the high, the exhilaration—whether it comes from heroin, or from motoring down the highway on a sunny spring morning with the windows down, your hair blowing in the breeze and your favorite song blaring from the radio.

Driving, not oil, is our addiction. And, like most long-term addicts, what started out as a novel thrill has increasingly become a grinding routine—as anyone who has endured the gridlock of I-40’s endless construction can attest. For most of us, driving is not so much a matter of enjoyment as a simple matter of necessity. Far beyond the dreaded daily commute to the office, we’ve arranged our entire lives, even our entire world around our addiction. The most mundane trips in our day, to the post office, the bank or to buy a loaf of bread at the store, involve, for most of us, getting in a motorized vehicle of some sort.

“The best way to break this addiction,” according to the president, “is through technology.” We must, in his mind, “change how we power our automobiles.” A fairly bold statement, coming from a man who has made millions in the oil business, but one that still misses the point. Changing how we “power our automobiles” won’t end our addiction. Like a heroin addict “cured” by methadone, whether our cars run on hydrogen, ethanol or flubber, we’ll still be addicts, we’ll simply quell the cravings with an alternative substance. And even setting aside the fact that, at the moment, most alternative fuels are net energy-losers that require more energy to process than they produce in the end, such fuels will do little to free us of the more, uh, concrete costs of our addiction. TDOT’s annual budget alone runs a whopping one and a half billion dollars, most of it spent on its massive construction program, with such expenditures as the $131 million project to widen I-40 through downtown or the $226 million projected for the Orange Route beltway.

So rather than pouring untold millions into changing how we power our automobiles, perhaps Americans ought to consider the simpler solution of parking them more often. The technology is readily attainable. In fact, it’s timeless. Man has been living in walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods for most of his existence (although modern technology has done wonders with such things as sanitation

That doesn’t necessarily mean the solution will be cheap, though. Already many of America’s most desirable, dense and walkable neighborhoods are among its most expensive. That’s true even in Knoxville, where downtown condos now command prices per square foot that are comparable to Sequoyah Hills, or two-bedroom, one-bath cottages in Fourth and Gill regularly sell for six-figures. Density has even become desirable in the ’burbs, if the high prices and high interest generated by homes in the new Northshore Town Center are any indication.

Conservative commentators tend to cite such high costs as shortcomings, decrying density as elitist and downright un-American. Urban critic Joel Kotkin, for instance, refers to expensive urban centers such as New York and San Francisco as “Euro-America,” and scoffs at such cities’ embrace of “continental norms in attitude, politics and lifestyle.” And, in an interesting convergence, many progressive commentators attack gentrification and New Urbanism alike as elitist and even racist. Rather than too bohemian, both trends are too bourgeois for some progressive tastes. Why just the other day in UT’s Daily Beacon , a letter to the editor decried the South Knoxville waterfront plan as “class warfare…to make way for a bunch of yuppies.”

Personally, I find our recent rediscovery of the desirability of density promising. And I suspect elitism has little to do with it. Rather I think it is an early sign that the market, maybe even America, is already making adjustments to the inevitable outcome of our driving addiction.