Freedom From Cars

Ike's price spike foretells a world beyond Eisenhower's interstates

Last week's gas-price spike was a glimpse at the future. After Katrina, gas sold at $3.50 per gallon until the supply chain was restored. The price settled back toward $2.50, but earlier this year Katrina's prediction came true. How long until $5 per gallon gas is normal?

The Transportation Planning Organization is updating their long-term plan for the Knoxville region, and they have to think about such eventualities. Their planning horizon is 2035. Gas prices will be far above $5/gallon by then. Untapped oil reserves in the U.S. would last 38 years at today's consumption rate, a decade beyond TPO's horizon. We can buy oil from other countries, of course, but the global supply might last a century, not even that if consumption continues to accelerate. It is needlessly fatalistic to say oil is going to run out, but it will get steadily more expensive. Looking ahead a couple decades, you have to assume gas prices will put a crimp in our one-car-per-person way of life.

Owning a car has become so wrapped up in our notion of personal freedom that some people react to the idea of life without a car like they are being asked to surrender an eyeball. In our older cities— Boston, New York, San Francisco—the opposite is true. Owning a car is a perpetual headache of parking and battling traffic, and public transportation is liberation. Those places had subways and trolleys before the automobile age, and their public transportation systems are effective and well-used.

Knoxville can barely support a small fleet of buses because the system is too limited for many people's needs. KAT would love to run buses more often and broaden coverage, but first they need adequate ridership to justify expansion. It's a catch-22. This old city once had trolleys, and passenger trains went in and out of the city daily from Maryville, Morristown, Clinton and beyond. UT students in the 1950s rode to campus on trains, and they never missed them because you could hear the whistles from miles away as trains approached. The track is still there, but only freight trains run.

A 30-year planning document drafted in 1950 would not have envisioned interstate highways and two-income, two-car homes. Instead, it would have included modest road improvements and rail spurs. A 30-year plan drafted in 1970 might have had us in jet packs by now. Transportation in 2035 will probably look more like 1935 than The Jetsons, but with efficient engines instead of coal-belching beasts. Over the next three decades, transportation in the U.S. will start to look more like it does everywhere else in the world, with car ownership a luxury, not a necessity, and routine travel a combination of short walks and shared rides. Americans will still own cars; we are wealthy enough, but more families will have just one car. More trips will start by walking down the street instead of backing out of the garage.

In the future, trips to the grocery store will be on bike paths along naturalized streams and creeks. You can get to know the wrens and cardinals along the way, and your children will promise to carry the sack of flour back if you let them walk with you.

The Internet makes sharing and cooperation easy, and carpooling to school and soccer may evolve into hyper-local taxi services. The same software that schedules cross-country plane trips and inventory routing could get you across the county by just-in-time van service. Destinations from Ijams to Neyland Stadium could soon be coordinating transportation networks for their visitors.

Over the next three decades, regional transportation investment needs to transition away from road building and toward coordination and connectivity. Our road infrastructure is adequate to overbuilt, so construction contracts will need to shift toward maintenance, environmental upgrades and development of greenways, bike paths, and rail. Stare into $5 gallons for a glimpse at liberation.