Energy prices will force a reevaluation of how much elbow room we really need
The Ashland Daily Tidings has an interesting (though brief) article exploring what exactly might happen in their corner of southern Oregon if oil prices keep going up. It’s good to see people thinking more about this. Not just because it will help people prepare for the adjustments needed should oil become progressively dearer — but also because it might help shift people’s thinking about what kinds of transitions might be possible, even desirable, even if oil prices flatten out or decline.
But I do think a word of caution is in order — if energy prices do continue to trend upwards, we’re going to have to take a cold and steely-eyed look at our proposed solutions to help people cope. Some of them, however well-intentioned, just might not cut it.
Note, for instance, this comment by a environmentally inclined local leader in Ashland, who thinks mass transit would be a great solution for high energy costs in rural areas:
"We [already] have a free bus service, but it doesn’t get you to where you want to go,” he said, noting that it is inconvenient to commute between Ashland and other area towns and that the bus only runs along the main transportation lines.
Most mass transit is based on high-density use, he said. But what Ashland really needs is low density use, he added. He said a system of vans that operate like airport shuttle buses could be the answer.
“Imagine a bunch of little vans zipping around town taking you where you want to go door to door,” he said. “It would be great in our town. The whole key would be a computerized dispatch system” that would alert drivers as to where someone needed to be picked up.
Sounds nice, no? Instead of driving a car, you just call a van that picks you up at your home and takes you straight to your destination — and call another one when you need to go home. Convenient? Yes. Costly? Almost certainly — especially if you have to pay drivers, which is one of the major costs even in dense urban areas. Energy-efficient? Not so much, I’d wager, for reasons that should be fairly obvious.
The problem is that it’s really, really hard to provide cost-effective, energy-efficient transit service to a population that’s spread out over the landscape. I can conceive of energy-efficient transit between densely populated villages dotting a rural landscape. (Old European farming towns come to mind.) But as a general rule, the more elbow room people have around their homes, the farther they have to travel to get to everyday destinations; and the farther they have to travel, the more energy they use to do so.
My point: High energy prices might do more than force a reconception of how we get from place to place; it may force us to redesign our places. And — especially for those of us accustomed to both to the solitude of the country and the amenities of the city — a steady rise in energy costs could force a reevaluation of whether we really need so much elbow room.