Joseph Romm has made a number of very good points in his new Salon piece (and accompanying Gristmill post) on the problem of peak oil. He is, in my view, quite correct that oil prices will continue to increase based on supply and demand fundamentals. He is right that alternative oil source development would be a monumental mistake, and that biofuels are unlikely to be much help either. And I’d like to strongly associate myself with his statement that a solution to the climate problem is also a solution to the peak oil problem.

But I strongly disagree with him when he writes,

We have the two primary solutions to peak oil at hand: fuel efficiency and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles run on zero-carbon electricity.

It is entirely unreasonable to believe that automobiles will not remain a key part of the nation’s transportation system for the foreseeable future, and so there are good reasons to support policies encouraging fuel efficiency and plug-in technologies. At the same time, our best hope for near-term reductions in emissions is a significant increase in transit investment.

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An obvious advantage to transit is that it doesn’t require the development of new technologies (although new rail technologies are constantly being developed). Old trains running on old systems in places like New York, Boston, and Washington are reducing per capita emissions and oil consumption this very moment. Most transit systems are electrified, suggesting that as the grid gets cleaner, so too will transit. And there is massive latent demand for new transit construction. All that’s required to jump-start investment is a shift in federal funding priorities. A 25 percent reduction in federal highway spending would clear the way for a tenfold increase in annual federal transit spending — sufficient to produce a sea change in the way cities build their transportation networks.

Commitment to transit is also key because it solves problems that automobile efficiency and electrification do not; namely, epidemic congestion and poor land use. We can’t afford to ignore either. As a nation, we lose $80 billion a year in household and business wealth due to congestion — a financial resource that could be spent enriching our lives or solving other problems. The addition of hybrid or electric vehicles to automobile fleets will do nothing to slow the growth in this figure. Hybrids contribute to traffic jams, in which dirtier cars sit alongside clean ones, idling away, wasting fuel, and spewing carbon.

By reducing the price incentive to conserve fuel, hybrids and plug-ins will generate an incentive to increase vehicle miles traveled. This increase may not entirely erase efficiency gains, but it will be counterproductive in other ways. Sprawl makes it more difficult to walk and bicycle between destinations, and it reduces the utility of transit — all better options for the environment. Sprawl is also associated with an increase in house size, and therefore in the energy required to heat and cool homes. And there is the environmental loss associated with greenfield development to consider.

This stands in stark contrast to experiences with new transit lines and systems. Transit-oriented development has given rise to walkable communities, boosted property values and tax bases, reduced trips and per capita emissions, and insulated residents from increases in congestion and the price of gas. The demand for transit has not nearly been sated, and increases in driving costs will continue to make public transportation an attractive solution for most American cities.

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Obviously, transit won’t work for all cities or for every neighborhood. We have been sprawling for over half a century now, and that has placed millions of Americans in environments insufficiently dense to support public transportation. But as people like Brookings Institution scholar Christopher Leinberger have pointed out, premiums on home and office rents in walkable areas indicate that the market would like to see more density in neighborhoods and a transportation system fit to accommodate that density.

We should give the market what it wants. Transit investments help to solve several problems at a stroke — not just the climate problem and the peak oil problem, but also the congestion problem and the sprawl problem. This is no fantasy. Right now, despite a federal government hostile to transit investment, cities like Dallas and Charlotte are developing public transportation systems. Despite government funding that heavily favors highways, Los Angeles is busy expanding its transit systems. New plans are being developed in Albuquerque, Atlanta, Detroit, Norfolk, Phoenix, and Raleigh, among many others. I hope that within a few decades we will have rolled over the nation’s entire vehicle fleet to all electric automobiles. In the meantime, we should help local governments deliver alternatives right now, by clearing the way for construction of new transit capacity.

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