Bill Totten's Weblog

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Peak Oil Crisis: Transiting to Transit

by Tom Whipple

Falls Church News-Press (May 08 2008)

With crude oil now above $120 a barrel and threatening to go higher, it is clear that our preferred and convenient means of going places, our car, the airplane and the rental car soon are going to be parked because they will be too expensive to operate.

Like it or not, most of us are going to be riding some form of mass transit or multiple passenger vehicle - trains, buses, trolleys, car pools, van pools, et cetera - while waiting for our cars to be replaced with electric or higher mileage vehicles. As there are currently about 220 million cars and light trucks registered in the US and 700 million or so elsewhere, the replacement process is going to be lengthy one.

In America, our accustomed daily transportation needs are so diverse that it is difficult to foresee how new transportation methods and patterns will come about. For some simply accepting the inconvenience of taking public transit to work or joining a car pool will save enough gasoline each week that much higher prices, shortages and ultimately rationing can be accommodated without undue hardship.

For others whose livelihood depends on a large vehicle that moves frequently throughout the work day there is more of a problem for mass transit as currently configured is unlikely to be of much use. At some point driving around at ten miles per gallon to mow lawns will no longer be economically viable for customers will no longer be willing to pay the fuel surcharges. Someday there probably will be satisfactory electric or ultra high mileage vehicles, but it is likely to be a while before they filter down from better off organizations such UPS, FedEx and the grocery stores to local maintenance contractors.

One day soon, it will simply be too expensive for electricians, plumbers and a myriad of other household service providers to drive fifty or sixty miles in large, inefficient vehicles to perform some relatively minor maintenance task. The very nature of such services will have to change, be localized, and planned so that travel is minimized. Someday, your electrician may arrive on a city bus pulling his tools and parts behind.

The speed with which we have to transition from unlimited, cheap, personal travel to some form of public or at least multiple passenger transport will determine how transit works in the coming decades. If people are priced out of their cars relatively slowly over a period of many years then the transit industry and private entrepreneurs will have time to react. Bus schedules can be stepped up. More vehicles can be added to transit fleets and new routes can be added. Local governments might start or charter small local transit services that can move people and goods to and from their homes to longer-haul transit services.

There may be efficiencies in combining people transport and package delivery on the same vehicle. An empty bus winding around a subdivision all day long might be unaffordable, but if that vehicle were delivering the groceries as well as providing the last leg of package deliveries, the economics even with very high gasoline prices might make sense. The internet and cell phone are likely to be of great value in coordinating efficient use of local transport.

Five dollar gasoline may be enough to force some people to give up steady use of their personal cars and seek other solutions. For others, the quitting price may be ten or twenty dollars per gallon and for the very wealthy even $100 a gallon gasoline ($80 or $100 thousand a year) would be an acceptable price to pay for the convenience of the private car.

In the case of slowly increasing gasoline prices the problem is one of forming a critical mass that will make economic sense for greatly expanded mass transit. Such a critical mass is likely to come for long distance travel first, for as soon as discretionary air travel becomes unaffordable, the demand for better train and bus service will increase rapidly. Long distance automobile travel may fill some of this gap especially for moving multiple passengers or if cars become significantly more efficient, but for the lone traveler, a long distance car trip could become very expensive.

A totally different situation will exist if gasoline prices increase rapidly and permanent shortages develop leading to the imposition of rationing. Such an increase looks likely at the minute, demand simply getting so far ahead of the supply that the US is no longer able to import its accustomed twelve million barrels per day. It would only take a five percent shortfall in supply to cause turmoil.

Large organizations should have the resources to look after their employees in a transportation emergency - be it assistance in forming carpools, company supplied vans, flexible hours, telecommuting or whatever works. It is the self-employed or employees of small firms that currently are dependent on motor vehicles for their living that will be in deep trouble almost immediately. Independent truckers are already complaining mightily about diesel prices and many have been forced out of business. Their used trucks, by the way, are being sold to the Russians in increasing numbers. The Russians will still have cheap diesel for a while and they love the reliability and comfort of big American eighteen wheelers that are being sold off at bargain prices.

Local governments are going to have to deal with the transportation problem or be faced with massive social issues as people become isolated from places of employment. A large decline in personal mobility is likely to result in considerable economic hardship and job losses as much discretionary travel will simply stop due to excessive costs or the inconvenience of other arrangements.

Bill Totten


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