Casaubon's Book

Transportation: The Leading Edge

Anthony Perl says America doesn’t have to wait for Congress in order to reduce oil consumption from the transportation sector.

by guest blogger Molly Davis

**my second and last blog entry from the ASPO-USA conference**

Discussions on Capitol Hill over the need to reduce fuel consumption often end up offering solutions that require significant movement on the part of policymakers. Pass a climate bill that puts a price on pollution? Pass an energy bill that mandates a high renewables supply? Pass a transportation bill that shifts highway funding to public transit? Easier said than done.

But Dr. Anthony Perl, co-author of Transport Revolutions: Moving People and Freight Without Oil, in an ASPO-USA panel today, suggested that the government could use its existing authority to make major strides in reducing oil dependence.

Perl’s talk focused on transportation, which he said is critical to heading off a peak oil crisis, in part because transportation leads all other sectors of the global economy in its dependence on liquid fuels, but also because it’s so interrelated with other sectors.

“Because [transportation]’s so embedded in so many other processes and elements in our economy, if we’re not able to deal with that leading edge, we’re in trouble,” he said.

Perl discussed a plan, laid out in his book, for establishing a new “transportation redevelopment agency” that he says wouldn’t require authorization from Congress.

That’s important because — as he pointed out — he doesn’t have faith that the current Congress can accomplish the level of change needed. He’s not alone in that thinking. The surface transportation law expired in 2009, and House efforts to pass a new, game-changing bill stalled under an overwhelming lack of enthusiasm in the Senate.

“I think we are at a fork in the road, and if we’re going to survive this decade’s coming challenge, then we’re going to have to fast track a transportation system that can perform without oil,” Perl said. “I can’t see a way for us to get through the transition smoothly or even without a breakdown of our current living arrangements unless we have significant ability to move people and freight without oil.”

Perl’s proposed transportation agency would set the goal for the overall system, deciding how much to reduce liquid petroleum use over a certain period of time. The agency would then estimate current transport activity and energy use, anticipate future available transportation modes and their associated energy use, then develop a strategy for meeting the goals. Over time, the agency would follow up by continually improving the estimates and strategy.

In his talk, Perl also pointed to the development of high-speed rail as a solution that America can already start working on without passing a transportation bill.

Part of the reason we can do this, he said, is that China is paving the way by significantly expanding its own high-speed rail infrastructure — and thus driving down the costs for the rest of the world.

“Five years from now there’s going to be a blue light special on high-speed rail in the world because China will have built the capacity,” Perl said. He added later, “If we start planning now, and if we don’t get hung up at least in the short term on trying to reinvent what they’ve already done, we can take a page out of their book.”

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  1. #1 Don
    October 10, 2010

    I wonder how Perl thinks we could get a high-speed rail network started here without government action, given that high-speed systems require dedicated track, and building them requires land acquisition, in some cases by eminent domain, similar to the land acquisitions required to build the Interstate highway systems. I wonder how he might propose to do that without Congress’ passing a transportation bill.

    The vast majority of our politicians still think it’s better to spend massive amounts of money on highway construction and bail out floundering auto companies than to spend even small amounts of money on public transportation systems. Here in Ohio, our state’s Department of Transportation spends more money mowing the grass along the highways than it does on public transport projects. We can’t even get our obstructionist Republican state legislators to agree to authorize a tiny (.5% of the state transportation budget) subsidy that would release $400 million of federal stimulus money to build and operate passenger rail service connecting Ohio’s four largest metro areas. They think it’s a waste of money and, of course, they’re using the budget crunch as an excuse; never mind that they don’t see the contradiction in the billions of dollars that they’ve authorized for highway “improvements” that would be unnecessary if we had decent public transportation.

    So Columbus will likely remain the largest city in the “industrialized” world without a passenger rail connection to other cities. Sigh.

  2. #2 Diane
    October 10, 2010

    I think building high speed rail is starting at the wrong end of the problem. We have made a real mess of our transportation and planning but I suspect (no figures) that most of our driving is local, for commuting, shopping and other errands. It will be hard to retrofit mass transit systems into our suburbs but they, along with zoning changes, would go a lot further toward reducing auto dependence. Bus routes are too easy to change or cut as my region has seen for years but some sort of built system such as trolleys or even BRT (bus rapid transit) might encourage denser development within walking distance of stops so families could actually give up one or more of their cars. If these are put on existing right of ways they should be a lot quicker, cheaper and more useful than the admittedly glamorous high speed rail.

  3. #3 Brad K.
    October 10, 2010

    I like the zoning approach for a first approximation.

    But high speed rail died two decades ago, and for better reasons that Peak Oil making the cheap energy and wealth required, simply unavailable. Dr. Perl still relies on the fundamental fallacy of enduring wealth, even as he proposes solutions to escalating energy costs that deplete the wealth derived from cheap energy (housing bubbles, investment income, etc.)

    I have my own (radical, I admit) zoning and taxing proposals.

    Too bad Dr. Perl didn’t focus his energies on local food security, excess energy wasted in commuting to work, to transport hubs, and for shopping.

    Calling his trains petroleum free is misleading, when he wants to push the energy onto electricity – from coal fired power plants, since nothing else is economical yet (except maybe hydroelectric and nuclear, and those seem to take decades to build). Molly doesn’t discuss, here, how Dr. Perl envisaged conveying rail customers and freight to and from the high speed rail entry points without petroleum. And without electricity from coal-fired power plants.

  4. #4 Joseph
    October 10, 2010

    Sorry guys, but if we arent going to talk about the tremendous waste of resources caused by our Imperial insanity and the military-industrial complex, then we might as well forget it.

    Talk about preparing for Peak Oil without talking about military spending is ridiculous. We wouldnt even be in that bad of shape if it wasnt for the military-industrial complex and the wealth it has wasted over the past 10 years in particular, and the past 30 in general.

    The reason the insane military spending and the Imperial agenda being pushed by the elites is not mentioned is because no one has the guts to point out how totally insane it is. The people at the highest levels of business and government who own this country are seriously mentally unbalanced, and I am unimpressed by any Peak Oil talk that is afraid to point this out.

    In the end, it will all come out, just too late to make a difference.

    Everyone keeps repeating the cliche – as nauseum – that we need “new stories”, “new narratives”, but fail to see that what we need is to totally re-vision the purpose and meaning of human existence beyond all the petty adolescent needs and illusions that presently rule our civilization. The people in Washington perfectly mirror the childish immaturity that is destroying our world. They are like an exaggerated version of it, a perfect example of the kind of pig-headed immaturity that is keeping humanity stuck on a dead-end road.

    To waste a further penny on all this Imperial crap and the greed of the military-industrial complex is a crime against humanity. If this truth cannot be openly stated, then all this talk about preparing for peak Oil is just an illusion.

  5. #5 darwinsdog
    October 11, 2010

    Well, what did you expect? A guy like Perl has a product to sell, which is why he even wants to raise his voice above the cacophony, why he even bears the expense and exposure to the charge of hypocrisy to travel to the venue to be heard. This is the inevitable result of awareness degenerating into a “Movement”: that it be co-opted by vested interests. Take away those with a book, a Plan, an ego to sell, and everyone else stays home, kept busy by the harvest.

  6. #6 Gail
    October 12, 2010

    Hear, hear, gentlemen!



  7. #7 Larry Lyon
    October 15, 2010

    The discussion is about “high speed passenger rail” which is a misnomer. California is planning high speed rail linking major population centers from Sacramento, San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego. The very idea of travel from Los Angeles to San Francisco in less than two hours is highly appealing, that is of course if it takes the same amount of time to travel from the San Fernando Valley to Union Station in downtown Los Angeles.

    Passenger rail consisting of local light and heavy rail systems traveling about fifty miles from the city center would be far more useful. There have been proposals for high speed freight rail, which would far more useful.

  8. #8 darwinsdog
    October 18, 2010

    The very idea of travel from Los Angeles to San Francisco in less than two hours is highly appealing..

    What’s so “highly appealing” about it? What’s your hurry?

  9. #9 Don
    October 19, 2010

    It’s the thrill of it; the ‘need for speed,’ don’t ‘cha know, DD?

    But we can’t even get our obstructionist politicians to authorize average-speed rail service between Columbus, Cincinnati, and Cleveland. I’d be more than happy for that.

  10. #10 darwinsdog
    October 19, 2010

    My hometown in Illinois existed because it’s where the north/south Illinois Central Railroad happened to cross the east/west Penn Central line. There were also two smaller railroads that ran thru from the cross-quarters. It was an agro-industrial center and rail hub in it’s day. Now it’s a depopulated relic of the Midwestern rustbelt. When I was a kid it was unusual to get across town without having to wait at least once for a train. Trains thrilled me but they drove my dad berzerk. “Time is money”! he’d yell at the trains as he waited in the car for them to pass. If the trains were switching cars sometimes it was a long wait. He was probably glad when the railroads started to die. First the minor lines quit running, then the Penn Central shut down. The rails have long since been ripped up and the rail yards are for the most part abandoned and full of weeds. Some effort has been made to convert railroad land into parks & bike paths, but not much. Amtrak still runs but the historic old depot has fallen into disrepair and is unmanned. One has to purchase train tickets to Chicago or Memphis online nowadays.

    I had the feeling at the time that it was a big mistake to let the US rail system die. I understood the advantages of trucks but felt that their advantage only existed so long as gasoline & diesel fuel was cheap. I knew that the day would come when it would no longer be cheap and the railroads would come into their own again. Except that they can’t very well come into their own again if they no longer exist. The tracks and tressels and rail yards are gone and much of the land they once occupied has been developed for other purposes. The factories that once lined the sidings have all closed and the jobs moved overseas. Those were good union jobs. What has replaced them? The methamphetamine industry, mostly. Rail infrastructure should have been preserved but it wasn’t. It’s largely gone and when the need becomes manifest to get it back, the land, capital, expertise, political will, and diesel fuel for rebuilding will be lacking. Larry, in post #7, is correct that heavy freight rail would be far more useful than high speed passenger rail transport but today, high speed is all you hear about, and the rhetoric is mostly phrased as jobs creation & economic stimulus rather than as something useful in its own right. I’m afraid that the time for a rail rebuild of any sort has passed. The unbuilding of the US rail system was a monumental exercise in short-sighted thinking, but what’s done is done and the heyday of American rail transport is long past.

  11. #11 Don
    October 19, 2010

    DD, did you read this blog that appeared on the EnergyBulletin site last week? He’s got it right about rail and urban public transport. He’s also got the asinine nature of political opposition to public transportation pegged right, too:

  12. #12 darwinsdog
    October 19, 2010

    Good article Don. Thanks.

    The town I described in post #10 had streetcars but that was before my time. When I was a kid and probably even to this day you could see where they once had run, as those streets had bricks down the middle where the tracks had been. The street cars even went ten miles to the sister city where the university was located. My parents & grandparents remembered the streetcars & often spoke of them.

    In Mexico busses go virtually everywhere. There are modern rear-engine diesel busses but most of the local busses that go to the villages are old school busses. I used to have a school bus that I had converted into a camper and lived in up in the logging woods. When it was parked in Silver City, NM, more than once I had Mexican nationals knock on my door offering to buy it to take to Mexico & use for passenger & market goods transportation.

    The town I live in now has a bus system. Sadly, the busses are often empty or nearly so. When my wife became unable to drive she sometimes rode these busses altho the nearest bus stop was rather far for her to walk to. Sometimes I would drop her off at the bus stop on my way to work. The problem is that this town is a Reservation border town infamous for its indigent population of Native American glanni men (drunks) or “street inebriates” as the newspaper euphemistically calls them. They tend to hang out at the bus stops to panhandle & generally harass would-be passengers. They sometimes ride the busses and puke and pee on them. Once my wife encountered a corpse at a bus stop, where the dead man had passed out drunk and slumped at such an angle that he suffocated. She understandably became rather reluctant to ride the busses and only did so when she had to. Apparently, most people feel the same way because I often see the busses running with no one on them but the driver.

    One thing the article mentions is all the fatal collisions between trains & cars. Growing up, it was not at all uncommon to hear of such local fatalities. I was nearly creamed by a train a time or two myself as a teenager first driving. If the trains are to make a comeback – not that I think they ever will – this is an issue that will need to be addressed.

  13. #13 Don
    October 19, 2010

    We saw old US school buses being used for public transportation in El Salvador. Some of them still had the name of the school districts on their sides, but most had been repainted in bright colors with the route number on the front.

    I ride the bus to downtown Columbus whenever I can. It’s usually convenient, and I get to go on a nice brisk walk to campus when the weather is decent. When it’s raining hard or snowing, I can take a transfer right to campus. I’ve been annoyed by other passengers occasionally, but I’ve never had a serious problem.

    You must be from Bloomington? My daughter-in-law is an Illinois State graduate.

  14. #14 darwinsdog
    October 20, 2010

    Nope, Don, not Bloomington. Bloomington’s in the I-55 corridor between Chicago & Saint Louis. My hometown’s further east & south, along the I-57 corridor between Chicago, Memphis & New Orleans.

  15. #15 Don
    October 20, 2010

    Well, Champaign-Urbana was my next guess. 🙂

  16. #16 darwinsdog
    October 21, 2010

    A little further south, Don. Ever hear of the “Mad Gasser of Mattoon”? LOL The “Mad Gasser” hysteria: my hometown’s one claim to fame.

    The streetcars used to run ten miles east to Charleston. My BS in zoology is from EIU. The university towns like Bloomington, Champaign-Urbana, Charleston.. have continued to thrive, or at least hang in there, but the Midwestern railroad/agro-industrial cities have fallen on real hard times. Places like Mattoon & Decatur are as decrepit as any of the upstate NY & New England mill towns you read about on Kunstler’s “Clusterfuck Nation” blog. Used to be that a kid fresh out of high school could get a job at General Electric, Blaw Knox, Anaconda, Young’s Radiator, Associated Springs, R.R. Donnalley’s… Now they’re lucky to get hired at Pizza Hut. The parts of downtown that haven’t already been demolished are literally in ruins. The hospital I was born in set abandoned for decades and serves now as low rent apartments for crack whores. I was back there a few years ago for my dad’s funeral and the dilapidation was heartbreaking. I never intend to go back there again.

  17. #17 Don
    October 21, 2010

    Well, I can’t say I’ve ever heard of Mattoon, or Eastern Illinois University either. But I found them on the map.

    Many of the cities and towns in Ohio look a lot like what you describe. (I have a son in Portsmouth, on the Ohio River in the south. The place has really fallen on hard times.) Kunstler would probably feel right at home in many places around the Midwest.

  18. #18 darwinsdog
    October 23, 2010

    Few have heard of Mattoon (or “Spittoon” or “Cartoon” as we called the place as kids) Don, so don’t feel bad about never having heard of it. It’s a monumentally unremarkable town.

    Here’s a story about trains & horses & the sustainable lifestyle of the past that we’re going to need to craft some facsimile of if we’re to get by in the resource constrained future:

    My mother’s father’s father lived at a place called Sexton Corners, in Shelby County, Illinois. There’s really nothing there; it’s just a crossroads in the country but is named on the state highway map. My great-grandfather died shortly after I was born, from falling off a ladder while painting his barn, so I don’t remember him. My grandfather told me this story of how his dad was kicked in the abdomen by a horse, and contracted peritonitis. The blow must have ruptured his gut and certainly must have been a life threatening injury in the days before antibiotics. I’m not sure if the injury required surgery or not, but he was treated for many months by the nearest physician, who resided in the little town of Stewardson. Twice a week he would harness his horses to the buggy and drive them south six or eight miles to the village of Trowbridge where he would livery his team. At Trowbridge he would catch the steam locomotive drawn train and ride it ten miles or so southwest to Stewardson for his doctor’s appointment. Afterwards he would catch the train in the opposite direction, recover his fed & curried team and drive the horses home.

    The modern map no longer indicates that rail line. The tracks still existed when I was a young adult although I don’t actually remember any trains running on them. I don’t know for sure but I’d be very surprised if any physicians practice medicine in Stewardson today, and there’s certainly no livery stable, or much of anything else, in Trowbridge any more. These days a person would have to drive to Effingham or Mattoon to see a doctor. When gasoline is unaffordable or unavailable altogether the rural folks won’t be in a position to drive a team to the nearest rail depot, livery the horses and take the train to town and back to seek medical attention, because the infrastructure for doing so no longer exists. The horses won’t be available, nor the stable, nor the train, nor the doctor. They will be shitty outta luck.

    My great-grandparents, on all sides of my family, farmed with horses. My great-grandchildren, if I have any, will need to do the same. But they won’t know how, nor will the draft stock be available, nor the land. We, as a species, have sold our birthrights for the promise of the easy life provided by the petroleum bubble. We have exchanged all hope of sustainability for short term power & mobility. We have exploded our population far beyond the carrying capacity of the biosphere by means of that power. We have traded all that is good for six or seven generations worth of opulence. I don’t believe in the devil but if I did, I bet that he would be LHFAO at our stupidity & greed.

  19. #19 Brent
    October 23, 2010

    I also agree that it is needed for the transportation sector to reduce its oil consumption. Transportation is such a big part of our everyday life, so we might as well make it as efficient as possible. Creating a high-speed rail in America (that doesn’t operate on oil) would greatly decrease the growth of pollution and it would also take people to their destination quicker. I definitely support Perl’s proposed “transportation agency”. It would take care of so many current issues with transportation such as energy consumption and it would also try to prevent problems occurring in the future. However, I do think that this movement can only be carried out with Congress’ consent. Not only that, but it would take an obscene amount of money in order to set up this agency and to start construction projects. But, improvement in society and technology doesn’t come without a price. If Perl does get permission from Congress to create this transportation agency and to start construction on a new rail, then most of his ambitions will be satisfied.

  20. #20 Don
    October 24, 2010

    You are so right. Thanks for the story, DD. It reminds me of a story that Kathleen Norris tells about Deadwood, South Dakota. I wish I remembered it better, but basically she said that during her grandfather’s time, the trains ran regularly. Now there’s no service and Deadwood, like much of the northern high plains, is losing population.

    I think that we have, maybe, four or five years before automobiles will be too expensive for most Americans to operate on a daily basis. That’s even if gasoline remains available on a regular basis.

    This is already true for a growing number of Americans, who are increasingly beginning to slip through our transportation cracks. Last year, for the first time since, I believe, World War II, the number of old cars Americans scrapped exceeded the number of new ones we bought. And this was when the “cash for clunkers” subsidy was in effect. (I wonder what this year’s results will look like.) These are things that the politicians don’t understand, especially the ones who cry foul at modest government subsidies for passenger rail but don’t even blink at the billions being spent for dubious road-building and highway “improvement” projects. The auto age is ending; yes, trains might be 1890s technology but they’re going to be vital if we want to maintain a fair degree of mobility.

    I guess if one is a politician who does know these things, one cannot speak of them in public if one wants to be reelected. Denial runs deep, as you or someone here already mentioned.

    If we don’t improve the rail system, we’ll need to re-dig the canals. That’s an even older, slower technology. The Ohio and Erie Canal runs about seven miles from where I live. Parts could easily be rehabilitated; other parts are filled in, and a bicycle trail was recently paved along the towpath.

  21. #21 dewey
    October 25, 2010

    I also come from downstate Illinois and we still have family there whom we drive to see a few times per year. Several decades ago, there were multiple trains per day between St. Louis and the towns where they live. We might well have been able to ride the train over in the morning and back that evening. There was also a light rail system that connected my hometown to my DH’s hometown. All of that is long gone now. If I wanted to take the train, I’d have to get a train to Chicago and another from Chicago to downstate, and this could be a four-day round trip (the one time I took Amtrak to a meeting in Chicago, the train arrived 7.5 hours late … and on the way back, most of the restrooms were flooded). I remember my father traveled at least once or twice for his work on the famous train called the City of New Orleans. That’s gone now too, I think. 🙁

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