March 2008 Archives

By Simon St.Laurent.

Roads and bridges support energy-consuming vehicles, and they also have tremendous energy costs for their creation and maintenance. Reducing these costs will likely happen on two levels: using maintenance approaches that require less energy and materials, and changing the nature of the roads and bridges to address different uses.

(Please note that this discussion focuses on the physical road and bridge infrastructure. Transit options could certainly accelerate and improve on some of these possibilities.)

A Possible Scenario

After increasing energy costs led to reduced traffic and higher costs for road maintenance, municipalities changed their handling of roads, highways, and bridges. While the county's road network remains largely in place, following the same general pattern it has kept since the early 1800's, road maintenance adjusted to reflect less use and fewer people living in isolated areas.

Lower speed limits allow the use of simpler roads in the countryside, with only a few main arteries preserved as expensive but important transportation corridors. Rural residents expect disruptions from weather, and prepare for it rather than expecting clean roads within a few hours of a snowfall. Many roads are managed as a single paved lane, often with gravel rather than asphalt, though a wider path is drained so that vehicles can pass each when they meet.

In the cities, villages, and hamlets, reduced traffic and greater emphasis on pedestrians and bicycles led to a shift in street design. Again, some key streets are kept wide for use as arteries (largely by restricting parking along them), but all streets have widened sidewalks, bicycle lanes, and a narrower area for cars, parked or driving. Winter maintenance focuses on keeping the city a pleasant place for pedestrians to walk.

Making the Adjustment

Municipalities won't reach that final scenario easily. The transition from today's broad asphalt roads oriented strongly toward cars will be slow, responding to changing costs and priorities.

Short term: Respond to increasing costs

  • Reduced plowing, salting
  • Triage for road repair
  • Shifting to rural single-lane paved, dirt roads
  • Reduced speed limits, load limits

Long term: Adjust infrastructure for different usage

  • Reduced road and bridge systems
  • Plowing only on key road systems
  • Shifting to different (less energy-intensive) materials for paved roads, like brick and crushed gravel. Focus on drainage and managed plantings to reduce mud
  • Greater emphasis on lighter-weight pedestrian and bicycle infrastructure
  • Reorganization of state/county/municipal responsibility
  • Consider property taxes on cars to cover road costs

Increased oil prices will have two major impacts on Tompkins County roads and bridges. First, increased gasoline prices will likely reduce the amount of traffic, even allowing for innovations like electric vehicles powered by renewable sources. Second, the cost of building and maintaining the infrastructure will rise substantially. Asphalt, tar, and oil are all petroleum-based, and construction and repair of roadways is extremely energy-intensive. Machinery costs are also tied in large part to energy costs.

Much of the current road network reflects patterns that were laid down in the early 1800s, and only paved slowly. A few roads, notably Route 13 between Lansing and downtown Ithaca, are complete innovations, blasted into the landscape. (Even old 13 from Ithaca to Cortland wasn't paved until 1910.)

Specific options for change

City streets

Restructure with pedestrian and bicycle emphasis along European urban models, as shown in Figure 1. Consider approaches which minimize parking space, possibly areas where cars only enter by special permit. Creative use necessary for parking lots - redevelopment, or markets? Plow sidewalks, not roads, except possibly main roads, probably based on current state highways.

German Street
Figure 1 - From left, guardrail, pedestrian sidewalk, bicycle sidewalk, parking, street.

Rural roads

Reduce the paved road network, as paving and plowing hundreds of miles of roads for a few users (who simultaneously have to pay a lot for fuel!) is an expensive luxury. Reduce the form factor of roads that remain, as shown in Figure 2. (Some wider paved areas to ease cars passing each other might be necessary, especially in areas with poor drainage.) State highways might make sense as branches in a light rail network. Consider possible interurban opportunities with surrounding cities. Plant fruit trees and bushes along rights of way to provide source of food, reduce snowdrifts. Add trail networks. Acknowledge Cortland, Elmira, Binghamton, and Auburn as important centers to connect with roads.

German Road
Figure 2 - A rural road in Northern Germany, one lane wide but drained for two.

Shared vehicles

Car sharing is already under consideration in the City of Ithaca, and the Village of Dryden has long allowed residents to use its DPW truck for their own work during off-hours and weekends. In general, shift resources from strictly private vehicles to shared ones.

Alternative vehicles

Motorcycles, horses, carts, snowmobiles, scooters, sleighs, and multi-purpose vehicles will likely find more common usage.

Snow removal

Snow removal uses tremendous amounts of fuel and materials, and actually makes some modes of transportation (sleighs, skis, and snowmobiles) more difficult to use. It also damages roads over time. Plowing priorities should shift to reflect changing usage, with emphasis on the most heavily-traveled roads and on busy sidewalks. (The Village of Dryden already plows sidewalks to some extent, for example.)

Nodal development complementing roads

Return to 19th century model of central city, countryside with villages, hamlets, farmhouses. Where possible, use existing developments outside of that pattern as possible bases for intensive agriculture, using existing road system. (Because Route 13 moved, there are likely at least three new nodes to add to earlier patterns: at Route 13 and Triphammer Road, Route 13 and Warren Road, and the overlap between Routes 13 and 366.)

Planning for Energy Descent

Some time in the next 30 years, life will start to become very different from what it is now. By mid-century we will use much less energy; we will live every aspect of our life much closer to home; and we will be much poorer in material terms, because energy and wealth are basically the same thing in an industrial society.

Energy descent β€” a radical reduction in our use of energy β€” is certain, but it’s not clear yet which of several factors will cause it to begin. Perhaps we will decide to do the right thing about climate change and reduce our CO2 emissions 80 or 90 percent, which would require changes almost that large in our actual consumption of energy. And there are other ways we might experience a radical reduction in our use of energy; for example, economic collapse, or an expanded war in the middle east. But the factor that makes energy descent a sure thing and sets the theme for this century is "peak oil" β€” the leveling off of global oil production and then its eventual and inexorable decline.

The timing of the peak is debatable, with forecasts ranging from 2005 (that is, already here) to 2030. But most credible estimates agree with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which concluded in a recent study that "world oil production is at or near its peak," and with the director of research at OPEC, who said recently that "we are at, or near, the production peak of world oil, if not on the downward slope."

After the peak, the growing gap between falling world oil production and ever-increasing global demand will send prices skyward, with economic results that can only be imagined but will certainly include greatly restricted mobility due to the high cost of fuel and much higher prices for most goods, including food. The result will be less disposable income, a life lived closer to home, and a greater reliance on the goods and services that can be provided locally. Since the supply of oil and other fossil fuels is finite, this outcome is guaranteed. The only question is, Shall we plan for what we can see coming, or just let it happen to us?

A group of area citizens, TCLocal, has begun planning now. TCLocal contributors are committed to researching various aspects of energy descent in Tompkins County and writing up a preliminary plan for each aspect based on purely local challenges and resources. This is one such plan.

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