I’ve touched on the theme of transportation previously (here), and would like to devote the next couple of posts to exploring this vital topic a bit more.

“The automobile industry simply can no longer rely on oil to supply 98 percent of the world’s automotive energy  requirements.” Robert A. Lutz, General Motors’ vice chairman for marketing

Changes are coming. Not necessarily soon, but not too long from now, either.

Peak Oil will leave us with few options but to change—drastically—how we transport our goods, our services, and ourselves. Once production of oil reaches its peak (and there’s enough evidence to suggest that’s probably already happened), we’ll all begin seeing cutbacks here and there, rising prices that don’t really come back down much, if at all, and a dawning realization in industry, government, and its citizens that what we once had so easily and freely will no longer be ours again.

I’ll say again: this is not happening next week or next month, and probably not in the next year or two. But the scope of changes necessitate that we start acting as if they’ll change then, because we’ll have a lot of prep’ work to accomplish first.

This great recession has impacted almost every segment of society, transportation as much any other. Two of our Big Three automakers nearly ceased to exist; vehicle miles driven has been in a more or less steady decline for several years now; auto sales have plummeted, and that recovery will likely never reach its peak again. If lost jobs didn’t do it, then the fear kept buyers away.

The days of our auto-centered life may very well now be in our rear view mirrors. The recession has forced many families to abandon not just plans to buy or add new cars, but to cut back on the ones they already owned. Last year, more autos were scrapped than purchased, and trends suggest that will continue.

In my generation, owning a car as a teen was almost a religion. Not, not so much.

If we wanted jobs to pay for cars, we rarely had much trouble finding one, or two. Today’s teens clearly do not have that option, and since Moms and Dads aren’t usually in a position to buy one for them, that market segment has seen a marked change in purchasing in these last couple of years. More environmentally-conscious youths are more concerned about pollution and global warming and other consequences stemming from autos, so their urgency in owning a car may be curtailed in part for those reasons as well.

In the not-too-distant future … perhaps a decade or two at most, both suburban and urban modes of transportation will likely be very different creatures than the several thousand pound giants we use today to travel that long one-third of a mile to the store or bank. (The vast majority of Americans travel less than 50 miles per day.) Even though more people now live in urban area than anywhere else, the many who still reside in rural areas will be severely impacted. What will they do?

The simple fact that oil/gasoline will be both prohibitively expensive and not-so-easily obtained will mandate different ways of meeting our various needs. Our metropolitan areas will have no choice but to re-fashion themselves in ways more conducive to smaller modes of transport, with electric grids capable of “fueling” the vehicles of tomorrow, and urban and industrial design geared more towards walking and biking. Of necessity, most of our consumer needs will be met more locally than they are now.

We’re unlikely to discover, refine, and mass produce technologies or alternative sources of energy fast enough to permit a seamless transition to a new generation of those heavy, 5, 6, or 8 passenger beasts that dominate the roads today. We likely won’t have as many passable roads then! Repairs and maintenance will no longer be economically feasible in many instances. Asphalt will be harder to come by, as it already is.

This all sounds terrible because it will be so … different. What?! I can’t own a BMW 7 series and a Lexus SUV? I can’t even own one of them? How about just a basic Ford F-150 or a Honda Accord? No? No way!

Trust me: I’m one of those people! As I stated in my very first post, I am not Peak Oil’s poster child. My wife and I own a German luxury vehicle; we own a Japanese luxury SUV; and we own two more cars (one brand-spanking new) for our three children. I’m not even a little bit happy that someday in the not too distant future my enjoyment of these kinds of vehicles will be fond memories of  “the good old days.”

I’m not nearly smart enough to know with any certainty whether electric or hybrid vehicles will actually work in years to come. Is it even possible to mass produce those alternatives in anywhere near enough quantities to replace the several hundred million cars we now own? How can that possibly work?

But with changing demographics and a soon-to-be-urgent need to reconfigure our urban areas to reflect an increasingly car-less society, I do know that in just a couple of short decades, our modes of transportation will be different; our communities will be different; our ways of life will be different. I’m an optimist, so I’m thinking “different” will be okay, and maybe even a lot better. Quieter.

It’s all about what we do with the opportunities we’re now presented.

Truth is, we won’t have any choice. Using whatever precious reserves of oil might then be feasible for extraction to fill up cars and SUVs and pickups will seem insane to most of us.

Suburban sprawl will pose new challenges for us in the years ahead. Largely designed for access by automobiles, those far-flung residential centers will require a new face and new means of egress and ingress. Of necessity they will have to be more self-sufficient. The challenges are daunting, make no mistake. The sheer volume alone is staggering to contemplate. It’s easy to understand why those transitions will not take place in a time period anyone could rationally consider “short.” Opportunities….

We need to begin planning now for a 21st century transportation system, one that addresses our desires and expectations for mobility, productivity, and a better, healthier environment. We can’t afford to get caught wondering “what the hell happened?”

We’re ten years in already. We cannot be having these same discussions at the outset of our next decade.

Next: More Transportation Considerations