It is a goal of the United States to develop a national intermodal transportation system that moves people and goods in an energy efficient  manner. The Nation’s future economic direction is dependent on its ability to confront directly the enormous challenges of the global  economy, declining productivity growth, energy vulnerability, air pollution, and the need to rebuild the Nation’s infrastructure.

That prescient language came from a 1991 piece of legislation, the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act. At the dawn of Peak Oil, and with an infrastructure woefully inadequate and under-maintained so as to properly meet the changing needs of our economic, environmental, and energy-driven revival, these words should serve as the foundation for a renewed commitment to transportation. To be sure, the President understands this, and his initial commitments to high-speed rail are a welcome first step. But so much more needs to be done.

Unfortunately, that language was stricken from successor pieces of legislation, and the result over the years has been (as is true of too much legislation) a mish-mash of efforts with no overriding vision and structure. We too often continue to plug holes here and there instead of summoning the national will, courage, vision, and leadership to plot new courses. President Obama recognizes this, but as with too many other visionary ideas he brings to us, they fall victim to the ugly and insane workings of Congress and an even more insane opposition from the Right. “Long-term” planning continues to serve as four-letter words to those out of power and to those too concerned with their next election, polls, and donations.

Make no mistake: we will not be running out of oil soon, as all legitimate Peak Oil advocates continue to insist despite the at-best disingenuous contradictions from other quarters. Even though production is probably going to soon begin its inexorable decline, we should have enough to meet almost all of our needs, albeit more costly, for years to come.

The problems will really hit home later, when we can no longer borrow from Peter to pay Paul or cover up the decreasing resources with band-aids or sleight-of-hand. What happens then?

We cannot afford to wait until those more drastic times to start making changes to our infrastructure or modes of transportation. They are too vital to our well-being. When production declines really take hold, we will have too many segments of our infrastructure, too many business models, too many political decisions, and too many financial concerns that will all have be addressed, modified, repaired, renewed, or invented in fairly short order. We will simply be unable to meet those challenges only after they all appear.

We must begin planning now, and that can only happen if we understand what is at stake and what changes we’ll all be obliged to make. This is not a problem to be solved by the government … that nebulous entity “out there.” We—all of us—have a stake and a role to play. We cannot afford to pass the responsibility of doing to anyone else.

Almost everything we do and have is in place because we’ve had inexpensive and plentiful amounts of oil available to help us build, produce, market, transport, invent, and repair/replace … almost everything! Few aspects of our industrial society will be unaffected when Peak Oil is in full bloom, and we will then have no choice but to make drastic changes in virtually everything we do. Do we prepare, or hope for the best and continue on our merry little delusional and ignorant ways?

It has taken decades to build the structure of society we now live in, and it will take probably just as long to put into place a new foundation and framework by which we hope to progress in decades to come—without plentiful and inexpensive oil.

What are we going to do, starting now?

Urban transportation systems in particular will be of critical importance as we fashion new ways of growth and development in a Peak Oil world. I hold no illusions that the transitions will be effortless and that we’ll just continue growing and inventing and prospering pretty much as we always have without any bumps in the road. We’re going to have a different future to contend with, and we can either choose to be part of its creation, or be victims of the changes that we’ll have no choice but to accept.

With less oil/gas available in the years to come, we’re all going to be faced with very different and very difficult choices about how we conduct our daily lives. Transportation, as essential as it is to our ways of life—personal, industrial, and political—will continue to play a pivotal role in what we achieve, but it will of necessity take on very different hues when we can no longer afford to fill the gas tanks of our several thousand pound, 140-miles-per-hour-top-speed SUVs and passenger autos (luxury and otherwise) so that we can travel a mile or two into town at fifteen miles per hour in (we hope) less than half an hour (along with thousands of others doing the same and at the same time) to buy two bags of groceries or visit the dentist or pick up our children from school or visit our elderly parents or shop for new household gadgets or drop in on a friend or go to the office or….

We’re simply NOT going to have the energy resources we now have at our disposal. With urban areas carrying the majority of the world’s population now, we’ll have to create different modes of transportation to accomplish all of those necessary elements of daily life mentioned above. With millions still living in more rural settings, or in suburbs individually designed and thus with no broader strategy in mind (and subject to the same energy-deprivations as those living in downtowns all over the country), a comprehensive, creative, and national strategic vision for transportation will be mandatory if we have any hope of meeting the challenges of day-to-day living in a world where oil and gas are simply not available for the countless, mindless all-too-easy and too-often-taken-for-granted chores and trips and errands we all run multiple times per day. Whew!

What are we going to do? Anyone who thinks for even a micro-second that magic technology is going to save the day just in the nick of time and prevent any of us from having to endure even the slightest changes in the ways we live is practicing delusion on a grand scale.

Do we drag ourselves kicking and screaming into the future, or do we begin recognizing what is at stake—what’s involved in doing our best to avoid inconceivable disruptions to our lifestyles—and instead work together to create and seize new opportunities now?

I’m already on record as stating that I absolutely do not want my lovely lifestyle to change at all. I love the luxury vehicles my wife and I drive, I love our forty-five-miles-away-seven-bedroom-ocean-view summer home—the one I can get to in less than an hour any time I want by just hopping into the car and going there, and I love the fact that I can do exactly the same thing when I go and visit my parents at the opposite end of my state. Do I want to have to ride a couple of different bus and/or subway lines near my suburban home in order to get to the train station so that I can take a MUCH longer ride on someone else’s schedule to go to our summer home or to see my parents (and make the same alternative and time-sucking transportation arrangements at the other end) instead of … just driving there on my own? Of course not! But I’m not going to have much choice in the years to come, and I for one know that I’d like to have a say in how our governments and our business leaders and our fellow citizens work together to create new transportation systems so I can (I hope) still do those things with only slightly less convenience.

Slightly less convenience would be a good goal to shoot for.

With much less oil available to us in the years to come yet with the same personal/travel/food/goods/work needs and wants then as we have today, we’re going to have to figure out different ways of dealing with those myriad transportation issues. Fifty thousand dollar SUVs that get forty miles per gallon instead of eighteen really won’t make that much of a difference when all is said and done. The sooner we recognize what we’ll have to change (sacrifice) in order to continue to live prosperous and fulfilling lives with readily available and inexpensive supplies of oil and gas no longer at our disposal, the sooner we provide ourselves with the best opportunities for making those continuing ambitions a reality. Waiting until “then” to do something cannot be the plan.

The federal government will have to lead, but there will also be vital roles played by state and municipal governments in implementing the strategies needed. We will not be able to afford ad hoc experiments. While each locality will have its own unique needs, responding to those transportation needs and concerns will have to be shaped at the “top” so that we minimize the waste and unsuccessful attempts that hundreds if not thousands of individual transportation plans would otherwise occasion. Funding considerations can be adopted with national purposes and goals in mind, so that we avoid the unfortunate and unnecessary competitions that still take place from one congressional district to another.

Goods and citizens will still have to be transported across state lines, from the suburbs to regional hubs, and within urban/metropolitan areas. That won’t change. Given the economic demands, safety requirements, environmental concerns, and yes, climate considerations, a national transportation strategy (high-speed rail and other forms as well) must be what guides our decision-making.

How soon can we start?

I’ll be back next week with something new….