Monday, April 25, 2005

On a Road to Nowhere

Well we know where we’re goin’
But we don’t know where we’ve been
And we know what we’re knowin’
But we can’t say what we’ve seen
And we’re not little children
And we know what we want
And the future is certain
Give us time to work it out

We’re on a road to nowhere…

(With respect to the Talking Heads)
In countless locations around the world, thousands of planners are dutifully engaged in preparatory planning efforts for future outcomes that have little chance of occurring, given our energetic reality. Foremost among those pointless planning tasks would be the development of road improvement plans. Here you literally have a situation where millions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of man-hours are being expended preparing for a future where driving will almost certainly be limited to the wealthy or well-connected (if we are lucky). Of course, today almost no one acknowledges or recognizes the possibility that the ultimate limiting factor for traffic is not road capacity, but the underlying energy availability that fuels these vehicles.

So how did we get to this point?

Planners—like most other people—base their assumptions of future conditions by recalling historical trends. Rear view mirror planning if you will… Unfortunately for these hapless individuals, the past 50 to 75 years worth of history were brought to us courtesy of the greatest cheap-energy bonanza this planet has ever seen. Banished (or so we thought) to the rubbish bin of history were memories of hardship, limited growth, famines, economic stagnation and an overall lack of progress. The planning profession unquestioningly acknowledged the cheap energy paradigm and set out to implement or allow progress to occur in a more orderly manner.

“Progress” of course included road improvements.

From the first push for improved roads for those new-fangled horseless carriages in the early 1900s to the first construction of superhighways in the late 1930’s, engineers quickly worked out the best way to move large numbers of vehicles. At the time, most people in the engineering or planning fields were not aware of the growth inducing impact these infrastructure improvements would bring. Planners and politicians ended up being forced to respond to the inevitable increase in traffic by proposing an ever-increasing number of road projects. Over time, road projects became grander in scope and come to dominate political agendas from the local government on up to national level. Predictions of future conditions have gotten ever more sophisticated, courtesy of computerized programs that can predict which road segments will become severely congested with an additional 30 years of cheap-energy induced growth. From those results, the planning process initiates discussion on a variety of “improvement” projects to address those “assumptions”.

Here is an excerpt from a study from the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG) that attempts to justify the need to make multi-million dollar improvements to a freeway system.
Anticipated Growth -
Projected population and employment growth in the region will result in additional travel demand on the I-805/I-5 corridors. By the year 2030, population growth in the area surrounding the corridors is expected to reach 39 percent while employment growth is anticipated at 28 percent. In particular, growth in the South Bay subregion is expected to be higher than the San Diego regional average. For example, in Chula Vista, population is anticipated to increase by 60% from 2000 to 2030 or nearly 105,000 residents (from 173,600 to 278,200 residents).
Even with the completion of SR 125 South, traffic forecasts indicate that travel demand on the I-805 corridor will increase up to 50 percent and up to 46 percent on the I-5 corridor south of SR 54 by 2030. Without improvements, additional segments of these corridors are projected to operate at LOS F in 2030.
Nowhere in this document or countless others similar to it, are underlying assumptions of energy availability ever questioned. Instead of asking “will the existing growth rates be able to be maintained over the next 30 years” most planners ask “what will we have to do to deal with the next 30 years of growth?” This unquestioning assumption of future conditions based on past occurrences will leave most planners (along with the engineers and politicians they work with) ill-prepared to paradigm-shifting events.

The planning process itself is ill-equipped to handle alternative visions of the future. With most officials blindly marching off into a glorious vision of the future, instigators of change will almost certainly originate externally. At the moment, most of those agents of change take the form of scientists, activist groups and public citizens unconnected to those in charge. When viewed from within, most of those individuals are viewed as idealists, obstructionists, NIMBYs, or crack-pots. So when someone from that sector actually questions the underlying growth assumptions, they are more often than not given the polite brush-off and their comments ignored (with the decision makers more or less having already made up their minds).

Examples of unconnected activists questioning the fundamental need for additional roads given the imminent decline of cheap motoring and ultimate destruction of the concept of Suburbia have begun to surface globally. The need for future road projects in a handful of locations in this country and abroad from Ireland to New Zealand are now being questioned in light of the looming peak in oil production by a variety of organizations and individuals. At the moment it appears that most of those questions are being brushed off as none of the project principals seem to acknowledge the possibility changing circumstances. Nor are similar suggestions being addressed on the general planning level either. Google “Peak Oil” and “general plan” and you will get a small number of responses, with most of those peak oil positions having been authored by those unconnected individuals and included in the comments section of whatever document they were commenting on.

In the end of course, planners like the vast majority of folks on this planet will realize that oil supplies and easy growth were an aberration of history. Unfortunately until then we will waste precious time and resources going on a road to nowhere.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Kunstler has said this in many ways, many times - such as this year in Hudson NY. People are generally skeptical about future predictions, but you would think PLANners would be a little more visionary...

"The post cheap oil future will be much more about staying where you are than about being mobile. And, unless we rebuild a US passenger railroad network,a lot of people will not be going anywhere. Today, we have a passenger railroad system that the Bulgarians would be ashamed of.

Don't make too many plans to design parking structures. The post cheap oil world is not going to be about parking, either.

But it will be about the design and assembly and reconstituting of places that are worth caring about and worth being in. When you have to stay where you are and live locally, you will pay a lot more attention to the quality of your surroundings, especially if you are not moving through the landscape at 50 miles-per-hour."

-Kunstler (Jan 2005, Hudson NY)

4/26/2005 7:46 AM  
Blogger google_PEAK_OIL said...

Was flattered to click your link and find my own stuff.

I suggested to the planners who own the Legacy Highway blog that they look here at Unplanning last February. The owners have not made a new entry in the blog since. Coincidence? Maybe we enlightened someone who might matter.

4/26/2005 12:39 PM  
Blogger UNplanner said...

It's easier to keep doing what you always have been doing than adjust to a new way of thinking. That's assuming you are even aware that there IS a new way of thinking.

For planners, that means following the proper "planning" protocol. Nowhere included in the job description is the questioning of the underlying reality. Change is to be handled in incremental doses and almost always by adjusting protocol.

Most planners don't get this, which isn't surprising as the concept is missed by many in the general population as well. Planners aren't superhuman (though you would never know, given arrogance exhibited by some in the profession) and consequently not predisposed to grasping the big picture.

I'd like to believe your planners really "got it" but more likely they got bored of their blog and abandoned it. You never know...

As to the idea of blogging a planning project, that is a novel one. My [legal] counsel would likely have a fit over that strategy.

4/26/2005 10:22 PM  

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