Getting Around in the Post-automobile World


Tragically, many people who ought to know better assume blindly that we’ll find a way to keep all the cars, trucks, and airplanes running by other means once the difficulties of Peak Oil begin to bite.  They yammer about hybrid electric cars, nat-gas cars, fuel cells, algae secretions, and other proposed techno-marvels. They are sure to be disappointed. None of the alternative fuels or systems for running them really add up economically, nor do they scale. There’s no question that we have to prepare for living in a world that will seem to have grown geographically vaster again.
     It’s not even all about fuel. Capital scarcity is already eating away at the motoring paradigm in insidious ways. For instance, there is less money available to ordinary people for car loans (and fewer qualified borrowers). For the vast majority of Americans, taking out substantial car loans was normal for generations. That has now changed. Sooner or later it will lead to political grievances. Lack of capital will also determine whether we can hope to keep the stupendous hierarchy of roadways in decent condition. Some states – Michigan, Iowa, Minnesota – already have triage policies for de-paving rural roads. That is only the beginning of a much larger problem.
     After more than a half a century of flying the “friendly skies” we have come to take commercial aviation for granted. One of the few predictions I make flat-out is that commercial aviation will barely exist a generation from now. There is no other kind of flying machine hardware that we can turn to. Richard Branson’s fantasy about running his airline on vegetable oil is a mere PR “green-wash” stunt. Many of the major airlines have been in and out of bankruptcy this past decade, and some are back in. They tried firing all extraneous personnel, to the extent that one can barely find a live airline employee in an airport concourse these days, and there is little room left for mergers.
     What you will see from now on is painful contraction of service as travel by airplane becomes, once again, a perk of wealthy elites. Eventually there will be no commercial aviation at all, and then, perhaps, no working airplanes. The industry grew emergently to achieve its current scale of operations, but emergence does not operate symmetrically in reverse. The existing fleets of giant airliners cannot be shrunk. Either they work economically as they are or the business is history. There is no technological rescue remedy for this.
     I’ve argued that the USA must rehabilitate its conventional railroad system if we hope to get around our large continental scale nation. It’s too late for high speed rail. We missed the opportunity during the decades when real capital was available. But the regular rail is out there rusting in the rain, waiting to be fixed. Alas, we squandered our capital adding extra highways and prosecuting futile wars. To make matters worse, there is no consensus in the USA for rebuilding our rail system. The issue is absent from the national political arena and the states routinely quash initiatives for it. Nobody cares about it.
     We have no idea how difficult it will be to get around in the decades ahead. I’m not even convinced that bicycles have such a bright future. They also need well-maintained pavements, not to mention sophisticated metal alloys and fabrication techniques that we could lose the ability to carry out. I’m convinced that a much greater percentage of transportation in the years ahead will depend on boats and ships. We will be lucky, for example, if we can reconfigure the cruise lines to run regular trans-ocean routes rather than the idiotic trips-to-nowhere that they are programmed for today. And I am not being cute when I suggest that there may be more horse-drawn transport in our future than snazzy new hybrid cars.  Prepare to be shocked by how this all resolves in your very lifetime.