Resilient Cities Don't Build Infrastructure for Oil Dependent Transportation

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Last night I attended a talk at City Hall called Resilient Cities: Responding to the Crash, Peak Oil and Climate Change. The speaker was Peter Newman, Professor of Sustainability at Curtin University in Australia, author of a recent book by the same title.

For 90 minutes Newman explained to the full house how peak oil will soon change reality as we know it; and how if we choose to make it so, we can take this challenge as our opportunity to create a functional, just and sustainable world.

Ironically, right before the talk started I overheard someone saying that the city of Seattle, state and King County have all agreed to build a single deep-bore tunnel from King Street to Harrison Street downtown and to build a surface street for local traffic on the waterfront. The project -- which, I might add, was turned down by voters in 2007 -- carries an estimated $4.25 billion price tag.

This bit of conversation that I eavesdropped was ringing in my ears as Newman began to talk. He explained to the audience how Peak Oil is upon us and if we don’t act now we will have some very grim realities to face as a result of being a part of a civilization built around the availability of cheap oil. As oil production decreases, prices will rise; making everything we do more expensive, making the gap between the rich and poor more vast, and making every attempt to do something about it even more challenging.

But there is always hope. We can move away from building infrastructure that supports an oil-fueled culture. And many people have already started. Newman presented inspiring ideas for game-changing transportation and development from cities like Seoul, London, Copenhagen, Vancouver and Perth (his home town).

He showed how rail reunites deteriorating outer-ring suburbs with urban centers, benefiting both. He offered a plan for how high-rise apartment complexes, which create needed density, can give back to the community, with regulations requiring developers to offer 15 percent of space for affordable housing, and require 5 percent of the value of the development to be dedicated to funding social infrastructure like art, parks and schools.

Roads and freeways are ideas of the past, Newman said. To keep investing in them is to dedicate our public dollars to dying dinosaurs. We need ideas that bring us into the future by facilitating active pursuit of a sustainable, just society.

At the end of the talk, I was thinking what apparently many who also eavesdropped were thinking: a tunnel does not help build that future. During the question and answer period, someone asked Newman what he thought about the viaduct news. Newman responded that our politicians "need to see that is $(4.25) billion of wasted green collar jobs.”

We should demonstrate that this tunnel is not the answer for the people of our city.

Building a sustainable, resilient city, will require making decisions that reflect more foresight. On top of my concerns about peak oil, I also have concerns about the structure itself: how will sea-level rise will impact an underground tunnel so close to the seawall? How earthquake-proof will this expensive option truly be? And how can we afford to invest in an option that will not be a long term solution?

Our allies at the People's Waterfront Coalition issued a statement with another major concern: Though they are happy at least that the underground highway will free up the surface-level waterfront for a more inviting and vibrant downtown, they also echo the opinion that building a highway now is answering the needs of the past, not the future:

Within a few years, our region will have light rail in place, tolling on highways is likely, and the nation may have a cap and trade system. People are already driving less, and these economic game-changers will likely accelerate our cultural shift toward less car-dependent lifestyles. With the recommendation of the Surface / Transit/ I-5 solution for viaduct replacement, our region was on the verge of embracing these changes and pursuing a 21st century solution that positioned us well for mobility and access within the new energy economy. Instead, with a bored tunnel, we may be burdened with infrastructure we don't need and find ourselves less able to afford the smart investments we do need to provide the alternatives people want.

Other concerns the PWC noted are that the work will not be done fast enough to replace the crumbling elevated highway by 2012, and that the tunnel will not help to reduce climate changing emissions.

I see that we need an answer for the viaduct. And I see why at first the tunnel looks like a viable option: it solves the crumbling viaduct problem while giving us our waterfront back. It does not, however, solve our bigger long-term problem: building transportation solutions that will pave our way to a world without oil. In essence, replacing a bad highway with a slightly less bad highway is like putting a Band-Aid on cancer.

Investing in a future devoted to cars and trucks is shortsighted. Although a future completely without cars isn’t very likely, one with less cars and almost no oil is. Peak oil will soon force us to invest in alternatives. I wish we could acknowledge this now before we spend so much on something so shortsighted. We deserve better.

(Here's the link to Newman's work, if you want to learn more about making cities more resilient in the face of crash, peak oil and climate change.)


Being short sighted means looking at tomorrow and the next day. People really are afraid to face a reality 10 years in the future. Fear is what motivates these short term decisions. These are truly frightening times.

Unless someone can verify the tremendous hidden costs related to these transportation choices and lay those costs out for the average lay person to understand, the public imagination will not engage in long term thinking.

Posted by: Tom Sparks on January 21, 2009 12:12 PM

Here's a recent article on this site covering presentations I gave in Seattle on the same topic:

The Nexus of Peak Oil, Climate Change and Infrastructure

Posted by: Bryn Davidson on February 5, 2009 10:35 AM

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