Sunday, April 8, 2007

Hints of Changes Ahead?

In every season there is a day that gives a hint of the season ahead. In January it might be a day that hits 50 degrees and points to the coming of spring. In August it might be the first arrival of crisp cool air from the northwest that pushes aside the oppressive humidity of summer and reminds us that fall is coming. You get the idea.

Could we be at one of those points in history where there are hints of shift to a new way of doing transportation and more? The 20th Century, of course, saw the triumph of the automobile, that totem of individualism and freedom that radically changed our lived-in (and driven-in) environment. Call it sprawl or call it the triumph of individuality and affluence, the way we live is very different from the relatively densely populated central cities of a century ago.

Every epoch has its day and its decline. Could we be witnessing the very beginning of the end of the automobile/sprawl era? Consider some signs:
  • For the first time in decades, travel via public transit has been growing faster than travel by automobile.
  • Ridership growth is strong on intercity passenger trains despite Amtrak's admittedly poor service.
  • The Supreme Court recently held that the carbon dioxide is something that the EPA can regulate as a pollutant, which opens the door for the next federal administration to get serious about reducing the nation's production of greenhouse gases--many of them from tailpipes--that contribute to global warming.
  • A growing number of states already are taking steps to reduce the production of greenhouse gases and pushing for increased gas mileage standards for automobiles.
  • The pace of discovery of new oil fields is dropping and production levels of some of the key oil fields around the world are dropping.
  • As indicated by the UN report released last week, global warming is becoming widely acknowledged as a serious problem by most governments and scientists.
Even though the general populace may not share the apocalyptic outlook of James Howard Kuntsler, maybe people are awakening from the dream/mania of ever greater consumption. Maybe at some instinctual level they are beginning to make adjustments so that their environmental footprint is just a bit lighter by, for example, taking public transit.

I recognize that this may be wishful thinking. However, I bet there was a point in the first decade of the 20th Century when most people were still in horse and buggies but it started to become clear that the automobile and all it enabled would transform our transportation system and our culture. Maybe we are witnessing a similar moment with respect to a greener future that will be much more hospitable to public transit.

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