Politics - Federal

Saddle Up

By Ryan McGreal
Published February 01, 2006

The Telegraph (UK) reports a new government study by the British Government's Foresight Programme (Office of Science and Technology) suggesting "a future in which most people travel by bicycle or horse and air travel becomes a distant memory" once a looming energy crisis sets in.

The report, titled Intelligent Infrastructure Futures, explores how the British government can meet its infrastructure needs over the next fifty years. It draws on the expertise of 300 transportation analysts to draw connections between the challenges facing Britain's infrastructure and the opportunities that technology, social policy, and physical organization can provide.

The authors compile sixty different "drivers" affecting infrastructure into four scenarios:

  1. Perpetual Motion, in which new technology and renewable, clean energy power an "always-on" society;
  2. Urban Colonies, in which cities densify and buildings become more sustainable, private transportation declines, and the urban/rural split becomes more pronounced;
  3. Tribal Trading, in which a major energy crisis has crippled the global economy, local production is revived, and people travel locally via bicycles and horses; and
  4. Good Intentions, in which global travel and commerce are heavily regulated through carbon credits and surveillance technology.
Regular RTH readers will recognize "Tribal Trading" in James Howard Kunstler's recent book The Long Emergency. This scenario is the most provocative, and provides the basis for both the Telegraph article that drew my attention to this report and a more in-depth report in the Times (UK).

The report is quite blunt in its challenge to re-think assumptions of endless growth in our energy supplies:

Many of the decisions that shaped today's infrastructure go back at least half a century when it was assumed that we would have cheap oil; that we could respond to increasing demand by building more capacity; and that the market would find the most efficient ways to meet the country's transport needs. Fifty years on, these 'predict and provide' presumptions seem inappropriate.

The report concludes, "We need to prepare for the post-oil world of personal transport," and warns, "There will be shocks in the future which will affect our freedom to move and move things".

One of its key findings is that Britain's transportation infrastrucure needs "intelligent design, minimising the need to move, through urban design, efficient integration and management of public transport, and local provision of production and services." Sound familiar?

I haven't had a chance to dig too deeply into this report yet, but my spider sense tingled through my reading of the 50 page (whew!) overview. The authors seem to understand the challenges that face industrial countries as energy supplies go into decline, but their proposed solutions tend to lean heavily toward centralized "intelligent" transportation systems. For example:

New approaches to information processing, such as artificial intelligence, will reduce the mental effort needed to navigate a changing transport system. The same technologies may even allow travellers to delegate to the technology many of the tasks they now perform themselves, such as responding to disruptions in public transport or driving their cars on a motorway. The result of this use of information, and new technology, will be a transport system that can carry more traffic, more efficiently, with less congestion and using less energy, all on the same infrastructure.

I work with technology all the time, and have a healthy respect for both its potential and its dangers. As much as today's decentralized private transport infrastructure is dangerous (killing some 4,000 people a year in Canada), the prospect of delegating the job of driving to networked software agents horrifies me.

So, while its recommendations are top-heavy, the report's analysis of future energy trends and their effects on transportation seem spot-on. It's past time governments, businesses, and civic organizations at all levels begin to plan for the end of cheap energy.

Ryan McGreal, the editor of Raise the Hammer, lives in Hamilton with his family and works as a programmer, writer and consultant. Ryan volunteers with Hamilton Light Rail, a citizen group dedicated to bringing light rail transit to Hamilton. Ryan writes a city affairs column in Hamilton Magazine, and several of his articles have been published in the Hamilton Spectator. He also maintains a personal website and has been known to post passing thoughts on Twitter @RyanMcGreal. Recently, he took the plunge and finally joined Facebook.

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