Vancouver needs to plan for a post-oil world — now
Published: Thursday, July 31, 2008
North American cities had better start adapting to a future characterized by climate change and depleting oil. Fewer parking lots. More condominiums. No more big highway upgrades. No further airport expansion. Emergency response and health care systems that can respond to the potential impacts of global warming and energy shocks.
The future is here, declares Bryn Davidson, a Vancouver engineer and architect who, with fellow planners Jonathan Frantz and Tom Lancaster, established the Dynamic Cities Project in 2005.
The project is a non-profit organization aimed at jolting designers and planners out of a torpor that has them carrying out business as usual.
To date, only the municipality of Burnaby has done any formal analysis of trends that are starting to hit North America.
A group of activists calling themselves the Vancouver Peak Oil Executive launched a petition recently urging Vancouver to strike a committee that would address the same issue.
Davidson's Dynamic Cities Project website (www.dynamiccities.org) features a slide show detailing the ways in which climate change and declining petroleum reserves will drastically alter people's behaviour.
Yet government planners have been fashioning civic infrastructure based on past trends.
The Pacific Gateway Strategy in B.C. — upgrading bridges, highways and road networks connecting ports, rail and the airport — is one example.
“A terrible idea,” Davidson says.
Indeed, planning documents for the $3-billion project, from 2005, predict Asia-Pacific air traffic would double at YVR by 2020. In 2008, already the outlook is quite different.
With gasoline prices that have topped $1.50 a litre, how certain are existing forecasts of traffic volumes? The gateway planners' forecasts were based on past patterns but the world faces a whole new future.
Davidson wants government officials to consider the following question in assessing any new investment: Will your project serve you past 2012?
“The infrastructure we're building today will be serving us in a post-oil, climate-constrained future.” He predicts that much of what's under construction will simply become “stranded assets.”
Davidson points to an extreme example from the U.S. — a $61-million airport runway that was constructed in Hagerstown, Md. Opened last November, it was meant to lure service by regional jets. Alas, the airport lost all scheduled air service two months before the runway became operational.
Climate change as a concern for the planet is not going away.
Peak oil, meanwhile, which remains a lesser-known phenomenon, will have every bit as drastic an impact. It has lately been playing a big role in higher prices at the pump.
Scientists and engineers around the world have joined a consensus regarding the notion that the world is running out of oil.
The planet experienced a peak in oil discoveries about 40 years ago. A peak in production, meanwhile, is believed by many to have occurred in 2005.
The sort of factors government planners now need to take into account when they make investments, says Davidson, include rising fuel and construction costs, intermittent fuel and power shortages, a turbulent stock market and weird weather. The possibility of more dire factors — a refugee influx, fuel rationing, rising sea levels — also require consideration.
Based on anticipated growth in both the economy and the population, Lower Mainland truck miles in 2021 are projected to increase by 50 per cent.
But such an assumption is “highly delusional,” Davidson says. When climate change and peak oil are brought into the mix, projections vary from a 10 to 30 per cent decline in traffic volume, he says, asking: “Are we nearing peak roads?”
Perhaps governments should be putting greater funding toward transit options that are multi-modal, serving a possible electric rail grid as well as traditional vehicles.
The thrust Davidson is advancing is not pie-in-the-sky. His arguments echo ones put forward recently in a scintillating and meticulously researched book, Transport Revolutions, by two respected Canadian urban planners Richard Gilbert, from Toronto, and Anthony Perl, from Vancouver.
It's human nature to resist change and comfortably plan for a future that assumes trends from the past will continue.
Given current understanding of world affairs, that would be irresponsible and waste billions in public dollars.