Fork in the Road

By now you know that prices for carbon-based fuels will continue to go up more frequently and more aggressively than they will be coming down. You already appreciate that this makes the extraction of costlier and dirtier carbon fuels more likely—fuels like oil from tar sands, coal, and natural gas from fracking. Likely you also appreciate that since these fuels can only increase in costs, this is what has been making innovations in alternative vehicles and fuels more attractive for innovators and investors.

This means there are two competing ways out of the corner into which we are painted. One will impose changes in modal choices and on how and where we build and live. The other, on the kinds of cars we drive and energy we use. Hence we will soon arrive at a societal decision point that I am arbitrarily targeting for 2020, alluding to useful puns on “good vision” and “hindsight”. This is also far enough away that my predictions will be forgotten giving me some freedom from fear of retribution for my heresy.

I propose that we think about this 2020 decision point as a fork in the road called “Cars-as-we-now-know-them”. I propose that at this fork, we have two fundamental choices. Toward the Right, we have the “New Automobility”—alternate forms of energy for mobility. Regardless of whether this is biofuels, electricity, compressed air or fuel cells, motive force will increasingly originate from renewables such as solar, wind and a dozen other ways to trap the sun. This route will make cars, energy, and mobility greener, cheaper and more plentiful. We will have more cars and generate more VMT. Congestion will threaten every last spare minute, and we will have a devil of a problem to fund infrastructure. The more of us that take the Right branch, the greater our societal evolution—and the more we will need road pricing.

Toward the Left, we have the “New Modalities”—we will change our modal mix to tons more of carpooling, vanpooling, transit, biking, walking, telework and moving toward the center of dense cities. This route means changes in transit and urban livability and in health, settlement density and planning. The more of us that take the Left branch, the greater our societal revolution—and the more we will need road pricing.

I have traveled both branches of this fork in my thinking over the past nine years, first the Left branch, then the Right. That is in the permanent record. Good people line both branches. We will not make uniform choices, but perhaps we can make informed ones. The question now is: “which approach will dominate the final numbers?”

Will we turn 50% toward New Modalities and 50% toward New Automobility? Or will it be 10:1 in favor of one or the other? The evidence, I argue is in favor of the New Automobility—simply because it is the path of least resistance.  Rather than moralize, just look at the mathematical imperatives of entitlement, habit, culture, innovation, investment, desire, fear and inertia. To set these things aside in favor of pure and correct systems thinking makes us worse than blinkered.

We need to explore both branches, dark or light, of the fork we are arriving at.  At least as we start making these choices in the coming years, someone will have thought about their consequences. In the end, thoughtful solutions are all that can win the future back for us (or not).