Big wheels keep on turnin’- some thoughts on transportation

We all learn in school about the invention of the wheel about 7,000 years ago, originally used for throwing clay pots and later turned sideways for use in transportation. Wagons, chariots, carts and wheelbarrows were invented in the next few millennia, though widespread use of wheels didn’t emerge until the invention and construction of smooth roads. Later we invented engines to move the wheels on bigger and better roads, developed cheap fuel and personal vehicles, and then all headed out on the highways—until, as Cat Stevens put it, “They just go on and on ’til it seems that you can’t get off.”

But the automobile era is headed for a bump in the road—a very big bump which involves dwindling oil supplies and rising global temperatures together with an ensuing economic shift which will fundamentally change the way we relate to travel, to distance, to resource use and to community. We are passing the point of peak oil production and petroleum fuels are likely to become much more expensive within a very short time frame (although the current economic slump has tempered that rise in the very short term). We need to plan now for a different, healthier, lower-carbon-footprint future, and that necessitates a new framework for transportation—a plan often referred to as multi-modal.

As a society we need to address some very big questions, but the first place to start is at home. How will I get to my job without cheap gas? Or without any gas at all? (Think back to the fall of 2008 when WNC experienced a week of sharply curtailed supplies.) How will my children get to school? Where will I buy food and other necessities? Can I walk to work, to school, to a store? Can I ride my bike?

Then we can expand those questions to the level of the community. How will everyone get to work, to school, to shopping? How will my employer get the materials needed for my work? How will the schools obtain their goods? How will the supermarket and pharmacy transport the goods we need for our lives? How will the high price or low availability of fuel affect the prices of food and other goods? (And as a collateral effect in Asheville, what will all of that mean for a post-tourist economy?)

There are parts of this scenario that are completely out of the realm of local control, but that doesn’t mean we are powerless to prepare. And the preparation can make life better today and into the future, no matter what happens at the national and international level.

What we can do is create a resilient transit system, building on the public system we have today, ready to expand rapidly as the situation changes. We need to focus on creation of sidewalks and bike lanes that connect to transit corridors so that more people can access public transit on foot, in wheelchairs and through pedal-power. Sections of parking garages should be easy to adapt for bike parking as well, perhaps with rentable bike lockers in parts of town remote from garage facilities. (Portland, Oregon, has had such a system for more than two decades.) Development planning should focus on density along transit corridors as well.

At the same time, it will be a very good idea to resist expansion of highways through our city. The really heavy highway traffic involves interstate trucking and that system is due to shift as well. Railroads move goods much more efficiently than trucks. (Did you know that a single adult can push a box car on level tracks? Have you ever tried to push a tractor-trailer, or even your car? That’s the difference in energy use.) Our rail system will pick up our freight load, with trucking relegated to moving goods from train depots to nearby destinations. That is the fundamental reason we don’t need an 8-lane I-26 through Asheville. If NC DOT builds the highway they decided we need back in the 1990s, they are preparing for a past that won’t return, not for the real future we will inhabit.

Electric vehicles will become the new norm within a very short time-frame, but they won’t simply be oversized 20th century cars with electric motors: think small, commuter bubbles. The recently introduced AirPod is one example. SmartCars, just 8 feet long are another new option. Trains will replace both autos and airplanes for much of our longer distance travel. One shift that has already occurred in Europe and Canada and is only beginning here, is downsizing of parking spaces for the new smaller cars. That means we can resize parking slots and get more cars into current garages and streetside spaces. New stripes are much cheaper than new parking decks.


3 Responses

  1. […] Join the team to help me keep Asheville real Posted on May 8, 2009 by bothwellsblog 1. Let’s Keep Asheville real when it comes to development and strengthen the accountability of City Council concerning development. I believe in government transparency and listening to all of the citizens. We are going to grow and we can honor Asheville’s amazing past by encouraging creative development that builds toward a truly sustainable future. We need more adaptive re-use of existing structures and new projects that are in scale with surrounding buildings. 2. Let’s Keep Asheville real in our approach to the environment. The region needs a Plan B to prepare for a new energy future that may include higher utility and fuel costs and reduced tourism. Green jobs are local jobs that can’t be exported. Local food is a reliable source that doesn’t have to be imported. We need to look toward a transportation future that includes more walking, biking and mass transit and fewer cars. […]

  2. Hi Cecil,
    I agree that automobiles are about to change, but everything I see is the same automobile except for one, and that is the XP Vehicle at This possible future car uses innovative technology to change the car as we know it today.

    I would also like to see high density nodes connected by public transit. Why just make downtown high density when we could put many people near nodes with basic needs such as barbers, groceries, and other shopping needs? Once you have these nodes, then it makes sense to run buses between the nodes. The other option is to spread out development along every major road in town as we do now.

  3. damn good advice and sharing,I will buy one this great shirt for me .thanks

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