Alternative Geologies: Trump’s “America First Energy Plan”

Also published at

Donald Trump’s official Energy Plan envisions cheap fossil fuel, profitable fossil fuel and abundant fossil fuel. The evidence shows that from now on, only two of those three goals can be met – briefly – at any one time.

While many of the Trump administration’s “alternative facts” have been roundly and rightly ridiculed, the myths in the America First Energy Plan are still widely accepted and promoted by mainstream media.

The dream of a great America which is energy independent, an America in which oil companies make money and pay taxes, and an America in which gas is still cheap, is fondly nurtured by the major business media and by many politicians of both parties.

The America First Energy Plan expresses this dream clearly:

The Trump Administration is committed to energy policies that lower costs for hardworking Americans and maximize the use of American resources, freeing us from dependence on foreign oil.

And further:

Sound energy policy begins with the recognition that we have vast untapped domestic energy reserves right here in America. The Trump Administration will embrace the shale oil and gas revolution to bring jobs and prosperity to millions of Americans. … We will use the revenues from energy production to rebuild our roads, schools, bridges and public infrastructure. Less expensive energy will be a big boost to American agriculture, as well.

This dream harkens back to a time when fossil fuel energy was indeed plentiful and cheap, when profitable oil companies did pay taxes to fund public infrastructure, and the US was energy independent – that is, when Donald Trump was still a boy who had not yet managed a single company into bankruptcy.

To add to the “flashback to the ’50s” mood, Trump’s plan doesn’t mention renewable energy, solar power, and wind turbines – it’s all fossil fuel all the way.

Nostalgia for energy independence

Let’s look at the “energy independence” myth in context. It has been more than 50 years since the US produced as much oil as it consumed.

Here’s a graph of US oil consumption and production since 1966. (Figures are from the BP Statistical Review of World Energy, via

Gap between US oil consumption and production – from stats on (click here for larger version)

Even at the height of the fracking boom in 2014, according to BP’s figures Americans were burning 7  million barrels per day more oil than was being produced domestically. (Note: the US Energy Information Agency shows net oil imports at about 5 million barrels/day in 2014 – still a big chunk of consumption.)

OK, so the US hasn’t been “energy independent” in oil for generations, and is not close to that goal now.

But if Americans Drill, Baby, Drill, isn’t it possible that great new fields could be discovered?

Well … oil companies in the US and around the world ramped up their exploration programs dramatically during the past 40 years – and came up with very little new oil, and very expensive new oil.

It’s difficult to find estimates of actual new oil discoveries in the US – though it’s easy to find news of one imaginary discovery.

When I  google “new oil discoveries in US”, most of the top links go to articles with totally bogus headlines, in totally mainstream media, from November 2016.

For example:

CNN: “Mammoth Texas oil discovery biggest ever in USA”

USA Today: “Largest oil deposit ever found in U.S. discovered in Texas”

The Guardian: “Huge deposit of untapped oil could be largest ever discovered in US”

Business Insider: “The largest oil deposit ever found in America was just discovered in Texas”

All these stories are based on a November 15, 2016 announcement by the United States Geological Survey – but the USGS claim was a far cry from the oil gushers conjured up in mass-media headlines.

The USGS wasn’t talking about a new oil field, but about one that has been drilled and tapped for decades. It merely estimated that there might be 20 billion more barrels of tight oil (oil trapped in shale) remaining in the field. The USGS announcement further specified that this estimated oil “consists of undiscovered, technically recoverable resources”. (Emphasis in USGS statement). In other words, if and when it is discovered, it will likely be technically possible to extract it, if the cost of extraction is no object.

The dwindling pace of oil discovery

We’ll come back to the issues of “technically recoverable” and “cost of extraction” later. First let’s take a realistic look at the pace of new oil discoveries.

Bloomberg sums it up in an article and graph from August, 2016:

Graph from

This chart is restricted to “conventional oil” – that is, the oil that can be pumped straight out of the ground, or which comes streaming out under its own pressure once the well is drilled. That’s the kind of oil that fueled the 20th century – but the glory days of discovery ended by the early 1970s.

While it is difficult to find good estimates of ongoing oil exploration expenditures, we do have estimates of “upstream capital spending”. This larger category includes not only the cost of exploration, but the capital outlays needed in developing new discoveries through to production.

Exploration and development costs must be funded by oil companies or by lenders, and the more companies rely on expensive wells such as deep off-shore wells or fracked wells, the less money is available for new exploration.

Over the past 20 years companies have been increasingly reliant on a) fracked oil and gas wells which suck up huge amounts of capital, and 2) exploration in ever-more-difficult environments such as deep sea, the arctic, and countries with volatile social situations.

As Julie Wilson of Wood Mackenzie forecast in Sept 2016, “Over the next three years or more, exploration will be smaller, leaner, more efficient and generally lower-risk. The biggest issue exploration has faced recently is the difficulty in commercializing discoveries—turning resources into reserves.”

Do oil companies choose to explore in more difficult environments just because they love a costly challenge? Or is it because their highly skilled geologists believe most of the oil deposits in easier environments have already been tapped?

The following chart from Barclays Global Survey shows the steeply rising trend in upstream capital spending over the past 20 years.

Graph from Energy Fuse Chart of the Week, Sept 30, 2016


Between the two charts above – “Oil Discoveries Lowest Since 1947”, and “Global Upstream Capital Spending” – there is overlap for the years 1985 to 2014. I took the numbers from these charts, averaged them into five-year running averages to smooth out year-to-year volatility, and plotted them together along with global oil production for the same years.

Based on Mackenzie Wood figures for new oil discoveries, Barclays Global Survey figures for upstream capital expenditures, and world oil production figures from US Energy Information Administration (click here for larger version)

This chart highlights the predicament faced by societies reliant on petroleum. It has been decades since we found as much new conventional oil in a year as we burned – so the supplies of cheap oil are being rapidly depleted. The trend has not been changed by the fracking boom in the US – which has involved oil resources that had been known for decades, resources which are costly to extract, and which has only amounted to about 5% of world production at the high point of the boom.

Yet while our natural capital in the form of conventional oil reserves is dwindling, the financial capital at play has risen steeply. In the 10 year period from 2005, upstream capital spending nearly tripled from $200 billion to almost $600 billion, while oil production climbed only about 15% and new conventional oil discoveries averaged out to no significant growth at all.

Is doubling down on this bet a sound business plan for a country? Will prosperity be assured by investing exponentially greater financial capital into the reliance on ever more expensive oil reserves, because the industry simply can’t find significant quantities of cheaper reserves? That fool’s bargain is a good summary of Trump’s all-fossil-fuel “energy independence” plan.

(The Canadian government’s implicit national energy plan is not significantly different, as the Trudeau government continues the previous Harper government’s promotion of tar sands extraction as an essential engine of “growth” in the Canadian economy.)

To jump back from global trends to a specific example, we can consider the previously mentioned “discovery” of 20 billion barrels of unconventional oil in the Permian basin of west Texas. Mainstream media articles exclaimed that this oil was worth $900 billion. As geologist Art Berman points out, that valuation is simply 20 billion barrels times the market price last November of about $45/barrel. But he adds that based on today’s extraction costs for unconventional oil in that field, it would cost $1.4 trillion to get this oil out of the ground. At today’s prices, in other words, each barrel of that oil would represent a $20 loss by the time it got to the surface.

Two out of three

To close, let’s look again at the three goals of Trump’s America First Energy Plan:
• Abundant fossil fuel
• Profitable fossil fuel
• Cheap fossil fuel

With remaining resources increasingly represented by unconventional oil such as that in the Permian basin of Texas, there is indeed abundant fossil fuel – but it’s very expensive to get. Therefore if oil companies are to remain profitable, oil has to be more expensive – that is, there can be abundant fossil fuel and profitable fossil fuel, but then the fuel cannot be cheap (and the economy will hit the skids). Or there can be abundant fossil fuel at low prices, but oil companies will lose money hand-over-fist (a situation which cannot last long).

It’s a bit harder to imagine, but there can also be fossil fuel which is both profitable to extract and cheap enough for economies to afford – it just won’t be abundant. That would require scaling back production/consumption to the remaining easy-to-extract conventional fossil fuels, and a reduction in overall demand so that those limited supplies aren’t immediately bid out of a comfortable price range. For that reduction in demand to occur, there would have to be some combination of dramatic reduction in energy use per capita and a rapid increase in deployment of renewable energies.

A rapid decrease in demand for oil is anathema to Trumpian fossil-fuel cheerleaders, but it is far more realistic than their own dream of cheap, profitable, abundant fossil fuel forever.
Top photo: composite of Donald Trump in a lake of oil spilled by the Lakeview Gusher, California, 1910 (click here for larger version). The Lakeview Gusher was the largest on-land oil spill in the US. It occurred in the Midway-Sunset oil field, which was discovered in 1894. In 2006 this field remained California’s largest producing field, though more than 80% of the estimated recoverable reserves had been extracted. (Source: California Department of Conservation, 2009 Annual Report of the State Oil & Gas Supervisor)

A container train on the Canadian National rail line.

Door to Door – A selective look at our “system of systems”

Also published at

Our transportation system is “magnificent, mysterious and maddening,” says the subtitle of Edward Humes’ new book. Open the cover and you’ll encounter more than a little “mayhem” too.

Is the North American economy a consumer economy or a transportation economy? The answer, of course, is “both”. Exponential growth in consumerism has gone hand in hand with exponential growth in transport, and Edward Humes’ new book provides an enlightening, entertaining, and often sobering look at several key aspects of our transportation systems.

door to door cover 275Much of what we consume in North America is produced at least in part on other continents. Even as manufacturing jobs have been outsourced, transportation has been an area of continuing job growth – to the point where truck driving is the single most common job in a majority of US states.

Manufacturing jobs come and go, but the logistics field just keeps growing—32 percent growth even during the Great Recession, while all other fields grew by a collective average of 1 percent. Some say logistics is the new manufacturing. (Door to Door, Harper Collins 2016, Kindle Edition, locus 750)

With a focus on the operations of the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, Humes shows how the standardized shipping container – the “can” in shipping industry parlance – has enabled the transfer of running shoes, iPhones and toasters from low-wage manufacturing complexes in China to consumers around the world. Since 1980, Humes writes, the global container fleet’s capacity has gone from 11 millions tons to 169 million tons – a fifteen-fold increase.

While some links in the supply chain have been “rationalized” in ways that lower costs (and eliminate many jobs), other trends work in opposite directions. The growth of online shopping, for example, has resulted in mid-size delivery trucks driving into suburban cul-de-sacs to drop off single parcels.

The rise of online shopping is exacerbating the goods-movement overload, because shipping one product at a time to homes requires many more trips than delivering the same amount of goods en masse to stores. In yet another door-to-door paradox, the phenomenon of next-day and same-day delivery, while personally efficient and seductively convenient for consumers, is grossly inefficient for the transportation system at large. (Door to Door, locus 695)

Humes devotes almost no attention in this book to passenger rail, passenger airlines, or freight rail beyond the short-line rail that connects the port of Los Angeles to major trucking terminals. He does, however, provide a good snapshot of the trucking industry in general and UPS in particular.

Among the most difficult challenges faced by UPS administrators and drivers is the unpredictable snarl of traffic on roads and streets used by trucks and passenger cars alike. This traffic is not only maddening but terribly violent. “Motor killings”, to use the 1920s terminology, or “traffic accidents”, to use the contemporary euphemism, “are the leading cause of death for Americans between the ages of one and thirty-nine. They rank in the top five killers for Americans sixty-five and under ….” (locus 1514)

In the US there are 35,000 traffic fatalities a year, or one death every fifteen minutes. Humes notes that these deaths seldom feature on major newscasts – and in his own journalistic way he sets out to humanize the scale of the tragedy.

Delving into the records for one representative day during the writing of the book, Humes finds there were at least 62 fatal collisions in 27 states on Friday, February 13, 2015. He gives at least a brief description of dozens of these tragedies: who was driving, where, at what time, and who was killed or seriously injured.

Other than in collisions where alcohol is involved, Humes notes, there are seldom serious legal sanctions against drivers, even when they strike down and kill pedestrians who have the right of way. In this sense our legal system simply reflects the physical design of the motor vehicle-dominated transport system.

Drawing on the work of Strong Towns founder Charles Marohn, Humes explains that roads are typically designed for higher speeds than the posted speed limits. While theoretically this is supposed to provide a margin of safety for a driver who drifts out of line, in practice it encourages nearly all drivers to routinely exceed speed limits. The quite predictable result is that there are more collisions, and more serious injuries or death per collision, than there would be if speeding were not promoted-by-design.

In the design of cars, meanwhile, great attention has been devoted to saving drivers from the consequences of their own errors. Seat belts and air bags have saved the lives of many vehicle occupants. Yet during the same decades that such safety features have become standard, the auto industry has relentlessly promoted vehicles that are more dangerous simply because they are bigger and heavier.

A study by University of California economist Michelle J. White found that

for every crash death avoided inside an SUV or light truck, there were 4.3 additional collisions that took the lives of car occupants, pedestrians, bicyclists, or motorcyclists. The supposedly safer SUVs were, in fact, “extremely deadly,” White concluded. (Door to Door, locus 1878)

Another University of California study found that “for every additional 1,000 pounds in a vehicle’s weight, it raises the probability of a death in any other vehicle in a collision by 47 percent.” (locus 1887)

Is there a solution to the intertwined problems of gridlock, traffic deaths, respiratory-disease causing emissions and greenhouse gas emissions? Humes takes an enthusiastic leap of faith here to sing the praises of the driverless – or self-driving, if you prefer – car.

“The car that travels on its own can remedy each and every major problem facing the transportation system of systems,” Humes boldly forecasts. Deadly collisions, carbon dioxide and particulate emissions, parking lots that take so much urban real estate, the perceived need to keep adding lanes of roadway at tremendous expense, and soul-killing commutes on congested roads – Humes says these will all be in the rear-view mirror once our auto fleets have been replaced by autonomous electric vehicles.

We’ll need to wait a generation for definitive judgment on his predictions, but Humes’ description of our present transportation system is eminently readable and thought-provoking.

Top photo: container train on Canadian National line east of Toronto.

Freight expectations

Also published at

Alice J. Friedemann’s new book When Trucks Stop Running explains concisely how dependent American cities are on truck transport, and makes a convincing case that renewable energies cannot and will not power our transportation system in anything like its current configuration.

But will some trucks stop running, or all of them? Will the change happen suddenly over 10 years, or gradually over 40 years or more? Those are more difficult questions, and they highlight the limitations of guesstimating future supply trends while taking future demand as basically given.

When Trucks Stop Running, Springer, 2016

When Trucks Stop Running, Springer, 2016

Alice J. Friedemann worked for more than 20 years in transportation logistics. She brings her skills in systems analysis to her book When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation (Springer Briefs in Energy, 2016).

In a quick historical overview, Friedemann explains that in 2012, a severely shrunken rail network still handled 45% of the ton-miles of US freight, while burning only 2% of transportation fuel. But the post-war highway-building boom had made it convenient for towns and suburbs to grow where there are neither rails nor ports, with the result that “four out of five communities depend entirely on trucks for all of their goods.”

After a brief summary of peak oil forecasts, Friedemann looks at the prospects for running trains and trucks on something other than diesel fuel, and the prospects are not encouraging. Electrification, whether using batteries or overhead wires, is ill-suited to the power requirements of trains and trucks with heavy loads over long distances. Friedemann also analyzes liquid fuel options including biofuels and coal-to-liquid conversions, but all of these options have poor Energy Return On Investment ratios.

While we search for ways to retool the economy and transportation systems, we would be wise to prioritize the use of precious fuels. Friedemann notes that while trains are much more energy-efficient than heavy-duty trucks, trucks in turn are far more efficient than cars and planes.

So “instead of electrifying rail, which uses only 2% of all U.S. transportation fuel, we should discourage light-duty cars and light trucks, which guzzle 63% of all transportation fuel and give the fuel saved to diesel-electric locomotives.” Prioritizing fuel use this way could buy us some much-needed time – time to change infrastructure that took decades or generations to build.

If it strains credulity to imagine US policy-makers facing these kinds of choices of their own free will, it is nevertheless true that the unsustainable will not be sustained. Hard choices will be made, whether we want to make them or not.

A question of timing

Friedemann’s book joins other recent titles which put the damper on rosy predictions of a smooth transition to renewable energy economies. She covers some of the same ground as David MacKay’s Sustainable Energy – Without The Hot Air or Vaclav Smil’s Power Density, but in more concise and readable fashion, focused specifically on the energy needs of transportation.

In all three of these books, there is an understandable tendency to answer the (relatively) simple question: can future supply keep up with demand, assuming that demand is in line with today’s trends?

But of course, supply will influence demand, and vice versa. The interplay will be complex, and may confound apparently straight-forward predictions.

It’s important to keep in mind that in economic terms, demand does not equal what we want or even what we need. We can, and probably will, jump up and down and stamp our feet and DEMAND that we have abundant cheap fuel, but that will mean nothing in the marketplace. The economic demand equals the amount of fuel that we are willing and able to buy at a given price. As the price changes, so will demand – which will in turn affect the supply, at least in the short term.

Consider the Gross and Net Hubbert Curves graph which Friedemann reproduces.

Gross and Net Hubbert Curve, from When Trucks Stop Running, page 124

From When Trucks Stop Running, page 124

While the basic trend lines make obvious sense, the steepness of the projected decline depends in part on a steady demand: the ultimately recoverable resource is finite, and if we continue to extract the oil as fast as possible (the trend through our lifetimes) then the post-peak decline will indeed be steep, perhaps cliff-life.

But can we and will we sustain demand if prices spike again? That seems unlikely, particularly given our experience over the past 15 years. And if effective demand drops dramatically due to much higher pricing, then the short-term supply-on-the-market should also drop, while long-term available supply-in-the-ground will be prolonged. The right side of that Hubbert curve might eventually end up at the same place, but at a slower pace.

The most wasteful uses of fuels might soon be out of our price range, so we simply won’t be able to waste fuel at the same breathtaking rate. The economy might shudder and shrink, but we might find ways to pay for the much smaller quantities of fuel required to transport essential goods.

In other words, there may soon be far fewer trucks on the road, but they might run long enough to give us time to develop infrastructure appropriate to a low-energy economy.

Top photo: fracking supply trucks crossing the Missouri River in the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation in North Dakota, June 2014.

Open roads of South Dakota

This story of potential restricted access to rural roads has a happy ending.

A hat tip to Momentum magazine for news from the great state of South Dakota. A bill proposed in the South Dakota legislature would have required cyclists to routinely stop and get off the road in deference to any faster vehicle:

If a person is operating a bicycle within a no passing zone on a roadway that has no shoulder or a shoulder of less than three feet in width, the person shall stop the bicycle, move the bicycle off the roadway, and allow a faster vehicle to pass.

As is clear from the following pictures, many of the roads I traversed on a bike trip through South Dakota would be affected by this bill. Although traffic was seldom heavy, shoulders were narrow or non-existent and no-passing zones were frequent. If this bill had been law, I would have been required to get off the bike and hit the ditch any time a single vehicle came up behind me in a no-passing zone. Maddeningly pointless, and for someone on a loaded touring bike, a real momentum-killer.

So I sent the following letter to each of the bill’s co-sponsors. For each co-sponsor in a district I had travelled through or spent a night, I added a sentence about my journey through that district.

A letter to the co-sponsors of House Bill 1073

In June of 2014 I enjoyed the most wonderful vacation of my life, bicycling through North and South Dakota. Entering your state at Lemmon, I biked several hundred miles on back-country gravel roads, state highways, and Interstate 90, before ending the trip by riding the length of the Mickelson Trail in the Black Hills.

Throughout the trip I met a warm welcome from ranchers, farmers, other tourists in campgrounds, and people in the hospitality industry. I was equally impressed by the services offered specifically to self-propelled travelers in the Black Hills. I was so enthused about the experience that I developed a travelogue of stories and pictures, and presented it to four different groups after I’d returned home.

Had Bill 1073, at least in its current form, been law in the summer of 2014. I would not have considered taking the trip. I would have concluded that a touring cyclist would be regarded as a nuisance in South Dakota, rather than welcomed. I am so glad the bill was not law then, and I hope the proposed legislation is dropped so that other touring cyclists will know that they too will be welcomed, and that they too can enjoy every mile of riding through your beautiful state, as I did.


Bart Hawkins Kreps

former resident of Minnesota

current resident of Bowmanville, Ontario, Canada

Postscript: I received an email from one of the bill’s co-sponsors letting me know the bill has been defeated in committee. Let’s hope this bill never returns to the legislative docket. While my email arrived too late to have any possible impact on the legislative committee hearing, I do find it worthwhile to remind legislators that’s it’s in everyone’s best interests to encourage cycling rather than trying to keep us off the roads.

At the North Dakota/South Dakota border on US Hwy 12 near Lemmon, South Dakota. June 15, 2014.

At the North Dakota/South Dakota border on US Hwy 12 near Lemmon, South Dakota. June 15, 2014.

White Butte Road near Bison, South Dakota. June 16, 2014.

White Butte Road near Bison, South Dakota. June 16, 2014.

State Highway 73 near Faith, South Dakota. I was happy to dismount and get off the road to let this truck pass. June 18, 2014.

State Highway 73 near Faith, South Dakota. I was happy to dismount and get off the road to let this truck pass. June 18, 2014.

Badlands Scenic Loop Byway in Badlands National Park, South Dakota. June 19, 2014.

Badlands Scenic Loop Byway in Badlands National Park, South Dakota. June 19, 2014.

Interstate 90 between Wall and Rapid City, South Dakota, with the Black Hills looming in the background. Cyclists are allowed on Interstate highways in both Dakotas. The traffic makes for a noisy ride, but the wide paved shoulders make for a comfortable ride. On this day I also chose I-90 because the bridge overpasses would offer some shelter if I didn't beat the predicted late-afternoon hailstorm. June 21, 2014.

Interstate 90 between Wall and Rapid City, South Dakota, with the Black Hills looming in the background. Cyclists are allowed on Interstate highways in both Dakotas. The traffic makes for a noisy ride, but the wide paved shoulders make for a comfortable ride. On this day I also chose I-90 because the bridge overpasses would offer some shelter if I didn’t beat the predicted late-afternoon hailstorm. June 21, 2014.

The Spearfish Canyon road, in the northern Black Hills. June 27, 2014.

The Spearfish Canyon road, in the northern Black Hills. June 27, 2014.

Looking north on County Road 8 near Cottonwood, South Dakota. US 14 runs through the centre of the image from west to east. June 19, 2014.

Looking north on County Road 8 near Cottonwood, South Dakota. US 14 runs through the centre of the image from west to east. June 19, 2014.

A neighbourhood expressway

Bicycle lane on newly reconstructed Green Road in Bowmanville

For the past two months I’ve been a very appreciative user of the bicycle lanes on Green Road – while marveling at the grandiosity of the roadway itself.

The lanes provide a convenient and comfortable route from new residential areas in south-west Bowmanville, to the sprawling shopping district along County Road 2.

For my errands, the newly reconstructed Green Road provides a much superior alternative to biking on nearby County Road 57.

Annotated google map of southwestern Bowmanville

Marked bicycle lanes on Green Road and Baseline Road (marked in red), with new big-box shopping area outlined in orange.

The high speeds of traffic on County Road 57 seem a natural consequence of its design – even though those speeds are typically well in excess of the posted speed limits.

Green Road, by contrast, is a curious mix of design features that facilitate pedal-to-the-metal speeding, on the one hand, and other features that not only encourage but require drivers to slow down to speeds appropriate for a residential area.

Green Road, looking south from new CP Rail overpass

Green Road, looking south from new CP Rail overpass

The photo above shows one of two roundabouts on Green Road, with a busy elementary school at left, playground in left background, and new housing on both sides.

Clearly, that’s a good place to be driving slowly.

Yet the road is arrow-straight, with no driveways or access lanes beyond the roundabout – and the road allowance is wide enough to serve as the landing strip for the space shuttle, on a windy day.

Satellite view of subdivision along Green Road.

Satellite view of subdivision along Green Road.

In addition to the two wide traffic lanes and bicycle lanes on Green Road, there are wide grassy areas between the road and sidewalk. Moreover, the maze-form street network within the subdivision provides only very controlled traffic access to Green Road, requiring additional “service roads” adjacent to Green on some blocks.

From the outside of one service road, across Green, to the outside of the next service road, is approximately 45 meters, with no visual complexities such as parked cars, encroaching trees, curves, or other traffic-calming features.

Coming out of a roundabout onto that wide-open straightaway, drivers might be forgiven for thinking they have suddenly jumped to a prairie highway. Not surprisingly, they speed.

Driving south on Green Road.

Driving south on Green Road.

So does it still feel safe to bike this road? Yes, at least so far. While there are short stretches where all the design cues tell drivers that 100 km per hour would be perfectly safe, the speedway is broken up by two roundabouts which slow drivers right down again.

The net effect is to keep speed differentials between cars and cyclists to a generally reasonable level.

God only knows, there are more frugal ways to build a residential street that’s efficient for local car traffic as well as safe and convenient for bicycles. But Green Road gets me to the grocery store, and I’ll take a smooth-paved bike lane where I can get it, so I’m not complaining.

“Slower Traffic Keep Right”

Durham Regional Rd 2, looking west (Google street view)

Durham Regional Rd 2, going west from downtown Bowmanville (Google street view)

Cycling west out of downtown Bowmanville, I passed a sign – “Slower Traffic Keep Right” – and wondered if I had veered onto a hitherto-unknown expressway.

But I soon guessed that there was a story behind this sign – a story of someone’s plans to create a speedy route between towns, and someone else’s plans to pack the same route with turning lanes into parking lots.

In other words, this sign told the sad story of a “stroad” – to use the coinage of StrongTowns founder Charles Marohn – a route that tries to be a high-speed connecting road, and also a business-district street, and does a poor job at both.

Area within 1 km west of "Slower Traffic Keep Right" sign

Area within 1 km west of “Slower Traffic Keep Right” sign. Red Xs represent stop-lights.

As noted on the above Google map, within one kilometre of the “Slower Traffic Keep Right” sign, there are many businesses – fast food restaurants, gas stations, big box retailers – on both sides. Traffic is split fairly evenly between cars turning to the left, cars turning to the right, and through traffic – so “Slower Traffic Keep Right” makes no sense.

Not only that, but there are three stoplights within one kilometre; “Slower Traffic” is the only kind of traffic there will be.

Once you’ve travelled this stroad a few times you know what a poor job it does at moving traffic smoothly and swiftly. During business hours, a bicyclist can keep up with the cars and trucks here without breaking a sweat (though the heavy fumes and frustrated, impatient drivers make the bike ride far from pleasant).

So this six-lane divided highway produces stop-and-go traffic instead of high-speed passage. But in return for the congestion, do we at least get a high-density business district? No such luck.

Basic sketching of free parking lots (yellow highlite) and commercial buildings (red highlite).

Basic sketching of free parking lots (yellow highlite) and commercial buildings (red highlite).

In fact, the number one land use in this business district is free parking.

In the Google satellite view above, the commercial buildings along the stroad are highlighted in red, and their parking areas are highlighted in yellow. As tallied in Photoshop, the red commercial buildings total 11% of the image area, while the yellow parking areas take up 14% of the image (and that parking figure doesn’t include loading-docks, nor any of the intra-parking lot roadways necessitated by such a sprawling design).

There is still a fair bit of land in this district to be “developed”. But if the current pattern holds – parking lots that take 30% more area than the businesses they serve – the stroad will continue to produce high-density traffic congestion, without high-density commerce.

How can that be a good investment?

A book to read while you’re stalled in traffic

What’s the cause of traffic congestion? Many people have a quick answer.

Traffic congestion? Obviously, there are too many cars.

Traffic congestion? That just means there isn’t enough road space.

Traffic congestion? It’s all those cyclists and streetcars getting in the way

With 45 years experience as a driver, 35 years as an everyday cyclist and seven years working in road construction, I’d like to think I’ve learned something about coping with – not to mention causing – congestion. But I’ve never had a day of formal education in traffic engineering or town planning.

Road Traffic Congestion, published by Springer in April 2015, 401 pages, $99 ebook, $129 hardcover

Road Traffic Congestion, published by Springer in April 2015, 401 pages, $99 ebook, $129 hardcover

So I opened Road Traffic Congestion: A Concise Guide with the hopes that it would offer methodical, realistic ways to look at both the causes of traffic congestion and its relief.

With its 400 pages of conciseness, this manual discusses the relationship between transportation technologies, the causes, characteristics and consequences of congestion, and the pros and cons of a wide range of relief strategies.

So is the problem too many cars, or not enough road? The experts open the book with a diplomatic dodge of this loaded question: “Congestion in transportation facilities – walkways, stairways, roads, busways, railways, etc. – happens when demand for their use exceeds their capacity.” (The mention of walkways and stairways notwithstanding, there is little attention given to foot-powered transportation, and with some notable exceptions in the closing chapters, the traffic discussed is car and truck traffic.)

Still in the opening chapters, Falcocchio and Levinson hint at another direction for investigation: “When growth in economic activities significantly outpaces the growth in transportation infrastructure investments, cities experience congestion to levels that make mobility difficult.” Would they make an evidence-backed argument, I wondered, that all the post-World War II investments in freeways, suburban arterials and parking lots have been disproportionately small?

But the book provides no real economic analysis, either of the comparative economics of different modes of transportation, nor the relationship of transportation infrastructure to the economy as a whole.

What the authors do provide is a systematic cataloguing of the ways in which traffic gets backed up on our roads, with examples from across the continent. To an outsider, their discussion illustrates both the strengths and the limitations of current traffic engineering practice.

Whether discussing backups associated with closely spaced traffic lights on a main arterial, or backups around a non-standard intersection with five spokes, the focus remains on finding ways to reduce the delay for cars and trucks. This is not to suggest that the authors are unaware of safety issues for cyclists and pedestrians; they are careful to note possible hazards for non-motorists and the need to minimize pedestrian/automobile conflict points.

But in most of the data they marshall from cities across North America, the factors which are measured and worked into formulas are data about vehicles: cars per lane per mile, total vehicle throughput, vehicle minutes of delay, average vehicle speed etc.

Just as significantly, the methods and formulas are applied to traffic moving on a single given street, as opposed to the sum of the traffic moving along a street and the traffic crossing it. For example, there are formulas for calculating how the addition of a signal light will impact traffic throughput on an arterial road – but how will this impact the travelers trying to cross that street? Clearly these are complex relationships, but if we focus only the rate of traffic flow on a given street, how can we know whether our traffic-enhancement strategies on that street are helpful or harmful to the circulation in the whole neighborhood or district?

It’s clear that lots of professional effort has gone into measuring and defining levels of congestion. So I was surprised to see the subjectivity at the heart of so much of the discussion. At what level of crowding does congestion begin? A National Cooperative Highway Research Program Report pegs congestion to “the travel time or delay in excess of that incurred under light or free-flow travel conditions.” Likewise, a 2011 Urban Mobility Report from the Texas Transportation Institute concludes that Chicago and Washington, DC drivers spend 70 hours extra hours each year in congested traffic, using as their baseline the time these same trips would take in “free-flow” conditions.

Falcocchio and Levinson, however, write that

in a large city it is not realistic to travel at free flow speed (or at the posted speed limit) in the peak hour. It is not logical, therefore to compare actual peak hour travel times to free-flow peak hour travel times when free-flow in the peak hour is a practical impossibility in a large city. (emphasis theirs)

While this strikes me intuitively as correct, I hoped they would offer a compelling argument to back up their position. That argument is missing from the book. A clue emerges, however, in their discussion of the flow and lack of flow on inner-city freeways.

By design, a freeway is one of the least complex traffic systems. Many variables that are present on city streets are absent on freeways; there are no traffic lights, no parking spaces, no direct access from driveways, traffic is divided into one-way streams, and only vehicles moving at roughly the same speed are allowed. It’s true that (for the time being) all drivers are human, and thus their reaction times vary and chaos can happen. But there are neat graphs for the typical relationships between density of traffic (in vehicles per lane per mile), vehicle speeds, and traffic throughput (in vehicles per lane per hour).

Traffic throughput on a freeway drops rapidly after density increases and speeds drop below the “critical speed” of 53 mph. This typically happens when density has increased to about 45 cars per lane per mile, with just under 100 feet between cars. Road Traffic Congestion, page 153.

Traffic throughput on a freeway drops rapidly after density increases and speeds drop below the “critical speed” of 53 mph. This typically happens when density has increased to about 45 cars per lane per mile, with just under 100 feet between cars. Road Traffic Congestion, page 153.

These graphs show that up to a point, vehicle speeds slow modestly as traffic gets more dense, while total throughput still increases. When speeds drop below that point – the “critical speed” – the total throughput drops as well. On a typical freeway with design speed of 70 mph, this critical speed is 53 mph, and traffic tends to drop below this speed when density reaches 45 cars per lane per mile.

As the authors note, at this density there is an average of 97 ft between vehicles in each lane. So in pure spatial terms, the freeway is still closer to empty than to full. Yet it has already reached peak efficiency and any additional traffic will cause a drop in throughput – a drop that gets steeper with each increment of additional density.

In other words, a freeway needs to remain mostly empty to stay anywhere close to free-flow, if by free-flow we mean moving at close to its design speed. Not only must most of the space in each lane be unoccupied, but there are extra lanes required for emergency access; interchanges require lots of additional space; and because the freeway provides no direct access to the main city grid or to driveways, even more space is needed for service roads.

This, perhaps, is why it is practically impossible to achieve free-flow traffic at peak hour in a large American city: there simply isn’t the space to allow each and every commuter to drive simultaneously on almost-empty roadways.
And so we return to the question posed at the beginning: is congestion caused by too many cars, or not enough road? Cars will only move freely, Falcocchio and Levinson make clear, if there are fewer of them:

where added capacity is provided, its lasting effect on congestion relief (especially in metropolitan areas exceeding 2 million people) can only be realized by combining it with strategies that reduce the need to travel by car …

And so the last third of the book outlines strategies for reducing vehicle traffic volume: road tolls, market-priced parking, high-occupancy vehicle lanes, flex-time work schedules, provision of park-and-ride facilities, public transit service improvements, and suburban land-use planning geared to maintaining a grid rather than devolving into winding crescents and cul-de-sacs. The brief discussions of walking and cycling are insightful, even though they arise here in the context of improving motor vehicle flow.

Historical spread of congestion out from Central Business Districts. Road Traffic Congestion, page 20.

Historical spread of congestion out from Central Business Districts. Road Traffic Congestion, page 20.

For someone living at the far edge of greater Toronto, Road Traffic Congestion reads as a warning sign. The book illustrates how traffic congestion has spread inexorably beyond center cities to the inner suburbs, suburbs and exurbs. In the strip malls, big-box shopping centers, and curly-maze residential monocultures that are marching out from the city, we see tomorrow’s congestion in the making.

As Falcocchio and Levinson explain, adding turn lanes or a new freeway, fixes that take a few months or a few years, often just push the congestion farther down the road, while land-use policies that favour non-car travel can take a generation to be fully effective:

Although … “smart growth” land use/transportation strategies are effective (in the near term) at the neighborhood scale, significant reductions in regional VMT [vehicle mile traffic] impacts resulting from a change in land use patterns, however, takes a long time …