Future air travel only for the rich?

May 15, 2008

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By Scott Byers

In the time it took to interview SFU political scientist Anthony Perl about his recently released book on sustainable transportation, the price of crude oil rose 30 cents – a powerful symbol of the looming energy crisis he says may hit as early as 2012.

Co-authored with Toronto-based policy consultant Richard Gilbert, Transport Revolutions: Moving People and Freight Without Oil provides a sobering look at the environmental and economic problems associated with our transportation system’s dependence on cheap oil.

Current geological models suggest that oil production will decline sharply within the next five years. And the authors say we need to curb our dependence on oil to avoid shortages that could drive prices into the stratosphere, cripple our economy and lead to widespread geo-political conflict.

Among their predictions, Perl and Gilbert foresee a not-so-distant future in which air travel may only be affordable for the rich via high-flying "micro jets" and giant airbuses with 20-seat rows.

To help avoid catastrophe, the authors endorse electricity as the solution. "Electricity isn’t an energy source, it’s an energy carrier, so you can put different things into the electric grid and make adaptations down the road," says Perl, director of SFU’s urban studies program and vice-chair of the national Centre for Sustainable Transportation.

The authors advocate more electric buses and cars, and electric trains for transporting people and goods over longer distances. They also recommend halting infrastructure projects premised on continued access to cheap oil-based energy.

"Every airport we expand, every highway we build based on the assumption that we’re still going to have cheap oil 10 years from now is going to make it harder for us to adapt later on," says Perl.

The challenges facing transportation policy makers are daunting, but Perl and Gilbert say viable solutions do exist. "We tried to make it a hopeful book, to show that this can be done and explain how to do it," says Perl. "There certainly is still time to make the kinds of changes we talk about in the book, but it has to start now."

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