KBB Collective | The Designers' Corner

Jul 13 2010

Posted by

41 years or 41 miles?

How our dependence on oil has negatively affected our built environment

As the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig nears its three-month anniversary (on July 20th), the public is still waiting to see how the story will end. More importantly, the world is waiting to see how the worst environmental catastrophe in history is going to change America’s self-admitted addiction to oil.

2_nasa satellite

The date July 20th shares the day with another anniversary. Just 41 years earlier, Man first set foot on the Moon in an impressive display of how technology can propel humanity to reach our highest achievements. The exploded rig, located just 41 miles off the coast, reminds us how technology can demonstrate the limits of humanity.

In light of the facts that have emerged over the last few months, it’s almost surprising an accident of this scale hadn’t occurred sooner. You’ve no doubt heard about the corrupt regulators at the Minerals Management Service (MMS), the horrific and shocking safety track record of BP, and the cost-cutting risks taken in the construction of the well itself.

The disaster at the Deepwater Horizon that left 11 men dead and continues to pour millions of gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico is the final act in the story of our adolescence. This could be the ultimate sign that our way of life has to change if we are to survive. If any good can come out of the irreparable damage done to the water, the Gulf Coast economy, or the wildlife itself, we must change our relationship with oil.

SOURCE: Thing Are Fine

In January 1969, a similar blowout occurred on a Union Oil platform six miles off the coast of Santa Barbara. For 11 days, oil leaked into the sea, affecting some 800 square miles of ocean and 35 miles of precious coastline. Prompted to action, then President Richard Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency, which in turn led to the first Earth Day in 1970. In addition, Nixon issued a moratorium on offshore drilling in California. At the time, Nixon said, “It is sad that it was necessary that Santa Barbara should be the example that had to bring it to the attention of the American people…The Santa Barbara incident has frankly touched the conscience of the American people.”

How did we get to a place like this? It could be the control corporations have over our policymakers. According to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, oil & gas companies have donated $238.7 million to candidates of both parties since 1990 (though 75% of that goes to Republicans). During this same period, the Bush-Cheney Energy Policy Act of 2005 ushered in an unprecedented era of deregulation and sheer disregard for the environment. Deepwater Horizon is a testament to what happens when corporate malfeasance meets regulatory failure.

The drive for cheaper and larger amounts of oil have led to some questionable decisions. These factors have added up to have an adverse effect on our built environment for the past century.

SOURCE: U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA)

Our national energy system is divided into two camps: combustion (oil and gas) or electricity. The chart above shows how oil is used in this country, with the majority going to transportation (52% for cars, trucks and planes). The rest is broken into heating (30% from various sources) and materials (15% for plastics & 3% for asphalt). You’ll notice that virtually no oil is used to produce electricity, but oil is a necessary evil to maintain our current lifestyle.

If nearly a third of our oil is used to heat our buildings, we can easily cut that figure in half by retrofitting them to be more energy-efficient. If you’re interested, there are a number of wonderful sources for information, such as Green$ense for the Home, GreenHomeGuide and EERE. We can’t afford not to do this. But for this discussion, let’s focus on transportation.

For most of my career as an architect, educator and lecturer, I avoided talking about cars. I felt it wasn’t my place to talk about transportation. I feared some heckler in the audience might yell out, “Stick to buildings, Architect!” So I eschewed any true, in-depth discussions about cars, trucks or transportation. But over the last decade of lecturing around the world, I found the topic of cars creeping back in.

5_no parking
The design of our cities and suburbs is dictated by the automobile. From the width of the street, location of driveways, distance between buildings and the drop-off location for the front door, the automobile has irrevocably changed our cities from human scale to vehicle scale. Often the entire structure of the building is based on the spacing of the column locations in the parking garage, spaced to allow enough space to fit three parked cars. People are corralled onto narrow sidewalks to make room for the car. Elevated freeways slice through neighborhoods, disconnecting the pedestrians from the other side.

For most cities, there is no alternative to the car. It is a requirement of daily life. Unless you live in a place like New York or San Francisco, it is nearly impossible to survive without one. Last year, National Geographic‘s “Consumer Greendex” found that Americans had the lowest percentage of people who use public transit on a daily basis and the highest percentage of people who never take it. A third of all of the public transit users in the entire U.S. are in New York City, which explains why more than half of the households don’t need to own a car. But other cities weren’t so lucky.

Public transit was not always seen as the last resort to getting around. Back in the 1920s, nearly every city had a convenient and cheap trolley system. At the time, most of these were privately owned companies that generated their own electricity. Soon the trolly companies became small, local utility providers, until the Public Utility Holding Company Act of 1935 forced them to sell off their less lucrative trolley businesses.

6_old streetcars
In order to expand their burgeoning car business, General Motors (GM), Firestone Tire, Phillips Petroleum and Standard Oil banded together to form a company to buy up these trolley companies. Their new entity, National City Lines, purchased the streetcar systems in 45 major cities, including Baltimore, Chicago, Detroit, Oakland, Philadelphia, Phoenix, St. Louis and Los Angeles. Between 1936 and 1950, they systematically dismantled the trolley lines to increase the demand for the automobile. They removed the tracks to make room for cars and ensure no new systems could return easily. Known as the “Great Streetcar Scandal,” it hobbled our public transit systems. In the 1920s, only one in 10 Americans owned a car. By the end of their efforts in 1955, that figure jumped to eight in 10.

Pro-car lobbyists worked side-by-side with lawmakers to draft legislation to further change our cities. In 1953, GM President Charles Wilson was appointed Secretary of Defense under President Eisenhower and created the Interstate Highway Act of 1956. The cost was sold to the American people for reasons of National Defense. The new roads would be designed to carry our tanks to fend off an invasion by the Russians. The systematic dependency on the car was now complete.

Since the 1950s, practically every planning decision has been centered around access by private cars. The unintended consequences of this network of roads was never really considered. Faster roads enabled people to move from the cities and into the newly created suburbs. Having less city residents put more strain on the remaining public transit systems and city businesses became to close. With more driving came more air pollution, and the vicious cycle of our oil dependency was created.

Throughout all of this, we have been told that driving is less costly that public transportation. Planners argue the cost of creating new roads and parking spaces as “investments in our infrastructure.” But public transit is perceived as being “subsidized.” You’ll hear people say that public transit “loses money” while roads are “free.” But the true cost is anything but free.

The annual cost to maintain our network of 26 million roads is over $131 billion dollars a year. That translates to about $1100 per household and enough to buy everyone a really nice bike to use instead. While the trolley and rail companies had to pay to install and maintain their tracks, the car and oil companies managed to get the taxpayers to cover the costs and maintenance of their roads. Roads are not free, and we cannot afford to keep viewing them as such.

9_Hats in the Garment District by Margaret Bourke-White
SOURCE: Hats in the Garment District by Margaret Bourke-White, Time Life

Local planning codes will require a certain number of parking spaces to build a new building. What if they instead required the business to be within walking distance of public transit?

Some companies provide free parking in their office buildings as a perk to their employees. What if they instead used the cost to build the parking structure to subsidize bikes or bus passes for every employee?

Most cities provide cheap parking along sidewalks at meters. What if they instead allowed hybrid and electric vehicles to park for free and charged more for gas guzzling SUVs?

Our addiction to oil is more than the gasoline we put into our car. It permeates into countless design decisions that prevent us from building truly sustainable cities.

If you wish to help correct the Oil Spill in the Gulf Coast, please make a donation to Healthy Gulf.

—Eric Corey Freed is an architect and author of four books, including Green$ense for the Home.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, July 13th, 2010 at 6:00 AM and is filed under Green. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.