Agile, imaginative management of the environmental/energy nexus is at the core of a vibrant, fully competitive future for Tulsa.
Crafting a powerful, sustainable transportation strategy is a part of the golden path for Green Country. We need to continue to fix the streets, but doing so is only a piece of the grand challenge confronting the region.
Gas Prices and Tulsa's Future
We may soon, to use a highly topical example, witness a landscape-altering, reset in the price of gasoline in Tulsa and across the country -- not withstanding a temporary drop that may occur this summer.
An epic price jump may come as a consequence of continuing explosive economic growth in Indian and China, the Arab Spring, constraints on domestic gas refining capacity and what my friend Dr. Bruce Langus, a Tulsa geologist/earth science pro and others call the advent of peak oil -- the end of cheap oil.
Tulsa will become, by virtually any reasonable definition, an exceptionally fragile place should these events transpire. Our city is car, SUV and truck-crazy like few other communities, and we have only a rudimentary bus and public transit system.
Not having a stout transit system that is a real light rail system or a fully capable bus system creates a huge problem for the Tulsa metro. INCOG chief Rich Brierre says that Tulsa is on the short list of mid-sized communities that would be in catastrophic shape if oil prices move to a new semi-permanent level.
And there is a lot of literature on what may happen with a sustained gas price spike -- some of it from urban economics, some from city planning, some from environmental engineering and parts from human ecology. Joan Fitzgerald, a professor at Northwestern University, has written a stellar new book on what we might expect.
In "Emerald Cities: Urban Sustainability and Economic Development," Fitzgerald's assessment paints a very stark picture:
"Cities have much to gain by reducing driving. Getting away from cars reduces pollution and has economic development and job potential ... Reducing car use would both increase national energy security by decreasing reliance on foreign oil and put a big dent into the nation's massive contribution to greenhouse gas production. Where cities do have a unique role to play is in reducing vehicle miles traveled by increasing public transportation and other non-automobile options. With only 4.7 percent of US workers commuting by public-private transportation there's a lot of room for improvement."
The Talent Base
I visited this week with the transportation planning crew at INCOG -- Green Country's metropolitan planning organization. There are a host of local planning and transport gurus at the center of what looks to be a really inventive effort to transform bus transport and other elements of locomotion, including INCOG's Viplav Putta, James Wagner, Kasey Frost and an inventive group of consulting pros including Austin pollster Robin Rather and planning pro Patrick Fox Jr.
All are leading a compelling, post-bureaucratic (FASTforward) effort to help us imagine what science writer Steven Johnson calls the "adjacent future".
A critical part of INCOG's mission is to guide the transportation planning efforts of the City of Tulsa and many of the surrounding counties that make up our metropolitan area -- an area of well over 1 million people.
Many Urban Tulsa Weekly readers may believe that public transit/ bus transport is only for people with modest incomes and those who have unreliable access to a car. While there are certainly a group of folks in Tulsa who lead transit-centric lives, the number is small (say under 2 percent), but this is deceptive.
Any of the high density development plans -- any of the consensus choices that came from the PLANiTULSA planning process last year -- would require a big rethink of how we spend transportation dollars and what we have made top priority items. An epic gas price "explosion" would certainly change bus ridership in Green Country -- and we aren't ready.
An Example: Agility and the Bus
Part of our challenge here in Tulsa is to turn a well managed, if anemic bus systems -- something that we already have -- into a spine on which to build something more substantial. INCOG's James Warner and others here in Tulsa talk about "Bus Rapid Transit" -- a sort of bus system on steroids that might attract dramatically higher Tulsa area ridership with outsized impacts on employment, pollution emissions and congestion on a handful of Tulsa street segments.
Jenna Wortham, a tech writer for The New York Times, writing about startup company Uber, highlights a fascinating part of another key piece of the transit future for Tulsa.
"Here is yet another thing you can do with a smartphone: summon a car to pick you up with a tap on the screen. Uber, a start-up based in San Francisco, offers a cellphone application that is aimed at making using a car service quick and painless ... some welcomed it as an antidote to notoriously sluggish public transit and a dearth of cabs. Uber is not a taxi or limousine company. Instead it operates as a dispatch service, working with local owners of licensed private car companies. Uber provides each car with an iPhone and software that manages incoming requests. When an Uber user needs a ride, the dispatcher and the closest car are notified, and the system sends back an estimate of the pick-up time. While they wait, users can monitor the car's location on their phone."
Imagine a re-animated Tulsa area bus system that operates on an "auto-improvised" route system that corresponds to where users are and what they actually need--on a minute-to-minute basis.
This is an example of the kind of the breakout thinking that can keep us rolling -- and maybe help us see around the corner.
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