Who thought driving cheap eco-cars would really happen?

If you have been following the construction of the I-269 loop surrounding the outskirts of the Memphis region, you know that one of the primary tools of disinvestment causing, tax revenue depleting, character sucking suburbanization is well on its way.  This highway will make Sam Cooper look like New Orleans’ Decatur Street, the 240 loop look like the Parkway System and 385 look like the Champs-Elysees.

Couple this with an expansive and complete network of sewer expansions throughout Shelby County ready to hook up the rest of the fleeing Memphians, a government who has demonstrated no backbone for protecting the tax base or improving inner city life, and land barons itching to start cutting new deals for more roadside “development”… we find ourselves on the precipice of a catastrophe of epic proportion.

A recent MPO Imagine 2035 presentation of a “Business As Usual” scenario all but confirmed this… or at least the public discussion did.  While our regional population is growing at a tiny annual rate and we are losing population in working-age and educated demographics, we continue to gobble up land at a ridiculously amazing rate.

Therefore, we spend more time commuting in the car than many other cities. Using a car so much to travel can make your brakes go bad, visit Chandler brake shop to have them take a look at your brakes for you. We spend a disproportionate amount of our income on transportation.  Our property taxes are higher because we have to pay for services to the space between destinations.  We have traded any sense of predictable traffic patterns for a spider web of periodic gridlock.  We have destroyed any sense of place that existed in historic neighborhoods, have overbuilt then abandoned second-tier suburbs and started building new communities that are 100% auto dependant because they connect to nothing.

So what is there to hope for?  What is left for those of us who are desperate to see riders on the trolley, people walking to the park and pleasant neighborhoods that rank with communities we are competing with for talent across the country and around the world?

High gas prices!

I know this is a long way off and may never really materialize.  Peak oil theories may not be scientifically sound.  Instability in the middle-east may be a thing of the past.  Hurricanes in the gulf may never touch another platform.  Nuclear plants may never replace oil refineries.  But these things are more likely to happen than the stars aligning to force local leadership to guide us into any alternative direction.  High gas prices making it stupid to drive 30 miles a day for work, 10 miles a day for family activities or five miles to a grocery store… this is all we had left.

Gas prices were supposed to go through the roof.  Then people would start wanting to live near the office and some cute shops would pop up down the street and junior would walk by the barbershop on his way to a baseball game.  America would be America again.

But now this.

Cars that get 100 miles per charge.

Chevy’s is supposed to go over 40 miles on a charge.  Mitsubishi’s could go 90 miles.  The Nissan Leaf is leading the way with 100 miles per charge.  Well, that’s just great.  Instead of fuel costs teasing people back to more dense cities with an abundance of pedestrian options, we can drive even farther for cheaper!

In Houston, Nissan is partnering with Reliant Energy to ring the city with charging stations.  Other deals are in the works from Orlando to San Diego.  Just imagine; someone could live outside of L.A. and almost commute to San Diego, or live in Tampa and commute to Orlando.  And, they’d never have to buy gas.  That sounds neat, if you enjoy driving.  But what if you don’t?  Neighborhoods will still be popping up farther and farther from core cities where land is cheaper and cheaper.  The phrase “drive until you qualify” will take on new meaning when you remove the cost of gas from the equation.  You are in big trouble if you don’t like life behind the wheel.

Closer to home, a company called Ecotality has received a $100 million loan from the U.S. Department of Energy to construct a system of over 2,000 charging stations in Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga.  I find it peculiar that one of the State of Tennessee’s single largest investments in highway infrastructure may be in the Memphis area but they didn’t think to link it to electric cars… so we can look forward to being spread out, inefficient and expensive while still driving gas guzzlers.

Unless we do something really cool.

Since Memphis is being left out of the electric car charging infrastructure while being asked to commute farther than anyone in the State of Tennessee, why don’t we use this as an opportunity to try something different?

Instead of agreeing to drive, drive, drive, why don’t we demand an alternative?  Why don’t we just redevelop our inner city where we already have all the stuff and walk or bike every once in a while?  Okay, that might a bit radical.

Why don’t we build our own electric vehicle charging infrastructure?  Why don’t we put charging stations in a system of town centers to encourage people to identify with their neighborhoods and not have to drive quite as far all of the time?

We could put charging stations in areas that are strategically positioned to be employment destinations or cultural destinations to encourage people to develop a pattern leading to a cohesive transportation strategy?

I am not sure what the answer is.  I do know that if we just chill out and watch, we will see more and more 25 to 40 year old college graduates get in their eco-friendly electric vehicles and drive away to another city where, oddly, people spend much less time in the car.