Oil Prices and the Future of Calgary

Given that I have moved here at a time of economic upheaval and great volatility in the prices of energy commodities, my thoughts have been turning to how global macro-economic factors will affect the future of this fair city.  Much of what I have discussed below, from Plan It to the machinations over the future of the ring road have dwelled on local politics and planning, and a likely myopic assumption of the continued status quo; that is that Calgary, as a regional economy will benefit, to a far greater degree, from a secular rise in energy prices, than it will suffer.  A couple of articles that I read today, some serious, some less so, have me however ruminating on the dependencies  of economics, government policy and human behavior in this context.

This blog post forms a discussion about a recent book published on the subject of Peak Oil and the impact to society and economies of rapidly rising fuel prices.  I haven’t read this book but I have read The Long Emergency by Howard Kunstler, so I am familiar with and sympathetic to the thinking behind the hypothesis.    What will the impact be on urban regions if this hypothesis proves true?  And what is the appropriate role of government policy, especially as it relates to infrastructure?  Both Calgary’s Plan It and the 2005 GoPlan (Transportation) attempt to modestly reorient the city towards heightened density and transit.  I am not sure this was in response to predictions iof higher energy prices, but instead an attempt to provide greater transportation choice, and a reflection of the reality that there is little appetite to construct new road capacity in the central city.  My experience of Calgary is that rising oil prices produce outcomes that are at odds with each other – yes, transportation costs rise, but so does wealth, and with it car affordability and a preference for driving over transit.  The 2004-08 oil boom produced unprecedented gridlock in this city even as pump prices nearly tripled.  This produces a dilemma for governments as to the appropriate policy responses and the opportunity costs of choosing one public investment over another; moreover, it forces governments to guess what the economy and commodity prices will look like 10 or 20 years from now. 

This is a juicy topic, and I will discuss more of it in future posts.  Todd Hirsh, in a column in today’s Globe, touches on this subject where he suggests that Calgary needs to make the right choices and resist the status quo if it is to match the growing accolades that are being heaped on Vancouver as both its economic and urban design / livability credentials rise.  I agree that Calgary has a unique opportunity to channel its still substantial wealth into building a “city of tomorrow” by understanding and levering economic forces, and solid sustainable planning and design principles.  In the inner city, both the East Village and World Expo have the potential to allow for the design of new neighbourhoods from the ground up; the city should not hesitate to bring in the best design talent and innovative thinking to do work that will garner attention and enhance the city’s livability.  People forget what places like False Creek, Granville Island and Coal Harbour in Vancouver once looked like.

Finally on the topic of sustainable transportation, this blog post on Vespas from the hilarious site Stuff White People Like cracked me up.  I have to admit I do love Vespas…not just for their nifty euro-design but also because they are such an obvious solution to short to medium distance urban travel.  They go fast enough for all but expressway-based travel and can therefore travel in regular car lanes, yet are quiet and diminutive unlike ear drum shattering, sound barrier breaking motorcycles, which in my humble opinion don’t seem to fit the urban environment well at all.  I’m sure if this blog were widely read, that comment would elicit many responses, but I guess that’s the point of the blogosphere.


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