What does the end of cheap oil mean to our urban futures?


The Contrasting Views.
One of the most common topics on blog sites and newsgroups here and around the world is "What does the end of cheap oil mean to the future of our cities?"

As usual, those who combine a yearning for catastrophe with a hatred of the motor car and the suburban lifestyle have leapt to their own "self evident" conclusion. They are convinced the suburbs are no longer viable and will be abandoned and left to decay into extensive ghost towns, home only to vermin and weeds.

All those millions of of people who inhabit the metropolitan areas of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Houston, and even Auckland and Christchurch, will up-stakes and surge into downtown neighbourhoods where they will take up residence in high rise slabs from which they will be able to walk and cycle to work – or of course catch their bus or train. As James Howard Kunstler puts somewhat gleefully:

"The US economy is crumbling because the way we conduct the activities of daily life is insane relative to our circumstances. We've spent sixty years ramping up a suburban living arrangement that has suddenly entered a state of failure, and all its accessories and furnishings are failing in concert. The far-flung McHouse tracts are becoming both useless and worthless in the face of gasoline prices that will never be cheap again. The strip malls and office "parks" are following the residential real estate off a cliff. The retail tenants of all those places are hemorrhaging customers who have maxed out every last credit card. The lack of business is now leading to substantial layoffs. The airline industry is dying and will probably cease to exist in its familiar form in 24 months. The trucking industry is dying, threatening the entire just-in-time distribution system of things that even people with little money to spend still need, like food."

All this because US gas prices may soon reach $5/gallon. We New Zealanders, like many others round the world, have been living with $5/gallon petrol for years, and have even survived $10/gallon petrol for close on two years. Yet Kunstler and many like-minded catastrophists state with total confidence that once gas hits $10/gallon all Americans will simply stop driving – and start rebuilding their cities.

Fortunately, the simple sums suggest otherwise. Look up the population of your nearest city. Look up the housing replacement rate, and figure out how long it will take to transform present day Seattle or Auckland into a remake of 19th Century London. Then think about the costs of all the new buildings, all the new infrastructure, and the lost asset value of all those abandoned suburbs.

Many of us believe that long before anyone has to consider such a drastic reshaping of our built environment new technologies and some minor behavioural shifts will make such disruption totally unnecessary.

The alarmists respond that we do not have the time.

However, we can develop new technologies and produce new products at high speed if we have to. Consider the rapid development of technology during WWII – jet engines, radar, V2s, computing and much more. By the end of WWII it was taking only five days to build a Liberty Ship in the US dockyards. When I first went on the Internet in 1994 there were only 70,000 of us in the club. Now there are over 1.6 billion of us.

Off course we have the time. After decades of paying about $5/gallon for our petrol, the NZ urban landscape looks much like America's although the average vehicle size may be somewhat smaller.

Now that we are paying $10/gallon for petrol, sales of small, more efficient, cars are booming, and a few more people are cycling to work, car-pooling or taking public transport. But, hardly anyone, except our local Katastrophists, are talking about giving up their autos altogether or proposing that we rebuild our cities within the constraints of Extremist Smart Growth urban form.

The most obvious change in behaviour is a boom in drive-away theft from petrol stations. Barrier arms or similar hardware will soon put a stop to this.

Our Densities are Higher and uses more Mixed than in the US.
Since the seventies, New Zealand has generally had 'enabling' Urban Planning rules which have allowed mixes of high, medium and low density housing and mixed uses of retail etc. Lot sizes have ranged in size but there would hardly be any suburbs built exclusively for single family homes on 1 acre lots. Consequently Auckland's density per sq mile is about double that of most US cities of similar age and size. But we are already "densified" and further density increases are being strongly resisted because the kerbside parking is already in short supply and inner city districts are noticing the increased congestion, noise and loss of amenity.

One effect of $10/gallon gas is that public transport prices are rising steeply too, and Councils are raising rates to keep up with the necessary subsidies. Some people seem to think that public transport runs on fairy dust.

Our auto ownership is about the same as the US, we drive somewhat shorter distances on average but generally spend more time driving up and down hills.

Of course we are now grizzling and complaining about the price of petrol. But the US need hardly fear any massive revolution while their gas remains at only half the price of ours.

US consumers are reacting to a dramatic change in price. Many of those cyclists are still prepared to pay more for their litre of bottled water than they are prepared to pay for a litre of gas.

A Force for Decentralisation
Americans are responding to this change in price by reducing their driven mileage. (Americans drove 11billion fewer miles in March 2008 than in March 2007. ) Significantly the most dramatic reductions are taking place in the rural areas. My own experience suggests this is because the reductions are much easier to achieve in rural life. We tend to co-operate when it comes to long trips, we can more freely plan our times of day, and we spend no time at traffic lights, in gridlock, or looking for parking spaces. When gas prices are high such waste is infuriating.

Hence, while none of us can be sure about future human behaviour, my own research and my own experience, suggests that high gas prices are a further force for decentralisation. Kunstler is sure we shall all rush to the city centre. Some people will, of course, but they will be watching many households moving in the opposite direction.

Freeman Dyson's book "The Sun the Genome and the Internet" identifies many present and future forces for decentralisation. My current position is that high gas prices are more likely to decentralise more people than centralise them. But no human behaviour is uniform. Some people will go downtown and some – probably more – will go to rural centres. Many will go to more remote locations for "the sea change, the tree change and the ski change."

Some people are convinced that this outmigration will be strongly resisted by the existing folk and even more so by people like me who will want to protect our piece of paradise. Not so – as long as the planners don't force us all to crowd into high density settlements with no room to swing a cat or grow our vegetables. And they will probably try.

When we moved to Northland eleven years ago there were few people in the Kaiwaka area and services were basic. Now we have a French restaurant, an Italian bread shop, a bundle of local newspapers, excellent butchers and delicatessens, the school rolls are growing and the medical services are better and nearer and so on.

Most New Zealanders of my generation grew up in the country and we are returning to our roots. The media like to make much of a few hopeless cases who want to "de-moo" the cows and so on but I have never had any problems of that kind and frankly we are the ones who are driving many of the new rural crops such as olives, wine, truffles etc. and the new tourism establishments and so on.

The Iron Horse will prevail
For most of human history people have had access to private point-to-point history using things called horses, camels, mules, asses, lamas or whatever. Christ rode into Jerusalem on the current equivalent of a VW. Then, in the 19th C trains and trams allowed the development of far-flung cities in which large numbers of people could get into the central city for work. (The Manhattan model). The trouble was the horses, which dominated short distance urban trips, caused dreadful pollution of air water and soil, not to mention the stench at a NY gridlocked intersection in mid-summer.

The car was a miracle. It got rid of the pollution, and released huge amounts of food to feed people.

In 1910, 40% of the grain grown in the US went to feed horses. This "extra" grain fed the population explosion which followed.

So the car the was the real "Iron Horse" – not the train.

Modern trains are at a higher level of technology than the nineteenth century trains but their new technologies only increase their speed and reduce their pollution. They do not overcome the fact that trains cannnot provide the flexibility of rubber-on-road transport such as buses, cars, and taxis – or indeed, of the family horse.

Anyhow, the rubber-on-road system is about to go through a development phase which will leave the train in (on) its tracks, or stuck at the station.

The next generation of cars will be a computer with four wheels.
Many people in many different research centres are working on new technologies which will mean you will be able to drive your car to the motorway where it will link to a position over an underground cable which will guide the car – you will be able to take your hands off the wheel and read, and even use your cellphone. The same cable may use an induction system to supply power to your electric drive system. (You will of course charge your electric car up in your garage overnight).

Then, when you get near to your destination you will put your hands back on the wheel, leave the motorway, go back on to the surface street and complete the trip. If there is no parking you will get out of the car and tell it to go park itself and it will. When you leave your business you will phone it up to tell it to come and pick you up and it will.

That it what we mean when we say the train is 19th century technology - it is stuck and cannot make the leap into the 21st century.

No one can be sure that this total package will prevail but there are so many options being developed that cars will certainly leap to new levels of effciency and effectiveness over the next few years. If this seems like science fantasy image convincing your great-grandparents of the reality of modern computers on your desk and the power of the internet.

Behavioural change.
There will be some changes of behaviour at the margins. People who are tired of congestion may make their move to the regional centres earlier than they might have, while their children might move to a downtown apartment.

But the technology will change much more rapidly than urban form and land use can change. If need be we shall electrify the private vehicle fleet and supply nuclear power and the car will be cheaper to run than ever.

There will be more telecommuting.

There will be more hi tech car pooling using GPS, iPhones and the Internet.

A few more will cycle and ride in trains and buses but the changes in travel mode will not be dramatic.

The worst thing that can happen is that our cities move from being "Opportunity Cities" to "Panic Cities" that insist on controlling where and how their people should live, based on knee-jerk reactions to change and a total lack of confidence in people's ability to innovate and adapt.

Owen McShane is a Resource Management Consultant based in New Zealand

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"The next generation of cars

"The next generation of cars will be a computer with four wheels.
Many people in many different research centres are working on new technologies which will mean you will be able to drive your auto body parts to the motorway where it will link to a position over an underground cable which will guide the car..." ---> a very brilliant idea that we should looked up to. In time, cars will be different as what we see today.

Rural migration?

I agree with you that the migration back to cities won't be as dramatic as Kunstler and other say, but I miss your point about rural migration. Why would people move to rural areas? Traffic congestion? Where do you suppose they will work? They could telecommute, but then they'll have little reason to leave the city in the first place. I don't anticipate the decline in rural populations (in the U.S.) stopping any time soon.

Personally, I expect that cities will continue to expand, although somewhat slower. Hopefully suburban towns will densify enough to support light rail while preserving their more pastoral atmospheres.

Rural Migration

According to my information people are already moving to "rural areas" and especially to the micropolises within those rural areas. But they are also making what we call "The sea change, the tree change and the ski change" - in other words retirees are moving to scenic locations to enjoy their leisure years.

However, for a host of reasons rural centres are enjoying an economic revival because of tourism growth, the general decentralising forces and the desire to escape the congestion and high costs of central city living.
In New Zealand our farmers (who enjoy the benefit of having no subsidies) are experiencing a major boom especially in dairying. The typical dairy farmer's income INCREASED by over $100,00 last year.
This money flows through into the rural towns.
Even if you do spend an extra fifty dollars a week on gas by living in some really remote area this can be trivial compared to the extra two hundred dollars a week on a mortgage or rental you would pay in the central city.
Also there is the outmigration of divorced women with children, which is a major migration here and I understand is also true in the US (which is were I first read about it).

Now I am not saying that no one is moving into the big cities – of course they are.
But I see no indication that the high price of gas will reverse the general migration out of large cities which is either beginning or well underway in most locations.

I see you refer to the decline in rural populations in the US.
I was not aware that the decline was still taking place. It may be in some states but certainly not in all of them. This is a general problem - there is no such thing as the US housing market, or US demographics. They all need to be analysed on a state by state basis to have any untility.

Owen McShane, Kaiwaka, New Zealand.
Director, Centre for Resource Management Studies.