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Expensive gasoline is good for you
July 22, 2009 3:58 AM   Subscribe

The author of a new book on how rising oil prices will change America makes the claims that higher gasoline prices will make the country healthier and safer. Christopher Steiner asserts that, for every $1 that gasoline prices rise, obesity rates drop by 10% (as people walk more and eat out less). As for "safer", that comes in when high gasoline prices force police out of their cruisers and onto bicycles and foot patrols, where they can interact more closely with their communities.

And here is a summary of claims Steiner makes in his book about other consequences of high oil prices. Some are things that have been discussed before (inner cities becoming affluent and suburbs becoming slums, for example, fewer plastic knick-knacks and a renaissance in rail transportation), while others (such as mass migration to the south as heating homes in the north becomes prohibitively expensive) are less so. All in all, Steiner's assessment, whilst heralding radical changes, seems upbeat and entirely non-apocalyptic.
posted by acb (61 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
Interesting, but isn't the negative impact on the growth of the general economy likely to have the greatest implications?
posted by Phanx at 4:09 AM on July 22, 2009


Does he argue that they need to tax it more heavily, funding the creation of an alternate system to be prepared for when it runs dry or becomes too expensive to continue being the lifeblood of our economy? Or is he in favor of the kind of irrational speculation that makes some people rich, while, especially in the case of the essential commodity, making everyone else poorer?
posted by nervousfritz at 4:23 AM on July 22, 2009 [2 favorites]


i love wild speculation!

don't get me wrong though. i support a fast, concerted effort to move away from fossil fuels - for a cleaner environment, to minimize global warming, for energy independence, etc, etc. but how in some norse god's name can we assume how people will react to higher gas prices? people will walk more because gas prices are higher? really? maybe people will buy an electric car... or ride the bus... or do more errands at once so they can spend more time watching tv. the possibilities are endless!

and Phanx, only if we try to stubbornly maintain the current suburbia/stripmall/car-culture/oversized-everything way of living will there be negative impacts on the growth of the econmy. if we manage the transition properly, are creative and proactive, the impact could well be positive (think of all the work that has to be done!).
posted by molecicco at 4:33 AM on July 22, 2009


I doubt it. About 85-90% of US and world energy use is oil, coal and natural gas. We're almost certainly past the peak for both natural gas and oil, which combine to around 60% of energy use. This problem is drastically compounded by EROEI(energy return on energy investment), which for oil will likely cause a rapid "shark fin" curve as more and more energy is used to extract the hard-to-get oil still in the ground

We're simply not going to turn the whole world on a dime and make calm but drastic cuts in energy use year after year after year. The power structure of the world is such that the rich can keep driving their SUVs long after the poor in the west can no longer pay to heat their homes and the poor in the third world can no longer afford to eat. There will be resource wars, starvation, significant population decline...

OR, we'll develop solar power that's efficient and cheap enough that we can keep the party going
posted by crayz at 4:39 AM on July 22, 2009


Christopher Steiner asserts that, for every $1 that gasoline prices rise, obesity rates drop by 10%

I call bullshit. Firstly, what rate is he referring to? For people who are already obese, they are unlikely to get radically less obese quickly. Given that this is now a high percentage of adults, the overall obesity rate won't change quickly either.

For "new" obesity cases, i.e. those people making the transition from overweight to obese, it may make a difference. But in lots of cases - both new and existing obese cases - I suspect not without a radical rethink in the way public transport and amenities are planned.

I mean, you take an example like Boca Raton - as far as I could tell there are no local amenities - everything is clustered around a mall. Which the majority of people will still have to drive to.

The solution is likely to be the reverse of what caused the obesity crisis in the first place - a return to towns and cities built around people being able to shop and work locally, or able to take public transport. And a move away from cheap, high sugar or high fat food. I.e. either the cost of food has to come up from its ludicrously low levels or consumers, retailers and food processors have to somehow agree on healthier food dominating the supply chain.
posted by MuffinMan at 4:39 AM on July 22, 2009


This guy has been making the rounds of the public radio talk shows. It became pretty clear that his whole premise was based on a city-centric viewpoint of the country. Gas too expensive? People will ride the bus/rail system!

Well...only those people who happen to live in a large, clustered, urban area served by a comprehensive mass-transportation system. That, what? 5 or 6 cities? Most everywhere else, "mass-transit" refers to the small local bus line that goes primarily to the shopping areas and nowhere near anyone's offices, factories, homes, etc. I can't see those systems suddenly growing to a point where they become viable means of transport for commuting citizens.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:45 AM on July 22, 2009 [6 favorites]


i love wild speculation!

The "$1 gasoline price = 10% obesity" statistic is apparently derived from an empirical study of health care statistics. How it extrapolates to steeper and longer-term price rises, of course, is up for debate (Steiner suggests that the drop in obesity rates will accelerate), though I doubt that the drop in obesity statistics will level off or reverse.
posted by acb at 4:47 AM on July 22, 2009


This guy has been making the rounds of the public radio talk shows. It became pretty clear that his whole premise was based on a city-centric viewpoint of the country. Gas too expensive? People will ride the bus/rail system!

And if the suburbs become unlivably expensive, people will move to higher-density cities, where the costs of transportation are lower.

Most everywhere else, "mass-transit" refers to the small local bus line that goes primarily to the shopping areas and nowhere near anyone's offices, factories, homes, etc. I can't see those systems suddenly growing to a point where they become viable means of transport for commuting citizens.

If the demand's there, more buses can be laid on. Once the demand saturates the capacity for buses, ideas such as light rail become viable.

Of course, this would depend on population densities increasing, which will happen as economic pressures empty out the least viable suburbs and move their residents to higher-density, better provisioned areas. So presumably a lot of suburbs will end up abandoned, and a few of the more salvageable ones transforming into higher-density mixed-use urban centres less dependent on cheap transport.
posted by acb at 4:57 AM on July 22, 2009


The "$1 gasoline price = 10% obesity" statistic is apparently derived from an empirical study of health care statistics.

Right, ok. Except, assuming that all other conditions stay the same *except* for oil prices and obesity is totally ridiculous. It would be pretty safe to assume numerous confounding factors in such a study. Such as, for example, the GDP growth rate and the price of oil. For the last century or so, the price of oil and the GDP growth rate have been tied closely to each other, but they become less tied to one another as a greater percentage of end-use energy comes from non-fossil resources.
posted by molecicco at 5:03 AM on July 22, 2009


Did the bio on the back of the book happen to mention that the author is secretly an Exxon VP?
posted by Mastercheddaar at 5:18 AM on July 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


Not to trash on the post, but I dunno. All this is are some specific examples of the substitution effect, which isn't particularly novel.
posted by dismas at 5:26 AM on July 22, 2009


The enemies of America want you and all the nation's critical infrastructure to move out of our nice safe suburbs into densely populated cities so that it will be easier to wipe us out. Sprawl is security. Frank Lloyd Wright understood this, and his spread-out Broadacre City plan was a direct response to the city bombings of World War Two. In the 1950s, the US government directly encouraged sprawl as a strategy. If there was one message we should have gotten from 9-11 (and the smaller WTC bombing that proceded it) was that we need to decentralize even more broadly. This is also the message of decentralized and nearly indestructible Internet. Certainly, solar and wind power encourage sprawl. So does nuclear. Our enemies also prefer that Americans ride mass transit, so that it will be easier to sabotage and terrorize us in bulk, just as they prefer that we centralize transportation around train travel (as much as I love a train, sigh). We should not be tempted by the visions of aging boomers who fondly remember sleeping twelve to a bed in Haight-Ashbury, and think the answer is for us all to live and travel with a stranger's feet in our faces. The best defense against war and terrorism is sprawl, and our energy policies should include finding ways to maintain and extend it.
posted by Faze at 5:31 AM on July 22, 2009


lolwut
posted by dismas at 5:41 AM on July 22, 2009


^^hahaha
posted by molecicco at 5:50 AM on July 22, 2009


Any change that "forces" people to become more virtuous is destined to backfire horribly. Humans are perverse and adaptable, and don't like to be made to do anything or denied anything, and if given a choice "a or b" are likely to chose "q" and upset everyone.

Changes that make life cheaper, easier and more entertaining are likely the only ones that will stick... so green technology needs to focus on outdoing traditional tech in these areas, and stop waiting for economic doomsday models to "force" people to adopt things they consider unpleasant or inconvenient.

Example: on the cusp of ruin, GM introduced yet another gigantic SUV... that gets twice the fuel mileage of the model it's replacing, on par with a mid-size sedan. That's the way to work it.
posted by Slap*Happy at 5:52 AM on July 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


Yet another conservative who thinks we still live in the '50s.
posted by The Card Cheat at 5:53 AM on July 22, 2009


This guy has been making the rounds of the public radio talk shows. It became pretty clear that his whole premise was based on a city-centric viewpoint of the country....Most everywhere else, "mass-transit" refers to the small local bus line that goes primarily to the shopping areas and nowhere near anyone's offices, factories, homes, etc.

Yup.

I have no idea what I'd use to get around Kitsap County. There're buses, of course. They go through my village twice a day--around 0900h and 1900h. The concept of making it a full day's mission to get a used book and some machine screws strikes me as ludicrous.

I could bicycle. But only to one of the towns. The other town (which has way more stuff) is a day's ride, roundtrip.

Gas is getting more expensive, so I've been driving less, consolidating my trips, putting off errands. But mass transit really doesn't work for rural folks.
posted by Netzapper at 5:55 AM on July 22, 2009


The enemies of America want you and all the nation's critical infrastructure to move out of our nice safe suburbs into densely populated cities so that it will be easier to wipe us out. Sprawl is security. Frank Lloyd Wright understood this, and his spread-out Broadacre City plan was a direct response to the city bombings of World War Two. In the 1950s, the US government directly encouraged sprawl as a strategy. If there was one message we should have gotten from 9-11 (and the smaller WTC bombing that proceded it) was that we need to decentralize even more broadly.

Wait. Really? Really really? First of all, the midwest is a giant empty cornfield punctuated by population, so they got that "spread 'em out" thing all locked down.

Second: Really? Forgetting the logistics of how frankly difficult it is to attack America (Yes- 9/11 was a heinous act. But it killed +/- 3,000 people. Less than one-tenth of the folks who'd die in automobile accidents that year. I understand that the psychological toll was devastating and huge and reverberates to this moment, but still), I'm not sure how your plan works. No banks within 2 miles of each other? No more than one major corporate office in the same town/city?

Sprawl is not a "strategy", it's a reaction. Putting shit far away from other shit is just goofy and wasteful. I understand your fear, but it's paranoid and counter-productive. Part of the cost of living in a democracy, in 2009, is living under the fear of terrorist attack. This is the cost of being a nation that at least encourages freedom and capitalism etc etc.

Basing our urban policies on the reckless speculation that ZOMG WE GONNA GET BLOWED UP is ridiculous and weird, especially given how broadly infrequent actual attacks have been.
posted by GilloD at 5:59 AM on July 22, 2009


Life after peak oil (digest, discussion) - "Following an initial period of painful adaptation, we can live happily and healthily in a world with high energy costs"
posted by kliuless at 6:04 AM on July 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


Faze, why don't you go live in the woods, everybody else becomes Al Qaeda-bait in the evil liberal city, and we all live happily ever after?
posted by kittens for breakfast at 6:05 AM on July 22, 2009


But mass transit really doesn't work for rural folks.

Which just makes the prospect of peak oil all the more Scary. Because rural folks have it hard enough already. And then the recession happened. And now the situation is even more delicate (more and more infrastructure cut backs). It's like timber building up before a forest fire. And energy prices are the lightning strike that's gonna set the whole thing off. *shivers*
posted by symbollocks at 6:22 AM on July 22, 2009


SOTFL - Sprawling On The Floor Laughing.

Hats off to you Dr. Fazelove.
posted by srboisvert at 6:22 AM on July 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


Ohhhhhhhhhh! Sorry, it's too early in the morning for me to get satire out of anything, especially anything wingnutty.
posted by kittens for breakfast at 6:29 AM on July 22, 2009


I have no idea what I'd use to get around Kitsap County. There're buses, of course. They go through my village twice a day--around 0900h and 1900h. The concept of making it a full day's mission to get a used book and some machine screws strikes me as ludicrous. [...] But mass transit really doesn't work for rural folks.

When I'm at my parents' home in the country without a car, and the bus to the nearest (small) town costs $8 and takes ages, it makes sense for me to order things like books and machine screws online and get them delivered.

If in the future transport becomes really difficult (i.e. electric vehicles, biodiesel, and similar don't come through) I wonder if we'll see an upswing in online shopping, with every community receiving a single consolidated delivery every day? In other words, we might see one van delivering to ten households instead of ten cars for the same - economies of scale in action.

Or perhaps the rural living lifestyle choice will simply become a less affordable luxury?
posted by Mike1024 at 6:40 AM on July 22, 2009


I always think of Carl Sagan when I hear these arguments. I remember reading something he'd written back in 1999 about how only high gas prices were ever going to make us do anything about our consumption of fossil fuels. So ever since then I secretly cheer high gas prices.
posted by threeturtles at 6:43 AM on July 22, 2009


Gas is getting more expensive, so I've been driving less, consolidating my trips, putting off errands. But mass transit really doesn't work for rural folks.

It follows from this that with high gas prices, rural living doesn't work well for rural folks.
posted by oaf at 6:48 AM on July 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


Faze is always so over-the-top in urban planning discussions, I seriously think he's playing us. I mean, just search his comment history for the word 'suburb.' There's no way he takes himself seriously.

He's definitely got some genius-level Colbert / Billionaires For Bush stuff going on.
posted by Afroblanco at 6:53 AM on July 22, 2009


I just assumed that I was laughing with Faze, not at him/her. But either works, really.
posted by molecicco at 7:10 AM on July 22, 2009


I really can't see the mentioned mass migration to the south to save on heating costs happening. My relatives in Kansas tell me the heat index (with humidity factored in) was 114 there last week. Air conditioning is as necessary there as heat in the winter. And heating a home is relatively fuel-efficient, I would think. When you run an air conditioner, you're losing a lot of your energy as heat.
posted by echo target at 7:12 AM on July 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


It follows from this that with high gas prices, rural living doesn't work well for rural folks.

No, it works pretty well. It just costs more to get places, so habits have to be modified. I can't run out and get a paintbrush just 'cause I need one... I have to wait to hit the hardware store the same day I go grocery shopping. It also means that I go to the inferior stores, because they're close to other stores I need, instead of shopping at all of my preferred places.

Thing is, I live so much more cheaply here than I ever did in the city that, overall, it's not so much of a hardship to me. To my poorer neighbors, yeah, it's becoming a hardship.

Personally, I'm pretty irritated at this move-to-the-cities-save-the-world thing I've been hearing a lot of lately. This concept that, since personal transport is necessary for rural life, there's something somehow immoral to living in the stix. And more offensive, that there's something mentally deficient with people who choose not to live in tiny expensive boxes surrounded on all sides by millions of indifferent humans driven neurotic by the stress of the city.

[Thank you, by the way. Up until this point, having moved out of Philly only a year ago, I had no particular opinion of city folk.]

All other things being equal, if the only issue is transportation cost... As much as I fucking hate the beasts, I'd swap my Subaru for a horse before moving back into the city.

Of course, I'd rather have a Tesla.
posted by Netzapper at 7:12 AM on July 22, 2009 [3 favorites]


I searched James Howard Kunstler's blog to see if he'd rendered any opinion on this competing prediction. My results:
No results found for “christopher steiner”.

My 2008 novel of the post-oil future, World Made By Hand, is available in paperback at all booksellers.
Developing...
posted by Halloween Jack at 7:18 AM on July 22, 2009


And if the suburbs become unlivably expensive, people will move to higher-density cities, where the costs of transportation are lower.

Sorry. That's utter bs. How do you suppose that suburbs will become "unlivably expensive" while cities miraculously become affordable? Do you not suppose that the same increase in oil costs that makes suburban living untenable wouldn't also similarly affect cities? How do you think all those nice things in the cities get into the cities?

Take a close look at all those people commuting into a large city from the suburbs. They aren't all executives driving in from their McMansions. The majority of them are mid-to-low-level cube-dwellers, secretaries, service workers, trades people, hourly workers, etc. They live in the suburbs because their older homes are far more affordable than anything they can get the city. They commute in because that's where they were able to find a job. The trades people are on the road because their workplace moves day-to-day and they need to carry their tools with them. Yes, rising fuel costs hurt them and make the commute very expensive. But that cost pales in comparison to the cost of a move into the city. When you move all of these people into the city, can you assure them that their jobs will be located within walking distance of their new homes? No? At least within walking distance of mass transit? Will the mass transit run on a schedule that works with office hours, school hours, etc? Maybe? And, remember, a large portion of these people won't be moving into large cities with a large, mature public transit system. They'll be moving to mid-level cities which might have some level of public transit, but nothing as wide-ranging as a New York or Chicago (both of which still see gargantuan commuter car traffic.)

Can you name a single American city that would be able to support a tidal migration of millions without its infrastructure succumbing? This ain't SimCity. You can't just plant more apartment buildings and fire stations when you need 'em. And, how, exactly, do these migrants afford the move? Such a rise in oil prices will, most assuredly, lead to a depressing of wages and loss of employment. Kind of hard to make an expensive move when you can't put-together a down-payment for that apartment in the city. If you can find an apartment, of course. Add "affordable" to that and you make the situation even worse.

And don't get me started on light rail. I'd LOVE to see light rail come to Indianapolis. But, I simply don't see a way to make it usable in what's left of MY lifetime. There's just no place to put it (unless, of course, you simply bulldoze all those "undesirables" out of the way,) and no viable way to make it usable to very many people. In fact, most of the plans I've seen seem to relegate light rail in Indy to a couple of small corridors running from select McMansion communities straight to downtown. This, of course, serves the wealthy executives who happen to have a downtown office. But, of course, it does nothing to serve even a meaningful fraction of the other million or so people who live and work around Indy. Add to that the billion+ dollars it will inevitable cost to plant light rail here, and I think it's a good bet it will never get past the study stage in the foreseeable future, no matter what the price of oil does.

No, this "people moving to the cities" dream is just that...a dream. A dream on the part of people who, seemingly, think mid-town Manhattan or the NE corridor is the norm for the rest of the country. And there's that whole "economic turmoil severe enough to force millions of people to migrate into the cities, yet leaving them with jobs and wealth enough to actually afford to move" part that just seems to be a wee bit...delusional.
posted by Thorzdad at 7:18 AM on July 22, 2009 [6 favorites]


What are you on about? When commuting becomes expensive, you move closer to transit, and are more likely to get a job that is close to transit. Things are more likely to get built next to transit. Hell, the transit infrastructure itself is more likely to get built. People don't have to move from exurbs to Manhattans, but they can certainly move to intensified transit-oriented suburbs. It also doesn't have to happen overnight.

You don't even need high oil prices. User fees for highways that at least somewhat correspond to their true costs would do the trick. Or you could make explicit the high cost of free parking. Without free highways and parking, modern suburbia would not be possible.

"Do you not suppose that the same increase in oil costs that makes suburban living untenable wouldn't also similarly affect cities? How do you think all those nice things in the cities get into the cities?"

Mass transit is orders of magnitude more efficient, and can be powered by wind- or hydro-sourced electricity. Shipping is affected, sure -- it becomes more efficient geographically.
posted by parudox at 7:50 AM on July 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


for every $1 that gasoline prices rise, obesity rates drop by 10%
That's fantastic news! Obama should implement a $10/gallon gas tax. He'll cure the obesity epidemic overnight, and we can use the extra revenue to cure cancer, then once everything is under control, we can repeal the tax. Should take about a month I'm guessing.
posted by ShadowCrash at 7:51 AM on July 22, 2009


How do you suppose that suburbs will become "unlivably expensive" while cities miraculously become affordable? Do you not suppose that the same increase in oil costs that makes suburban living untenable wouldn't also similarly affect cities?
The costs aren't constant, but proportional to the amount of transportation that needs to be undertaken. Where things are closer together (and closer to distribution hubs), this decreases. And a system with less sprawl is easier to optimise for shorter paths.
Yes, rising fuel costs hurt them and make the commute very expensive. But that cost pales in comparison to the cost of a move into the city.
That's a one-off cost.
When you move all of these people into the city, can you assure them that their jobs will be located within walking distance of their new homes? No? At least within walking distance of mass transit? Will the mass transit run on a schedule that works with office hours, school hours, etc? Maybe?
It works well enough in Europe. Most people in, say, London or Berlin don't own cars. And no, the public transport systems aren't perfect, but it works well enough.
Can you name a single American city that would be able to support a tidal migration of millions without its infrastructure succumbing? This ain't SimCity. You can't just plant more apartment buildings and fire stations when you need 'em. And, how, exactly, do these migrants afford the move?
You seem to be thinking of a move being a mass exodus of refugees, which this is not. This is more of an ongoing process of people moving to places with lower costs and more convenient transportation. And as demand for housing in cities goes up, more will be built. Lower-density housing will get bought up by developers, knocked down and turned into apartment blocks. A similar process is already happening in Australia (which followed the post-WW2 American suburban model of urban planning).
No, this "people moving to the cities" dream is just that...a dream. A dream on the part of people who, seemingly, think mid-town Manhattan or the NE corridor is the norm for the rest of the country.
High-density urban living is the norm in large parts of the world (Europe and Asia, for example). The low-density sprawl of post-WW2 America is an artefact of an age of cheap oil. As the conditions which fostered it change, so will it.
posted by acb at 8:02 AM on July 22, 2009 [2 favorites]


I really can't see the mentioned mass migration to the south to save on heating costs happening. My relatives in Kansas tell me the heat index (with humidity factored in) was 114 there last week. Air conditioning is as necessary there as heat in the winter. And heating a home is relatively fuel-efficient, I would think. When you run an air conditioner, you're losing a lot of your energy as heat.

I hate to break it to you, but literally billions of people live in heat of that order for months of the year around the world. It might be pleasant, but it's in no way necessary.
posted by Happy Dave at 8:08 AM on July 22, 2009


You seem to be thinking of a move being a mass exodus of refugees, which this is not. This is more of an ongoing process of people moving to places with lower costs and more convenient transportation. And as demand for housing in cities goes up, more will be built. Lower-density housing will get bought up by developers, knocked down and turned into apartment blocks. A similar process is already happening in Australia (which followed the post-WW2 American suburban model of urban planning).

This, exactly. Centralisation and the move towards limiting sprawl won't be some Soylent-Green-esque nightmare with twenty to a room and chipboard partitions and daily water riots. You'll just see big chunks of resource-rich (water, power, transportation) America becoming far more crowded, and the gaps between suburbs filling up, with suburbs becoming self-sufficient towns in their own right, rather than outposts of an existing urban centre.

One of the things that has struck me when visiting the US is how empty big chunks of the country are. It'll be a hundred, two hundred miles of fields or scrub, then dozens of miles of identikit new build suburbs, then a crumbling inner city. That's going to change, the question is how. Personally, as I say, I think it's going to be new towns emerging from Exurbs, bulldozing the unoccupied new builds that never got sold in the 2009 Crash and building walkable Main Streets. In the cities, there'll be more people, and hopefully more housing being built.
posted by Happy Dave at 8:19 AM on July 22, 2009


The low-density sprawl of post-WW2 America is an artefact of an age of cheap oil. As the conditions which fostered it change, so will it.

If you think the suburbs will magically disappear in a puff of smoke (or be completely abandoned) when energy costs rise, then you might want to read Jeff Vail's series of essays on A Resilient Suburbia (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3).
posted by symbollocks at 8:20 AM on July 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


Thing is, I live so much more cheaply here than I ever did in the city that, overall, it's not so much of a hardship to me. To my poorer neighbors, yeah, it's becoming a hardship.

There are probably more people in your area like your neighbors than like you.

And don't get me started on light rail. I'd LOVE to see light rail come to Indianapolis. But, I simply don't see a way to make it usable in what's left of MY lifetime. There's just no place to put it (unless, of course, you simply bulldoze all those "undesirables" out of the way,) and no viable way to make it usable to very many people.

Is there something preventing you from laying rail in the streets?

No, this "people moving to the cities" dream is just that...a dream. A dream on the part of people who, seemingly, think mid-town Manhattan or the NE corridor is the norm for the rest of the country. And there's that whole "economic turmoil severe enough to force millions of people to migrate into the cities, yet leaving them with jobs and wealth enough to actually afford to move" part that just seems to be a wee bit...delusional.

You know what's delusional? The constant "no we can't" apologists for our lack of a decent health-care system and lack of a decent transit system, because somehow America is different from the rest of the developed world. Or, in other words: THIS CANNOT POSSIBLY WORK IN SPECIAL-LAND!
posted by oaf at 8:23 AM on July 22, 2009 [2 favorites]


[A move into the city is] a one-off cost.

My rent bill would like to have a word with you. (I basically agree with the rest of your comment, though.)
posted by oaf at 8:28 AM on July 22, 2009


Traffic deaths fall as gas prices climb

Seeing as how cars are the #1 accidental cause of death and the correlation is extremely strong and intuitive, I'd think this stat would take top billing here.
posted by Skwirl at 8:38 AM on July 22, 2009


The costs aren't constant, but proportional to the amount of transportation that needs to be undertaken. Where things are closer together (and closer to distribution hubs), this decreases.

This is offset by the dramatic increase in real-estate costs. Livable urban centers are out of reach to everyone but the upper-middle and upper-class: the cost of living for everything from condo prices to corn flakes at the local grocer's is through-the-roof compared to the 'burbs. You need to make more than a hundred grand a year to own a crappy condo in a nice neighborhood in Boston, for instance, and Providence is right up there, too, despite its lack of decent public transit. And when middle-class families find a nice neighborhood with decent prices, then people start screaming about gentrification.

Even in small, walkable communities... we've got a lot of them here in New England, like Newport and Salem... owning a house or condo inside it is out of the question for everyone except doctors, lawyers and successful businessmen.

Middle class families are not going to give up their three bedroom house with a yard for a windowless warren with a quarter the space at twice the cost... energy prices will never be that steep.
posted by Slap*Happy at 8:40 AM on July 22, 2009


energy prices will never be that steep

And house prices can never go down.
posted by oaf at 8:44 AM on July 22, 2009


My rent bill would like to have a word with you.

Have your rent bill speak with your gasoline bill.
posted by acb at 8:48 AM on July 22, 2009


Livable urban centers are out of reach to everyone but the upper-middle and upper-class

Aren't there still a lot of economically depressed inner cities which, as oil prices rise, will start to look more attractive?
posted by acb at 9:14 AM on July 22, 2009


And don't get me started on light rail. I'd LOVE to see light rail come to Indianapolis. But, I simply don't see a way to make it usable in what's left of MY lifetime.

Creating such large infrastructures takes time. We HAVE to be looking 50, 75, 100 years down the road. Even if we won't see the fruits of our labour ourselves, we can't just give up the attempt.
posted by emeiji at 9:16 AM on July 22, 2009


Middle class families are not going to give up their three bedroom house with a yard for a windowless warren with a quarter the space at twice the cost... energy prices will never be that steep.

Oh, I don't know about that. I am part of a middle class family living in a three-bedroom house in the San Fernando Valley, and the only reason we haven't moved to a move urban area is that we got dogs and want them to continue having a yard. Turns out (for us at least) the benefits of a suburb, while pleasant enough, is extremely frustrating when it comes to the dependency on having to drive everywhere. We are looking forward to going more urban (hopefully within walking distance of the kids' school and a grocery store.)
posted by davejay at 9:18 AM on July 22, 2009


Oh, and where I live, moving into an apartment in a more urban center would neither be windowless (quite the contrary) nor twice the cost (even in rent/mortgage alone, much less overall cost of living.)
posted by davejay at 9:19 AM on July 22, 2009


And house prices can never go down.

They're going down a lot faster in the stix than in town, and if everyone starts moving back, then it will re-inflate real estate prices in the city.

This is something I know of, because I'm renting in a nice neighborhood in town, and I just can't afford a house or condo in the same area. I'd need to move into the middle of some serious blight to match what I can afford out in the boonies, even accounting for the fuel bill... and with a quarter the space, and no yard, garage or basement workshop.

Urban evangelists really, really haven't thought this through.
posted by Slap*Happy at 9:57 AM on July 22, 2009


You know what happens when demand (for urban housing) outpaces supply? The price increases. But then supply catches up with demand.
posted by parudox at 11:01 AM on July 22, 2009


(And the price falls back down.)
posted by parudox at 11:10 AM on July 22, 2009


That's utter bs. How do you suppose that suburbs will become "unlivably expensive" while cities miraculously become affordable?

Er, that's not how it works at all.

Right now, people find a balance between transportation costs and housing costs. That is to say, for lower/middle class folks, the sum of their housing+transportation tends to be a constant (PDF).

In urban areas, housing tends to be more expensive in the middle and cheaper the further you go out. Since currently transportation is very cheap, what people do--the working class types who have a set budget for housing+transportation--is look outwards, further from the city center, until that point where housing is cheap enough that housing+transportation cost fits into their budget.

If the price of transportation rises, especially if it rises dramatically, then it starts to tip the balance in that equation. It starts to become more economical to live in closer and drive fewer miles.

Of course when that happens the price of housing in closer goes up even more, the price of housing further out drops, and pretty soon you strike a new balance, etc etc etc

But the point is that the dynamic we've seen over the past 60 years or so where cheap transportation makes it feasible to travel long distances, leading to flight from the center of cities to the edges, starts to reverse.

That doesn't mean that suburbs are going to disappear or something--no more than city centers disappeared when the pressure was moving in the opposite direction.

But you're looking at reduced housing prices in outlying suburbs, reduced (or no) new housing starts in such areas, more new housing in central areas, and so on.

In short, the reversal of the outwards flight that happened over the last half of the 20th Century.

(Though even there "flight" is really to strong--more like a constant, continuous pressure outwards. With higher transportation prices it is likely to become a pressure towards the center.)
posted by flug at 11:27 AM on July 22, 2009 [2 favorites]


Personally, I think it will mean a faster, more dramatic erosion of the middle-class.

You will have the rich who can drive, and the once middle class, trapped in hellhole neighbourhoods.

It really appears to be Market Forces at work...
posted by jkaczor at 11:31 AM on July 22, 2009


Personally, I'm pretty irritated at this move-to-the-cities-save-the-world thing I've been hearing a lot of lately.

They are talking about societal and economic trends, not you personally.

You can just go ahead and insert that thought whenever you hear that idea.

(And, frankly, there is some pushback going on against the idea that has somehow become current in the U.S.--and maybe elsewhere in the world--that cities are these sort of horrible, wretched, dirty, malevolent places that the the downfall of civilization. Just like anywhere else, a city can be a perfectly decent place to live if you make it so.)
posted by flug at 11:42 AM on July 22, 2009


Some thoughts about rural America - Rethinking the Rust Belt:

Since most of the real wealth circulating in the American economy of the late 20th century came from overseas, the seaports of the east and west coasts came to dominate the economy, while the old economic heartland of the Midwest turned into a “Rust Belt” of half-empty cities and crumbling smokestacks. [...] America’s overseas empire is already coming apart at the seams, as the costs of maintaining it overtake its economic benefits – the common fate of empires throughout history – and rival powers turn our imperial overreach to their advantage. In the foreseeable future, the United States will again have to produce most of the goods and services it uses at home – and as that happens, the regions most likely to profit by it are those inland areas whose central position gives them easier access to markets nationwide, and whose access to the old arteries of waterborne transport will make them much more viable as centers of production and distribution in future where energy will be in short supply.
posted by symbollocks at 12:51 PM on July 22, 2009


Can you name a single American city that would be able to support a tidal migration of millions without its infrastructure succumbing?

Maybe not millions but my city Pittsburgh used to have a population of 600,000 and currently has one of around 300,000 without a whole lot of loss of housing. That's not to say that our infrastructure in in great shape but that's mostly because of the loss of tax revenue from the loss of all those people. My 4% city wage tax has to go twice as far as it would have fifty years ago when the city was twice as populous. We'd love to have suburbanites move back to the city; they all work here and use our roads, police, fire dept, hospitals, etc but pay their taxes out in the 'burbs. Since they're using our infrastructure, they might as well live here and contribute to it's upkeep.

Oh, and at least here, housing in the city are generally much cheaper than those in the 'burbs. People don't move the 'burbs because of cost, they move because of schools and grass and such.
posted by octothorpe at 1:00 PM on July 22, 2009 [1 favorite]


I don't know if the split is really rural/urban, as opposed to centered/decentered. Cheap travel costs allow inefficient uses of space, simply because we can drive ourselves from one space to the next without major penalty. Higher travel costs will lead to more efficient use, with all goods and services available in one central location, and personal travel much more limited to going between that location and your residence. It doesn't have to mean that everybody lives in or near to cities, rather that communities - both rural and urban - have a clearly defined service center within a reasonable distance.

In the middle ages, travel costs were obviously higher than today, and yet the majority of the population lived in rural areas. Regular markets throughout the countryside meant that most villages and farmsteads were within a day's walk of somewhere to buy and sell goods, but you would expect to find everything you needed there. A thousand of so years of this created quite a consistent pattern, and I remember Le Corbusier demonstrated it by drawing a regular hexagonal net over a good chunk of Western Europe, with each node being a market place. Some of these places were settlements, and many did develop in that way, but some were nothing more than an appointed location. My hometown existed for many hundreds of years with just a hundred or so inhabitants, yet served all that time as the commercial center of a large rural community.

I understand that some people will object to the analogy by saying that rural people back then were more self-sufficient or lead lives that were sometimes impoverished, but maybe rural dwellers are willing to bear these costs to maintain the benefits of not living in urban areas? A higher price of fuel won't necessarily make people move to cities, but they will have to reassess their priorities.
posted by Sova at 1:06 PM on July 22, 2009


I think flug really nailed it a few posts up; as transportation costs go up, the rent/gas balance that people have currently struck will change. Unfortunately, the overall percentage of income spent on transportation+housing will probably increase, so it's not like the change will be painless. But it's not like someone is going to order everyone to vacate the suburbs and move into Soviet-style urban housing. People will move when they can no longer afford to maintain the lifestyle they want to lead in the suburbs, and view moving closer to their jobs as a positive tradeoff. When people move they may not be entirely happy about giving up their house and two-car garage in favor of a townhouse or apartment and public transportation, but they'll do it when they're sick of paying for the lifestyle — not because someone orders them to, which is often (bizarrely) how the debate gets framed.

Speaking as someone from a rural area who came to the city only reluctantly in search of work, this isn't exactly a foreign concept. There are a whole lot of people living in urban areas right now who would, I'm sure, much rather be living out on their 40 acres somewhere in the middle of nowhere, even if that meant North Dakota. But you live where you can afford and where people are willing to pay you.

Where I think we'll end up is with revitalized urban centers and with smaller cities and densely-populated but small towns, perhaps reminiscent of life before the automobile. If you drive around New England there's no shortage of models you could look to; towns that probably only had a few hundred or a thousand people, but were clustered around one or two main streets and therefore have a population density (within that small area) that approaches that of a city. For people who actively dislike the anonymity of big cities, that might offer a lifestyle that's both "rural" and practical in a world of high energy costs. It's not like we haven't done high-cost energy before: energy (of the sort that can be directed and put to useful work) was phenomenally expensive throughout almost all of human history. It's only in the past generation or two that things have gotten cheap.

The role of new technologies in rural communities shouldn't be set aside, either. New types of solar systems and high efficiency appliances mean that a rural detached home isn't necessarily the energy sink that most currently are. The suburbs, especially the "McMansion farm" style of tract housing built out in the exurbs, are almost certainly dead in the long run. However, for people committed to (and who have employment that allows them to live) the rural lifestyle, technology is making it easier to live off the grid.

I could easily see that becoming the choice as energy costs go up: do you want to live in a densely-populated area (whether a true metropolis or just a densely-populated region of a town or small city) in a multifamily dwelling with access to public transportation and the social benefits of urbanization, or do you want to do the 21st century equivalent of subsistence farming on the frontier, with solar panels, windmills, geothermal heating, and only occasional trips in to town when you can afford the gasoline. That strikes me as resembling pretty closely the situation that existed prior to the widespread introduction of the automobile, and it seems logical that we might eventually go back to something like it.

It's the have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too nature of the suburbs — working in the city but not really living there, or wanting to be in a rural area but not having a job that allows you to be there — that's going to disappear, because it was only feasible by virtue of cheap oil.
posted by Kadin2048 at 2:58 PM on July 22, 2009 [3 favorites]


Peak oil has come and gone - gasoline needs to go too.
posted by PuppyCat at 3:39 PM on July 22, 2009


There is a lot of wailing here that moving closer to the city to avoid the costs of higher gas prices is pointless because higher real estate costs will equal any gas savings. And that won't work because it would result in a lower overall quality of life.
Yes, it will.
Perhaps we could have an election and vote gas prices lower? Otherwise, saying the solutions are untenable because you don't like them, so you don't accept reality is a bit silly.
posted by bystander at 2:21 PM on July 23, 2009


Another underanticipated consequence: pot smoking will disappear, because with no cars, there'll be no car parks for kids to hang out and have a social toke in, and solitary consumption of internet-ordered prescription drugs will further entrench its dominance.
posted by acb at 5:03 PM on July 23, 2009


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