Beyond PlaNYC: Beyond Oil NYC

Below is a guest post by Dan Miner, organizer of the Peak Oil NYC group about a new report he wrote for NYC Sierra Club and Beyond Oil NYC.

As Oil Drum readers know, getting our communities to even acknowledge the reality of fuel depletion, let alone prepare for it, is a huge communications challenge. The Sierra Club NYC Group Energy Report offers an indirect approach that can be applied in any municipality, at any level of energy literacy.

While climate change awareness has increased dramatically this year, it is still widely believed that the climate impacts of our oil addiction lie far in the future, preventing a public consensus of urgency. Without that, the bold political action we need today is impossible. The stated primary goal of the report is to deal with potentially imminent national energy security risks at local levels, while also using those conventionally accepted issues to speed up the schedule for climate change response.

Sorry for the long hiatus TOD-NYC readers, I've had quite an active month of personal life changes. I've changed jobs, moved my apartment and got engaged to my girlfriend. All were good events that have time consuming projects associated with them. But have no fear, I have a full slate of posts planned for the next few weeks.

Those of us active in the environmental community here in NYC have been involved in a frenzy of advocacy work around the Mayor's PlaNYC 2030 intiatives and pushing for greater progress. In many ways, the Mayor's PlaNYC 2030 intiatives are the fullfilment of many of the goals I have advocated for in this blog. In some ways, his plan faces political obstacles that need to be overcome/dismissed. In other ways, his plan falls short of what would really set NYC on the path to sustainability.

Conservative pundits and military analysts tell us that even slight disruptions to our oil imports will cause prices to spike to $100 a barrel or more. Conventional Americans can imagine conflict with Iran leading to a blockade of the straits of Hormuz, a major hurricane hitting the Gulf Coast , or terrorist attacks on Saudi or Nigerian oil infrastructure. And they can imagine the economic consequences of those events, which could occur at any time, and which will impact most Americans personally and directly. Pointing out these vulnerabilities encourages the long term transition to other sources of energy, as even the U.S. military is considering. It also demonstrates the need for municipal planning to buffer the effects of fuel price shocks, as is taking place now in San Francisco and Portland , OR .

Most environmentalists have ignored the national energy security angle, as until recently, conservative types have preferred to avoid global warming. By using both arguments, climate change response can be repackaged as a national security initiative (as well as a local economic development initiative), and its appeal extended to new demographics. That narrative offers benefits to both environmentalists and local officials. Back in 2004, the NYC Council considered but did not act on a bill to begin this process. Let’s ask the Council to bring it back, and for Mayor Bloomberg to address the issue within the PlaNYC 2030 framework. Creating a citywide plan would compel government and business decision makers to plan for running operations on $5 / gallon gasoline. Involving many stakeholders would generate emergency plans, and speed up progress toward conservation and away from reliance on fossil fuels.

The third part of the story, left unstated, is that as stakeholders study long-term energy price scenarios, some will become aware of fuel depletion, and will be able to use the other arguments as cover for their actions until it becomes politically acceptable to discuss peak oil in public. In New York City , that time has not yet come. A spring 2006 peak oil conference organized by our group, the Post Carbon Institute’s local chapter, was resolutely ignored by the media. Despite the delirious popularity of anything green in NYC, discussing the geological reasons why fuel price increases are inevitable still elicits profound resistance and avoidance. The direct approach will not work. On the other hand, civic networks to discuss energy contingency planning can be strengthened and created today.

So let’s work with what the communities we seek to educate can currently accept. An underlying goal is to spread memes: rapid change in energy prices can happen soon, it is important to prepare for them, lifestyle changes will be necessary, power sources and transportation must be both renewable and sustainable. As fuel prices rise, and more disruptions take place, public attitudes will shift, and networks of sustainable practices will be ready to expand. Municipal energy shortage planning is a strategically important public education tool, to make transitions from what is accepted today to what must be acknowledged tomorrow, and to push the process.

“Moving NYC Toward Sustainable Energy Independence” recommends creating such plans in the short term, and over the long term, enhancing PlaNYC 2030 implementation with rapid deployment of decentralized, renewable power, and aggressive expansion of mass transit, along with national energy legislation.

The report was named Report of the Day by NYC public policy website Gotham Gazette.

It was featured on Energy Bulletin.

Please contact Dan Miner at if you would like to arrange meetings with officials, and presentations to civic and business groups.

Our meetings are posted at As Tri-State Food Not Lawns, we are co-producing a permaculture design course this summer at the New York Open Center.


Thanks for giving this report and more exposure.

The report states that "[t]ransporation accounts for most fuel use." I wonder if you can reconile that statement with the PlaNYC Inventory of Greenhouse Gas Emissions issued in April that, surprisingly, found buildings to have more responsible for GHG emissions that transportation. According to PlanNYC, 79% of GHG emissions are associated with the consumption of energy in buildings.

I realize that comparing GHG emissions to fuel input is somewhat apples to oranges, but do you see any conflict with the findings of your report and the PlanNYC report viz. where a crisis caused by escalating fuel prices will be felt most acutely in NYC and where the focus on mitigation should be placed?

SeaCliff, as you point out, greenhouse gas emissions and fuel input are apples and oranges. I don't have the information to enable a comparison of total fuel of all types used in NYC transportation versus that used in buildings. Happily, I don't think we need to measure which sector uses more fuel. We are dependent on fuel for both, and the central point is that disruption in fuel imports or prices will impact both sectors, perhaps severely.

Oil Drum readers can speculate about potential price shocks, and how a city like New York can mitigate them, but for preparations to get underway, those discussions have to take place among municipal stakeholders, in government, business and civic organizations. Getting the questioning process started locally and building participation in it is more important than precise answers, at least at first. Any one person's speculations about impacts and mitigations is comparatively unimportant.

I'm a big supporter of the PlaNYC 2030 initiative. It's an excellent framework, certainly not complete, and seems to have been composed without awareness of fuel depletion. The political difficulty of bridging that gap is daunting, but at least those who want to try can position themselves as boosters of the initiative, helping the City do the right thing.

Your central point is well-made and both sectors will feel the pinch. The transportation sector perhaps more acutely, but the building energy sector will catch up in short order. I'm glad that PlaNYC did the greenhouse gas study, because it should ensure that both sectors get the necessary attention. It's one thing to pay higher prices to get to and from work (and for goods that are shipped). It's another thing when you can't afford to heat or cool your apartment, or your employer can't afford the utilities for its leased or owned space. Planning now for these potential price hikes is crucial.

Dan, I rode the NY subways for 10 years and still marvel at the foresight of city planners 100 years ago. Other cities are adding heavy and light rail, but even in NYC millions still drive.

Would PRT work in the city? Seems like it could replace the bus system and reduce traffic. Check out this princeton study.
Princeton PRT (personal rapid transit) study

PRT is pretty much an expensive scam. There are no working system, and there's a good reason for that. It requires all the infrastructure expense of rail, for a system with a capacity not much better than cars on roads. And most of these systems run on rubber tires, so they're about as energy-efficient as cars, but without the flexibility to actually go everywhere in the way a car can. So yes, it might be possible to replace New Jersey's bus and road system and cover the whole state with PRT, like in that study. For only a couple trillion dollars. That's $2,000,000,000,000. That's a whole lot of zeros.

Actually the studies by Vectus and ULTra show they get 254 watt-hr per mile. Cars use about 1500 watt - hr per mile. Where did you get the $2T number? I'm using $10-20m per mile.

Potentially inaccurate back of the envelope calculations, but if you want to cover all of New Jersey, then you're going to need a whole lot of miles. Because the premise of PRT is to be both the mainline and last mile transit option, and it take quite a lot of miles to get near enough to everyone. Oh yeah, and there are going to be major capacity issues using this as a mass transit system. It could potentially be useful on a local scale, for example, going around some suburban office parks and linking them to a mainline rail station. But at some point it's just a better idea not to build suburban office parks at all and replace that travel with walking to buildings located much closer to transit.

Oh, and about the energy efficiency numbers: the number for cars is based on real cars running on real roads. The numbers for PRT is based on imaginary cars running in the heads of the designers. But the fact that it's electrically powered does give it a bit of an advantage over cars, at the cost of having to build an absolutely vast amount of infrastructure.

Efficiency is better than cars but the commuters experience is the big seller. Getting people out of cars is a difficult sell and we need to be creative. The engineering issues for PRT are difficult but solvable, I'm not sure you can say the same thing for batteries. Any amount of car pools, van pools and fossil powered hybrids will not meet the IPCC targets. Electric grid powered vehicles are the right direction, we just need to figure how the cheapest way to do it. Heavy and light rail form the backbone and for the rest the options are: 1) buses (or cars) with overhead wires in hilly areas 2) buried cables (induction) or 3) PRT which solves the slow transit time issue.

PRT doesn't solve the last mile problem, the goal is to put a station within 1/2 mile of everyone. If the station servers 2-4000 people than you need a population density of 2,000 per sq. mile. Low density suburbs should be converted back to farms. Everything else should get some kind of rail system. One station every sq mile is quite reasonable and the study has a good map of how counties should be configured.

I just don't see any field of application for PRT. If you want local low-density transit, you use a bus, or a trolleybus if you want to power it off the grid. The density justifies it, if you assume there are no low-density suburbs, and it's a hell of a lot cheaper to build. As an added bonus, the roads it runs on can also be used by cyclists, and generally come with sidewalks that can be used by pedestrians. No expensive elevated structure required. And if you have higher density, you build a streetcar, or light rail, or in extreme cases, a subway.

Oh and about PRT efficiency. If you want "push a button and the car shows up" service, then you're going to need a reserve of PRT cars. Many systems assume that these empty cars will just be circulating throughout the system. That already lowers your efficiency, potentially significantly. Then there's the issue of headway. If you assume a railroad-style safety model with one braking distance between cars, then headway will end up at something like 30 seconds, meaning the line could transport something like 150 people per hour in ideal conditions. If you assume a car safety model, without a safe stopping distance ahead of each car, then you can get the headway down to, say, 5 seconds, and get a slightly more respectable capacity of 800 people per hour.

Now let's consider what happens at the interface between a real transit system and PRT. Suppose a light rail train arrives, and 25 people get off. They'll be getting into 20 PRT cars, because most people will want to ride alone. Suppose it takes about 15 seconds (and that might well be an underestimation) for each to enter their destination into the system and board a car. That's a total of five minutes just to clear the station if you have just one departure track. And if even a fairly minor light rail station requires a 2-track PRT terminal, imagine an urban subway station with 100 people getting off each train every five minutes. Then you'd need a five track terminal, which is getting to be large and intrusive.

Dan, thanks for the post, great job!
If we actually want to make people aware of the energy situation we are going to have to make common cause with many other groups. It goes beyond categories, and we should be able to appeal to other groups if we remember their concerns and specificially appeal to them.
Our enemies are defining us as "peak oil cultists". In other words they are trying to define the debate by dissing us as somehow nuts. The way to turn that around is to gain allies by making common cause. Thats why your work with the Sierra Club is so important! Keep up the good work!

Great Article. The press here in Utah also seems to ignore the Peak Oil issue.

My personal solution is to ride an electric powered motorcycle to work. Right now I am also working on a solar panel system for my garage to power the bike with renewable energy.

You can see my homebuilt EV at this address.

If we had more electric vehicles powered by renewables, the air would be much easier to breathe in the cities.

I see problems with the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Too much is concentrated in hurricane country. Perhaps large cities and the states should have their own reserves to be used for vital services during shortages. Over time these could be renewables.