Can Shrunken Families be Reflated?

Number of people/housing unit, 1950-2003, from two sources. Click to enlarge. Source: Department of Housing and Urban Development for housing unit statistics, and US Census Bureau estimates via Texas State Library and Archives for population. Teal line uses housing unit estimates from Census Bureau Decennial Census of Housing, which doesn't quite match the HUD numbers, but the trend seems much the same.

I've argued elsewhere that the most important step we can take to solve our peak oil/climate change problems is to improve the fuel efficiency of vehicles. This is likely to be vastly more effective in the near term than trying to ramp up public transit (at least in the US - the considerations are rather different in Europe and Asia).

But in this piece, I want to take on the societal change that seems to me to have the second most powerful potential to help us adapt to declining oil availability. This is particularly true if the declines turn out to be larger than increased fuel efficiency alone can manage. I'm going to argue that if we put our minds to it, there is potential for us as a society to increase the average size of households again, by both promoting the stability of nuclear families and promoting extended families living together under one roof. This is an agenda that

  • Can be framed in an emotionally positive manner, instead of the doom, gloom, and energy taxes typical of thinking on these issues
  • Has the potential to appeal to both liberals and conservatives
  • Can make a big contribution to solving our problems over the course of a few decades.
  • Is likely to happen anyway, but could happen more and faster if we make conscious efforts to do it.
In fact, it's quite hard to come up with an American societal problem that would not be helped by promoting family stability. At the very least:
  • Increased household size will increase the density of population, which reduces the amount of transportation energy required for that population to get around.
  • It improves the utilization of heating/cooling/lighting energy, meaning we wouldn't need as much of that either.
  • It means our economy would have to spend less on building more housing and cars over coming decades, which would improve our ability to pay the enormous costs required to care for the baby boomers as they age.
  • Boomer medical costs would probably be lower for if more seniors were living with their families.
  • Kids would do better if their families stayed together, and if they had grandparents more involved in their lives. That would reduce the stress on schools, and improve the supply of future human capital to American society, helping the US to stay competitive in a globalizing world.
  • There would be less need for abortion if too-young potential parents a) had more adult involvment in their lives making them less likely to get in trouble, and b) were part of an extended family that could support any children they did nonetheless have.
  • Public transit and walkable transit-oriented neighborhoods will be more feasible if population density is higher because family size is larger.
And finally, unlike most other potential solutions to our problems, families staying together and/or moving in together does not require huge financial investments that will be hard to afford during what is likely to be a difficult economic climate in the next decade or two. Thus it has the potential to be a wedge big enough to matter.

Before we go on, I'd just like to stress that I'm not advocating encouraging larger families by increasing the birth rate. That would be directly counter-productive. Instead, I'm advocating encouraging the existing families to cluster together more, so that fewer houses are required to house the same number of people. I'm also not advocating that anybody be forced to do anything they don't want to. Instead I'm advocating that we try to change our culture and encourage people in this direction. I'll be more specific later.

It's going to take several posts to develop these ideas. Today I just want to quickly review some evidence of how we got to the small household size of today. Here's the headline graph again, which shows the last sixty years or so of declining persons per household.


Number of people/housing unit, 1950-2003, from two sources. Click to enlarge. Source: Department of Housing and Urban Development for housing unit statistics, and US Census Bureau estimates via Texas State Library and Archives for population. Teal line uses housing unit estimates from Census Bureau Decennial Census of Housing, which doesn't quite match the HUD numbers, but the trend seems much the same.

That data began in 1950, but the trend has been going on a lot longer and started at a larger average family size. I've relied heavily on the work of Steven Ruggles, a social scientist at the University of Minnosata who has been data mining past census data for several decades now, and drawing some interesting conclusions.

For example, this next graph shows where elderly persons were living from 1850-1990.

Distribution of living arrangements: elderly white individuals and couples in the United States, 1850-1990. Source: Fig I of S. Ruggles, Living Arrangements and Well-Being of Older Persons in the Past.

As you can see, in the 19th century, it was pretty much standard for elderly people to live with their relatives, usually their children. This does not mean that all families had elderly people in (since life expectancy was lower), but generally elderly people did not live alone. Over the course of the 19th century, there was a gradual tendency to elderly people living alone, and this accelerated in the early twentieth century, and then really took off after the second world war. Now, only a relatively small fraction of the elderly live with their families. However, this trend reached saturation towards the end of the twentieth century and has now begun to slightly reverse (more on this later).

It seems to be generally accepted by historians and demographers that this social change was an effect of the industrial revolution and the rise of wage-based labor as the main occupation, rather than people living on the farm. The next graph shows the decline in agricultural employment and rural population from 1790-1990.

Per cent of population rural and per cent of the labour force employed in agriculture, 1790-1990. Source: Fig XI of S. Ruggles, Living Arrangements and Well-Being of Older Persons in the Past.

The effect of the Industrial Revolution is clear. It began in Britain in the late eighteenth century and spread fairly quickly to the US by the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the ninetheenth century. By the end of the nineteenth century, the US was the world's largest industrial power. Rural employment declined correspondingly.

It's interesting to note that the early stages of the industrial revolution in the US were powered by wood. By 1850, when coal first showed up, agricultural employment had already fallen below 60% of the labor force, and wood use didn't peak until around 1870. The US had a lot of forests, so it made sense to burn them in the new Watt steam engines (patented 1769) for quite a while.

US primary energy consumption by fuel source, 1630-2005. Source: US EIA, Energy Perspectives.

In this paper, and an update here, Ruggles uses regressions over the geographical and temporal patterns of family structure and prevalence of wage labor to argue fairly convincingly that it was the availability of industrial jobs that undermined the traditional multi-generational family. As he summarizes the prior situation:

In the nineteenth century multigenerational families were usually formed when one child remained in the parental home after reaching adulthood to work on the family farm or business, with the anticipation of eventually inheriting it. Even though most households did not include multiple generations at any given moment, the great majority of families went through a multigenerational phase if the parents lived long enough. The multigenerational family was a normal stage of the pre-industrial family cycle. Families were typically multigenerational only for a brief period, after the younger generation reached adulthood and before the older generation died. This multigenerational phase nevertheless played an essential role in the functioning of the pre-industrial family economy. It ensured continuity of the labour supply on farms and for other traditional livelihoods and provided economic security in old age. The two generations were interdependent; the elders needed their children to continue to operate the farm, but as long as the elders held the property they were ultimately in control. With the replacement of the pre-industrial family economy by a wage-labour system, the incentives for multigenerational families disappeared.
and the process of change:

Between 1950 and 1970, the income of the elderly doubled, but the income of the younger generation rose even faster. In constant dollars, the income gap between the elderly and their children grew rapidly. In 1950, persons in their 30s and 40s made an average of $4,900 more than persons aged 65 or older, in 1990 dollars; by 1970, the gap had grown to $10,000. Even more dramatic was the growing disparity in education between the younger generation and the older one. In the early twentieth century, when secondary education was expanding gradually, the younger generation was only slightly better educated than their elders. In 1925, the elderly had an average of only 1.1 fewer years of schooling than did their children. With the rapid rise of secondary education after the turn of the century, however, that education gap expanded dramatically: by 1960, the elderly had an average of 3.0 fewer years of schooling than did their offspring.

The author contends that the growing disparity in income and education between elderly parents and their children had profound implications for generational relations. The traditional authority of the patriarch had depended largely on control over economic resources. But the authority of the older generation—women as well as men—also depended on respect for their knowledge and experience. In the rapidly changing world of the mid-twentieth century, longevity no longer was the key to useful knowledge. The younger generation increasingly regarded their elders as relics of a bygone age.

The growing educational and economic gap between generations compounded the decline in the authority of the old. It also meant a dramatic expansion of economic opportunity for the young. The generation that reached adulthood after the war had unprecedented success early in life, especially in contrast to their Depression-era parents.

Social gerontologists have consistently argued that the decline in residence of the elderly with their children reflects the preferences of the elderly. This argument has its roots in the pioneering surveys carried out in 1957, 1962 and 1975 by Ethel Shanas, in which the elderly consistently maintained that they did not want to move in with their children (Shanas, 1962, 1968). The elderly say that they do not want to be a burden to their children. When the elderly do live with their children, they are now usually dependants of their children, a living arrangement that is considerably less attractive than the dominant position of the elderly in the nineteenth-century family.

There has been much less attention paid to the preferences of the younger generation, but they are clearly just as reluctant to live with their parents as their parents are to live with them. The rise of secondary and higher education eroded the remaining economic incentives for the younger generation to defer to their elders. In the mid-twentieth century, after most people had begun to work for wages and agriculture had become a minor sector of the economy, young people often found jobs through parents or other family connections. The growing gap in education between generations meant that the younger generation sought higher-status jobs, and their parents often could not help. The increased pace of social and economic change in the twentieth century, compounded by the growing differences in education level, led to a growing cultural gap between the generations. Thus, the residential preferences of the young may have shifted even more dramatically than did those of the old.

Although the early stages of household size decline in the industrial revolution were driven by the demise of the extended family household, the later stages have been driven by increasing fragmentation even of the nuclear family. The following snapshot from a US Census publication gives an idea of the shift between 19990 and 2000, which is microcosm of what's been going on for the last fifty years:

Summary of changes in household composition 1990 and 2000 US Censuses. Source: Figure 2 of Tavia Simmons and Grace O'Neill, Households and Families: 2000.

As you can see, the number of married couple households decreased by 4 percentage points over that timeframe. For another view, here's the number of marriages and divorce per thousand population from 1950-2001.

Bottom: number of marriages and divorces per 1000 population per year, United States, 1950-2001. Top: ratio of divorces/marriages each year (this does not equal the lifetime risk of a marriage ending in divorce, but is an indicator of the relative popularity of divorces). Source: #83 in Chapter 2 of the statistical abstract of the United States for 2004.

As you can see, most of the rise in divorce occurred during the 1960s. However, there is at least circumstantial evidence that the cause was broadly the same as the reason for the demise of the multigenerational household - greater economic opportunities lowered the cost of getting divorced. In particular, Ruggles again

From 1880 through 1940, the rise in nonfarm employment was the most important contributor to the increase in the predicted frequency of divorce or separation. After midcentury, however, nonfarm employment was saturated. Since 1940, the most important variable by far has been rising female participation. The effect of female participation was especially dramatic in the period 1940-1970 when female participation increased from 13% to 42%.
In general, he argues that divorce probability is positively correlated with female employment, and negatively correlated with male income. This is something that would probably come as no surprise to a sociobiologist.

It appears to me that there's an overarching narrative here about the effect of industrial development on families. The industrial system gradually ended up employing everybody it could, and as it did so, this facilitated the break-up of families into smaller and smaller units. In particular, if you go back up to the graph of rural employment I showed above, it starts to get close to zero in the second half of the twentieth century, which is precisely when female employment starts to explode:

Labor participation rates of men and women 1880-2005. Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics Current Population Survey via Statistical Abstract of the United States, 2007, and Ruggles, The Rise of Divorce and Separation in the United States, 1880-1990 for IPUMS data. The reason for the discrepancy between the two sources is not presently known.

As the system runs out of rural men to bring into the industrial labor force, it begins employing women. The big rise starts after 1940, though the resulting divorce wave doesn't come until the 1960s (as the pressure on families is formally ratified with the introduction of no-fault divorce laws). Eventually, this trend reaches into all corners of the labor force: by now even a majority of mothers of babies and toddlers are working:

Labor participation rates of mothers of children of various ages, 1975 and 2005. Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics.

That concludes this very quick introduction to how we got to today's small families. In future posts, I'd like to look at the energetic cost of small household size, the nascent trends in the last decade to move back to larger families again, and the potential for these trends to increase and help with our various problems.

Finally, it's worth noting that I am certainly not a social scientist and may have missed important points or trends in the literature. Anyone who knows better should feel free to point that out in comments.

A couple of notes -

a. Good luck on framing the issue 'positively.' Currently, much of the legal framework preventing large multi-occupant housing is directly tied to the current emotional wave in the U.S. concerning 'illegals.' This was equally true in the mid-80s, by the way.

b. Appealing to boomer self-interest in having caretakers around for them when they get older is smart, as boomers have proven pretty conclusively over decades that the only thing they are truly interested in is themselves (in contrast to the boomer's parents, for example, who have now pretty much left the stage). However, finding the young people could be a problem - I don't think too many young people feel any sense of obligation to those of boomer age, at least when not family members (which is how you framed it, of course).

c. A pragmatic note - American houses are often very poorly sound insulated, and Americans are often excessively concerned with various aspects of actually having a body. These two facts, at least in my eyes, have also played a role in the growth of living space for individuals in the U.S.

d. As a final note - for this suggestion to be effective actually requires the investment in transit you somewhat disparage as being impractical.

Nonetheless, a simple suggestion which could be easily followed, and one which certainly makes the fruit look low hanging.

With enough people sufficiently squeezed by rising energy costs, an enterprising politician might be able to collect enough have-nots’ votes to radically scale back the idiotic zoning laws underpinning both a) and c). Most people seem to prefer living in either very low or relatively high density environments, in temperate climates, given the opportunity. They only put up with cookie cutter mid density suburbia because this is the only place they can afford the space they ‘need’.

Honestly, judging by where people here in California say they would want to live if zoning was not making it prohibitive, it is an insult to all that is good and decent that we don’t have a wall of well maintained and insulated 40-60 story beach front towers stretching from Mendocino to Cabo San Lucas. With fast, energy efficient rail connecting the entire strip.

On housing density, my definite impression was that pre-Katrina New Orleans housing density was higher, as measured by residents/unit, than the US average#. I am sure that we had significantly smaller sq ft/unit (perhaps half).

In the early months post-Katrina, while Mississippi was getting 80% of the FEMA trailers and we "made do", we brought back almost half the population in slightly more than 20% of the housing stock. A variety of measures (not just home offices & spare bedrooms but futons in the living room, air mattresses in the hallway) were used that were not sustainable long term (or are they ?). We still have a "compressed" housing situation.

Remember this is a city that more closely resembles 1950 USA (1,050 sq ft in 1950, 2,4xx sq ft today) than 2005 USA. Yet we more than doubled density.


# 79% of the residents pre-K were born here, the highest percentage of any major US city. Taking in parents as they aged is a common cultural phenomena (a number of local jokes & sayings about this; "Cooking with your mama can be good, but you don't want to be cooking with your mother-in-law").

A recent eMail

HI I'm Ms Pearl
I'm housing 7 homeless people .Most are street musicians. One just had a cancer removed from his face and can't play the street for a while.He has construction skills and we have managed to replace 3 windows and a door doing day work.

I have a young Flute player who plays the street She really adds so much charm to the French Quarter. Which we all know helps the Economy of the French Quarter, She is sleeping on the floor.If anyone has bedding please help

Here is what we need
Bunk beds , food ,blankets, Bike repair insulation , treated lumber, Plumbing supply's, advice, helping hands .camping items. Computer skills, We are not a charity and don't ask for cash. I believe We can do this with items no longer needed and excess items from construction. People helping people.

Contact Information
712 Alvar St New Orleans 70117 504 948 0166

Hi Alan!

Good for Mrs Pearl!

Would she feel offended at getting a gift card from Home Depot? It sure would simplify getting her some building materials and I can afford $100 pretty easily.

One thing about humans and the industrial revolution is that for all human history most people lived in small groups, villages or tribes, many of whom were related.

I read the journal of Cabeza de Vaca a couple of years ago. He was a Spanish Conquistador who was ship wrecked by a hurricane on the upper Texas Gulf Coast about 1520, probably on Galveston Island with another Spaniard and a Moorish slave.
The local Indians, thought to be Karankawas, enslaved them. Then, after a year or so they became witch doctors and members of the tribe then eventually traveled down to Spanish Mexico. Amoung the interesting things about his journals is noting how people were adopted and accepted as members of the tribe, not held apart forever. And that's because its natural for people to form bands or groups, we are animals that lived in bands for almost all of existance as Homo Sapiens, not solitary animals like tigers or oppossums. Our group memories and sharing education and wealth are the basis of what it means to be human. The journals of early explorers are filled with incidents like this, where people were adopted by others as members of the tribe. And it appears to be genetic, animals which are most easily domesticated are animals that live naturally in herds and packs and it can be argued that the very archetypical idea of domestication comes from this urge to found groups for mutual aid.

Because this is instinctive behavior, people tend to bond together for mutual aid whenever other social organisations break down.Ms. Pearl's group is a natural response of people who have had the rest of their lives disrupted, and I assume being homeless in a devastated city is having your life disrupted.

I expect to see a lot more of this as our society continues to break down. I've even taken a few steps towards an arrangement like that in my personal future-I've invited an old friend without much family to come live with me. She has a very limited income, she's a schizo-affected manic depressive who has just been awarded $530.00 a month, and not a romantic interest. But she's been a loyal friend for about 35 years and is good company and a good housekeeper. Her father, with whom she was living just died and she's living in Kerrville, Texas with only a tiny inheritance. But, I could use company and a little office help, so it will work out.

In my neighborhood there's lots of non-standard families. First, the documentationally challenged. The Houston-Galveston -Katy-Woodlands-Baytown metropolitan area is about 40% Latino, and at least 25% of them- a half a million people or so have no papers. Because most landlords require a credit history and some ID, they tend to live in houses and duplexes in marginal areas. My neighborhood was gentrifying, the I moved in. So many renters will have a "nephew" or "niece" subletting beds and extra bedrooms.
Likewise, the welfare payments of people are very low in Texas. So, many people will rent out rooms and bed for a little extra money. Because its become such an unforgiving society, a kid with a burglary conviction when he was 19 can't rent an apartment or purchase a house for many years, so a welfare recipient will rent out beds or rooms in order to make ends meet. I expect that these type of landlord agreements will only increase as the peak sets in

Bob Ebersole


There would be less need for abortion if too-young potential parents a) had more adult involvment in their lives making them less likely to get in trouble, and b) were part of an extended family that could support any children they did nonetheless have.

Wouldn't this hold true for not too-young parents too? I wonder if the down side of what you're proposing is upward pressure on birth rates.

And just to clarify, I understand you aren't advocating increasing the birth rate, but it seems a possible result of having the grandparents, uncle oddball, or auntie spinster living with mom/pop/kids is that the work of raising a kid can be divided amongst more hands and income. Seems that would make it easier for mom/pop to have kids.

My opinion is that a strong downward trend in incomes, combined with the frequent necessity of living with family or friends on a "temporary" basis, will exert a strong downward trend on the birth rate, at least in the short to medium term. People will tend to "defer" having children until their family circumstances "improve".

Examine birth rates in Russia, 1985 to present, for likely indicators.


2 links are broken from the top of the article.
- "improve the fuel efficiency of vehicles"
- "vastly more effective"


I just tested them, and they seem to me to work. Are they still broken for you?

I fixed them earlier and forgot to note it. Sorry.

Something that should also be mentioned in the drive towards smaller and smaller households is the marketing of the "American Dream" where each nuclear family owns a house (complete with an entire set of appliances to go along with it). Right now, that's the foundation of the product marketing mythos, as it were - and that's something that would definitely need to change, with large numbers of manufacturers, importers, builders, etc. standing to lose a good deal of money by doing so. A hard sell, since the division of the social unit into smaller and smaller pieces, thereby creating more and more effective consumers, has been a very winning strategy for the short term.

Encouraging extended families to group and stay together is only part of a solution - encouraging, rather than discouraging long-time friends to rent or invest in a home as a group (usually stopped in larger towns and cities by "anti-sorority/fraternity" laws) would achieve a similar effect - and to some people, marketing a return to family may be much more difficult than encouraging group housing.

This is pretty much a central point.

Imagine a houshold of 6 adults, and 4 children, and let's further imagine that 3 adults are essentially home at any given time.

If one of those adults was baking bread in the wintertime, the children could be involved in actually learning how to bake, while the energy used for baking is 'reused' for heating. The same applies to something like potatoes being peeled, then boiled, fried, or baked.

And what what happen if this idyllic vision became reality? A number of people no longer required in day care, or to work in mass production food facilities, reduced energy consumption, children actually participating as useful members of the household - it would be a calamity to how America is currently set up.

It might even threaten the term 'Happy Meal' (TM, etc.)

Hi expat,

This comment isn't directly related to yours, but..

I know you like ripping on the American way of life and you tend to idealize the way of life of the Germans (at least in their greener attitudes), but I have noticed a number of "attitudes" which will likewise be problematic once peak kicks in.

I don't think decreasing household size has that much to do with marketing. It has to do with increasing affluence - of course this affluence is "fueled" by cheap"est" energy. That is why *all* Western societies are increasing living space per capita. This will continue til tshtf. That's the way people are - at least that's the way our modern capitalist system is...

I was appalled at one German attitude when I got here. Each German child "has" to have its own room. As kids in America, we made fun of single chidren and of children who hat their own rooms. And college Students here **do not** room together, unless they're in a (sexual) relationship. Guys with guys just does not happen, unless you're just in for a visit. (I don't know how I would have paid for college in the States if I would have had to pay for my own room!)

AND they are willing to have fewer/no kids because each of the children would not have a room! Have you ever wondered why the birthrate here is the lowest in the world? (1.3)..

I'll admit they are at least consistent in their attitude. If there's no room, i.e. if the resources are not available, then "the environment" can't support any more children. Therefore don't have any more. Cramp your own lifestyle? NEVER!

I have thought a lot about living in extended families, but it seems so much EASIER not having to deal with the others. I want to have the remote control in my own hand. I'll even send my wife to bed early so that I can watch what IIIIII want. And we only have 1 TV :-)

If you call it greed, it would be one of the Seven Deadly Sins. Today we would call it being self-centered. But that is the point of modern capitalism, now, isn't it??

Cheers, Dom

I try to compare and contrast the America I grew up in with the Germany I live in now - and though my problems with the U.S. are clear, this does not make Germany paradise. Pretty comfortabe, at least to my ways of thinking, but often, I have the feeling that people are becoming ever more binary in their thinking - saying the U.S. is bad or Germany is good in a few sentences leaves out the complexity.

That said - German housing space available per person has been steadily growing for decades. However, for a number of reasons, this growth has tended to be matched with increasing energy efficiency at all levels - from insulation to more efficient appliances to recycling to reducing water use.

Living space is something people would generally like to have more of, no question, and you can certainly see that trend here. (Though it must be noted, most of Germany's housing was destroyed or damaged by WWII, so the trend has more than one factor.)

Among many differences, however, is that in Germany, the increase in living space has not been matched by increasing amounts of energy use for heating, and that trend most certainly continues. Both building codes and simple self-interest tend to be place a major emphasis on energy efficiency, water/sewer use, etc.

I actually believe that the changes required in the U.S. for a well accepted 'crowding' together are larger than that required for restarting effective rail systems, but it is a feeling, and much like the article, I haven't much in the way of research or numbers to back up that feeling.

However, the amount of living space people here can accept remains quite small, at least by American suburban standards. The one time I visited a college dorm, each student did have their own room, but after bed, desk, and clothes cabinet, if there were two square yards free, it would have surprised me. Much smaller than the dorm set-ups I was familiar with in the U.S. I won't go on about what people rent here - however, space with a sink and a toilet, no kitchen, maybe 10 square yards large, are just part of the homeownership equation - either it will be rented to help pay the mortgage or it will be used as the children grow older for their 'own' apartment.

German child raising is a very complex subject, also very regional, and so I'll just say that there are a number of children sharing rooms that I know of. But then, these are families with more than one child - at least this region still has a number of growing families, unlike parts of East Germany.

.."is a very complex subject, also very regional"

That's something I do tend to forget. "Rich" Munich's attitude is somewhat different than that on the Rhein.

Cheers, Dom

ps We redid our house (insulation, windows, roof, heater w. solar) because of a cheap loan from the KfW (government sponsored) and because of the resulting living standard.. One could sleep in the attic without turning into an ice cube.-)
Just remember the Golden Years, all you at the top!

We have three rooms, 80M² in a Hamburg apartment and the two boys have bunk beds.

“Without a video the people perish”-Is. 13:24

Exactly right, this would be the Christopher Lasch argument that the main centrifugal force tearing apart families was simply the inherent nature of late-stage capitalism and marketing imperatives. Quite similar to Kunstler's entropy, the idea that there is an imperative to increase market size at the expense of the family...we all need our own car, ipod, plasma tv, kitchen, bathroom,etc. I find the argument pretty compelling, but on the other hand, there is no doubt that government policies have also played a huge role in molding the profile of the average American household.
Specifically, I'm referring to the home mortgage interest deduction, a subsidy to homebuyers which generations of Americans have learned to exploit. This has fed the trend of fewer people per house, and more and larger houses. So, what to do? Politically, the subsidy is inviolate. A third rail. And the gov't cannot allow housing prices to collapse, with so much of American's net worth bound up in them and demographic time bomb ticking.
One way to address this would be for gov't to simply buy foreclosed homes and bulldoze them, reducing supply and putting a floor under prices. If done in a directed manner, this could also work to consolidate residential de-development into serviceable nodes and corridors post-peak.

"One way to address this would be for gov't to simply buy foreclosed homes and bulldoze them, reducing supply and putting a floor under prices."

This would be a terrible waste of resources and minerals.

The USA is a growing and sparsely populated country. We also have many homeless people and people cramped into small quarters because of housing affordability issues. The hope for more reasonable house prices is the only reason I was and am rooting for the housing bubble to burst and prices to continue downward.

We produce enough food to potentially feed over a billion people and we have a large share of the world's natural resources to boot. We should be increasing our population (by immigration, not by birth) to ease overcrowding in the rest of the world, as our country is one of the most capable to handle it in terms of our natural endowment.

Even in the Northeast, where I live, the population density is quite manageable.

With current trends of about 400,000 demolitions/year (.4% of stock) and pop growth of about 1.5%/year, we could reduce the per capita housing stock by 2%/year if we halt all new construction. It will take a few decades to halve the per-capita housing stock, but with a little luck the down side of the peak energy hill will be around 2%/year, so it will be manageable. Since a large amount of energy is used to build houses, halting construction will also save energy and resources in that manner too.

Some of the laid off construction workers could also be employed to switch from labor-efficient demolition to labor-intensive disassembly, which will allow far higher rates of reuse and recycling than demolition allows.

Hi Stuart,

Just wondering if you had any information on how many families get scattered as the children reach working age. My situation is that I moved away from where I grew up in order to find work. I would speculate that attending college or military service could raise the probability of this occurring.


Fuel efficiency of cars will help, but the average car/light truck is on the road is 9 years. How much energy will be used in manufacturing a new fleet of vehicles? My little 2000 Chevy Metro (1 liter engine/5 speed manual) gets 50 MPG highway and 40 city, has an ok crash rating, not good on passing, so often I don't pass. I bet my Metro beats a Toyota hybrid on energy consumption if you count how much oil goes into production of the car. And people need to drive less. There should be a national program so that people could apply to enable them to change jobs. There are millions of employees who commute far, and could switch jobs with an equal and work closer to home. This is not a crazy idea, rather it is crazy not to do it.

Yes, I have been leading a discussion on a local email group about job swapping to reduce commute distances.

The internet job boards like and could easily be adapted to facilitate this. Two employees with similar jobs closer to the other's residence would "find each other" through the board. If they felt the match was good, they would simultaneously propose the swap to their employers. The employer would need to do some due diligence, such as background check and interview, before ratifying the deal.

Could work!

Benefits may be a large obstacle to job swapping. The benefits portion of compensation may be very different when you compare being an employee with five years at company A than being a new employee at company B. In many cases, the rules are beyond the control of companies A and B: insurance company rules on health insurance eligibility, IRS rules on pension and other retirement programs, etc.

1. for your premise to be true your going to have to prove that having extended families live all under one roof was the cause not the effect of the low energy usage. (you imply this with no proof)

2. You also assume that just because they will all live in the same house that in total they will as a whole use less energy then if you added together all the energy they all use in sperate houses. The only obvious one is that they would only be heating one house and not several. water usage, electricty usage, food and gasoline usage will be higher. Unless you proactivly force them to accept, in their eyes, a lower standard of living. For example, unless you make a national law stating that it is illegal to own more then one car, each generational group of the family that is able to drive will insist on having their own vehicle. One or more for the grandparents, one or two for the parents, and one for each kid.(not a personal insult but i take it you were a only child otherwise you would of understood this).

3. You are correct in pointing out that it is a recent phenomena for families not to live under one roof.

water usage, electricty usage, food and gasoline usage will be higher. Unless you proactivly force them to accept, in their eyes, a lower standard of living. For example, unless you make a national law stating that it is illegal to own more then one car, each generational group of the family that is able to drive will insist on having their own vehicle. One or more for the grandparents, one or two for the parents, and one for each kid.(not a personal insult but i take it you were a only child otherwise you would of understood this).

Hmmm...disagree. Having grown up in a house which had one bathroom for seven people and now living in a house that (following the departure of our children) has 2 bathrooms for each person I can confidently state that total water useage will decrease on a per capita basis as the number of houshold residents climbs. Just as an example there is more efficient use of dishwashing/dishwasher water as the diswasher is always full and the sink has lots of pots and pans to clean. Time spent in the shower is reduced due to competing demands from other residents thsu reducing overall water usage. Food usage is going to be more efficient as there are fewer leftovers and they tend to be consumed and not thrown out. Gasoline usage will also tend to be more efficient as there will be a greater amount of joint trips in the same car. Much of this is just so folks can go together and keep each other company. I think that your item on cars is also wrong. Having also grown up in circumstances such as you describe I will say it did not match your description for me personally, nor is it likely to be the case for a large number of families. Older residents are much more likely in a dense housing situation not to have their own vehicles than they would if they lived alone. Only in affluent America did every teenager get their own vehicle. This is certainly likely to occur less often in the future as we are going to be less affluent and vehilce costs will be dramatically higher than they are now. Wyo

stuart was saying basicly a more condensed living style is inhertently more efficent. This is not the case, the examples he cites was only show the more condensed living style was a result not the cause of the combonation of energy & money at hand. The only cases where he would be right, would be if the place the famliy decides to live in is in a city with public transport, that transport can be walked too, and that all their work places/schools are near terminals for that transport. Also the family must know about peak oil, think it's real, and be willing to go through this pain for some temporary gain.

I think your using a differnt definition of efficency. You seem to be using differnt definitions per example and the use of selective memory(in example your more likely to remember the trips with other family members in the car then trips you take alone because they are more entertaining). For housing you seem to be using less down time = more efficent definition.

Unless forced upon them by a outside force(being poor, draconion laws etc) a large family will more likely structure showers by time of day over total time used, thus not decreassing the amount of energy and water used with a high probability of using more. Electricity usage will increase because unless your un-realistic most famliys will rarely share the same interests. This will lead to more then 1 tv, computer, game system, stero system, dvd player, etc. Again this will most likely be the case unless they are forced to do with less by outside means.

Dispite popular belief every pound put into a car or truck decreasess it's fuel effciency. Not to mention unless each working family member's work place is close by too each other car pooling would most likely cause more gas to be consumed(distance + increassed weight) then if each driving member has a car of the exact same fuel efficency. Not to mention any famliy with enough money will have more then one car.

By the way, how long ago did this example of yours happen and what fanacial state was your family in at that time?

"Dispite popular belief every pound put into a car or truck decreasess it's fuel effciency."

The weight of people is small in comparison to the weight of a car. Adding a 150 lb human to 2,000 lb car will only increase the weight by 7.5%, and decrease the fuel efficiency by less than 7.5%. Adding a second car (to carry the second person) would double weight and halve fuel efficiency.

I now disagree far more strongly with you than I did before.

I have lived in crowded housing on many occasions in my life; my childhood home, military, construction camps, overseas work housing to name what comes to mind. Your perception of the mechanics of living in crowded housing is just not accurate as a general rule and does not justify your conclusions. If you put the equivalent of 3 households worth of people into a single house you will get some "forced" economies of "efficiency". By forced I mean that there is not the infrastructure nor time available in the single residence for it to be used in a fashion that could result in the single residence having a greater usage of some utilities than the sum of 3 separate residences. This is why I indicate that the crowded single residence is more efficient. Water usage is more efficient, electrical usage is more efficient. For example most people tend to leave half the lights on in their house at night for comfort reasons or laziness. In the crowded house, even if every light was on it is still less than the separate houses would be. You have stated several times that the crowded conditions will cause a greater use of utilities and I have countered with explanations of why my experience is different. Common sense would also seem to indicate that people would share resources to some extent and that would result in greater "efficiency". Sort of like household mass transit if you will. In no case can I think of a way that a greater use of resources would occur in the single residence equal in some circumstances perhaps, but not greater. In any case it is not interesting enough of a subject to spend a lot of time upon either. Regards, Wyo

large family will more likely structure showers by time of day over total time used, thus not decreassing the amount of energy and water used with a high probability of using more

At the very least, I run out several gallons of water when I take a shower just to get the cold water to turn hot; if the next person enters the shower only a few minutes after I leave, that warm-up period involving heated water that has cooled is conserved. In any case, how could "a high probably of using more [per person]" situation occur?

Electricity usage will increase because unless your un-realistic most famliys will rarely share the same interests. This will lead to more then 1 tv, computer, game system, stero system, dvd player, etc.

3 TVs for 8 people is more efficient than 1 TV for 1 person. Are there ever 3 TV shows on at the same time that are worth watching? In my case, I never watch "live TV"--all shows are recorded first and then watched later. By time-shifting the viewing, TVs need not scale linearly with household size. In fact, many recorders are now 2-tuner affairs, so with just 3 recorders, you could cover 6 simultaneous recordings--more recordings than I have high-def channels!

Dispite popular belief every pound put into a car or truck decreasess it's fuel efficiency

1 car with 2 people = 3600 pounds, 2 cars with 1 person each = 6850 pounds; that looks like nearly 2x the amount of weight to haul around. 1 car with 2 people is exactly half the air friction as 2 cars with 1 person each; that looks like a full 2x the air resistance.

Some huge increases in efficiency you may have overlooked...

A single large refrigerator and hot water heater are going to be much more efficient than two or more small ones. The refrigerator in particular is interesting because--if meals are eaten together--the large family will open the door fewer times than two small families each preparing their own meal.

Cars use: may people I know buy huge trucks (SUVs) because they occasionally need to cary more people or cargo than can fit in a car or they somehow "need" 4WD for that once-a-year ski trip to lake Tahoe. So, they drive the vehicle for all driving trips because that is all they have (and, for many, the buying and maintaining a second vehicle would be much more costly than the fuel it saves). I can imagine an extended family pooling vehicle resources so that they might have a huge truck as well as several smaller and more efficient cars. Thus even if the # of vehicles doesn't decline and the number of miles driven doesn't decline the fuel use will decline as vehicles are chosen appropriately to the task at hand.

...force them to accept, in their eyes, a lower standard of living.

Well, that is the point here, now isn't it?
Oil production will fall.
Standard of living will fall.
Efficiencies (ok, in this case conservation) will rise.

Westex's ELM is a voluntary lowering in one's Standard of Living. PO will be for most of us an involuntary one.

Cheers, Dom
Just remember the Golden Years, all you at the top!

It makes me glad to see SOMEONE gets the gist of it.
Without a external force forcing a lower standard of living on those who put gather their whole family under one roof your not going to see a decress in resource usaage like Stuart assumes. A few people out of viture might do it willingly, the rest will have to be artificially forced if you want to do it before the situation forces it on them.
Though you make one bad assumtion, as does stuart.

1. It doesn't matter what level of usage you have of a past peak resource, It will still decline.

2. Your not going to 'conserve' your way out of this situation unless it's from current usage to zero usage. Also if you want to conserve pre-emptivly before the situation forces it on people beyond the few who do it willingly your going to have to force it upon them(as in being physically forced by laws or tricked to do it by useing the modern system of control(the media, propaganda, etc)).

3. Also if you choose a none zero usage point of conservation you will always end up right back here. where demand outstrips supply in increassingly less amount of time each time around.

I see parallels between CAFE standards and attempting to prod people to live together... neither are going to be very effective, but energy efficiency in both areas could be promoted by changing the tax system and allowing people to choose how they are going to economize.

This {higher fleet fuel economy] is likely to be vastly more effective in the near term than trying to ramp up public transit

It depends on what you mean by "near term".

As a specific example to illustrate, I recently worked with Ed Tennyson# on what Urban Rail lines "made sense" in the Washington DC metro area using pre-2003 data (before oil price increases). He came up with 15 additional lines (and rejected 4 lines). These included two more DC Metro lines (Tyson's Corner-Dulles-Leesburg & Georgetown), improved commuter rail, 3 streetcar lines and the rest Light Rail.

He estimated that "1st Year ridership" (before any TOD effects, which have proven to be substantial in DC area) on the 15 new lines would be 80% of current WMATA ridership. With TOD effects (which do take time, we estimated a 4 year lag after opening in a non-oil constrained environment), we could more than triple the impact of Urban Rail in Washington DC.

A reasonable estimate is that, with TOD, WMATA saves 90,000 barrels/day today and could save significantly more without expansion (except more rolling stock) in an oil constrained environment.

Ed believes that with a "maximum commercial effort"## almost all 15 new Urban Rail lines could be built within 7 to 8 years (he said "You are bound to have problems and delays with one or two"). At $200+/barrel oil, he believes that a second set of Urban Rail lines would "make sense" (including the 4 rejected lines)

I did a similar, but less intense, survey for the Los Angeles area with a transit activist there.

On a related note, I called the gentleman that I considered to be the best consultant on the issue in the US (John Schumann of LTK) and he graciously gave me 2.5 hours of his time. At the end, we decided that a maximum commercial effort## to electrify US railroads would give the following result:

Year 1 - 0
Year 2 - 500 x 5 miles (x5 because of the 4 Big Class I RRs + the others = a fifth one).
Year 3 - 1,000 x 5 miles
Year 4 - 1,500 x 5 miles
Year 5 - 2,000 x 5 miles
Year 6 - 2,500 x 4.5 miles (x 4.5 because some RR would run out of high priority lines to electrify, and would chose to electrify secondary lines at a slower pace, see 20 years to electrify 100% of French RRs).

Our post-Peak Oil response HAS to include better fleet fuel economy, but it also HAS to include the immediate construction of large amounts of Urban Rail and electrifying freight RRs. In the medium term of 6 to 9 years, when the rate of improvement in fleet fuel economy begins to lag, Urban Rail can "pick up the slack" as oil continues to decline.

I strongly suspect that the "TOD effect" will be accelerated and enhanced in amplitude in an oil constrained world.

I also have come to realize that we need to concentrate heavily on making it easier to bicycle.

Best Hopes for Electrified Rail & Bicycles,

# Ed Tennyson is a transit icon (the unit of measurement "tennyson" is named after him). He was involved in planning DC Metro and his pre-construction ridership estimates were off by 3% (so I believe in his new estimates). He also brought the San Diego Trolley (first modern US Light Rail system) into operation, electrified 10 miles of the Reading RR (remember Monopoly ?) as his first job, worked as staff support for the prosecution in the GM trial for destroying streetcars, etc.

## I define "Maximum Commercial Effort" as the level of effort currently going into developing Canadian Tar Sands. This is a step below "War Time Critical Effort", where cost was no object (such as building WW II ammunition plants, etc).

Current US Urban Rail building is simply "Rationing by Queue". It is purposely designed to be slow (and expensive is a by-product). The USA needs to learn to be as fast and as efficient as French bureaucrats.

The USA needs to learn to be as fast and as efficient as French bureaucrats.<\blockquote>

Damn! We never knew we were so lucky here in France!

The French came to New Orleans and asked" What is absolutely critical that must be done ASAP ?"

One item was fire protection in the flooded areas.

Yes, we see, We cannot rebuild all flooded fire stations, but let us pick 5 in strategic locations. The French got those five rebuilt in just over a month, and then did two more.

FEMA took 16 months to get the first five fire stations rebuilt in New Orleans. Work on the Police HQ just started.

Viva la France !

Best Hopes for Reversion of the Louisiana Purchase,


I've previously suggested that people need to be making contingency plans for extended families congregating together in one area, especially in an area that is conducive to growing one's own food--think of something along the lines of the old US TV series, "The Waltons."

The main differnce between your plan and his from what i see is that he wants to do it now pro-activly. while your plan is a /just in case/ one when the energy situation forces it upon people.


We had a neighbour as I was grwoing up in Alaska, she was my first grade teacher originally, and she was an excellent gardener. They even sent busloads of tourists to see her garden(flowers, greenhouse with tomatoes, etc.) and she said she grew up just like in the Waltons in West Virginia. She's been dead a few years now but those skills and mind set were still in her even after the suburban lifestyle set in to her daily life and she held on to that to keep her sane and happy. Maybe such skills will come back to people with experimentation.

“Without a video the people perish”-Is. 13:24

"The first half of our life is ruined by our parents and the second half by our children."

~ Clarence Darrow ~

-perhaps all the figures are pointing to is that saturation in energy has simply enabled us to break free of this 'ruination'?



There is also a lot of happiness and joy tied up with living with others and being in close proximity with friends and kin. I certainly enjoy reading a book, but I enjoy talking with someone else about the book just as much on occasion.

Certainly going fishing with somebody or taking a walk on the Seawall (I live in Galveston) is just as enjoyable if not more so.

I realise this is a subjective benefit and hard to quantify, but its there for me-I like having neighbors, friends and consider a feeling of being connected to be a great benefit. Also, working together on a shared necessary task like weeding the vegetables or cutting firewood seems to make it go more quickly

I agree Bob.

If you don't have an extended family, you can always make one. Here's Sharon Astyk's approach to the problem:

More Butts in Your House

Roommates are one option, consolidating with family another (I still have to write a post about how to actually live with your relatives - coming soon to this blog near you!), adopting more kids might be one option (and it is something we are also considering). But finding some way to get more people in your house is an excellent strategy for saving money, energy and building community....

....What we're looking for, in the long term, is people who are interested in serious community building - that is, people who want a long term, extended family/close friend intimacy. Everything else is negotiable - what we're looking for are housemates who we'll enjoy living with and be the richer for knowing. We are not just looking to be someone's landlord - so what I'm actually proposing is something kind of like dating - that we'd spend a long time getting to know one another, and then take a risk - if you are interested.

I'm an IT person from the UK, now mid-forties. Left home at 18, I did not own my own place until I was late-twenties. I never rented a place by myself, always sharing, usually with other 'professional' types. I rented out rooms in my own house(s) until I was 35. I only lived alone for a few years, before I settled down and started a belated nuclear family (adopted). The money I saved on housing costs means I am now debt free and can afford to reduce my work hours to help raise the kids, and invest in PO preparations.

I'm not sure I am so different from my peers and age bracket, but younger people now seem to branch out alone much sooner. That said, there are many people in their twenties and even thirties who still live with their middle-income parents because it is far cheaper than buying/renting, and they still get food and clothes washing provided. These overgrown teenagers spend their entire income on entertainment, booze, holidays and fashion.
This does not stop them getting hopelessly in debt on easy credit, and usually end up getting bailed out by their family, our declaring themselves insolvent.

I think this pampered generation - the children of the boomers - will have a huge shock in a few years (months?) when their hedonistic, carefree lifestyle vanishes into the ether. I think they are far too pampered to know HOW to riot in the streets.

I grew up in a multi-generation household and it was hell. I'm not surprised that we have seen this move to more independance (see the quote I found above).

The UK has a much stronger buy-your-own mentality towards housing than the rest of Europe. For example, I first bought in '93 when I was 26 which was pretty late -some of my friends of same age where on there 2nd house by then. I bought with my French girlfriend and her friends where shocked. Oh, you are settling down to have a family? They asked her. No, we where just getting a 'foot on the housing ladder'.

Now the ladder no longer exists IMO. It is a huge chasm to the first rung that is increasingly being breached by parents remortgaging and thus helping their offspring to 'get a start'. Each single bed addition (rung on the ladder) can then cost an additional $200K+ so no-one is immune... This ladder is simply a device to extract debt bondage from us and it will be our downfall but that's another story.

Imagine if these children default and are then forced to move back in with their now indebted parents to help pay off their remortgaged property... That would be Depressing...


Hi Nick

Your last paragraph shows what I believe will be the mode of failure of the economy. Young people have the option of moving in together and in with parents when their mortgage loans are at risk of default, or if they simply choose to 'cash in' their property. If this starts because of a weak economy it will snowball by putting properties on the market causing a housing collapse and flight from house ownership.

While people are trying to hang on to their houses, and stop seeing the equity as their money, discreditionary outgoings will fall causing hardship and job lossees and fuel the problem I have described above.

Quite likely I think, Nick.

I am also in IT and wondering if my new job is dependent on discretionary spending by companies.

Carbon, Coventry UK

The goal of reducing resource use is good one. However less cars, less home appliances, less square feet of housing space, etc. implies a smaller economy. If our goal becomes to maintain a good quality of life while minimizing resource consumption, then we have to give up the goal of everlasting economic growth. In my view this exchange of goals is both necessary and desirable. But without economic growth the institutions of private finance capitalism will not function. Two kinds of investment exist in our current economic system. One kind, which is as old as humanity, is the investment of labor in return for useful economic output. If I build an addition on my house I get useful living space in return. If I spend time creating a vegetable garden I get food in return. In this kind of investment the thing invested is never returned to me. The hours spent in labor are gone for good and in return I get some kind of output which I value. The money we receive in the form of a salary is the result of this type of investment. We labor to produce some kind of economic output and the salary we receive symbolically represents that output, which we can then trade for the output produced by other people.

The second type of investment which occurs in our current economic system is the investment of money with the intention of making it grow in value. This kind of investment cannot exist unless the overall productivity of the economy is constantly increasing. If a money investment increases your purchasing power without a corresponding increase in production, then someone else must have gotten poorer as a result of your gain in wealth. The stock market and the banking system today are institutions designed to increase the purchasing power of monetary investments. Without constantly increasing productivity of the overall economy these institutions are not going to work. Of course if we can increase our productivity through efficiency improvements then economic growth can occur without increasing use of energy or other resources, but in order for such growth to continue indefinitely improvements in efficiency must continue indefinitely. Constant percentage growth of the economy is exponential growth and will come to an end sooner or later (I am betting on sooner).

Because of the second law of thermodynamic all societies need constant investment in infrastructure. In an economy that is not growing the average return on this investment will be the value of the original investment plus necessary goods and services that would not have been produced without the investment. If a class of financial investors exists who are constantly increasing their net worth, the rest of society will be getting poorer. A class of people could exist who have good business acumen who evaluate and direct community investment in various production enterprises (either upgrades to existing enterprises or in some case the creation of new enterprises). If these people are paid salaries for the exercise of their skill rather than striving to constantly increase the size of their private financial reserves then necessary investments can be made while preserving an equitable distribution of wealth. The day is rapidly approaching when the only way to make the world a safe place for private finance capital is going to be to destroy the middle class. Fundamental changes in our social and economic institutions are going to have to accompany our efforts to conserve energy.

Roger K

What a bleak view of investment!

You've totally missed the investments of time and cash in Art and Knowledge, and any type of aesthetic pleasure as as a payment for the same. Bob Ebersole


You are completely mistaken about my views of investment. I value art, knowledge, and aesthtic pleasure far above mere material posessions. For this reason the prospect of energy descent does not really bother me all that much. We have far more material posessions (in the OECD countries at least) than we need already. But the fact is that in order to pursue the things that make life really valuable we have to first obtain food, clothing, and shelter, and we have to have social and economic institutions which allow these necessities to be produced with reasonable efficiency. Large accumations of private finance capital which are constantly seeking to enlarge themselves cannot possibly function effectively as a means of making manufacturing infrastucture invesments in a post-growth world. Almost no one posting regulary on TOD seems to understand this fact (Gail the Acutary is an exception). The terse, somewhat technical discussion in my post above was an attempt (probably completely unsuccessful) to explain this reality.


Like the light rail, want to see more. Electrified buses could work in some areas. Electric bikes, in conjunction with rail could be quite convenient. If you live a mile from a light rail station, ride to the light rail in less than 5 minutes, take the e-bike on the train, ride to the closest stop, and ride to your destination. This assumes, of course, tolerable weather. (In Minneapolis, the light rail has bicycle storage in its cars). If Personal Rapid Transit proves effective as a circulator, it could be valuable in bringing folks who aren't close to light rail to the closest stop. I see PRT as an alternative to buses more than doing line haul work, but a valuable addition. We will know within a year if the system at Heathrow proves itself valuable.

Sorry, I forgot the post was about families. I am a single gay man who has lived alone since 1985. Living with my mother sounds perfectly horrible. However, living with those in my cohort sounds better. Currently I live in a condo in a first ring suburb of about 1000 square feet which could easily house two, perhaps four with great conflict. I confess that I would be lost at first, not knowing how to find privacy in such an arrangement. There is a bicycle path not far from me which goes downtown. Again, winter would be the main obstacle to travel.

Love is where you find it, and there will be plenty of people with your situation. The solution is a rooming house situation where you share use of common areas like bathrooms and laundry rooms, possibly a community garden area.
Bob Ebersole

Bob Ebersole

I posted of a thread some time ago that I believed that extended families and groups with shared interests would likely be the norm after collapse.


Urbanization is probably a more realistic solution.

Unless you manage to start some kind of religion based on these ideas or advocate for state control of living arrangements, I don't see much hope for cultural change of this sort.

But government can greatly change the mix of costs and incentives associated with suburban vs. city living, and (dense) city living is far more energy efficient for reasons very close to what Stuart argues here.

This is a great post, with a focus on one of the issues that is intrinsically linked to the key issues of culture, energy, land use, and transportation.

I've been looking at this from the viewpoint of urban density, and particularly with regard to the type of density that we might achieve if our Edge Cities can manage to add a highly energy efficient transit system in the mode of PRT with integral solar generation, which connects higher density nodes of development, and allows pockets where thirty to forty per cent of all trips are made in non-automotive mode at the outset. There is very definitely a culture of sustainability emerging, where a substantial portion of our American society would prefer to reduce their car usage dramatically, given a viable alternative.

If we increase density as we add transit that is safe, reliable, convenient, and energy efficient, and we send different price signals about both the cost of transit and the cost of driving and parking, there's a very broad sustainable culture that will develop around higher density, including higher density in existing homes .

This density is already arriving where I live in SoCal in the form of more multi-generational housing, more small group elderly residential facilities ( up to six people ), more young adults living at home longer, a few second units being constructed, young adults sharing longer, and in the immigrant community, multiple families sharing homes.

These existing trends have been driven by very high housing prices, but will be accelerated by very high energy prices.

Higher density in job-rich Edge Cities does have tremendous energy impacts, if you are looking at all of the energy impacts of constructing, maintaining, heating and cooling, and providing transportation to a new home at the desert edge of the edge city. Every house that is vacated by an elderly couple in a coastal city prevents the construction of one McMansion at the edge of suburbia.

Please don't construe my comments to preclude discussion of other modes of transit, or to imply that expanding existing Metro systems is not cost effective, or that bicycles in various forms or dramatically increased fuel efficiency of new vehicles won't be critically important.

I tend to focus most on my own metropolian area, where building a network of elevate, light-weight, point-to-point podcar systems would give the most bang for the buck, and in fact, may be our only sustainable alternative given all of the constraints.

building a network of elevate, light-weight, point-to-point podcar systems would give the most bang for the buck

An unproven, and IMHO, likely false assumption.

Two engineering giants, Boeing and Westinghouse, each built a PRT system in the 1970s. Both were economic failures that took about a decade of debugging to reach acceptable failure rates. No second system was built for either type.

PRT promoters are quick to draw up, out of thin air, very competitive scenarios and pricing points. I simply do not believe them.

I would like a dozen systems with a decade of cost accounting on operations and maintenance before endorsing a new technology. Let those nations with solid Urban Rail systems experiment with gadgetbahn, the USA is *SO* far behind we cannot waste time, money or energy on smoke & promises.


PRT promoters are quick to draw up, out of thin air, very competitive scenarios and pricing points. I simply do not believe them

A year ago I would have agreed with you, and it will be 2009-2010 before we have enough data from the new systems that will be coming on line from Vectus, Ultra, and others. But if Posco, the Korean steel giant that funds Vectus, continues to see this as one of their most promising venture capital ideas, I give the chances of successful deployment high marks.

Right now, from what I hear from friends in transportation in Sweden, this is becoming a very significant part of Sweden's future planning for transportation as they reach their goal of being oil-free by 2020. International consulting firms have validated proof of concept, modeled systems and ridership, and there are cities that are actively moving forward.

Citing the experience of Boeing and Westinghouse in the 70's, or even Raytheon of the 90's, and asking for a decade of solid cost accounting is probably not the mindset that we need to address the transportation problems that we need to figure out right damn quick.

With the lead time that it takes for property acquisition, environmental work, and political battles for new rail systems, I think that Podcars may in fact be able to be deployed faster and more successfully.

Again, the Swedes admit that they could be wrong, acknowledge that this is only part of a solution, and I think there's a chance that this may not work, but it's one of the ideas that deserves to be in parallel processing mode with others.

Let me add that looking at new systems like this would be in addition to the types of changes that are envisioned in Alan's plan for energy reduction.

The important point is to stop the absurd plans for highway construction and widening, and focus on different alternatives that are highly energy-efficient, allow focused higher density development, and recognize that different regions and densities may in fact have different solutions.

If I saw the following list being funded and construction started, I could agree to an R&D budget on other transit concepts for possible use in Phase III. (Phase I @ link, Phase II being developed and planned as Phase I throws dirt around).

However, we are *SO* far from building worthwhile projects that are "Ready-to-go" that I see gadgetbahn as a waste of money and a diversion from solutions that we KNOW work.

Best Hopes for Reality Based Planning,


With the lead time that it takes for property acquisition, environmental work, and political battles for new rail systems

This is *NOT* a problem requiring a technical solution.

The French are able to build new tram lines from a handwave "I want a tram from here to there" to ribbon cutting in 3 to 4.5 years.

Only 5 French towns of 100,000+ do not have a tram or plans for one. And a couple <100,000 have trams.

We need to learn to work with the speed & efficiency of French bureaucrats. NOT new technology.

Best Hopes for Proven Solutions,


Alan, if the pods had a bench suitable for sex, the they obviously would add"bang for the buck" similar to the backseat of an old chevy!
And, if thats not enough, then something realistic like interurban electic lines would get screwed!

Personally, I don't see how we can afford pods in the first go-around, if ever. Since we are importing 68% of the oil we use from other countries and our miliary defense would be crippled and our economy collapse with an embargo within 2 months. Its imperative that we do something immediately. Bob Ebersole

Bob Ebersole

I'm completely in favor of saving energy and money by having families live together under one roof. However, Jeavon's Paradox would come into play as the price of housing declines dramatically, enticing many to 'get a place of their own'.

Now perhaps this would simply reduce (or eliminate) the number of new houses needed. If highly successful, it would result in a large number of abandoned houses.

There's a similar patern in the UK. In 1900 average household size was over 6 and now it is under 3. Furthermore, houses are getting bigger, old houses with extensions, new builds more lavish. These changes must, I suspect, undo the good work of better insulation standards. Certainly an important issue to consider.

For anyone who missed it the first time around, or simply wants to re-read a masterpiece of reason, "The Auto Efficiency Wedge" link which is given at the start of this article"

That post still stands as possibly the best post I have ever read on TOD, and cuts right to the central issue.

When people say "The U.S. runs on oil", that is simply not correct. The U.S. "moves" on oil. Almost all the crude oil used in the U.S. (with some small statistical allowence) goes to transportation of some type.

The peak oil problem is not "simply" a transportation problem, but huge reduction in crude oil consumption in transportation, which is over 90% dependent on crude oil alone (that's right....if all crude oil stops, it stops 90% of all transport in what is the most mobile nation on Earth) MUST be the central goal, the central front of the attack on this problem. It is transport first, transport foremost that crude oil consumption must be reduced MASSIVELY in.

Keep your eyes on the prize, because despite all the weirdness being forked around, REDUCTION OF OIL CONSUMPTION IN TRANSPORTATION IS THE ISSUE.

It can be done. It is starting to be done. The technology to do is improving at an accelerating pace. We are truly entering a new paradigm.


I will point out that my proposed Non-Oil Transportation System requires a bit of lubricating oil and zero new technology.

Phase I at

Best Hopes,



When I was born in my small town in central Kentucky (pop. 1200) a person only had to get across town, about a mile, to train service that would take them almost anywhere.

By the time I was 4 years old, it was gone, with only frieght trains running the rails.

I absolutely support your electric rail ideas, but for much of the country, there simply is no rail service remaining, and there would be great difficulty in building such a system now that could meet the "multi-point" needs of many Americans.

As for frieght, I think we can get much of it back on rail, and electric rail would be very efficient. As for people, the economics of rail would mean that you must be able to fill the trains to make them as efficient as they would need to be to compete with a new generation of efficient grid based cars.

The technology to do plug hybrid is available today, but the economics is the holdup. To be truly efficient, the batteries must be able to take many cycles of relatively deep discharge/recharge. It is the cycle life that is the last remaining hurdle.

I do not see that one program (the introduction of plug hybrid cars) precludes the other (electrified rail for frieght, and for people where the trains can be filled). Both combined could bring down crude oil consumption by vast amounts, and retain American mobility at efficiency levels unheard of to this point.

I think we are moving in the right direction. The only question is, can we get there fast enough to prevent a real bottleneck in the next 3 to 5 years.

The oil producers are becoming extremely reluctant now to invest in P and E, because they feel it is very possible that they are building for a projected demand level that will not occur. But in the short time, before the demand begins to level and then drop, that leaves us short. Thus, high prices, which will only go higher. The good news in that is that it will only accelerate demand destruction and new technology.

Interesting times....:-)


One thing I have learned from Ed Tennyson is that single car, self propelled EMUs (electric multiple units, they can operate singly or in trains) are the way to go for lightly served lines & times. About 80 seats, but "breakeven" may be a dozen pax.

Another alternative for lightly used freight lines. They can also haul a single boxcar behind them.

PHEVs are going to be part of the future, they are PART of the solution (silver BB).

Best Hopes,


We have those in small city Hokkaido - the rural-most part of Japan. They work pretty good for getting kids to school (the high schools are located near the lines). But there simply isn't the density or investment in infrastructure to generate many trips with it here. That's counterintuitive being in the land of rail.

Random questions (for US readers in particular): How many readers here have ever moved >500 miles in order to take a job that would advance their career? How big a salary/benefits cut would be involved in moving back to your parents? How much of their social network would your parents give up if they moved to where you are? It's taken >50 years of increasing mobility to get into this situation; it seems unlikely that it can be reversed in much less than that.

I have. The salary cut would be roughly 50%, and the social network loss would be roughly 100%.

I agree increasing household sizes is a clear response to increased cost of energy and housing itself. I expect co-housing and "creative" arrangements will increase in the future.

I've long thought of Wendell Berry's view of households as needing to be more than a place to consume and hide from the world. More than just sharing space, households are stronger if they don't have all adults working full-time outside the home.

A married couple with kids could better afford to be a "single-income family" (or 1.5 incomes) with a spare bedroom renter, whether a widowed parent on SS, or busy young person who spends more time away from home and just needs a place to sleep.

Basically I imagine housing costs as the driving force here, but commuting costs as well, as outer suburbs become less financially viable, as Kunstler envisions. We could have a creative future as sprawl neighborhoods are squatted in by the jobless poor and slowly disassembled and abandoned. Who knows?

And it is an anti-capitalistic agenda - reducing the demands for all sorts of goods. Can governments support or encourage such choices?

Common sense post.

But sharing houses does not depend on family structure or cultural changes, but only the choices of the inhabitants. We have been renting out extra rooms for many years while our children were growing up.
Now that they are leaving the nest, having friends in the house makes economic and emotional sense. However, my 89 year old mother lives 2 blocks away and that works too.
Certainly sharing houses saves on energy, transportation, and many other expenses. Since each expense has embedded energy, saving money on average saves energy too.
As energy peaks, sharing everything will be more common, but the treadmill of capitalism will have some hiccups as it adapts.

I made a deliberate decision a year ago to move with my parents. I didn't move *in* with them per se, but persuaded them to sell their highly valued seaside property (with the possibility of a cyclone or small but headline grabbing sea level rise crashing its value) and into a small acreage in the mountains, on an electrified train line to our state capital. This is all in subtropical Queensland, Australia, incidentally. By moving together we managed to even up the power balance a little since it was new territory to all of us.

We managed to put up a small separate living space for me well away from the main house, so I have my own privacy and independence. Often we end up working at opposite ends of the property anyway. Conflicts do arise now and then, but after living for years in share-houses I must admit that conflict between people is the rule rather than the exception. You need to learn to manage it if you are going to get anywhere in life. My sister and her family live on the other side of the village, so extra mutual support is extended there with child minding and errand running.

The deal has been framed as such: I save my parents from the nursing home, and they save me from a mortgage and wage slavery. I am surprised that more people havent thought of this approach. The down-side, that I am still coming to terms with, is giving up the social expectation that you need a prestigious job to have any status as a person my age. I plan to transition over to school teaching once the major groundwork is done on the property so I can work closer to home. I very conciously gave up a career in research science to take this path, expecting the university sector and research in general will mostly suffer in the coming changing times.

Doing things this way I have managed to cut down my working hours to three days a week (in the capital city, which provides more personal space) and spend my perpetual four day weekends preparing the property for rapidly scaleable food production (even with "skyrocketing" prices food is still ridiculously cheap today so self sufficiency is only a strategic goal for now). After a year we realistically probably produce about 5% of our total food, but this should step up gradually to over 50% in a few years.

There are greater efficiencies in living together. We cook in bulk and share. We only need one bathroom, kitchen, set of appliances etc. We do currently have three cars of varying vintage, the oldest of which will probably be retired soon (it is a beat up old van that is useful for the more utilitarian stuff, but we could easily do without it). We don't drive a lot, and share trips and combine errands.

Some days are hard. Sometimes I get impatient with the rate of progress. Sometimes we argue over petty things, rarely big things. But I havent come close to regretting the decision yet, and it should get easier from here on in as the world continues on its spiral around us.

Comment on living with elderly parents in the same house.

First that was done back some time ago and it worked ok..but I doubt it would be welcomed at this time in our society..for this reason..

The elderly have lots of needs and the worst is with their personal toiletry. In the past the wife of the 'man of the house' would provide the caregiver services and did it without I recall. In fact I still see some of it now but is getting rare...

So maybe it were her parents or maybe his..yet the wife was the homemaker and the husband worked....and she took these duties upon herself as a all that attitude has alwaychanged markedly....

In my family here my wifes father is never going to be 'looked' after. Her mother neither....for several reasons..and my father a nursing home...and my mother is almost insane and would cause a huge stress factor
which would rip anyones family apart.

So my point is that the 'family' is just no where near the same as in the past. Back then there were NO nursing homes..only places to go to die slowly. Right now you can go to jail for many offenses that were not considered such back in the past. People are just not going to do this. The social workers would be all over them.

The culture and societal values of today are just not going to translate back to that scenario , except in just a few cases perhaps.

Myself I would absolutely have nothing to do with my fathers toilet problems..he never laid a hand on me as his son in kindness and I did not intend to treat him different...

We all have stories to share but I live in the country. The nursing home flourish here. Even those who would or could would just not do it. Its far different today..and wishing for it to be otherwise is folly IMO.

If divorce laws were different, if women had not gone into the workplace, if children weren't handed off to strangers for most of their childhood? Then it might be different.

Our society will not change that fast and it will take a generation of returning to the past for it to even be considered.

airdale-my cousin has been dying of a stroke and some cancer now for 5 long years..only his wife remains to care for him..he lies in a bed 24/7 and no one else is going to saddle their life with him...I am suprised his wife is still around but then she always was a true country woman. I will always hug her neck and give her garden stuff..him I don't even speak to and I grew up with him.His children look to themselves.He was the laziest man I ever knew.

Old folks need caregivers, can't afford them. Have housing with room to spare.

Young folks need housing, can't afford it. Have strong bodies and time to spare.

That should be the basis for a mutually beneficial arrangement for a lot of people. Their familial status doesn't really matter that much one way or another. These days, it might actually work better if they aren't related to each other, so the old folks don't think that they young folks OWE them caregiving, and the young folks don't think that the old folks OWE them housing. Negotiate a fair exchange and it should work out fine.

In the Netherlands, the government is actively driving which houses are build.

Government policy is that 1/3 of all new houses must be build within the city's perimiter, without changing the "destination plans" (*) That means new appartment buildings, houses in a row etc.

In the small town where I grew up the local council is building appartment blocks in the centre of the town for retired folks. So they can sell their house, cash in on the overvalue and retire. Same time the larger houses become available for people with families.

Life is not so easy as I describe: last few years, only 1/4th of all new houses was infill.

The Netherlands is only a small country, comparable with NY state.

(*) Destination plans: I don't know the english term, but basically all space is marked: Residential, recreational, historic, industrial, agriculture, public etc. So if you can't change that, and you have to build new houses, you tear down 50's and 60's houses and build large appartmentblocks in its place, etc.

I can see a lot of parallels between the thesis of this article and the experience of my own, African, family. Here is a picture of a house.

This rather large house was built by my grandfather in 1950 to house his kids and, eventually, their kids.He wanted to be the patriarch
Things did not quite work out according to plan. He himself moved to Switzerland and the family scattered. His direct descendants number in total 18 - who live in 8 countries on 5 continents.
I just wanted to point out that the process described for the USA happened elsewhere, especially among the comfortably-off. Today, it is happening among the poor on a massive scale.


That's a great picture. What it remind me of is the Hacienda of Latin America,the ranch houses of the Texas frontier or the manor houses of England before tbe central governments became so powerful. A structure like your grandfather's home is easily defensible even with a weak central government.

Another type of large communal structures for living are religeous communities, where a group had a whole village compound within its walls before the growth of centralised national governments.

All the examples above were a result of a need for civil defense.Hopefully society won't fall apart so far that people need exterior defenses from roving bands. If so, well mostly be dead.

Bob Ebersole


You are correct. The house was built by my grandfather according to his own plans. He was a civil engineer and studied at King's College, London University, before WW1. His twin brother did medicine at Heidelberg University.

The walls are double thickness and reinforced concrete - no bricks anywhere. He started work on an atomic bomb shelter, as that was the craze at the time, but the tunnel caved in and 3 workers lost their lives so he stopped.

At the side of the house there are large, room-sized, underground fuel and kerosene tanks - just like for a gas station.

During 1956, when the Royal Air Force was bombing a nearby military airport, a light anti-aircraft battery was placed on the roof and there was a tank across the street under a mango tree. As kids, we collected shrapnel that came in through the windows each morning. We slept deep inside.

On one occasion, during lunch (it was always a formal affair), a French Mystère flashed past level with the dining room window. We saw the pilot clearly around 30 metres away. He had just dropped some bombs and was leaving in a hurry at an extremely low altitude down the street between the buildings!

So many good ideas from everyone. Great post.

I live in Hamburg in a 5 story red brick apartment building among a sea of such houses interspersed with some single houses with lots of grass in between and tree-lined streets and lots of public parks to replace the private yards/gardens(so-called repsectively in USA/UK).Bike paths line most streets or sidewalks at least. If people want a garden they buy one in a community garden. German "schrebergärten" have little houses ,and ppeople use them mostly for sunning in summer and growing flowers. It is a replacement for a backyard which one does not have otherwise(good for vegetables someday soon). Basically I just sit on the balcony on plastic grass if the weather is good(south facing balcony with awning against sun). We go to the playground below the house down the street, which was just repaired and improved recently. I picked up lots of garbage and broken glass (some people are less responsible with public space) and helped the kids knock down chestnuts from the trees. We sometimes walk along the canals/streams and see the ducks, geese(geese/swans have leg rings to track them). A supermarket is directly beneath our apartment several floors below and we hear the truck coming at 7 AM to unload but the convenience for shopping is unparalleled. Just recently all the discount supermarkets have introduced a line of bio-products with a govt. bio approval stamp so we are buying eggs, bread, veggies for the kids, all bio and only approved alaska lachs, no canned tuna. My dream is to kill off the traffic noise I always hear as we are on a main street, but I just figure that will come in time.

My brother lived with my parents in Alaska the last several years as caregiver parallel to his regular job and we have care givers who are expensive and eat into savings and retirement income. That he is capable personally of doing this is special. Now he has moved out into a condo and is by my parents only part of the time. One of my uncles did the same for my Grandma in Canada till she died about 25 years ago. Usually it is a daughter but a single son can do as well. Not everybody meets the love of their life or has big career goals and this job sort of falls to them by default.I remember some friends of my mother's family as she grew in England who took care of their mother till she died and they were about 60 by then so that their sacrifice precluded marriage and family. This is bitter. I guess state pensions/caregiving did not exist back then and a very long lived parent can be a brutal reality when family replaces the social welfare state. We had luck, perversely speaking,that both my wife's parents died rather suddenly of cancer recently at 65 years of age, before we had to care for them for endless years or put them into care. Given that we have small children and live without transport on the other side of town it would not have been possible to help much. Her single brother lived near them and visited them often but now they are gone will marry(for 2nd time). Her parents never much helped with our kids as they lived in another town until recently, when they moved to Hamburg and they were too sick to help us anyway(although they never told us of theri terminal diseases making us generally angry about their reluctance to help).

I see everday the advantages of living in major city with lots of green space and dense living patterns, a large harbour/port facility and endless canals and good train systems to transport goods as a fall back and with a large agricultural "hinterland" and smart zoning against suburban sprawl to be definitely advantageous. Germans can be bureaucratic and pedantic(read kafka) but sometimes you can just thank God for particular inborn characteristics of a people that are not overrolled so easily by the "Americanization" since the 50s although this has happened to a very large degree indeed. There is no housing boom here although people are heavily overindebted due to the similar bad distribution of wealth and widespread consumerism due to globalization/ downsizing/ neoliberal mindset common everywhere.

I can see possible improvements in Hamburg in terms of adding streetcars (which had been removed in earlier decades) as they are more flexible than buses. The greens have fought for this without success in Hamburg but we have a good local metro/subway which can get you everywhere in the city and with the buses you can get anywhere(probable change to more Social govt. with Greens and/or ex-communists from current conservative absolute majority in city government in January election). I ride my bike 7 KM to work and 7 KM back Monday-Friday to the city center. I have never owned a car but there are over 40 million cars in Germany for 82 million people and people we know won't walk one block to the store even though the sidewalks are there and stores are very closely spaced. People don't cook mcuh and both work and want no kids so they can spend their money on trips and hobbies but the shortsighted govt./industry wants it this way to get as many workers cheaply as possible(cheap female labour)and
high consumption growth(Double Income No Kids). Long term population stability is going down, probably lucky though, given PO.

People here are now outraged over high gasoline costs and want to reduce tax but the government gets 40 billion EUROS from this for roads and what so that idea will not fly. I have not noticed that people drive less but pain will hit when the economy gets hit by the credit crisis and they can't afford a car with such high gasoline prices. At any rate not many places have a better potential in terms of existing infrastructure to fall back on.

I worry however about my Alaskan family. They are at thee end of the line and buy at Walmart(and could not anymore live without cars although as kids we walked everwhere and my Dad biked to work his whole life, absurdly even in Alaskan winter mostly). How long can that last? One lives quite a ways out of town in a huge house with high heating costs in -30 to -40 in winter weeks at a time. How many people can the forests there heat and cook for before they are all gone(lots of coal though). Sometimes the rabbbits are scarce and fish too I would suppose. Subsistence is a no go even up there for 600,000 people mostly urban. Farming is available in some parts during the long mild summers and potatoes grow just great. Lots of berries to gather if you know where to look but forget about fruit trees.

We live here in Hamburg in an about 80 M² apartment(800 Ft²?)for a four person nuclear family. In Russia my wife grew up in half of that with the same family situation. Oftentimes people had and still have mother in-laws in the mini apartment sleeping on the fold out couch and young people only got married in soviet union to get an apartment from the government and get away from parents(unmarried had no good reason to be allotted an appartment). I do not idealize communism in any sense having heard enough of it but obviously all systems have advantages and disadvantages. The house where my wife grew up was full of families with children built around a central square where the children played and the "babushkas" who lived with their families sat on the benches and kept an eye on the children. The kids played outside in sight of the families from the windows surrounding the court till the mothers called them up to eat(all mothers working 8 hour jobs and putting their kids in day care/kindergarten after 3 months of age until 1980s when 2-3 years off was granted for child birth)Nobody had a car(except my wife's grandpa as he was a WWII Vet with one leg). Most people there worked in the local factory and the women in the shops or the schools. Rusians also got from the state small houses with gardens and lots on edge of town where they planted lots of vegetables and berries and bottled and canned then for the winter and went into surrounding woods to pick mushrooms which they also canned for the winter. Without this supplemental food would have been quite bad indeed as my wife grew up in 70s and 80s. When the system imploded the whole social structure went too. Her uncle became drunk and fell asleep with a cigarette in his mouth and his coffin was child size. Her Russian grandma died shortly after I met my wife 12 years ago as the medicines ran out for her heart in Russia where she had to stay behind as she had no German blood in her veins. Rationing was always a bitch there and my wife saw no sausage freely available(without ration cards or long lines) before she moved alone as an adult to St. Petersburg. As a special law was made about in early 90s keeping large city apartments for current residents and not cutting them up, quite obviously to allow Vladimir Putin, then St. Petersburg Mayor(or similar govt. job) to keep his huge old apartment all to himself, my wife could not get a room to herself for which she had waited for many years having lived in a large dorm in a small with other young women while she worked as a nurse so leaving Russia was not a hard choice but now "The West" is imploding as well. She is bitter, escaping one nightmare to only encounter another. Some sort of curse she believes(Russians are very superstitious in general). Just thank God we don't live in LA or some other super unsustainable place.

Sorry if this is novel length but the topic is so broad and my personal and family experience in various locales and systems is of a very broad nature and colours my other posts and is not theoretical but practical so people know "where I am coming from" when I spout off about rationing, Russia, denser housing or whatever. It ain't all from some book I bought and read last week then will change my mind about the whole thing over the next paperback I read while sitting on the toilet.

In itself living arrangements are very cultural dependent and alone the USA is extremely broad in its living patterns so I don't think one size solution can fit all situations, just as little as this would fit for all of Europe for example.

“Without a video the people perish”-Is. 13:24

As a special law was made about in early 90s keeping large city apartments for current residents and not cutting them up, quite obviously to allow Vladimir Putin, then St. Petersburg Mayor(or similar govt. job) to keep his huge old apartment all to himself, my wife could not get a room to herself

The intent of the law you are referring to had nothing to with Putin, but was instead a result of privatization of the government-owned housing stock. When USSR collapsed, people were given an option to "privatize" formerly government-owned apartments by converting them into condos.

Large, shared "communal" apartments known as "kommunalki" were a real bitch to privatize because they had a lot of unrelated people living together under one roof. Local governments have been trying to phase them out with mixed success to get old housing off their books.

Being intimately familiar with kommunalka-style living, I can tell you that it is not much better than living in a dorm and is often worse. At least people in a dorm usually work or study together, so you at least have something in common. Your kommunalka neighbors, on the other hand, might as well be from another planet. It was a very stressful way to live, but also very sustainable (we had about 80 square feet per person when I was growing up).

Sharon Astyk

I've been writing about this for a long long time
some of my essays on this are here:
and here:
in addition to the post someone else already linked to.

Myy own personal take, is that you are *underestimating* the possible energy reductions of changing family structures, if you think they are lower than raising fuel efficiency standards. In fact, I think they are enormously greater.

A major change in family structure would change the economy enormously, moving more of our economic activity into the unofficial economy of domestic labor, and out of the "privatized" official economy that does daycare, fast food, and other low wage jobs. The truth is that combined extended families do save resources, and they do find that they don't need to work as much in order to get along and put food on the table. The potential number of people moved out of the official workforce into domestic economy is quite large, and their commutes and other lifestyle changes would have enormous reciprocal effects.

One note on this - every time one talks about family, I find one gets a number of screeds about biological and chosen family, how one's parents really are all that awful, etc... I find it useful to include the basic disclaimer that family includes non-biological relationships and honorary family as well.

I look forward to the rest of your analysis on this, and I suspect that you will find that if we can move in this direction, it is a far more powerful tool even than your construction here. I will be fascinated to see what you find.


Several comments:

Zoning laws: They vary quite a bit between jurisdictions. Some places have hyper-restrictive "snob zoning", which is indeed going to be counterproductive when it comes to adapting to the new realities. Snob zoning is a luxury, and it increasingly is going to be only the most wealthy, elite enclaves that can afford it. The firt few households to break the laws by housing more people of various relationship status than the law allows might get busted. However, as times get more difficult and more people are having to take in paying lodgers or live with other family members, communities are going to have to decide which is going to go: the restrictive laws, or their taxpayers. If enough residents find that it is no longer viable to live in a communtity, the number of vacant properties with unpaid back taxes will swell to the point where the municipal government goes bankrupt. Even if local governments manage to stay in operation, for how long are they going to be able to afford to keep code enforcement officers on staff? More likely, most communities are going to have to go to a complaint-driven mode. As long as homeowners remain somewhat discrete about who or how many people are living there, and especially avoid any parking or noise issues, then it will become increasingly likely that people will be able to get away with increasing numbers living under one roof.

Boomers: We're largely going to be aging in place. Reason: we're not going to be able to sell our houses. Who will be able to afford to buy them? People are going to be reluctant to accept the fact that their property is worth less, so they will be reluctant to sell at what they perceive to be a loss. Thus, the only boomers that will be moving are those that have to just abandon their homes because their neighborhoods have become dangerously uninhabitable, or those still owing on their mortgages and can't stretch their inflation-shrinking retirement income to make the payments, or those whose health has declined to the point where they can no longer fend for themselves.

I don't see a lot of boomers moving in with their kids. More likely, you'll see several unrelated boomers sharing a house - sort of a golden years reprise of the 1960s-era communes.

Relatives vs. Non-Relatives Under Same Roof: I doubt that we are going to see an quick rewind back to "The Waltons". Perhaps over the course of the next half century or so we'll see society evolve to the point where extended families become more common again; but then again, maybe not.

More immediately, what we are likely to see is people taking in room-mates or lodgers, or remodeling their homes to create apartments that can be rented out. As indicated above, not all communities are equally strict about this, and it will probably become more permissible as times get progressively harder.

In some ways it is actually easier to take in someone unrelated, because one can negotiate very explicit mutual expectations. People who are related come with a certain set of expectations, and view them as an entitlement.

Weeknight lodgers: This is one category where I think we'll see very strong growth. As commuting costs spiral upwards, there will be many people that will only be able to afford to commute on a weekly rather than daily basis. These people will be looking for cheap accomodations in which to stay during the week. There will also be people looking for some way to make more money as times get hard. Thus, we'll see increasing numbers of weekly commuters renting rooms during weeknights in houses near their places of employment.

Work night lodging is exactly what I have been doing all year as I live primarily on a small farm 2.5 hours by train away from the city I work in.

Some people I know actually do the commute daily (5hrs a day in the train!) but I opted to spend the equivalent of train fares on lodging instead, and save all that precious time for other things.

Sharing a living space with a friend (or stranger) is much much easier if you both get regular extended breaks from each others company. Weeknights are normally devoted to cooking, bathing and sleeping anyway, leaving you both to relax and socialise on your own terms on the weekends.