The following is the first (long promised and awaited...;-) essay from writer/financial analyst Gregor Macdonald. Gregor is a long time reader of The Oil Drum, frequenter of ASPO conferences, and general zeitgeist monitor who lives and writes in Massachusetts. His website and newsletter are at The below "Project For A Revolution In Philadelphia", is an epistolary essay in which the author makes the case for an accelerated urban energy transition.


Dear Campfire,

I'm sitting before a photograph of the completion of the transcontinental railroad--140 years ago this May, in 1869. The driving of the golden spike poetically combined the symbolic with the hard, physical world--an event that should have carried forth well into this century. Instead, we were interrupted and led astray by oil, and the automobile. So I lament the passing of the 19th century when the United States, with its railroads and waterways, was almost perfectly positioned for the challenge it faces today.

My decade long research into energy and energy transition, and the post-war economic seigniorage enjoyed by the United States, suggests strongly to me that the prospect for future income growth here in America is now of a wholly different order, than was enjoyed in the past 100 years. While I'm not quite ready to sign on fully to the Orlovian Slope of Dysfunction, I certainly agree with its direction. Flat incomes, slow growth, and a very rough energy transition are not only dead ahead--they have arrived. We will do well just to maintain alot of the infrastructure we currently have. To build new infrastructure will only become more difficult as the inventory of liquid energy declines.

We also face a badly broken political structure. The Housing, Automobile, and Financial sectors have emitted a powerful signal that good portions of those industries are no longer needed. At the federal level, those signals go unheard. Suddenly, the supersized states of California and New York, and the United States itself, appear as wrongly-scaled platforms from which to effect any change. But I am trying to look past the rising probability for the kind of social rupturing that inevitably follows these conditions. America's cities, for example, would appear to be rightly scaled for our energy and economic transition. Therefore, I'm going to suggest there's hope for our cities as long as they realize a difficult truth: they're on their own, and Washington is unlikely to help them.

I recently spent an afternoon at a hosted event by MIT's Senseable City Lab in Cambridge, Massachusetts--and was treated to a good overview lecture of that working group's various urban projects. This gave me a chance to collect long-standing thoughts I've had about the future of cities from my years living in Boston, NY, Los Angeles, and London. The ideas I want to write about today could apply to most American cities. Specifically, I'd love to see my recommendations put into practice in a city like Oakland, California. However, for reasons I will explain, I decided to use Philadelphia as my tableau.

It's nothing less than astonishing to consider the map of metro Philadelphia's total rail transport coverage. Only in London have I seen such an overlay of underground, above ground, and additional connectivity to longer-distance rail transport systems. My plan for Philadelphia is called FEW: Food, Energy, Wheels. And in Wheels, Philadelphia has an enormous head start on the rest of the country. Sadly, it's a transport system that's overlaid on a city that's lost nearly 25% of its population in the past five decades. We can't afford to let built systems such as these go to waste. Philadelphia needs to be repopulated. In its current position, the city is quite reminiscent of London after the devastating serial recession-depressions of the 1970's and early 1980's.

As in many other American cities, I am forecasting that a good portion of the industrial-commercial real estate inventory is headed towards zero. My experience in real-estate and environmental law suggests that alot of this property will fall into the hands of the city, through tax-takings. Indeed, Philadelphia is already a dirt-cheap residential real-estate destination for artists, who are busily carving out neighborhoods with art galleries and 100K green homes, and renovations of industrial buildings. Because Philadelphia is already so low to the ground economically, it is a perfect city to conduct energy transition in the new paradigm of a flat economy. A great deal of Philadelphia's land, especially its vacant lots, will need to be marshaled to build out its urban farming and energy system, so again, just as with London coming out of 1982, it's a benefit that the city is so neglected and cheap. In the new economy, most "profit" margins whether measured in energy or capital terms will be slim. So starting with input costs nearer to zero is a great help.

Food, Energy, Wheels

The United States desperately needs a mayor or a governor to send a loud and frankly outrageous message to the country (and the world) that a radically new direction will be taken. In part, this message will be necessary to attract a new population of like-minded individuals and businesses, looking to sign on to a new paradigm. While we have seen an early example of this new population come to a city like Detroit, to take part in the wide-open, urban-prairie, libertarian-lab experiment that city has become, Philadelphia should adopt a more intentional program. The buildout of urban farms, urban in-fill solar PV, and the development of a bicycle and rail oriented transport system should be more fully integrated into a citizenship model that leverages young people in particular. Indeed, I see FEW as a plan that would be incorporated into the school curriculum.

It will also be necessary for Philadelphia to adopt a hostile position towards the automobile and federal automobile infrastructure. Philadelphia needs to become a city where capital previously exported to automobile manufacturers stays at home. As with others cities, Philadelphia should consider dismantling its highways (see: Braess Paradox), and should reject any federal attempt to build more roads. For the annual capital required for bridge repair and surface-road maintenance, a road tax should be levied on all cars and trucks entering the city, much in the same fashion as in London. Every effort should be made to connect the lines of road costs directly to road users.

Philadelphia should declare its intention to become the most bike friendly city in the US, which won't be easy given the great leap already made by Portland, Oregon. To be taken seriously, several long city streets or boulevards should be converted into bike highways. Neighborhoods should be anchored by community bike shops, and young people should learn how to repair bikes. The city should give tax breaks to bike manufacturers willing to relocate to Philadelphia. Bike transport should be made part of workplaces and the school system. There should be several races conducted each year from a European style road race, to a celebratory parade.

In the same way that the emergent bike system should be integrated into schools, so should the Food and Energy portion of my FEW plan be integrated into public school curricula and summer work programs. Philadelphia, again, already has a robust urban farming culture that is making good gains but the city should boost these efforts to a much higher level. As a stated goal, agriculture yield targets should be raised significantly. All fast food franchises within city limits should be taxed exorbitantly. Urban food production should be fed directly into the schools, with surpluses sold at neighborhood anchor stores (in similar mappings to the neighborhood bike shops). Graduating high school students should be educated in soils, nutrition, and the business aspects of food production. In addition, the city should give incentives to attract a new class of restauranteur looking to source organic food locally. Again, this is already happening in many US cities but Philadelphia should ramp it up. It would be beneficial to add some glamour and panache. Attracting a few celebrity chefs who have their produce delivered by bike from city farms makes for good images. Advertising Philadelphia's new approaches to the world will be a key strategy to lend momentum to its transition.

Receding Ricardo

There is no shortage of vacant land in Philadelphia for urban agriculture and, as with most US cities, there's no shortage of brownfield(s) either. In addition to seeing that every remaining oil-fired heating system is ripped out from its public buildings, I see a great opportunity for Philadelphia to partner with solar manufacturers to both produce and install utility grade solar PV. This is yet another way for cities to retain their capital more locally. As a broader point I see the age of Ricardian comparative advantage not at an end, but in decline. With the price of urban dirt going to a dollar, and the price of the dollar going to dirt it seems not unreasonable to project that many American cities will eventually become competitive with emerging market manufacturing. Especially after shipping costs are factored in, and once the inevitable revaluation of emerging market currencies extends itself further. My recent (internet) tour of commercial and industrial buildings for sale here in New England, combined with the my outlook for a permanently smaller US economy, suggests to me that the crash in commercial real estate will not only carry onward for some years, but is actually a good thing. Here's why: given the mistaken federal policy to try and support a full spectrum of asset prices and obsolete industries, commercial-industrial real estate may be one of the few asset classes allowed to head to zero. And zero is rich with opportunity.

We need to see Philadelphia with fresh eyes, and recognize that in a world of soaring costs to build new infrastructure, the City of Brotherly Love is a treasure trove of land, housing stock, and commercial architecture all tied together by a massive rail network and a waterway. What's not to like? As usual, the artists know a good thing when they see it, and they move in early to make their score. If Philadelphia would adopt FEW as its core strategy, it could potentially leap-frog ahead of other cities. Some of those cities will waste years and capital trying to retain alot of systems that are naturally ebbing away. Other US cities are either not on waterways, or face a topography almost barren of rail transport. Here is my thesis: were all US cities to decide collectively that energy transition on an urban level had to commence at once, the embedded advantages of Philadelphia would suddenly become glaringly obvious.

Whether Food, Energy, Wheels is the appropriate framework for all US cities would be made clearer if just one US city were to take action. A number of US cities now have little left to lose. My choice of Philadelphia is made, in part, because I think the country desperately needs to see an example of the kind of economic vibrancy possible once we start to recoil from the automobile. And I think Philadelphia is set-up nicely. Some leader, some mayor I suspect, needs to show the rest of the country that this rough economic and energy transition can be confronted. To do so will indeed take a level of courage and leadership not currently found anywhere in Washington, DC. Yes, there is little doubt the US has collapsed. But that's not the end of the American story.


1946 ex-Kansas City ex-PTC 2289 at Shirey's farm south of Reading, PA
June 8, 2008 photo by Mike Szilagyi | Philadelphia Trolly Tracks:

Ben Franklin, photo by Michael Penn |

100K House | Jetson Green

Commuter Bike | Vanilla Bicycles of Portland, Oregon:

Greensgrow Farms Philadelphia | City Farmer News :

465 kW Utility Grade PV in Brockton, MA | enerG:

MIT Copenhagen Wheel | MIT Senseable City Lab:

Public Mural/Art Program Philadelphia | A Love Letter for You:

Thanks for a concise article with some very actionable suggestions.

My favorite sentences are:

"The Housing, Automobile, and Financial sectors have emitted a powerful signal that good portions of those industries are no longer needed."

"Philadelphia [should] adopt a hostile position towards the automobile and federal automobile infrastructure."

Yes, thanks for this hopeful, practical piece Gregor. Just one niggle: "Slow growth" -? Er, no. No growth, I suspect. This is the dawning of the age of contraction. The sacred cow of growthforever died sometime in the past 20 months, pretty certainly. It won't be resurrected. The guardians-of-orthodoxy 'experts' and 'leaders' just haven't got their heads round this changed reality yet.

You got that right:

Maybe the 'guardians' have their heads stuck somewhere that is odoriferously repugnant and that's why they cannot see this reality yet.
That being said (forgive my crudity): war, famine, and pestilence are a certainty now that most refuse to accept this reality.Time to put on sackloth and mourn - the parties over for the vast majority.This article would have been apropos in the 1970's; unfortunately, it is way to late in this game and sanguine articles like this are somewhat annoying as the world lurches with post peak trama.I'm in fear and dread at the thought of what is going to happen in the next decade.

You say:

As a stated goal, agriculture yield targets should be raised significantly.

How do you propose doing this? More fertilizer? More irrigation? Is this a low energy goal?

Don't mean to butt in but no it does not more fertilizer and water. it means wise water management , which is simply keep it as close to where it falls as possible, for as long as possible. yes i mean on site storage. it is being done all over the world and is the way nature has always done it. It also means that trash trucks no longer come through the neighborhood and pick up the bag of valuable mulch in the form of leaves and other plant matter, and it is instead used as mulch to shade out grass lawns where edible plants can be grown. Every thing is composted and supplemented with some human waste to kick it up a notch. Hell i been doing it for years. neighbors are beginning to follow my lead.

There are biological ways to improve soil fertility! They generally involve minimal material import of things like trace elements in rock dusts etc and not using chemical fertilises. Chemical fertilises tend to screw pH and soil flora & fauna long term.

The crux of this is energy. Low energy methods only make sense if energy costs are high. For the last 250 years of abundant fossil fuel we have optimised all systems to maximise the use of cheap inputs (energy) and minimise expensive input, particularly labour. This shows up in one of the basic assumption of the 'west', automation is good, even Accountants accept this as a basic premise.

Dramatically increase the cost of energy and you reverse a basic economic premise of agriculture, more land with less people. You can't run low energy agriculture with only 3% of your population. The end of cheap energy means the end of cheap food. If the cost of energy don't get you, the cost of additional labour will.

I do have one problem with Gregor's FEW proposal. It's confined to the urban area, I think is should be applied to a city and it's hinterland as a whole. Cities generate the most value with increased densities. More people to potentially react with daily. More networks, more interaction, more value adding. Land needs to be devoted to green spaces to meet community building needs: parks, play grounds, educational gardens etc. Devoting more land than that start to eat into the very density that gives a city its value. Food production beyond educational and recreational production belongs in the hinterlands. Same goes for energy production. Integrate it where you can, but if it starts to decrease density, don't do it. Remember density is also what you need to make public transport both more effective & efficient.

I tend to agree. Although surprising amounts of food can be grown in a yard wide strip and most fruit trees make good ornamental trees as well. Green grass lawns are boring IMHO and seeing beets, turnips, parsnips, broccoli and spinach grow (my winter garden) is more interesting for passerbys.

I am spent last night peeling and preparing 15 lbs of jumbo shrimp that I will take with me to family (in Phoenix ugh !). Caught within city limits (New Orleans East).

Best Hopes for density plus urban gardening,


Shrimp pealings. Great for the chickens or the compost heap.

Fortunately I will be gone during the most fragrant period. And I buried the newest additions under the garden waste (okra, pepper, bean stalks, etc.) from the summer garden to muffle the impact.


great article. sent it on to my mayor of a city of about 240k. doubt he will read it because i have witnessed how the TARP funds have been used to date. we have road building project going on in every direction. These bastards ain't gonna quit. Asset allocators are for the most part ignorant assh...s, who do not look beyond he next election and those who fund it.

sent it on to my mayor of a city of about 240k.

As I just did too. I expect a similar result... deafening silence.

Co-opt is far more workable than confront. Fast food, for example. Most fast food outlets are franchises owned by locals, employing locals and patronized by locals. These are the same local business owners who sit on boards of local organizations, charities and civic groups. There is a lot that they could do if approached in the spirit of cooperation: grease recycling to biodiesel or vegetable oil fuel, composting food scraps, zero waste, possible local food menu items, serving more vegetables, support for local initiatives, publicity, bike to work programs, etc.

At the very least, fast food franchise owners are a way to find the elusive threads of money in otherwise hardscrabble neighborhoods.

I really wonder how well the author of this piece really knows Philadelphia.

As I live in Wilmington, Delaware, about 28 miles south of center city Philadelphia and have a son and daughter-in-law living there, I happen to be reasonably familiar with the city.

It is hardly the dysfunctional wasteland ready for someone's enlightened magic touch that the author seems anxious to portray.

Being the sixth largest city in the US, it is actually a rather spread-out city largely composed of relatively low buildings. (Unlike New York, It doesn't have much of a skyline.) It is a fairly livable city with a pretty decent public transportation system and close-knit neighborhoods.

While there is indeed urban blight in many areas of Philadelphia, there are also many very attractive, upscale neighborhoods with a vibrant urbane atmosphere. Real estate in the better neighborhoods is hardly cheap. I am going out on a limb here, but I would say that Philadelphia probably has one of the greatest concentrations of Victorian-era mansions of any US city. My point is that there is still a lot of money (much of it very old money) in Philadelphia and that it is hardly a dying city waiting for someone's 'grand vision'.

However, I would agree with the author that Philadelphia is very nicely geographically positioned on the main transportation routes to economically hold its own, provided the right amount of progressive leadership.

Yo Adrianne!

joule, sounds like you know philadelphia like I knew the old south through William Faulkners eyes. But, things do change and it ain't always easy. The myths die hard, but sooner or later it happens. As RW above says, (I'm embarrassed because i can't spell the name from memory of one of the most respected commenter on this site, ) says growth is over. It's all about contraction now. "Holding it's own", is indeed going to challenge even with the most progressive leadership. Come to the south and see the thousands of old mansions, vacant, and deteriorated. Sure many have been restored, but that was done in a period of cheap energy. My guess is that the folks who own them are in a struggle to hold on, they just do what the rest of the folks do down here in deep south do, they do their crying and fretting behind closed doors and put on a false face when they come outside. Maintaining ones dignity is a pretty powerful thing. But sooner or later, the facade is removed and as Buffet says, those who have been been swimming naked get exposed when the tides move out. good luck. I love Philadelphia, but it ain't gonna avoid what is before us. Pay attention to what this post is saying. lot of wisdom in it. cheers

rube cretin -

Yeah, I agree in general. But my only point was that Philadelphia is hardly a poster child for some dystopian urban nightmare.

The only purpose of my comment re the large mansions still in Philadelphia was to illustrate that the place is hardly falling apart. Old Philadelphia Main Line wealth is very much alive and well, for better or worse.

Furthermore, one shouldn't just look at a city in terms of its official political boundaries, as the close suburbs of most large eastern cities are closely integrated into the overall urban agglomeration. And Philadelphia has some very prosperous and well established suburbs.

Compared to many other large US cities, Philadelphia is probably well poised to absorb more punishment than most. Water is certainly no problem. It is strategically situated along a major north-south corridor, has a good port, and it has a fairly diversified commercial economy.

Having said that, I wouldn't want to be in the middle of any urban area if and when the shite hits the fan. But there are worse US cities than Philadelphia when things really get bad. Phoenix, Las Vegas, and Atlanta come to mind. Detroit is already a gone job, and much of the Rust Belt is teetering on the edge.

Hello, joule!

Damac - fellow Wilmingtonian. (OK, Centreville)

As I was reading the piece, I was mentally translating "Philadelphia" to "Baltimore" and would venture to say that the dying city as a low entry point for a grand vision could at least as easily be here. They are similar in many ways; one key is that they were both developed into significant cities before the age of oil, or indeed even fossil fuels. There are other east coast industrial cities that should endure for the same reasons -- Richmond comes to mind.

i'm about to go to bed. picked and shelled and canned the last butter beans of 2009l please read the attached, as this is what real progressive leadership needs to do to save our cities and the rest of civilization. go, evo.

The US population is about 80% urban. I view this as a problem. The places where natural capital wealth are managed have been vacated, leading to cultural impoverishment, an aging demographic, and reactionary, xenophobic politics stemming from such isolation.

Rather than see more people move into old cities, I'd like to see a reverse migration where small towns in the heartland are repopulated. Without properly stewarding the soils and waters of the farmland and forests the cities will not be viable.

You can't feed a city from vacant lots and roof tops. Fresh veggies account for about 5% of land area needed to feed a person. And when food is transported from farms into cities the waste products (i.e., future fertilizer) are not available to resupply nutrient fertility on soils.

Otherwise, I agree that the cities need to do all suggested in the essay. And I like Gregor's blog :)

"Rather than see more people move into old cities, I'd like to see a reverse migration where small towns in the heartland are repopulated."

Sigh... and if wishes were horses, beggars would ride. This particular wish seems more fanciful than most (at least with respect to any significant scale) unless/until something might force it. I grew up in the biggest city of all (in the USA), New York; I report to you that "small town in the heartland" was practically a phrasal synonym for "colossally boring place where only rubes would even think of staying around". Even "big city in the heartland", or "major-university city in the heartland" conveyed a similar meaning, with the addition of loud guffaws about "wholesome women" and the like. Political correctness may have since altered the wording associated with some of the guffaws, but I haven't encountered any evidence that the underlying sentiments have changed one iota. Should you wish to disbelieve this, please meditate on another (and well-known) big-city name for the heartland and all that it contains - "flyover territory".

I kinda expect that peak oil may force this. Or have you figured out a way to replace the nutrients exported each year from the farms to the cities without fossil fuels? I make no claims on timing.

Regarding the social stigma of rural areas, I largely agree with you, though it is unnecessary, and, I submit, dangerous to let stand. Who do you want feeding you? People satisfied with their lot in life, or those sneered at by city folks?

Good questions, and yet for the life of me I haven't the foggiest idea how to counter the stigma, or by any other means prevent it from standing. History seems to suggest that there's a kernel of truth to it - maybe the boredom? - that since ancient times has driven people to leave rural areas whenever they possibly could and almost irrespective of how objectively miserable conditions were in the towns or cities. Perhaps the truth of the matter is simply inconvenient...

People historically have left cities because of enclosure - their land was take from them. Yes there is a bright light syndrome, however most people are forced to it- this is the reason cities in the south are swelling so rapidly, as people's lands are stolen or flooded they move..


Sigh,...ok. YOUR problem is obvious. You grew up in New York. You are helpless.

Social stigma Jason sez? Compared to New York? Gimme a big break here.

Crime,poverty,political machines, the list is endless.That's cities for you. Worthless places that need others to produce their foodstuffs. Then they whine about the ones that do it.

Flyover. Yes and please do try to just Flyover it.

I could say some very nasty things about New Yorkers here but I will not go there except for my real live experience related below.

I went to a company school once in Atlanta where all of us were southerners except for one lone New Yorker. He couldn't play pinochle. He couldn't bowl. He couldn't shot pool.
He said he could beat us all in the games mentioned above. He was my motel roommate.
He had never seen a live cow. He couldn't drive a car. Argued with everyone. His ego was stupendous and not deserved.

He was a waste of human flesh. He wanted to play miniature golf when we suggested a game of real golf.

He almost flunked out of the school. He was abject. He was in fact a typical New Yarker. I spent a long temporary assignment in upstate New York. Kingston and Poughkeepsie to be exact. Those folks acted as though New York was a separate country and not part of their state.
Its the same way with downstate Illinois and Chicago. A huge disconnect.

So the cityfolk will save the planet? I don't thinkkkkkk sooooooo.

Airdale-let them eat toaster popups

"Those folks acted as though New York was a separate country and not part of their state. ... Its the same way with downstate Illinois and Chicago."

Yup, those things ring true, the flip side of what I was reporting (not the same as endorsing.) Like it or not Jason's right - and the hostilities are often mutual. For more, see the classic New Yorker cartoon (1M jpeg but it's a hoot) satirizing the attitude. And current use of the term "flyover country" (I don't know when it originated) is also real - I wasn't kidding, and flying over it is the only connection a certain class of confirmed Manhattanites and Angelinos experience directly.

One little quibble. As far as I've ever seen, most outside ears hear it as "New Yawker" rather than "New Yarker". YMMV. Cheers. ;)

These rubes have huge chips on their shoulders
entirely of their own making.
They use their disproportional political clout to funnel tax moneys into their pockets.
People flee small town life because it's stupid, narrow and boring.
(That or they turn into meth-heads).

Just sayin'

"He wanted to play miniature golf when we suggested a game of real golf.

I just can't resist a fresh illustration of the gap - Kunstler's in fine fettle about golf this morning:

Is it not also amusing that golf is even taken seriously as an athletic pursuit? I mean, why not pancake-flipping? Or dice? Or shooting rats at the landfill? This is the kind of knucklehead culture we have become after six decades of the softest life imaginable.

I agree with Jason's comments, with allowances made for a differing UK.

Here we are even more urban than in the USA. We are a set of large cities set in a rather small agricultural area. We have not fed ourselves since around the 1840s when in England about 22% of a total population of about 18M fed the rest (with the help of a large number of horses). When we threw everything at it in 1939-1946 for a population by then more than double the size, we halved our imports of food (as calories) by about doubling our use of synthetic/mined fertilizer and by similarly increasing mechanization.
Even after that huge effort we still needed to import a third of our calories, whatever the large losses of shipping. We could do better today because our cereals (the staple) can use increased N fertilizer to a level that about doubles yield per acre. After that we are simply limited by the available area of photosynthetic capture and weather and topographical constraints.
I am interested in nutrient re-cycling by large populations. Basic facts suggest most of our ingested N & K is in urine. Phosphate will be more in the solids. (Don't rate 'organic' gardeners unless they save & efficiently apply their urine.)
Renewable soil N fertilizer can be supplied on a field scale if high-enough ratio of land can be devoted to N bio-capture from the atmosphere (N is usually most efficiently captured by clover or alfalfa swards). Like the area needed to feed horses, this unfortunately then is land mostly not devoted to photosynthetic capture directly for human food.
Best hopes for feeding (and regenerating) our cities - especially here in UK.
Phil H

glad you brought that up, i do use it and it's amazing as a plant food, just not for my customers, don't think they'd appreciate it - "you fed my lettuce with your p..s?!!" hee hee

Thanks Gregor. We do need a splash of art in this tribe.

I just had dinner (whole day) with some very aware Peak Oil/Peak Credit folks, who are trying to advance some institutions as 'incubators' following the inevitable currency reset/reform (whether that is 9 months or 9 years away is unclear - depends on how long people believe the emperor (fractional reserve system) still has clothes).

They skimmed your post and it spawned some interesting debates - some heated. Some were strongly of the opinion that ideas like yours, benign, and well-intentioned as they may be, will have negative consequences in the following sense. If a certain % of cities/communities etc followed the inspiration of your post (and other similar ventures like Transition Towns, etc.), it would amount to the equivalent of 'a societal run on the bank' if it were pursued under the auspices of a response to the end of growth. Their thinking is that the only thing keeping things afloat now is peoples acceptance of government debt increases replacing private/public debt deflation - as long as people allow that to happen, even if it comes from thin air, the money translates into GDP and gives several more years for institutions and other planners to prepare a real alternative to the economic/growth based system, which has plenty of energy but not nearly enough energy to service let alone repay the 200-250 trillion in OECD debt outstanding (and have growth).

Personally, I took the other side - I just can't sign up for 'doing the wrong thing' (continuing this trajectory) so that some groups have more time to prepare. However, these thoughts have crossed my mind before - that TOD and other 'outreach' efforts at education, social awareness of energy/debt role in society etc. might actually be (ironically) counterproductive - I will revisit this in an upcoming post but I have to think about it more first...

"Yes, there is little doubt the US has collapsed."

Well, just so we don't engage in hyperbole, that's the main thing :-)

This does not mean that many of Gregor Macdonald's points should not be well taken. The issue of reducing energy consumption though restructuring at the city level is a crucial one, and much can be done there. We must be careful to consider the various options, other than the "bikes and gardens" option, however, because both of those rely on human physical effort at a time when that will be in short supply if for no other reason than the aging population...everytime we propose alternatives that rely on people on bikes and out working in the gardens to produce food, we should have to give the average age of the population of the city being discussed (what is the average age of the population of Philadelphia? Compared to the U.S. at large?)

Surely we must also face the economic paradox: There is no shortage of food in the stores. At this moment (I am not predicting, just looking at the environment the alternatives must face NOW) energy is still relatively cheap. So at this moment, the "green" alternatives are having to compete against two relatively low cost providers, the status quo energy providers and the status quo food easy is it to compete in what are already the two lower cost sectors of the economy? That may change soon, but this is the environment that the alternatives face long can the alternatives survive if prices do not begin to rise in energy and food, and soon?

I ask this, because I saw this all in the 1970' my nearby favorite large city of Louisville KY, there were "green" low consumption restructering plans proposed all over the place, and some were even adopted...the "car free" city zones, for example the 4th street corridor, were block off to car traffic, and was going to be the test case for the first car free pedestrian path in the city with more to supposedly follow. Millions were spent, the local population was livid, and by 1982 the cost of gasoline had collapsed to old lows, making the whole thing unsalable to the public...and the corridor was opened back up to cars, a complete and very public failure. Bike paths were proposed and built, but they have few bikes on them, and as the population has aged, even less than in the 1980's. They are useful only about 6 months of the year due to weather, so they are now essentially a recreational facility (a very nice one mind you) and have no real impact on commuting patterns. Most gardens have been abandoned except for the hobbyist as people found out the hard way that you simply cannot grow produce cheaper than you can buy it, even at a billed wage rate for garden work of pennies per hour, and it takes a real crusader to be willing to work in the summer heat to be benefited by only a financial hardship on top of the labor (and even more difficult as a person gets older).

I could go on and on...the only thing that really seems to reduce liquid fuel consumption on any real scale is a re-concentration of population closer to the provided services. The population change is actually already driving this more than most people realize, as older retired people move into smaller lower maintainence apartments, closer to hospitals and arts/concert theatre centers (DO NOT underestimate the power of the arts in this re-structering, the importance of something interesting to do and see close by is very valuable as a magnet to re-center the aging population)

Lastly, MONEY. I have mentioned above that there is at this time, no shortage of food or energy. Astoundingly, throughout multiple hurricanes, wars, and economic dislocation, there has not yet been the first sign of any such shortages, in fact, the problem right now seems to be an excess of things to sell, not a shortage, an excess of employable talent, not a shortage, and an excess of ideas to re-structure, not a shortage. The shortage has occured in the money to fund and buy the proposed future. I am becoming more and more convinced that we are at the breaking point: We simply must face the fact that we need as a nation a MAJOR re-alignment of our national hopes and aspirations in relation to our banking and financial community.

We will talk more about that another time...the end of bank credit cards, the turn toward credit unions, the perhaps reactionary turn back to cash instead of electronic money, dare I say it having spoken early against hyperbole...the end of banking services in the way we have come to know them since the 1930's...the death of "bank services" from the bank to the individual customer?

I will say something once again that is unpopular to say here on TOD, but I must if I am to be intellectually honest and let you know what I believe I have learned to this date: This is a BANKING and financial crisis, NOT a shortage of raw materials of energy at this time, pure and simple. The raw materials/energy shortage problem may come, perhaps tomorrow, there is simply no way to know, but the crisis now, today, is a purely financial one created by horrific management, abuse, fraud and outright theft by America's financial sector (and though other nations strapped on, this is essentially an American made crisis) and should be treated as such. The first reforms must be in our finincial structure, and frankly due to the incredible financial and political power of the banking industry, it will not occur. This is the dangerous problem facing us NOW.

Gasoline, propane, or heating oil can be a buck per gallon but if you can't get a buck, you are in an energy crisis, and a can of beans can be a quarter per can, but if you don't have a quarter, your in a food crisis, pure and simple. That is the crisis today, the crisis NOW.


As most of you know, I'm a bicycle advocate - I write letters to newspapers and legislators about the need for more bike friendliness. I participate on transportation oriented government committees that are open to the public. I bike about 4,000 miles a year (and, I am old as dirt).

This is a nice essay and I sincerely hope that it results in some of the suggested measures being adopted. But, I seems to be another set of great suggestions that will be ignored.

Yes, there is little doubt the US has collapsed.

If I said this in the local coffee shop, or at a local government meeting, or in a letter to the local newspaper - I would no longer have any credibility at all (given what little I have already).

IMHO, this essay is another example of great solutions for problems that few people recognize. I really do applaud Gregor Macdonald and his noble efforts - I hope he keeps at it. But, there is a very real need to bring attention to the issues of over population, FF, CC, habitat destruction, and debt.

Perhaps we could bring more attention to these issues if our young people followed the lead of German protesters who are using this tactic:

Ah, the always rational and scientific Germans...the photos made my smile for the day though...:-) I don't like to assume if I don't know, but I am assuming that they did this in the German summer, right?


Ah, the follies of youth in full bloom. Alas, the demographic in the pix is far from the overall demographic of the USA, and light-years from that of Germany. Sure, nothing wrong with bike lanes and paths - we have quite a few where I live; they're even useful when they're not too icy. However, I'd observe that the dominant (though not quite exclusive) user demographic is university students. It's absolutely not the aging majority, some of whom will, after all, need no little time to climb a one-story flight of stairs should they attempt it, much less walk or cycle or just totter any distance significantly greater than that from the couch to the car door.

It probably follows that Macdonald's desire for "a hostile position towards the automobile" will be politically stillborn except maybe in a few flaky university towns. Perhaps he acknowledges as much in saying that he seeks a "model that leverages young people in particular." I think we can all entertain serious doubts that the vast non-young majority will just blithely vote themselves onto the scrap heap...

PaulS, I think you are exactly correct in your observations, but it is no secret that I take this to the car thing, there really may be a workable way forward if we think creatively and even look to our past...

In the years of the birthing of the automobile (circa. 1895-1910) there was the concept of the "Town Car". This does not mean what it later came to mean with the giant Lincoln Town Car, but the roots were connected, and in this fashion:

A "Town Car" in the earliest days of the automobile, was a large, comfortable enclosed car meant to carry a party or group of passengers to local occasions, parties and outings, usually in a group and a short travel distance...less than 5 miles in most cases, so the vehicle could be slow, it would still be faster than walking or horsedrawn carriage (and cleaner...people sometimes forget that horses have a pollution issue of their own!), and it would provide protection from the weather and be comfortable. This is the way limos are often used to today...

Let us consider this vehicle now as an electric or electric hybrid vehicle, possibly using compressed natural gas as the fossil fuel onboard...we would be looking at a largish vehicle, clean, comfortable, almost silent, but relatively be used only in town, from neighborhood to city center or close by neighborhoods...less than 10 miles one way, 20 max, well within the technological capacity of todays battery systems to be requested for intown outings in much the way todays limos and cabs are...

If we connect this system to Alan Drake's ideas of intercity trains, the amount of fossil fuels used to maintain a truly national transportation systme could be very low, with no loss of national mobility (in fact, the poor would probably have greater access to travel than since the days of the 1920's!)

When I was a child, I lived in a small town of 1200 people. If I could get by foot 1 mile, I could go about anywhere in the U.S. by era that was dying away while I was still in my is not that hard to do technically but will the marketplace allow it? Frankly, the greatest marketplace in the world now allows very little advanced design to be built...for the time being, we are in a failed in that sense, the "U.S. has collapsed" sentence is hyperbole to say the least, but the "real market has collapsed" may be closer to the truth...


Hi RC,

now to the car thing, there really may be a workable way forward if we think creatively

A 40 mph national speed limit enforced with mandatory governors would do the trick. Not that I expect this to happen, but if did we could use Neighborhood Electric Vehicles and Human Powered Vehicles without fear of being run over by SUVs. NEVs can be all weather vehicles. Scooters would probably be more popular if large, powerful autos were taken out of the mix.

"Scooters would probably be more popular if large, powerful autos were taken out of the mix."

I wonder. Even a Smart car vastly outweighs somebody on a scooter, so the practical distinction may be one with very little difference. People even managed to get trampled by horses and rolled over by wagons back in the old days.

What has changed more than anything else is attitudes about elf'n'safety, which are now so perfectionistic that we throw away hundreds of millions of meals because a few people got bad stomachaches, or we redo tens of millions of window coverings because one a year out of our gargantuan population somehow manages to get caught in a cord.

On standards like that, it's simply not acceptable to get out of bed in the morning lest one fall down, much less leave one's property via any route or any mode or conveyance whatever. And yet there seems to be no going back on it, since the public views impossible standards as a way to avenge themselves on the evil wicked business entities that have the infernal gall to tell them they have to get up on some mornings and do something productive rather than watch Oprah all day.

Hi Steve,

I suggest scooters because I recall seeing so many of them when I worked in India - they were very popular in that economy.

What has changed more than anything else is attitudes about elf'n'safety

I think you really have a good point and I'd drop all personal vehicle safety requirements except (perhaps) seat belts. I'd severely tax gross vehicle weight to get away from the "tank" mentality of. My goal would be to level the playing field a lot more than it is today.

Of course, if you want to see these changes, you must elect me to be god and supreme commander.

I was just at a conference in Philadelphia, after many years absence (and then only a few quick visits). I too was amazed at how robust the transit system was. I applaud the general tenor and direction of your essay. Living in Portland, Oregon, I enjoy how much farsighted thinking and planning is underway here, but in some ways Philadelphia is already in position to deal with coming deleveraging.

Yes, there is little doubt the US has collapsed.

Oh? Who sez? That's a rather sweeping generalization. On the whole, the US seems to be in a nasty recession. But it's not remotely as though a quarter of the population has already fled to Canada and Mexico, as if the US were Zimbabwe. Indeed, for the most part, the place looks astonishingly normal in view of the media extravaganzas about cherry-picked places like Detroit and some of the overbuilt exurbs, which may have been headed for trouble in any event. Yes, it's sure painful for some individuals, but there's abundant historical precedent for individual pain unaccompanied by societal collapse.

Hyperbole of the sort has been heard before, especially during the Great Inflation of the 1970s, but ultimately it came to essentially nothing, as general readers will know. So the best I can say for it is that it's probably not useful (or provable even in a reasonable, loose sense) as part of the basis of the article, unless the intent is to ensure that said general readers will roll their eyes skyward at the nuttiness of it all and click onward to somewhere else. So what was the point?

Great post, Gregor. I like your colorful, artsy style.

City planning is one of my favorite subjects, and I marvel when it's done well. Any city smart enough to do the things that residents actually value, rather than developer-driven projects which seem to end up determining urban plans most places, can be assured that their city will become a preferred place to live and do business. Cities should spend more on urban planning, value it more, and encourage citizen involvement in the process.

Living in Boulder, I have awe and respect for those who had the great foresight in the 60's and even prior, including Al Bartlett who could see the need to begin the open space acquisitions here before developers took all. These visionaries made this town what it is today. The bicycle trails here make it possible to get about anywhere in this city of 100k as fast by bike as by car. If I have to use my car instead of bike these days, it's always with disappointment. What helps is that the weather is conducive to biking much of the year.

It appears that San Francisco is taking a lead role these days in prioritizing urban food growing wherever possible according to news items I've read.

Along with your idea of converting some streets to bikes only, I would add that scooter use should be included. In the powering-down future, scooter use will no doubt become more important, too.

Local and regional solutions will vary from one local to another, and will be far more important than what comes out of Washington, I agree. A major problem city leaderships can't figure out right now is declining sales tax and property tax revenues. It will be a major challenge to convince them to think outside those boxes.

Urban homesteading in the autumn of American commerce. Quite a challenge as much will change but there are many and all have to happen at once.

Solving one transport problem is tough enough, solving commuting, feeding, waste and water issues, finding funds, retiree issues, other demands on services, government capture by business interests ... multiplied by the number of cities, then states, then the US government which has so far demonstrated a real knack for contradictory and ineffectual action except for taking bribes and peddling influence.

I've been to Philadelphia several times, very nice very LARGE with many people. Of course, many areas are very nice and expensive so the urban stalwart is consigned to 'tenderloin' areas with drug/alcohol/crime issues, declining services, increased taxes, etc. It is an adventure for young people with creativity and strong backs. I've done it, it's rewarding but also frustrating. If you succeed you will find yourself competing with speculators. If you don't succeed, you will be living in your lack of success.

I've considered going to Baltimore or Detroit as there are acres of abandoned buildings that can be had cheaply. That's the initial 'buy in' cost; improving the building afterward is very pricey, there is almost no employment in these cities so all expenses - perhaps for a long time - have to be paid out of savings which may or may not be available. While Detroit/Baltimore are near- bankrupt, taxes are high, water and sewer are expensive, there are no services or legal commerce at all in many areas. Schools are bad, police response a rumor, courts overwhelmed. In high- crime areas the homesteader is bound to the almighty automobile which provides mobility without morbidity. the twilight neighborhoods lack restaurants, hardware stores, clothing stores ... the entire city of Detroit has no supermarket! Many areas are overrun with drug gangs and addicts. If you buy a house in such an area you will probably not be able to sell it. This means living in a house in a bad neighborhood for the rest of your life.

Unless you like your predecessors ... abandon your house and your investment.

Gardening is okay except decades of heavy industry have left the soils and ground water in these cities heavily polluted.

The point is ... that urban relocalization isn't a panacea. It includes a lot of risk, leaving out the longer term risk of systemic breakdown that leaves millions of inhabitants of a region without power or public safety for a long period. Philadelphia cannot feed itself, it's ringed with suburbs, malls and freeways like all other US cities. The entire area includes 5 million people; that's five million pounds of food per day at a minimum distributed over a wide area. That's two- and- a- half thousand tons or one hundred tractor trailer loads every day, 365 days a year. Relocalization has to begin with a serious and robust effort to maintain basic services. In the current 'let the market handle the problem' environment, there is no sense that governments at any level can take the steps required to insure food supplies, power, water and sanitation in an emergency.

This 'basic service' issue needs to be addressed positively first. Otherwise, small appears to be more beautiful in the current climate than big.

Permanent relocalization would include demolishing much of the suburban rings and returning that land to agriculture, this along with intensive small plot husbandry. This would still require the import to the city of cereal grains from areas where these are cultivated.

Thank you Gregor for taking your stand against the hated automobile. They really are the enemy, it's them or us.

Check out how much transit Philly had in the pre- car 1950's:

It seems Philly had a streetcar line on every downtown street. There are still streetcars in the city but only a shadow of the past.

steve from virginia,

I have promised myself to do this everytime I see the whole problem reduced to the automobile, that is to repeat the text of posts I have been running for sometime...

IF you accept the type of catastrophic failure often accepted as foregone conclusion here on TOD, and you accept the depletion scenarios of say Colin Campbell, Ken Deffeyes, or sometimes even Matthew Simmons, and the oft given ELP (Export Land Models) then the math works out that you could park every single car and truck in the United States NOW and torch them all, burn them to the ground, and you still could not outrun the above cited decline rates. Less than 10% of all the oil produced in the world goes into American automobiles, and that number is already dropping as a percentage of total world production/use.

So you can hate the American automobile on aesthetic grounds (and that is a position some have taken since the day the automobile was invented) or on moral basis (essentially an ascetic as well as aesthetic basis), but we should all realize that the American automobile does not matter a gnat on an elephants ass in the scheme of peak oil IF you accept the currently TOD consensus accepted scenarios.

That is not an argument, but a fact if you accept the premises and live with the internally consistant logic given here. (I am not saying I do, but I am simply following the logic out to it's foregone conclusions)



You are choosing to not see the forest. It's not just the cars themselves; the entire country has been turned into a habitat for cars. It's mot just the fuel the cars use, it is the fuel used in the making and running of the entire car habitat.

You need the vehicles, you need roads to drive them on, destinations and services at the destinations. Added together this represents most of the OECD economy. Services and consumption orbit around car use, road, air and ship transport. The great real estate bubble is and was destination and services overflow. You are correct, auto driving represents small use. That one component of the oil platform is the reason for it ... and the axle around which the entire platform orbits. In isolation autos require a small percentage of fuel consumed. The entire platform requires more than a third of oil available at any given time, with agriculture using another third - mostly for road transport and processing. This leaves the final third for industrial and fixed uses: lubricants, chemical feedstocks, defense and emergency use, for oil production itself, for electrical generation (minor), home heating and for re- export. Cutting oil use will require eliminating the road component.

You have to understand, this isn't optional or a speculation. It's an observation. It's happening right now and there is nothing that can be done to alter the zero car outcome. Battery cars and 'alt fuel' or natgas or biofuel conversions are a farce. Leaving out the same resource constraints that compel their invention in the first place, the infrastructure to make the cars on the scale required does not exist. Capacity and resources have been exported ... to hedge against rising fuel costs. Exchange rates + resource constraints + declining incomes due to deflationary job losses = unaffordable alternative cars.

This leaves out the continuing and increasing energy requirements for the habitat. Where is that added energy going to come from?

There isn't any more cheap oil. $20 is gone. What oil that remains that can be produced for $10 a barrel will be sold for $75. The entire oil use platform has been built upon an assumed $20 oil far into the future. Like the assumption of endless rises in real estate 'values' this assumption turns out to be incorrect.

Platform costs are the reason that $40 oil starts to gut the economy. Gas at the pump may be affordable, but the effects of price increases ripple through the entire platform. Companies that cannot absorb increases fail. There are still massive numbers of cars on the highways, but more and more businesses are failing alongside the same highways. The oil cost increases attributable to cars are shifted to less cost- flexible businesses. Simply extrapolating this trend would have traffic jams daily in front of miles of empty shops ... oops, that's already happening!

Part of the unique USA narrative is the 'American Love Affair With the Automobile'. A more accurate narrative is 'War of the Worlds' where aliens from a galaxy far away land and hand out Chevys and Nissans - at low monthly lease rates. They then fly around in their saucers leveling everything, paving over the ruins and making humans dependent upon their 'gifts'. Your suggestion is false; the machines gobble all but a small percentage of total fuel available; that small balance being measured in the form of food calories and what is used to keep ourselves warm. We 'love' our heartless, pitiless cyborgs that are indifferent to their fate or ours as they out- compete us in the race for necessary resources.

If a truly smart car could be created, one that could think, it would consider itself and its place in our nature world so bizarrely unlike itself. It would self- drive to the crusher right off the showroom lot.

Hi Steve,

the entire country has been turned into a habitat for cars.

Beyond your very sound argument there is another victim of our "car culture" and that is our social culture. It seems true that almost all people are enamoured to some extent with the mobility inherent in motor vehicles - however, the auto companies and mass media marketing have exploited this fascination to sell the idea that basic human happiness can be enhanced with a more powerful, prestigious and luxurious car. How can people still buy into this very bad joke?

It seems to me that this car culture has greatly depreciated the quality of human social interaction. I often wonder if ancient people who lived in true "horse cultures" had the same level of isolation, alienation and road-rage we have - I suspect not.

I can attest to the fact that travel by bicycle (ignoring car danger for the moment) is a far more socially rewarding experience. Conversation with strangers is commonplace. All kinds of human interactions occur on a bike that seldom happen with a car - or a bus. On bike vacation tours I often notice the kind of isolation between bus tour people and local people. On the other hand, our (somewhat unusual) bike is very often the source of conversation with local people - even when we struggle with the language.

Bikes certainly have limitations but I think we would have a much more congenial world if local roads were dominated more by bikes than by cars.

We live in a highly networked system. The automobile is only one piece of that system. As you correctly point out Steve, it will be very difficult to create the rest of the system, where none exists. I don't think I would want to be among the first 10,000, trying to tackle the lack of services (including grocery stores, furniture stores) with only my bicycle, my savings, and a semi-legal garden in polluted soil.

Besides all of the trailer trucks bring things in, there would need to be a huge number of trucks taking trash and other unneeded materials back out, IMO.


Interesting re Philly.

I've been interested for a while in a couple of very much underfunded UK experiments in Ultra Light Rail

Basically hybrid street cars which look and feel like trams and can run on tracks laid down roads or on conventional rail. It's interesting but there is a whole class of train/tram travelling people who would travel on ULR but who would not be seen dead on a bus with the great unwashed.

If powered by biomethane etc you could get the low rolling resistance of rail, but without the massive costs (in resource and time) of reinforcing streets for modern trams, and rigging cables, which account for most of the disastrously high - and over-running - costs of the Edinburgh tram now under construction near me in Scotland.

Philly might usefully try ULR for a couple of streets and see what happens.

USA has a brain lock. Laying roadbed/rails is relatively cheap and easy compared to building an equivalent highway. Laying roadbed in streets, ballasting and repaving is also cheap; it would employ huge numbers - albeit hard, back breaking work. The streets could be cut by hand or by asphalt milling. Crews would work 'from the rails' as they did in the early 20th century.

It would put some of the unemployed to gainful employment.

Making the tram cars would take the place of making autos. Making the supporting systems would be a large industry. Every city and town in the US needs a tram system, either electric powered or battery/hybrid.

Tram construction in the US is a patronage/buyback process that adds hundreds of millions or billions of 'administrative/engineering studies' and other management/finance expenses onto relatively straightforward paving jobs. The higher the budget, the more funds are available to kick back under, over and around the table. This is more true of heavy rail projects where planners insist on tunnel boring machines and deep profiles that add immense materials- handling expenses during construction.

The old- fashioned 'cut and cover' method dug a large ditch along the length of a street, lined it with concrete, laid tracks and covered again with new utilities and street surfaces. The wider the street, the more tracks could be laid promising more capacity. Materials access to the surface was straightforward. Stations remained a flight of low- energy consuming stairs from the low- energy consuming sidewalk.

New systems dependent on TBM's which were used in the past to cut under rivers and other obstacles. Tunnels are dozens or hundreds of feet underground requiring special equipment to haul away cut material and return concrete and other supplies. Smaller bores can only support two tracks and lie outside stair climbing distance from the surface, requiring energy- gobbling elevators and escalators. IMO, these kinds of systems don't save energy per rider versus the car, particularly with all the added gadgetry and station heating and A/C.

Of course, we can't go back to doing things the old- fashioned way, now can we? We'll all wind up living in caves!


Many points of disagreement and agreement.

Elevators are not that energy intensive. In one specific case I know, elevators were about 3% of electrical demand for a 5 story building.

"Balance of system" electrical demand for subways is often 10% to 20% of total.

I do like Copenhagen's underground stations. On a 20 m x 60 m footprint, the stations were dug down with a 20 m x 60 m skylight. TBM drives and cut & cover for the tunnels.

I think that you fail to understand the energy required to transport one person in a two ton vehicle using an inefficient ICE engine. The energy density of the various forms of Urban Rail is trivial in comparison.


I think that you fail to understand the energy required to transport one person in a two ton vehicle using an inefficient ICE engine.

A light rail car weighs 39 tons
and seats 64 people.

Trams usually run at about 15 mph on average.
At low speed the main resistance is rolling friction (10# per ton) plus curve resistance(1# per ton per degree of curvature). The rolling resistance of a car on concrete is about 25# per ton.

So at 15 mph an empty 39 ton tram would need
16 hp.
A 2 ton car would need 2 hp.
So it depends on how many people are riding in the car and how many on the tram.
If 1 person is in the car, that is equal to 8 people in the tram.

Nationally light rail(2000) averages 26 people per car (annual passenger miles per annual vehicle miles).

This would be equal to a passenger car, a carpool, with 3.25 people in it, so 4 seater cars could be still competitive on average.

Of course, cars can drive anywhere and can go much faster than trams.

Trams would beat cars in rush-hour situations where you could have 64 people seated or even 144 people seated and standing in the tram, but in that case it would be more logical to just get rid of the rush-hour.

The efficiency of car engines is ~19%.

The efficiency of thermal power stations is about 30%, the grid is 93% efficient and induction motors are about 91% efficient or 26% efficient. Of course with the lighting, heating,AC, doors, etc. electric trams actually use as much or more energy than an auto.
The difference is in the number of passengers
and how useful they find trams over cars.

The efficiency of car engines is ~19%.

From your link

a car cruising on a highway is usually operating significantly below its ideal load, because the engine is designed for the higher loads desired for rapid acceleration.

So cruising down the highway without braking (electric rail has regenerative braking, cars don't) reduced efficiency below "18% to 20%" per your link.

And the "18%-20%" is under optimum benchtop conditions "Even when aided with turbochargers and stock efficiency aids" and neglects power train losses (often 20%) and under inflated tires, out of tune engines, gasoline that evaporates before being burned, energy to refine gasoline (major !) and energy to deliver oil to the refinery and then gasoline to end use in motor (gasoline is usually carried around in vehicle for 100-250 miles before being burned at some energy cost, not an issue with electricity from the grid).

Even that significantly dramatically overstates the real world efficiency. It does not include the zero efficiency of idling, or circling the block looking for parking (less than zero efficiency ?), or soccer mom returning after dropping off the kids (zero passengers being transported anywhere, just like a passenger less mass transit vehicle with a driver).

I could accept a real world claim of 7%, 8%, 9% or maybe even 10% but not 18% when all factors are considered.

The efficiency of thermal power stations is about 30%

Only older coal fired plants. Combined cycle natural gas plants are 50+%. Newest coal plants are around 40%. There is no large scale economic use for nuclear heat except to produce electricity, so thermal efficiency there is meaningless (except when comparing one nuke to another nuke).

Likewise, there is no large scale economic use for falling water & blowing wind except to produce electricity. New generation in the USA is about equal numbers (measured by both MW and expected MWh) combined cycle NG and wind with not much else. One could argue that generation that is half combined cycle NG and half wind is over 100% thermal efficiency, and that mix is close to new US generation.

The grid is 93% efficient and induction motors are about 91% efficient

The grid delivers power to major urban users (at higher voltage) with considerably higher efficiency than it does to exurban residents. Just engineering optimization of high voltage lines, substations and no last loss at pole mounted transformer (~0.9%). 95% or even 96% is closer to reality for urban rail electricity.

Likewise, quality (not the cheapos) electric motors in the 100+ hp range are usually a bit higher than 91% efficient. 92 to 94% are what I have seen.

This argument misses the largest energy advantage of urban rail, it reduces overall VMT (vehicle miles traveled) by changing development patterns. The indirect energy savings via TOD routinely exceed the direct savings.

Also, auto air conditioners are MUCH less efficient than larger a/c running off grid electricity and not pulleys and belts.

I am packing to leave, so no time to further explore this,


To quote TOD commentator "x", not all BTUs are equal. Oil production is peaking (or has already) and oil is likely to be scarce in the future, most sources of electricity have not.

a car cruising on a highway is usually operating significantly below its ideal load, because the engine is designed for the higher loads desired for rapid acceleration.

Trams don't run at highway speeds, they average around 15 mph.

So cruising down the highway without braking (electric rail has regenerative braking, cars don't) reduced efficiency below "18% to 20%" per your link.

Hybrid cars have regenerative braking. Virgin
heavy rail trains claim a 17% energy savings for regen braking.

And the "18%-20%" is under optimum benchtop conditions "Even when aided with turbochargers and stock efficiency aids" and neglects power train losses (often 20%) and under inflated tires, out of tune engines, gasoline that evaporates before being burned, energy to refine gasoline (major !) and energy to deliver oil to the refinery and then gasoline to end use in motor (gasoline is usually carried around in vehicle for 100-250 miles before being burned at some energy cost, not an issue with electricity from the grid).
...Only older coal fired plants. Combined cycle natural gas plants are 50+%. Newest coal plants are around 40%. There is no large scale economic use for nuclear heat except to produce electricity, so thermal efficiency there is meaningless (except when comparing one nuke to another nuke).

About half of US natural gas plants are CCGT plants which are not run as baseload and which make up a fraction of grid power(10%?). The average US coal(also nuclear) plant(70%) is 32.7% efficient(2005). Natural gas (26%)averages 43%. Together it amounts to an average efficiency of 34%

I could accept a real world claim of 7%, 8%, 9% or maybe even 10% but not 18% when all factors are considered.

Oil refineries are about 80% efficient so
you could reduce the efficiency from 19% to

You mention the energy to deliver the oil but the energy to compress and transport the gas to the CCGT is ~3.5% drain so oil transport is a wash.

When I add up your claims for electrified rail energy savings with 34% efficiency at the thermal plant and a gain of not more than 17% for regenerative braking. 1.17 x 34% x 93% grid loss x 91% induction motor loss = 33.7% versus 15.2% of the ICE.

So if 2 kw energy is used to run the 4 seat car like a tram is equal to 16 kw then on an input energy basis 2/.15:16/.337 or 1:3.56.
In other words,the car with 2 people in it would still be more efficient than a tram with
only 7.12 people in it.
If less than 5 people are riding the tram the system is no more efficient than a car with an average 1.4 occupants and this is in a 'race'
between a car and tram on an established rail/street route, not between a commuter's door step and his final destination.

People who prefer trams do so because they hate cars more.

Among other things, the tram uses zero motive power when it's stopped.

I'm not sure if you're comparing surface streetcars or subway cars, but the latter average much higher speeds while in motion.  Attempting to calculate energy demand based on average speed is like trying to calculate the damage potential of TNT based on average power output from manufacture to use.

Hi Majorian,

People who prefer trams do so because they hate cars more

I resemble that remark!

Actually, I found the debate between you an Alan to be interesting and useful. But, I dislike cars (except for something like a small NEV) for other reasons than just potential energy savings. I think that the "car culture" has greatly depreciated my quality of life in many ways. I can think of other transportation configurations that would produce a far more pleasant living environment. This is probably a longer discussion for another day - for today, I just want to note that there is more to this car culture issue than the cost of fuel for going from point A to point B.

Cars = unlimited mobility, really too much of a 'good thing', like a magic carpet or a Star Trek transporter beam.
How much mobility do we really need?
I've argued before that if you want mass transit to succeed you need to ban cars(at least partially) and let people ride on mass transit for free.

if you want mass transit to succeed you need to ban cars(at least partially) and let people ride on mass transit for free.

I'll vote for that! Could we also give bikes priority over cars in all circumstances? BTW, I think bikes = ultimate mobility (for both body and spirit).

In France you can rent a bike and in Copenhagen they are free.

In fact since a bike and a tram go at the same average speed one might as well forget light rail given the bicycle's 'energy superiority'.
But seriously, during the Cuban Special Period, Castro bought millions of bikes from China and the utilization wasn't very good.
We need a mix of transport vehicles.

I definitely agree that we need a mix of transport mechanisms. My personal preferences would be bikes, NEV, and mass transit. But, my experience as a bike advocate is that bikes and small vehicles (NEV - essentially an enclosed golf cart) have no chance of being widely used because the average person is simply afraid of being killed by cars and trucks. And, forget about parents encouraging their kids to bike in a mix of motor vehicle traffic.

I biked a fair amount in both Ireland and France. Parents in most parts of Ireland will not allow their kids to bike to school - too dangerous. Dublin is better than most parts of Ireland for bikes, but in most towns and villages in the west of Ireland, biking takes considerable courage.

France seems to be a bit better, but biking is mostly a tourist thing or a Sunday exercise thing. I marvel at people biking in Paris - I would never give it a try. I love the idea of biking in Provence, but the reality is not all that safe.

Until we move beyond our love affair with the "car culture", people like me are definitely on the fringe.

We face a shortage in liquid fuel for ICE engines, not a shortage of electricity for electrified rail. The main advantage or rail isn't energy efficiency. The main advantage is that it does not rely on oil.

I went down your list and New Orleans, post-Katrina, is working on all of those items. Perhaps not at the speed required, but solid foundations are being laid in bicycling, local food, solar water heating and PV (50% state tax credit + 30% federal tax credit), urban rail, local manufacturing, energy conservation and more.

Best Hopes for Philly and Naw'lins,


My problem with this essay is that, ultimately, it is nothing more than BAU Lite. In other words, despite gardens, etc., it is an unsustainable consumer/service society. I might feel differently had "production" of goods also been a major part of the plan.

Further, resources, time and money will be wasted trying to support the unsupportable.

Sorry, but I'll stick with homesteading by family/affinity groups as a better solution.


There will be a continued need for the port, medical care, education, engineering services, and more post-Peak Oil. And manufacturing of several types already in New Orleans, from coffee roasting (nice steady market of addicts) to ship building.


Great paper Gregor.
I like your urban farming culture ideas.
It reminds me of Organoponicos experience in Cuba.
I am a physician and beginning-level organic gardener(only 3 years experience).
Knowing how to grow food,what food we should eat and how to feed ourselves will be one of the most valuable skill .

Interesting thoughts, and that's what they are, thoughts. Interesting thoughts by a non-resident.

Personally, I find stories of people being the change they want to see in the world really inspiring.

For example, a few years ago, I saw a shot of a street scene in Frankfurt, Germany in an urban planner's slide show. An arterial had been divided by a strip of green. On one side, there was a streetcar and broad bike lane. On the other, there was a car lane with a car in it and parking. Street front business had colonized the first floors of buildings and patrons were sitting at a tiny one table sidewalk cafe. No big deal, looks like plenty of European street scenes that make us Yanks jealous, but I used live in that very neighborhood in the 80's.

That same arterial was crammed with traffic, an automobile canyon with faceless walls of large, impersonal buildings. It took half an hour to drive one kilometer, and I often thought that if there was a streetcar, even a safe bike lane, it would be faster. The sidewalk was narrow and dangerous.

Somebody got it. Somebody organized the support, got the large institutions tenanting the faceless impersonal buildings to sign on, found the money to extend the streetcar line and the million plus bucks in infrastructure to broaden the sidewalk, put in the planted divider and reorganize the traffic. Somebody mobilized public support and somebody got the institutions to carve out some little shop spaces from the fronts of their buildings to rent out.

Go somebody. Now, that's inspiring.

Nice article. It's pretty clear that cities that become more self-sufficient in food, energy and transportation will indeed be more economically viable (or viable at all) in the decade to come.

This is a nice video on how Copenhagen has reorganized itself transportation-wise. Currently 1/3 of trips in Copenhagen are by bicycle, 1/3 of trips are by public transportation and 1/3 of trips are by private car. Jan Gehl, Danish architect and urban planner, is featured in this video describing how they've accomplished this.

I really like this quote:

"It's really wonderful to live in a city where every day when you wake up in the morning you realize that the city is a little bit better than yesterday. I've had this feeling now for over forty years."

The way I see it is that no progress can be made until we address the brain's inability to operate.

This article will shed rewarding ah ha's. It is a bit chewy but persevere.

"Expecting to address the serious perceptual and psychological deficiencies that have resulted without addressing the underlying structural damage and neuro-chemical deficiencies is utterly futile and symptomatic of the condition itself." Quote from article

BTW, for those of you who did not follow all of the links at the end of MacDonald's essay:

this explains why Gregor has a couple of photos with a strange red thing on the rear wheel of a bike. This is the same hybrid technology used in cars to transform braking energy into stored battery power for later power assist.

And more info at:

I don't know what that red disc on the bike is doing, but it's going to be a miserable winter ride on that thing with no fenders. And it has no headlight. What good is a bike like that going to do if you have to ride to work on it?

Oak Street In New Orleans

Recently reconstructed, 7 blocks of small business with a few residences. The reconstruction narrowed the two traffic lanes (parking on both sides) so that most cars drive over the yellow line. This narrowness prompts slow driving, enhanced with cobblestones at the intersections (a smooth "bike path" is provided through the cobblestones). 15 mph is normal. Bicycles everywhere and lots of pedestrians.

Narrower streets meant wider sidewalks (several cafes, etc. with chairs on the sidewalk) and there were bump-outs at every intersection (normally wasted space where cars cannot park because it is too close to the intersection). These extra wide sidewalks at the intersections either have a park bench or bicycle parking racks.

Best Hopes for More,


Only recent photos that I could find on the internet are of the PoorBoy Festival

Philadelphia is an interesting case. I have lived within 35 miles of Philadelphia all my life (58+ years) and currently work in center city. Here are a couple of quick, off the cuff observations.

Philly (as we call it), has an enormous indigent population. This complicates renewal efforts. Where do you propose to put them all as the city is reinvented? It is the well educated and well-to-do who have left the city. On the other hand, there is a reason that the Philadelphia area was one of the first areas of North America to be settled. And these same reasons still hold today and, I think, bode well for any "Peak Oil Rebirth". Philly is still surrounded by good agricultural farmland and much of this farmland is worked through low energy technology means, courtesy of the Amish. Philly is still a major port. And the southeastern Pennsylvania region has plenty of water and mild yearly temperatures. There are also lots of waterways; the Delaware, the Chesapeake estuary, and others, most of them navigable.

I have thought hard about my own situation regarding the future and I have come to the conclusion that right where I currently am (in a small town west of Phila.) is where I think I am best off staying. My guess is that property values in the southern PA area will continue to hold steady and will probably even strengthen as years go by and the effects of Peak Oil start to bite in earnest.

A lot of Kentucky has been invaded by the Amish and Mennonites. I assume from Pennsylvania.

We favor them greatly and don't mind the buggy traffic. They are a close-mouthed people though. Some are a PITA but most are ok once you talk to them.

I envy them their culture and lifestyle.

I buy some of my groceries from their small out of the way stores. They are the best butchers around and honest also.


Or maybe more likely from Ohio; lots of them there.

The Amish come into my town every week to set up stands to sell produce. Also, we have a regular, late spring through summer farmers market on our main street every Friday when they sell everything from baked goods to barbecued chicken. Since this is only one block from my house, I'm hoping that this is something that can keep going indefinitely.

Philly (as we call it), has an enormous indigent population. This complicates renewal efforts. Where do you propose to put them all as the city is reinvented?

To the extent that the "indigent" are also criminal and hostile, they exercise a de-facto veto over reurbanization (e.g. Detroit).  One of the reasons suburbia exists is because distance is an effective barrier to theft and vandalism from the urban criminal class.

Law and Order (yes, capitalized) will be a sine qua non for successful re-urbanization efforts.  Those who e.g. turn the criminal class into field workers on chain gangs in the de-industrialized farm sector may succeed; those who let them continue their lifestyle in the cities are almost guaranteed to fail.

No need for chain gangs, just let economic forces (with a bit of gov't aid) move them to the suburbs.

It is happening already.


Yeah, I was hesitant to put it that way, E-P.

Philly contains a large population which is no longer moored to values representative of the national norm. It rejects education as a path towards economic improvement (by some estimates is at 28% functional illiteracy), is deeply suspicious of law enforcement, and has basically, self-opted out of the mainstream culture. The result is a city without a viable tax base and a large ungovernable and uneducable client class requiring government services.

On the other hand, (and I’m only being a little bit facetious) wasn’t this the typical case during the Middle Ages?

Havinvg grown up just outside Philadelphia using the trolley and rail system during the late 50s and early 60s I think FEW would be great there.

Now that I live in Cleveland's outter ring of suburbs that have absolutely no commuter rail connections in an area whose traditional steel, vehicle, and shipbuiling industries are in extremis while our urban farming / SLO grow projects are adolescents, it seems to me that we need to look at smaller FEW areas linked together using the freight rail lines already in place.

Any other places in the same boat out there?

Oberlin, OH

Thanks so much for all the commentary so far. I'll just make a few reactions to the thread here for starters, by way of other narratives:

+ John McPhee wrote another of his wonderful books on the subject of Alaska, which followed a number of rugged and liberty minded individuals who wanted to flee the "government, people, laws, culture, and trends" developing in the lower 48. Up in Alaska they bought several hundred acre properties, and hunkered down to live "free." But it didn't take long before disputes over taxes, property lines, water rights, and neighbors broke out. And soon enough most of what these people had attempted to escape in more dense areas of the US, unfolded across their lives in Alaska. My point is that I have chosen to address the problem of "where the people are." Not where they are not. The people are in cities, and our built-environments are actually an enormous asset. My work is very much directed to the interface between the built environment as it exists today, peak oil, and the problem of energy transition.

+ My use of the word collapse is actually not hyperbolic at all, and imo quite orthodox. True, there are a number of ways one can define collapse, and even here in the US I expect we will see further iterations of our current collapse. But I define the US collapse as follows: the debt and credit bubble built over 25 years finally reached critical mass, and collapsed the US capitalist financial system. Until that inflection point, the US could claim that it operated roughly along basic capitalist contours in the sense that debt was created, then paid back, and if not paid back then assets were liquidated and creditors took losses. Once the credit bubble reached critical mass, it placed the entire banking system into insolvency as all the debt was marked at higher levels to the assets. The US then began a process of nationalization with the Fannie and Freddie uptake into the government. Our financial system is now effectively nationalized, and the debt is being mitigated along political, not capitalist, contours. No surprise. Liquidation of the system via a capitalist model now would mean recognition of national insolvency. So, when I use the word collapse that's how I mean it, in this case. The system the US once operated under has collapsed. It's the result of a confluence of forces built over the past 30 years, not 8 years, or even one year. This type of collapse is not even special. It would have happened on Planet X, given the same trajectory.

+ When the reductio ad absurdum football team takes the field, they always look the most ferocious because their opening salvos are so engaging and tough. To this point I would say: My Project for a Revolution in Philadelphia, and the FEW plan, is a process. It will take time to convert city lots to urban gardens, but since GreenGrow of Philadelphia is already doing so, they like other urban CSAs around the country obviously address the issue of toxicity. Implementation of my three core strategies will obviously take time. But that time is actually a benefit because among the many positive externalities I see with such an energy transition is a transformation away from the alienating landscape that has come to define our cities, back to something that is more human scaled. When I see the dismantling of freeways in cities like Boston, San Francisco, etc, it's astonishing to reflect that we actually adopted a very In Your Face approach to putting the automobile into the center of the urban landscape.

I'm very thankful for all the comments however, the understandings, the misunderstandings, and everything in between because this essay is just a slide-deck for something much more quantified and with deeper extensions of the ideas. I actually think my plan is romantic and probably unworkable given current cultural conditions in the US. Consider, for example, Cincinnati's decision this week to build, in the core of its downtown, a new casino. In the midst of a depression, with discretionary travel and places like Las Vegas in collapse, Cincinnati's plan for economic creation is to build a casino. Kind of takes one's breath away.(just to be clear, I have no reaction at all to "gambling" and my only reaction is that casino's don't produce value). So, I am pretty aware of where the country still resides, when it comes to making transition. As we are so unclear on how to "make stuff" the prospects for conducting energy transition are not hopeful. My hunch is that cities, however, and not states have the best chance to take action. Obviously, that's not going to happen in Cincinnati. But perhaps it could happen in Oakland, or Philadelphia.

I will be incorporating and taking notes on all of the comments here, however, as I build up my plan further. Again, thankyou for all your ideas.



Thanks for your post, Gregor. I share your low opinion of lotteries and casinos as a "revenue generator" for locales. Now that everybody has it, it's just a tax on those who don't understand statistics or who need a "Hail Mary pass" to solve their life's problems.

As for your concept, I have no problem with having half the ideas be "sensible" and a good bit of the rest "farfetched" and a few maybe "unrealistic". I do think starting small makes a lot of sense though. Just taking a busy area of a typical downtown full of one-way streets and making a few, or even just one, into bike/ped-only with perhaps a tram running the length, and relegating trucks and deliveries to alleys in between (or late night) would be one way of starting. I think having a "vehicle free zone" that starts small and then grows makes good sense, provided you include park-and-ride at the periphery for all those who are from the "outside".

It is easy for the true-believer to have their own blinders to the concerns and perceptions of the masses. Here, the city spent a bunch of money on a new downtown arena, parking and street improvements, beautification, and "enterprise zones". They goal, prior to spending the money, was to attract hotels, shopping, restaurants, and new businesses to down-town, and bring lost entertainment and shopping revenue back from the suburbs. It was mostly a car-centric plan -- nothing funky with walking, trams, or bikes.

I went to a meeting, listened politely, and eventually raised my hand to point out that suburban dwellers had a view of downtown that included:
- Dirty and somewhat seedy
- Dangerous after dark
- Confusing and intimidating patterns of one-way streets
- Full of panhandlers and homeless
- Not much to do after 5:00.
- Too little parking available during the day; too much walking to park at night
- No police presence.

I asked how they were going to address all the concerns and perceptions, and that in my view until unescorted single women felt comfortable going alone or at least in pairs to any attraction or business their plan would not be a success. They rather condescendingly said the city was safe, that the throngs of daily workers already proved that downtown "works", and that the suburbanites would come.

So they built the tax-payer funded arena, and guess what:
- When there are daytime events the traffic is horrendous and parking is unavailable, and long-standing downtown commuters and new event-goers complain massively
- For nite-time events the walk for parking is often quite a few blocks, but is readily available. However, the area tends to be somewhat dark and under-occupied, and the typical model is for the "man" to drop his charges off near the door and go park, and then reverse the process after the gig.
- After the event, they load up and drive to the suburbs, where they stop and eat at a restaurant or go to a mid-town niteclub, just like they always have.

The new shops that opened are now mostly closed. Only lunch-centric restaurants survive. The sidewalks and parking lots empty at 5:00. Even the people from out of town who stay at the hotels either eat in the hotel restaurant or drive to mid-town. The one "successful" cluster of restaurants and clubs faltered after some robberies, many fights, and a couple of deaths. I talk to people that I stand next to in line at restaurants and ask them about downtown. It's surprising how many have NEVER been downtown (10 miles away), or have only gone for local gov't needs at the Courthouse, or have gone to a show or two.

So, I fully believe that any re-build initiative either needs to be from the ground-up driven by those who already live and work in an area, or it needs to include a perception-changing, marketing-driven transition phase to bring in "outsiders". It needs to include enough visible "official people" to make casual shoppers feel safe and welcome, and to deter miscreants. It needs to effectively share resources between work, entertainment, and shopping, and preferably residence. It should pro-actively manage traffic of every sort. Most of all, it should understand its customer base, and their needs and beliefs.