Rescuing Suburbia

Analysis from The Oil Drum : Mr. Jeff Vail from ASPO-USA 2010 Peak Oil Conference. More:

Below the fold are the slides, and a rough approximation of my presentation entitled "Rescuing Suburbia" from the 2010 ASPO-USA conference in Washington, D.C. The presentation takes a fairly one-sided approach to the issue of how suburbia will fare for the long haul, primarily as a tool to spark conversation and debate.

My presentation is about “Rescuing Suburbia.” I thought about putting a question mark after that title, but decided instead to take the position of a cautious advocate for the prospects of suburbia. I’m not even sure that suburbia needs “rescuing.” Instead, I’ll take the radical viewpoint that suburbia’s inherent flaws may turn out to be our civilization’s salvation, though in a rather unexpected way. [NOTE: I love this picture--it's about as extreme an illustration of the failings of suburbia that I can imagine. In fairness, THIS is the kind of suburbia that I do expect to fail and be abandoned, the following comments notwithstanding...]

Suburbia is a favorite whipping boy, especially when the topic of peak oil or energy descent comes up. It was a bad idea, a short-sighted endeavor made even more tragic by our then less complete understanding of energy and environmental constraints. Everyone take ten seconds and think about how terrible suburbia is.

Great. Now drop it. Suburbia happened. Is there value in articulating exactly why it was a bad idea? Yes, especially to the extent that we should stop building more of it in its current form. But that’s not the conversation I’m interested in having, and frankly in this audience as a whole I think it’s a bit pointless to keep rehashing that conclusion. The question we should focus on is what to do about it. And the answers, perhaps not surprisingly, can be easily divided into three categories: do nothing and pray; abandon it for something better, transform it.

In the interest of time and out of respect for your intelligence, I’m going to ignore the “do nothing and pray” option, though that is certainly the most widespread “choice” in our society. I think the REASON it’s the widespread choice is that people don’t have much of a clue on the “transform it” option, and understand, at least subconsciously that we can’t just “abandon it.”

Can we abandon Suburbia? The obvious answer is that yes, we CAN abandon suburbia. As long as you’re OK with catastrophic economic collapse and all of its attendant horrors, it’s certainly an option. Most people propose an alternative to suburbia—whether it’s “New Urbanism,” re-urbanization, or some variant thereof, these often implicitly stand for the proposition that we should “abandon suburbia” in order to move in to its replacement. Let’s look at why that’s a problem:

Where do all the people go? More than 150 million Americans live in suburbia. That’s about 40 million homes. Most people would say we can build a new-urbanism, a re-urbanism to absorb these people. But where does the money and energy to do that come from? The shift in infrastructure required to resettle people out of suburbia would be massive—and, as I think this group is especially well aware, we’re not exactly swimming in net energy with which to do this.

How would you pay for it? Millions of new homes, above and beyond that required by replacement and current rates of growth, won’t come cheap. Since the recent economic crisis hit, about 5 million homes—urban and suburban—have been either in foreclosure or facing foreclosure. That didn’t work out so well for the economy. And that was despite a mainstream faith that home values would eventually rise again. How do you think the financial system would react to any kind of concerted effort to abandon suburbia? Even if it merely became clear that early adopters were leaving suburbia for more urban pastures, and it dawned on people that the value of suburban homes would continually decrease, our collective ability to finance anything—let alone something on such a grand scale as re-urbanizing 150 million people—would cease to exist.

We have a massive amount of stranded cost in suburbia. Whether we look at that stranded cost from an energy or finance perspective, that’s the bottom line: we can’t abandon suburbia without abandoning accepting extreme costs.

That’s the Catch-22: Like it or not, the functioning of our modern finance system hinges on the viability of suburbia. The size of our mortgage debt is roughly the same as our entire GDP. If that article of faith ceases to function, then you can forget about financing the technical solutions that increasingly geologically difficult oil extraction will demand. You can forget about financing a transition to renewable sources of energy. You can forget about new urbanism or re-urbanization, at least to the extent that anyone will need a loan, line of credit, or mortgage to develop or purchase these shiny new urban digs.

Of course, if we need suburbia to be viable, but it’s doomed, that’s not too promising. Is suburbia really doomed? Or, just like we deluded ourselves into this happy motoring utopia in which we now live, have we deluded ourselves into thinking it can’t adapt, evolve, even prosper? Let’s look at the ups and downs of suburbia before we try to answer that question.

Commuting. It’s the most obvious and most discussed issue with the unsustainability of suburbia. It’s also a bit of a red herring. Sure, tens of millions of people driving by themselves in oversized SUVs 20 miles to and from work each day is a huge waste of energy, and psychologically the convenience and feelings of power and control will be difficult to give up.

Low Hanging Fruit. But practically speaking, this is the low hanging fruit, and the intractable nature of this problem is wildly overblown. Even without any massive changes in infrastructure all it takes is ridesharing, commuter mini-vans, and intelligent use of gas taxes or other similar and very realistic, if unpopular measures and commuting is a non issue. Not to mention telework, or even more radical solutions like decentralized production, something I’ll raise later in this presentation.

There’s also the issue of distributing goods to suburbia. It’s really the same issue in reverse. Just like we’ve come to expect the ability to hop in our car and drive ourselves directly to our job, without the inconvenience of stopping to pick up someone else, we’ve also come to expect the daily UPS deliveries, flowers flown in fresh from Kenya and Thailand, etc. It’s my opinion that both peak oil and global warming are examples of how markets fail to solve problems, but I do believe that markets will prove extraordinarily nimble at conserving energy in the distribution of goods to suburbia when the appropriate price signal is in place.

90% reduction. It would take some significant measures—certainly some unpopular measures—but the reality is that we could reduce by 90% the amount of energy used to transport people and goods to and from suburbia without actually changing the fundamental mode of single-family suburban living.

A more serious downside in my view is the energy inefficiency of suburban living. Quite simply, we didn’t build suburbia for energy efficiency—whether we’re talking heating, cooling, water and waste infrastructure, etc. We can do a lot to both conserve and improve the efficiency of suburban energy use, but at the end of the day it is structurally less efficient to heat and cool an oversized single-family dwelling than a more compact urban complex.

Of course, there are more radical solutions, such as increasing the density of suburbia by moving more than one family into current single family dwellings, most simply by creating extended-family dwellings.

Most troubling to me is that, simply by virtue of the spaces involved, the cost in both energy and dollars of maintaining suburban infrastructure—roads, electricity grids, sewer and water supplies, etc.—is very high. This is a tougher nut to crack, though in a moment I’ll cover what I think is part of the solution—providing this infrastructure on a more distributed basis.

Overall, suburbia is and will remain less energy efficient than more dense settlement. While this presents a significant challenge, I don’t see it as insurmountable.

These last two down sides of suburbia are well publicized, and frankly, there aren’t many structural advantages in suburbia’s current manifestation. But if we accept the stranded cost of suburbia and ask “if we USED IT DIFFERENTLY, could it actually produce comparative advantages,” things get interesting…

Can suburbia provide for itself? This is a complicated question. There are two issues here: (1) the potential of suburbia to provide self-sufficiency, and (2) the comparative capability compared to alternative modes of settlement, such as urban settlement.

Now I think I’ve heard just about every reason or excuse why suburbia can’t be sustainable, why it can’t produce any meaningful amount of food self-sufficiency, water self-sufficiency, etc. There’s no knowledge of gardening for real food production, there’s no topsoil, there’s no water, there’s no interest.

First, I agree that these are often valid concerns. But let’s look first from a comparative perspective. In each of those problems that I rattled off, there’s really no argument that suburbia is still comparatively better situated than urban settlements. Let’s not forget that, while today urban and suburban supply lines are essentially identical, this is not structurally so. Structurally, urban supply lines will always depend more heavily on large-scale political control and economic coordination than will any less dense form of settlement. The only debate is about the extent to which this is true.

Second, I am confident that there is a tremendous potential for building self-sufficiency in fundamental requirements like food, water, and energy in suburbia. Not necessarily suburbia as it exists today, but as a lattice and foundation, as a structure that can change and evolve into something that is not just significantly self-sufficient, but that is vital, that produces culture and civitus, not just as a consumer of it. That might seem like a radical vision, but let’s look at the specifics and see how far-fetched it is or isn’t:

Food & water. I’ve heard all he excuses mentioned previously, and in the end I come to the conclusion that it’s a motivation issue—a price signal issue. I’m not here to lecture on gardening, beekeeping, or water purification methods. Rather, for the skeptics or merely curious I’ll highlight a single example. Take possibly the least forgiving suburban environment—110 degree summers, less than 12 inches of rainfall in a few brief downpours each year, and no topsoil to speak of. That’s Tucson, Arizona. Mix one part looking to native groups for inspiration and one part innovative application of modern knowledge and you get Brad Lancaster. He’s turned a 1/6th acre suburban lot in Tucson into a true food forest in only a few years. It’s irrigated entirely by rainwater and graywater with no outside chemical inputs, and it produces this bounty of food. It provides almost half of the caloric requirements for four people living on the property, not to mention the majority of the flavor and variety, and a significant amount of community and culture along with it.

That’s not to say it’s as easy as planting a pot of geraniums. There are myriad other examples, but if Brad can succeed like this, with less to start with than 99% of American suburbia, then I challenge those who say that it can’t be done.

What about energy? We’ve already covered that the suburban mode of living uses more energy than does urban living, but can it also produce energy in any meaningful amount? Again, let’s look at this in a comparative and absolute sense.

Comparatively, suburbia is clearly ahead of urban settings when it comes to renewables. While we can debate cost and net energy—and I’m a skeptic—suburbanites at least have the viable option of installing solar panels on their roof. Many, if not most urbanites do not, at least not with as much space to turn into generation. If photovoltaics are a boondoggle, then this isn’t much of an advantage. On the other hand, if nano-solar begins to churn out PV for pennies, suburbia is in a far better position to seize the opportunity.

What about more dire circumstances? Suburbia is also ahead when it comes to woodlots. It’s easy to scoff at this, but let’s not forget this was the primary historical form of domestic energy, and when raised sustainably and burned in high-efficiency stoves can even be environmentally friendly.

In an absolute sense, we should admit that suburban homes won’t be energy self-sufficient unless nanosolar delivers on its most optimistic promises, or the level of energy consumption drops from first-world to third-world levels. But no matter what picture of the future we paint, suburbia has a non-negligible potential to generate power, and a comparative advantage in doing so over more dense settlement.

But even with the potential for suburbia to makes advances in self-sufficiency, it would be a mistake to think that the goal is a patchwork quilt of isolated homesteads, each striving for true self-sufficiency. Rather, the correct comparison is between centralized/specialized production and an optimal form of distributed production—a “platform”—that I’ll call “scale-free self-sufficiency.”

This starts to get heavily into theory, but it’s important—in fact, it is the key to beginning to grasp the potential of suburbia. So let’s briefly compare some traits of centralized vs. decentralized systems.

Centralized systems, by definition, are structurally more dependent on transportation, than are decentralized systems. That’s of obvious importance in an energy-constrained future. When there’s cheap energy, it acts as a subsidy to centralization, both political and economic. When that cheap energy ends, the trend reverses. Mix this with modern technology and organizational theory—things like the bazaar of open-source innovation—and I think we will see a revolution in the importance of open-protocol, distributed manufacturing in the coming decades. How expensive does energy have to get before it makes sense to shift a significant part of our economic production to local production? Certainly high-bulk, vernacular, or perishable products will reach this price signal first.

Centralized systems, by definition, are structurally more dependent on hierarchy than decentralized systems. This requires top-down control, and tends to create barriers to innovation. We have quite the innovation-focused capitalist culture—you don’t need to work hard to sell the value of free market innovation and competition to the business community. But that really hasn’t transferred to the same sense of innovation and competition among communities or localized political and economic structures. Those, in contrast, tend to be more uniform and controlled. “Federalism” is billed as creating a laboratory at the state-level. But now most states are bloated, multi-multi-million person entities, and the relevant level for competition is the locality or micro-locality. Decentralization has the potential to free up the forces of innovation to work on our community economies, and provide results like Brad Lancaster’s Tucson garden on a community-scale.

Now talk of “distributed production,” and this analysis of the potential energy, water, or food production in suburbia might make one think that suburbia only has potential for relevance in a “collapse” scenario. In fact, I think just the opposite may be the case. Suburbia may have the potential to become an engine of economic vitality in a very high-tech future.

This picture is a RepRap—essentially a homebrewed 3D printer that can take a simple CAD drawing produced by someone a continent away and make a three-dimensional part in your garage. It’s about where the personal computer was in the lat 70’s—who would want one, and what can it possibly be good for. And it might also end up having the same kind of revolutionary impact on our economy. Already, distributed production has advanced beyond the craft stage and people are creating custom microprocessors and performing genetic engineering in garage workshops. The movement “100,000 Garages” has begun to capture this spirit, but the potential is astounding.

Just like we now know that the personal computer is more than a parlor gimmick, it’s my prediction that we’ll soon realize the potential for transformation contained in decentralized and distributed economics. With intensive coordination and contribution to open-source knowledge networks, our ability to “produce” at home, from gardens to garments and telemedicine to pharmaceuticals, we’re just at the tip of the iceberg.

Now, without diving too far into the deep end of political theory, we also need to consider the impact of the changing political landscape. I’ll skip the long-winded overview and simply state that if you haven’t read Philip Bobbitt’s “Shield of Achilles,” please do so as soon as you can. Trying to understand the future course of our civilization without understanding the nation-state system and how it evolved is like trying to understand World War II without ever studying World War I—it will lead to shallow conclusions at best, and possibly catastrophic miscalculations.

Simply put, the Nation-State is dead. It never really existed, but we believed it did with enough conviction to will it into effect. That age has passed. We now live at the dawning of the age of the market state, where the role of the state is to maintain a large-scale economic market, and is increasingly less concerned with things like entitlements, pensions, and equality. We’ll keep hearing this rhetoric, of course, but the reality of competition on a global playing field is that costs have to be controlled, and this comes through dilution of obligations. But it’s not all bad—the market state is also less wrapped up in self-definition, and is more comfortable with a murky, multitudinous constituency.

For example, intense interest in enforcement of regulations and codes tends to be a preoccupation of the intensive, centralized state. That’s also expensive, and the market-state will likely find that increasingly less important. This is especially true where media fragments, and where open-source networks show potential at some degree of self-policing. Who cares? Well, if you were one of the regulation-aware people in the room who said, “They’ll never let you do that” when I raised the potential of various forms of garage manufacture, this is very significant.

Remember the mention of decentralization freeing localities and communities to compete and innovate? Well, that kind of thing—internal political differentiation and experimentation—tends to be frowned upon by the nation-state. But in the market state we will increasingly find room for this kind of “diagonal economy”—not wholly sanctioned by, but not in direct conflict with the state.

How far down this rabbit hole you want to venture is up to you—I won’t explore any further for now, but the effects of this political transition only get more and more interesting.

So I’ve taken you on a whirlwind tour of suburbia—why we can’t abandon it, and why we perhaps shouldn’t even if we could. I’ve thrown out a lot of ideas, a lot of concepts, and now I’d like to paint a picture of “Resilient Suburbia” and add a cautionary note.

In the entire story of human civilization, suburbia is unique. No, not for it’s waste and hubris—we’ve done all that before, and frankly better. Suburbia is unique because it is the most evenly distributed pattern of land ownership and settlement that has ever existed. It is by no means perfect or “pure,” but it is the most egalitarian substrate upon which to build a future civilization of our choosing, rather than as dictated to us, ever.

As we approach energy descent, I believe we are at a bifurcation point in our grand timeline. We can begin to regress along the axis that describes equality, freedom, and median access to health and culture—a return to some form of neo-feudalism, where geography stretches, the Earth becomes less “flat” and more bumpy, and where the historical patterns—absent massive subsidy of cheap energy—of local strong-men and the politics of control and dependency reassert themselves. If we try to maintain hierarchical, centralized structures in our politics and economics, I believe this is exactly where we will go.

However, if we seize the opportunity to build upon this egalitarian substrate of suburbia—if we build something bold and new, leveraging open-source coordination of decentralized and distributed production, and striving for scale-free self-sufficiency, I think we could build a platform on which to improve the lot of humanity in spite of energy descent. We don’t need—in fact we cannot have—a centralized, federal government led effort to institute this kind of change. And it will take a few brave, curious, or innovative souls like Brad Lancaster in Tucson to pave the way before the price signals are in place. And while I’m positive about our potential, I remain cautiously pessimistic about the reality of this kind of transformation on a large scale. But what I will say is this: don’t blame our failure on suburbia. Blame it on our failure to capitalize on the opportunity suburbia presents.


A few final thoughts. Do I really think that suburbia will persist in anything like its current form? No. I think the strength of suburbia lies, as noted above, in its potential to serve as the substrate for something *entirely different* from suburbia, but located where suburbia currently stands. As a species, we tend to overestimate the speed at which change will occur, while dramatically underestimating the scale of the change that is coming and the form it will take. I know it's a popular belief--especially in peak oil circles--that suburbia will become some haunted ghost town, a relic and reminder or our hubris and ignorance. I think that's the psychologically easy way to view our future. While it's of course just my opinion, I think DO think the role of what is today "suburbia" 20, 50, and 100 years from now will be important and dramatically different than almost any current predictions (either status quo or a wasteland) . . .

"Suburbia" isn't going anywhere, fuel efficiency can be significantly increased just by driving smaller vehicles. As I've said before on TOD, if point to point transit becomes impossible then we are on the road to the olduvai gorge, not some urban renewal. By the way, I've been to many cities in the New England area, if anything the cities themselves have already collapsed and the wealth can be found in "Suburbia", not the other way around. It's wishful thinking that these cities will ever be livable - they're done, they have already collapsed.

"if point to point transit becomes impossible then we are on the road to the olduvai gorge, not some urban renewal"

Excellent point. If there are no liquid fuels to run private cars, then no liquid fuels for farm tractors, for diesel locomotives to carry coal to power plants, for the erection of wind farms, etc. We will be Cold Haiti.

Urbanists who cast aspersions at the suburbs and invoke supposed Peak Oil advantages are analogous to the stern of a ship, which is sinking bow first, casting aspersion at the bow of the ship!

If gasoline goes to $15 per gallon, I will carpool with my desperate neighbors, who will finally "get it", all this PO nonsense I've been spouting for years. I always offer to carpool, they always decline. It's a game. But with 4 people in my car, that will keep fuel costs PER PERSON manageable. And yes, with lighter car traffic I will be able to bicycle more safely 10 miles into the urban bus grid, and take the bus to work.

I owe $36,000 on my house, in 5 years it will be paid off. There's no way anyone is going to convince me to take on a big new $250,000 mortgage to go buy a home in the inner core of the city, and pay high property taxes for its supposed peak oil advantages, and not have room to grow vegetables like I do now. The food distribution centers for the central city are out where I live!

Sorry, but there will be little fuel to run private cars precisely because there will be liquid fuels for farm tractors.

The market economy and money-first is what will go - because the government will ration supply. There's no chance of you bidding it out with the farmer in an oil decline world, for the obvious reason.

It also means this is not a question of $15 a gallon, it's a question of 20 gallons a quarter, if you can find it.

If the market economy goes then we will all be eating from dumpsters, not from farms. At the very least the U.S. wouldn't exist a political entity, you can't get from a market based economy to something else such as forced communal labor (what else is there, steady state economies are market based?).

Actually the market economy will go because it has to. It's inherently wasteful and short-sighted, and in this oil decline world centralised command and control will be the order of the day to:

a) ensure fuels go where they are needed, to keep society running
b) ensure that those at the top keep their hands on the reins of power (cutting off supply is a powerful weapon).

The US is in a bad place because there is so little understanding, and indeed so much fear, of anything else. Rationing will be a shock in a way that it wouldn't be elsewhere. Even though it's going to be a necessity, it will probably create mass scale problems that will act against the best interests of those rioting.

Dumpsters will be raided not because nothing else is possible, but because of the line that's been spun for ages that nothing else could be possible.

Actually the market economy will go because it has to. It's inherently wasteful and short-sighted

I agree, but it's also what people come up with when left to their own devices. Even in a command-economy, the (black) market persists. The market is the natural order of things.

It's going to be an interesting future -- I just hope that the rate of change is slow enough that our society has time to adapt gracefully.

Yep, command economy for the basics, black market for the luxuries.

With the added advantage of hanging the blackmarketeers to divert attention from the government when a diversion is needed. Also the natural order of things.

"If the market economy goes then we will all be eating from dumpsters, not from farms."

Not all, friend Floridian. Some of us have spent much of their life and income avoiding that trap. But rest easy; without folks like us, your dumpsters are going to be empty.

Las Vegas is a gonner......

Exurbs are a gonner………

I'll believe what I've read when I actually see it happen......

People are NOT always rational or logical.

Sometimes people and politics tend to be messy, chaotic, and dangerous when times are tuff.

There's no easy way to predict whether we as a country, will take the high road or the low road....,but, our current political landscape makes me worry about the future…….

First of all, thanks you Jeff for the first rational look at suburbia I've seen since I discovered peak oil 3-4 years ago.

I think large urban areas are going to be death traps whether or not food can be delivered to them or not. They weren't particularly nice during the great depression and people had skills for survival back then. I think Dmitry Orlov described what 'urban' is like in a crisis in his book 'Reinventing Collapse' and he pretty much described living conditions for your average Russian urban citizen as living in a rat infested, urine soak hell hole. And, the Soviet system was set up to endure an economic collapse, the US isn't. Our cities will rip themselves apart from rioting, looting, and then by being over taken by gang wars. This will happen from the economic collapse created by mismanagement by our government without the assistance of peak oil. Peak oil is just going to compound it exponentially.

I plan on shelter in place in my 'McHouse' in the burbs. I already have half my property in food production (designed it that way before I saw peak oil coming). I have a bolt hole to go to if thing start really getting bad.

My job is in an industry which will be one of the last to go (healthcare), so by the time my house goes into foreclosure, I figure so will the banks. So who will be coming to take my house away? Even if they do, I figure by then 2/3rds of the population will be unemployed by that time and foreclosure will be met with firm resistance. Then, like I said, there is always the bolt hole which will probably be necessary by then.

I only see a totally collapse of the current system before you can build any kind of new system. I think Jeff's idea's here have a lot of merit, but will only happen if suburbia can hold itself together until the goverment disappears into the sunset. It will be all about the local governments then recreating a new society. If we can keep the local war lords away with pockets of democracy then we can rebuild something better than we have now, IMHO, and this can only be done in the rural and suburban areas. The cities are going to be absolute chaos ruled by war lords.

The problem that any gangs or war lords in cities have is that they need to eat. Unless they go to eating people, they will run out of food without having some come into the city from farms, sooner rather than later.

Chaos is one of those things that tend to throw everything that we know into a blender and you get a mish mash that you could not have known about from the ingredients sitting on the table beforehand.

I live in a city that has no tightly packed urban core, not even in Little Rock is there a tightly packed urban core. Everywhere people live in either small spread out apartment complexs, or in single amily homes. Gangs might rule some areas, but there has to be food incoming on a weekly basis for anything to function for very long.

I don't see this area devolving in that direction though, there is not that much to be had for a gang to really hold turf, or reason to stick around long after a collapse, you'd starve to death defending your turf around here.

But then this the capital region of the state, and their are several military bases here abouts, and things would never get that far for very long without odd unpredictable things going on first.

BioWebScape Designs for a better fed and housed world.

The way this normally works is that the cities send police and military formations into the countryside to requisition food. See, for example, collectivization of agriculture in the Ukraine under Stalin.

I am the sort of person, if forced by gun point to do something, I'd make them shoot me rather than do it. If they want me bad enough to threaten me, they better have the will to also shoot me. IE torture won't work on me, I survived my first wife, I know what torture can be like( smirks sadly ).

What gets me is that guns don't make it rain, they also can't make plants grow without nutrients. Gangs would starve, though they might not be the last people to do so, they will devolve fast when the bellies grow hungry amoung the men.

Growing food today is not as easy as it once was with better topsoils.

My guess if it really gets bad and war lords or gangs are the ruling class, you'll have slave labor again. IN reality there is always an underclass of people, just look at the underclass caste system of India, or tribal warfare in Africa, for modern examples of this sort of thinking.

We have it in America whether we admit it or not, people unwilling to do certain jobs, as they are beneath them, in their status group.

Then again maybe I am just in a doomer mood today, I have had to deal with someone that won't listen to advice that would help them get out of the rut they are in, if only they'd take it. HUmans have this stubborn streak in them and then you can't get them to listen to anything.

BioWebScape designs for a better fed and housed world, if only they'd listen

I'd make them shoot me rather than do it

The Committee for State Security will not have a problem with that.

While cities and their armies usually succeed in requisitioning food from their hinterlands, often with a fairly high loss of life, in at least one case the peasants killed the city dwellers.

The Khmer Rouge leadership boasted over the state-controlled radio that only one or two million people were needed to build the new agrarian communist utopia. As for the others, as their proverb put it, "To keep you is no benefit, to destroy you is no loss."

Hundreds of thousands of the new people, and later the depositees, were taken out in shackles to dig their own mass graves. Then the Khmer Rouge soldiers beat them to death with iron bars and hoes or buried them alive. A Khmer Rouge extermination prison directive ordered, "Bullets are not to be wasted."

Pol Pot

Yeah, but that was almost 50 years ago. Ancient history.

I completely agree with your thinking about societal collapse, and that any new system will only be possible with the destruction of the current system.
The future of humanity may look more like the Middle Ages, then the Jetsons. Peak oil is one problem in a whole deck of cards of future shocks: water shortages, super storms, temperature changes in areas of the US that make life untenable and the resulting population movements, individual and collective financial insolvency and all of its associated negatives, imperial overextension, and a culture in denial bedazzled by the "Howdy Doody Show" of vacuous entertainment.

Rural and suburban areas, particularily in parts of the continent where ethnic/religious homogeneity(sic) is high, there is water/lumber abundance, and where knowledge/and low tech resources (wood stoves, canning, farming, for example) are still in abundance, will be the best prepared.


"our current political landscape makes me worry about the future"

Reporting from Washington —
If the GOP wins control of the House next week, senior congressional Republicans plan to launch a blistering attack on ... scientists who link air pollution to climate change.

The GOP's fire will be concentrated especially on the administration's efforts to use the Environmental Protection Agency's authority over air pollution to tighten emissions controls on coal, oil and other carbon fuels that scientists say contribute to global warming.

The attack, according to senior Republicans, will seek to portray the EPA as abusing its authority and damaging the economy with needless government regulations.

(LA Times). They are going to "take the country back" ... back about 100 years ... so those upthread who wondered how the USA will fare in the peak oil / climate change reality have their answer: not well at all.

There are gift (mutual sharing of surplus), barter (trade without money) and tribal (groups working together with internal distribution of surplus) economies. These are all more efficient and easier to manage than command & control economies.

Only if you've regressed to a feudal or agrarian society - eg civilisation has collapsed. They are not suitable for an economy of any scale.

We're talking here about before everything has gone to hell, when civilisation still exists.

How does a compressed urbanized society (hundreds of millions of people living in cities of a few square hundred miles), become sustainable before its too late?
I think it's possible, but I do not believe it'll happen before the situation goes over a cliff. Rural areas will adapt quicker to future problems. It's really going to be a big problem in cities, primarily.
American society is too short-sighted and ill-disciplined to deal with what is happening. Psychologically, look at 911 for example. In an act of terrorism, 3K are murdered in spectacular fashion. Wall Street plummeted. The government scattered. Because of the nature of our instant media, people on the streets in many parts of the US (a country of 300 million, mind you) panicked.
Now if this is what happens in a number of really isolated (of course, tragic) incidents, then how is US culture going to deal psychologically with entire cities being abandoned because of an effective disappearance of water and energy?

My its my coffee talking this morning, but, I have little faith that 'cool heads prevail'.

how is US culture going to deal psychologically with entire cities being abandoned

Blame the victims and cheer it on !

See New Orleans.


The future is not binary, of course suburbia will not disappear, but price signals are already making distant suburbs less valuable, some have lost enough value that existing buildings are being abandoned and/or demolished.
As fossil fuels get more expensive, the price signals will get harder to ignore, and peoples' choices for investment will change accordingly. The "live far from work and commute in a car" lifestyle has been unappealing to my family for decades, and a significant percentage of my children's early twenties cohort do not choose to drive at all (both my anecdotal and recent national statistics confirm the prevalence of this choice among young adults). So while I agree with Vail that suburbia will serve as a substrate for ways of living that we cannot predict, I don't think the "commute by car" BAU will continue unmodified for long.
And plenty of city centers that were considered "collapsed" in previous decades have been re-inhabited by affluent people (including in New England, check out the renaissance in Portland, Maine, Worcester, etc.). Predicting whether cities "will ever be livable" is a fool's game, cities have fallen and risen again many times over around the planet, on time scales of centuries, so a couple of decades decay really means nothing.

"Suburbia" isn't going anywhere,...

Expecting to solve a massive overshoot in both population and resource depletion by increasing fuel efficiency is at least 30 years too late, I think. Even a drastic reduction in net energy consumption in the US would only lead to economic paralysis before it solved a thing.

Perhaps my perspective is skewed by my reading lately (Roman history, early medieval, US frontier history), but my first thought on the subject is that the suburbs are completely indefensible. The whole thing grew up in a very homogeneous society, which is fracturing, during a period of unprecedented peace and prosperity, which is ending. Its hard to imagine from our position in history exactly why things were arranged differently in virtually all other periods of human history and all other places, but I would say it is because you can't secure or defend an area of dispersed structures like the suburbs. You also can't afford to invest in infrastructure which can't be defended.

Maybe OFM would have a good idea or two on this as well, but I think that in a hundred years the most practical thing to do with the suburbs would be to burn them down, leaving a clear buffer between defensible city and productive land.

I wholly agree that daxr.

Constantinople at it lowest point, late in the Byzantium period, had large areas within the city walls revert to open fields. To say that modern suburbia can't go that way is denying history. All suburbia evolved after city walls become redundant. Literally, all suburbia is completely indefensible. Sorry, I couldn't help myself!

It all comes back to transportation. The more you loose, the larger the area of suburban sprawl that becomes unviable. Lets look at the first city to sprawl, London. Lose private transport and you're back to the the core plus rail corridors. Loose rail and you're back to the 1830's urban core. Back then Buck House was on the edge of the city. There is only so far you can ride a horse, without flogging it!

I think you will find from a lot of the posts in this discussion, the current size of most of our 'cities' are too big for what you are talking about. Cities of maybe 100 to 200k may get away with what you are talking about, but your LAs, Chicagos, Atlantas, NYCs, Houstons, etc... are toast... WAY too big! can't be walled up and can't be fed with this paradigm.

Thanks, Jeff!

There are clearly a lot of differences in what we think of as suburbia. In many areas, there are no longer a whole lot of kids. Quite often, a lot of home owners are empty nesters, and many homes are quite large.

It seems like some homes that are unreasonably large for their occupants could be subdivided, and used by more than one family, or by an extended family. That would leave unneeded left over homes that could be torn down, leaving more room for growing fruit and vegetables among the homes that remain. In some places, it might even be possible to take up unneeded streets, to make more room for food planting.

"That would leave unneeded left over homes that could be torn down, leaving more room for growing fruit and vegetables among the homes that remain. In some places, it might even be possible to take up unneeded streets, to make more room for food planting."

You go, Gail! ......Saving suburbia in three easy steps:


...although, #3 may not be an option, whether one resides in the burbs, cities or suffers a rural existence, if S-510 (The Food Safety Modernization Act) becomes law.

S 510, the Food Safety Modernization Act, may be the most dangerous bill in the history of the US. It is to our food what the bailout was to our economy, only we can live without money.

“If accepted [S 510] would preclude the public’s right to grow, own, trade, transport, share, feed and eat each and every food that nature makes. It will become the most offensive authority against the cultivation, trade and consumption of food and agricultural products of one’s choice. It will be unconstitutional and contrary to natural law or, if you like, the will of God.” ~Dr. Shiv Chopra, Canada Health whistleblower.

Since the US has (arguably) the safest food supply in the world, one can only conclude that this ongoing attempt to gain central control of the food supply must be motivated by the major agricorps and TPTB wanting ultimate authority over what you eat and where it comes from.

So much for your suburban and urban gardens. One can envision monster agribusiness purchasing (eminent domain) and leveling huge swaths of suburbia, moving their giant factory farms closer to crowded city centers, their benevolent purpose being to "save us from suburbia" and feed the hungry masses.

"There is No Right to Consume or Feed Children Any Particular Food; There is No Generalized Right to Bodily and Physical Health; There is No Fundamental Right to Freedom of Contract." ~ US Dept of Health & Human Services and US Food & Drug Administration, 2010

pdf warning

When one is concerned with legislation its always a good idea to check it at the source rather than through an interpretation. is one source, is another.

Periodically the organic/sustainable farming community gets in a panic about how some legislation is going to eliminate farmers market or make back yard gardening illegal. This and similar bills seek to address the problme on contaminated food and the impact on public health. There are gaps in the food safety regulatory structure (as seen from recent salmonella outbreaks in multiple products)that need to be addressed. The challenge is to do so in a way that doesn't preclude non agribusiness farming.

While its true S510 MAY have components that COULD result in new regulations that put small producers at a disadvantage, that is not the intention of the bill. It is also somewhat moot as Senator Tom Coburn has put a hold on the bill and it will need a cloture vote (60) to get to the floor for a vote on passage. Given that there will be far bigger fish to fry after the election, I suspect the legislation is dead for this session.

Ha! I've been following this bill, and the NAIS legislation for years, and despite promises made about exemptions for small local producers, many of the fears of opponents are becoming reality. Take NAIS, supposedly voluntary and regulated/administered by States:

In Wisconsin, the first state to make NAIS mandatory by allowing Premises ID to become law in January 2006, there is the ability to allow for exemptions of small farms. However, this has been denied by the Department of Agriculture, Trade, and Consumer Protection (DATCP) in their rule making. Wisconsin State Statute 95.51 (3m)states that the department may promulgate exemptions based on size and type of farm, ATCP rule #17 makes Premises ID completely mandatory and offers no exemptions. Although DATCP Secretary Rod Nilsestuen says in a May 1, 2007 press release that Premises ID is not Animal ID, he does not deny that in September 2005 he wrote to the US House of Representatives Committee on Agriculture, Subcommittee on Livestock and Horticulture (serial number 109-16) that he and DATCP "support the use of RFID technology in all livestock species as deemed effective and appropriate by the NAIS Species Working Groups."

Other concerns that were suposedly unfounded:

Other concerns in Wisconsin and other states (who contract with WLIC) is that the system is not maintained by state government, but instead relies upon the Wisconsin Livestock Identification Consortium (WLIC) to maintain the database of Premises ID registrants. This is currently continuing with the RFID tagging database as well.[19] The WLIC is a private interest group made up of Big Agribusiness, including Cargill, Genetics/Biotech Corporations, like ABS Global, and RFID tagging companies such as Digital Angel,

I have plenty of sources on this. I could go on (and on, and on) but we are seriously off topic here. Know this; if the major corporations want it, they'll get it, even if they have to slip it in a back door.

The fate of suburbs, like agriculture, will ultimately be determined by those who stand to profit the most from it's continuation or demize, or the eventual collapse that results from greed, corruption and consumption.

You raise an interestig scenario Gail in repopulating the suburbs. It may well be that many younger families come back to suburbs to look after elderly parents because it suits both parties. More poulation density will make ad-hoc carpooling and other resource sharing work better in the future. I would expect the first thing to go will be backyard fences (where they exist) and a great deal of ornamental trees, cut down for firewood and replaced with fruit trees.

The problem with digging up a house is all the waste that you have to put somewhere. Usually covering up land that you might be able to reshape into usable land with some tlc.

Leave the houses where they are, use their roof lines for water harvesting, their insides for storage and work areas, so that you don't need to build work sheds on your own land. Take them and use them for community centers. Without people living in them they make better gathering places, because you don't have to tippy toe around someone belongings, that you do in lived in houses.

As to streets, redirect the water flow to ground water replenishment, or into settling ponds. Digging up layers of streets is just as useless as having piles of trash from the houses, and you have at least something that is not going to be muddy half the year, if you have dirt roads there instead.

You can move into the edges of them planting and such to take advantage of the slopes built into them for layered gardening, terraces and other forms of growing media if you like. Time will keep them solid when you do away with the heavy traffic that they had to suffer from when you had trucks going over them all year long. Why waste them, by digging them up, Why waste the energy when you don't have it to spare? Also where are you going to get the good soils to replace them with?

Over time an area will revert back to natural landscapes, but it take decades in some areas.

Just up the road here, there were old World War II buildings off in the woods off the main drag, the concrete is still there, even now 60 years later after the buildings were abandoned.

You can still grow food out there in the fields of parks and fields around your suburban ranch homes. BUt it all depends on where you live too. I'd not want to raze everything when things got tough, I'd be using some of the buildings rather than just trashing the whole mess and wasting all that imbedded energy and effort.

BioWebScape Designs for a better fed and housed world.

PS. Never know when you might need a spare house for quests to live in, better than 25 in your house.

People, especially families, really like suburbs and have since the begining of the city. They represent individual ownership and even a bit of nature. They represent success.
Cities are more collective and impersonal.
In many US cities the core is simply office buildings with
expressways and some mass transit leading to more pleasant suburbs leaving the poor(and minorities) behind, concentrated in aging ruins.
It may be more energy efficient to live in a 6 story high rise but it's not necessarily desireable for those who can afford not to.
The issue reflects socio-economic disparities which I doubt anyone really wants to address.
If we can come up with technological fixes like EVs and Passivehaus then we'll move in that direction.

Six Stories is a hi-rise?

We called those 'Cold-water flats' in NYC, and it was a common height since the Reservoir System fed pressurized water into the city with just enough head to reach that height.

The six-story I lived on at 62nd and 1st had neigbors in their 80's and upward who were BORN in those buildings, and used to carry milkpails to the grocers in their childhood. These were great little communities for me in the 90's and them from the twenties on.. and they could walk to almost anything they needed.

Where would you/I live if we had our choice?

For me, first is where I am now....the boonies.

next, Suburbia. I have lived in subdivisions for 20 years and we always had ponds, gardens, and a damn good life. Get rid of the lawn and it would be even better than fine. We heated with wood in town, fished, and grew many veggies.

The city, well, shoot me now. Cities won't survive oil shortages. They will tear themselves to pieces. Let me rephrase this. Many of the businesses located in cities will become irrelevant. Head offices of what? some cities will probably do just fine. others? Are there enough police in the world to keep you safe?

My grandparents lived on a 1/2 acre lot in a rural town in Minnesota. They made it through the depression with 5 kids, little lawn, and one big garden. They had a well, my grandpa preferred the outhouse over the one indoor toilet, they had a smokehouse, and I can never forget my grandma keeping the birds out of the garden with her bb gun. Did they need sidewalks, sewers, and wide paved roads? No.

To be honest I am afraid of cities. Yes, they are exciting and I marvel at the buildings and the sheer energy of them. But when there are neighbourhoods where you simply don't enter because of the colour of your skin, maybe it is time to reevaluate. Earthquakes and fires? They have ground floors for a reason.

My heart speeds up just thinking about it. Last summer I wedged myself into a city bus to head into Vancouver from the ferry. I did what I had to do and got away within the one day, but it was dreadful being shoehorned into the bus knowing damned well I didn't belong there. Maybe it was marginally better than driving? And Vancouver is a small clean city?

No, suburbs are a good compromise. They'll be around for awhile and I thank Jeff for stating this.


Your feelings about cities are certainly valid and many other people share them.

But for some reason, the majority of humans on the planet have chosen to live in cities, and I expect that to continue. Towns and villages are another viable alternative to suburbia, which will never go away either. Personally, I love urban life, and my family found the isolation and boredom of life in Colorado mountain exurbia unappealing, and we sold the house we had purchased there and happily moved back into a small city. The relief at ending our exurban car dependency and returning to bicycles and feet as our main mode of transportation is still a fond memory.

Choose to live in cities or forced to? Agri- business kills rural life, factories and scale destroy cottage industries, starvation force multitudes to relocate in urban hell holes. I am not talking about seeing plays at Ghirideli Square in SF or picking up a Suns game, I am talking about the lifestyle at is existential level.

Having said that, good thing we are all different. It makes for an interesting world.

here are best wishes for continued choice.



Catching the crowded bus into Vancouver from Horseshoe Bay (or Tsawassen) is a good demonstration of the fact that cities can be very energy efficient. But it sounds lime you just are not a city person, and that's fine - just remember, if all those people didn;t live in Vancouver then the places wwhere you and I live (Sunshine Coast for me) would have a hell of a lot more people.

Take a lot at human history for the last 5000 years, and everywhere that "civilisation" has developed, you will find cities. This is either;
a) a wild coincidence
b) because it works

The fact is, that having people in cities, who by definition are not producing food, allows them to do all sort of other (mostly useful) things, and our lives are better for it.

Cities do not just benefit agribusiness - they predate it for thousands of years. In some countries, such as Japan, agribusiness does not exist, but cities do (it is illegal for corporations to engage in agriculture in Japan!)

The fact that most cities have rough neighborhoods isn't necessarily the cities fault - see how long a homeless person can last in a farming area - the only safe place for them is in a city.

The city system works because it (generally) leaves agricultural land to be farmed by those who are good at it, and those who are not can go to the city and do something else, hopefully productive.

The problem with suburbia,, and exurbs in particular, is that people wanted both. The high income of a city job, and the space/peace and serenity of the country. This means that suburbia has gobbled up good agricultural land, and uses lots of energy to function, as illustrated here. in many cases, the upper middle classes departed the city for suburbia, leaving the city as just offices of bad neighbourhoods. But not all cites are like this, and Vancouver has a great urban neighborhood in Yaletown - ask anyone who lives there.

Cities are a bit like farming ecosystems - a variety of types living their makes them vibrant and healthy. A monoculture may be good at first, but quickly stagnates, unless supplied with massive amounts of energy (oil for suburban transport, fertiliser for farms).
Design a city without the suburbs, and you don't need all that energy, you have a smaller, walkable city, with the surrounding farmland still being farmed - lots of space for those who want to live there!

And the city you end up with will look like any European city that is more than two centuries old (i.e. almost all of them) some cities, like Rome, Istanbul, have functioned for thousands of years, interrupted by the odd invasion/plague/dark ages, but that wasn't their fault.

The city model isn't perfect, but what is? It works, it just that suburbia doesn't, if you take away the energy. A great city relies on the energy of its people instead - there is no peak of human ingenuity.

True enough....both of you

Thanks for your thoughtful replies. I would really miss the Canucks , and I am not being flippant.

With our changes in communication, and transfer, (right or wrong) to knowledge based industries, I don't believe that cities are necessary for the scale of all commerce, that many things can be done from home or smaller centres.

Do we need 50,000 population universities anymore simply because they are degree granters and controllers of certification? Of course not. When I did a masters I attended the institution for a few weeks of the year but my main instructor for several of my courses was on the other side of the world! We could have met up anywhere, or not at all, to be honest.

Teaching hospitals, dental clinics, and apprenticeship models could be used for many many professions. It is actually counter-productive to locate industries in cities. (No, I don't have a link....but I notice that industry moves away when the price of land and services increases).

I believe that cities are exciting centres for arts and development of ideas, but not all that crucial for making the human world go around. I find it hard to believe that what I see of Cairo or Guadalajara are nice places to live for the average inhabitant. No disrespect intended.

I guess what i am trying to say that yes, cities can be wonderful, but their magnetism and required infrastructure given the rigid codes and bylaws in North America make them energy hogs, and unquestioned creators of the sprawl of what is so often criticised. Plus, they are almost impossible to afford to live there. My nephew pays 2500 per month rent in San Francisco. He works at a regional office, and for the most part behind a computer terminal. He is an accountant.

A simple forestry example. Doman Industries set up shop in Duncan, close to the forests and mills that it existed for. Herb Doman was a Duncan boy and kept his people working during downturns, even if it cost the company profits. MacMillan and Bloedel had to set up in the heart of Vancouver. Now, they are both gone, swallowed up by time and fortunes, but Doman was a visionary.

Microsoft could run just fine without greater Seattle, it is in Suburbia Bellevue. Boeing could build everywhere, (like they do). (No, I don't have links....this is just my limited opinion and perhaps I shouldn't even state it).
Feeding the great cities become the reason for being for entire countries, rather than the other way around. I am not sure it has to be that way or if it is good for the planet.

The history of the BC Coast is one of depopulation. In living memory (of the very old), workers trolled for salmon and canned them in every inlet. Now, factory type seiners rape the runs and transport the fish to the few remaining canneries. (located in cities)

I guess time and energy decline will indicate what survives and what it looks like. I don't see cities being good places to live with massive unemployment, etc. I know i sure won't be paying their transit taxes, or their new stadium roofs in the future.

Suburbia, as it is now, is wasteful....granted. But so is everything. I just think suburbs have a bad rap. They are as valid as the cities they support. (It isn't a given that the reverse is always true). If cities provided an affordable and good way of life for the majority, the suburbs wouldn't exist.


Many good points, but here, "If cities provided an affordable and good way of life for the majority, the suburbs wouldn't exist." your logic is a bit faulty. The majority of the world population DOES live in cities, so that would argue that it IS a good way to live for them.

What you are saying that the city is not a good place to live for a MINORITY (presumably including you) and I doubt that any would argue against that. And I would bet few will say that all suburbs everywhere will completely disappear.

The question then is how big of a minority are going to remain in the suburbs. I think that some of the very wealthiest will remain in suburbs or exurbs. In others cases what was a suburb will "transform" so radically (either re-ruralize or re-urbanize, or some combination thereof) that the name will no longer be relevant.

One problem for those expecting lots of urban life going forward--pre-ff there were very, very few cities with populations over (or really, anywhere near) one million in all of (pre-industrial) history, and these were generally the centers of fairly large empires.

In fact, you only start getting cities of over a million around 1800 with Beijing (and London soon to follow), both centers of major world empires:

Top 10 Cities of the Year 1800

Name Population
1 Beijing, China 1,100,000
2 London, United Kingdom 861,000
3 Guangzhou, China 800,000
4 Edo (Tokyo), Japan 685,000
5 Constantinople (Istanbul), Turkey 570,000
6 Paris, France 547,000
7 Naples, Italy 430,000
8 Hangzhou, China 387,000
9 Osaka, Japan 383,000
10 Kyoto, Japan 377,000

And it took another century of ff powered urbanization for the top 10 cities all to be over one million:

This leads to the question of whether a post-ff era can support more than a very few such centers.

Remember, too, that during earlier times of decline such as the early middle ages, many of the centers of learning and culture were not in urban settings, but far away from such centers, especially in monasteries in Ireland, northern England...It was only in the high middle ages and renaissance that cities really started to be major centers of culture again. Even then, many of the most influential "cities" were quite small by modern standards--Florence only had 94,000 before the Black Plague; presumably far fewer thereafter.

Most today would categorize such a municipality a "large town" or a very "small city." Yet it was perhaps the most important culturally innovative center in Europe for hundreds of years. Standard Italian today is essentially a Florentine dialect.

Seems like a chicken/egg argument forming here. Did cities decline because the money/investment/educated class fled to the suburbs, or did they flee to the suburbs because their cities were in decline? My take is that they fled to the 'burbs because they could. Growth, the mother of all of this, was possible there (aided, of course, by the automobile), growth that was no longer possible in cities.

Build it and they will come.

Question: if there wasn't ever any oil, only electric rail, etc, would these outlying communities have been built, perhaps in a somewhat different form?

Many of the earliest (now 'inner ring') suburbs were known as "streetcar suburbs."

So yes, electric rail can facilitate sprawl, but not as wildly as cars and highways do.

Yes but now the top 200 cities have over 2 million people in them, and at least the top 50 have over 5 million in them. But this is a list of the urban areas.

I do wonder at times where all their food comes from, how much has to get shipped in from many miles away, and how much is locally sourced.

In times past, you might still have farms just outside the city walls, or even still get live animals coming into towns to feed people with fresh food.

We likely can't even predict how collapse of cities will take place, each place the city has different methods of feeding itself. We have population to consider here.

In the history before 1800 cities never got so big that they didn't have farms within a few miles of town. Looking at some the cities of today we see them so large that their is just too many people in them to have farming areas close enough to feed the whole population. But trains and trucks still get to them with foods from the outlying areas should still feed them, unless you have a massive collapse then all bets are off.

The page above also has info on the cities over 500,000 people, putting that number at over 750. That is a lot of people living in cities. At a rough guess about 2 billion people live in cities bigger than 500,000 so you can say that cities are where people are living more and more.

In the end though it will likely break down to the have and have nots as far as the cities that get food goes. The above numbers likely include a lot of suburban areas though.

All in all, we can only do what we each can do, and then help the rest of the folks to understand that just letting things stay as they are, is a recipe for chaos, and death in the big cities, and suburban areas where food and water are not locally gathered, as well as having it come from outside the city.

BioWebScape Designs for a better fed and housed world.

Very good post. When I think cities, I think the monsters you describe. Totally gonna be death traps where people are going to starve if they stay. I see the city where I live, Salt Lake, as nearly unsustainable with it's core population of around 150,000 and burbs into the 1 million mark. I live in one if it's outlying suburbs that would actually be considered a small town by east coast standards, and I see a lot of potential if we can pull the population together for a common defense and get enough agricultural activity going. Back east? Even your rural areas are over populated!!! I wouldn't be there if you paid me to.

Think Climate Change = Long Droughts.


Thanks for the great description of earlier life in a small MN town.

On this quote, though: "neighbourhoods where you simply don't enter because of the colour of your skin" I have to tell you that the first thing I thought of is all the stories of blacks being arrested just for being in a suburb, even a suburb where they live. I have heard of no cases of whites being arrested just for being in a mostly black neighborhood.

I would like to challenge you to ask yourself if you would feel comfortable in a mostly black small town or suburb. If not, perhaps the reasons you dislike urban life has to do with something other than those you are telling yourself.

Cities will tear themselves apart and Suburbs will thrive…….

Sounds like a bunch of people stranded in suburbs desperately clinging to their bad investment…..

Sounds like a bunch of people stranded in suburbs desperately clinging to their bad investment…..

Sounds that way to me, too.

Cities will tear themselves apart

Naw, they will just turn into slums.

Planet of Slums

Taken from Planet of Slums

Suburbs will thrive

Suburbia is a temporary aberration in our living arrangements, that's all.

Since money and energy will be limited instead of being virtually infinite as it was during the ascent of the fossil fuel era, what little amount there is will be put toward maintaining the infrastructure of cities and there will be none left over to maintain the infrastructure of a decaying suburb. See my comment below on my analysis of my old county's water system:

Others have posted links that demonstrate that this process has already begun. Sure, there may be a few rich enclaves here and there but suburbia works only with lots of energy. Many of those subdivisions will be turned back into farmland (yes, I know the difficulties with that, this is over a several decade period) and the farm workers will live on site or be bussed in from the cities.

But even bussing is unlikely. I suspect there will always be enough poor people to work directly on the farms and anyone with enough money to live in the cities will simply spend most of what they make buying food from the farmers. They won't bus in every morning to work the farm and return in the evening.

Not even a Monday-Friday bussing system will be needed.

When there are as many poor people as I imagine there will be, a whole different way of thinking is needed

what little amount there is will be put toward maintaining the infrastructure of cities and there will be none left over to maintain the infrastructure of a decaying suburb

This assumes that the suburban dwellers will go along with this and more of them means they have much more political power than you think. I doubt they will just lie down and die or move out passively to be poor farm workers for the benefit of few priveleged city dwellers, of which you certainly seem to count yourself.

Yes, as I pointed out, I do agree that there will be enclaves of richer people who will make sure their homes continue to get relatively high-quality infrastructure services.

However, the vast middle class will mostly be gone within two decades or so and the forces at work are far more powerful than the desires of some mere human beings.

My view is that most people, perhaps including yourself, don't have an accurate and full appreciation of two things. First, they don't have a feel for the power of deflation as 7 billion people suddenly find themselves chasing a fraction of the resources that are available now.

Second, they are unable to look more than a few decades into the future. They seem to be able to envision a contracting economy twenty years from now but can't see it in 2050, when oil is available at just a fraction the volume it is now, the world's representative democracies have largely been replaced with whatever is next and global warming is making a mess of the planet.

If there are no jobs (unemployment > 50%), the government has lost its capacity to sustain the social safety net that currently exists and subsistence farming means eating, I do believe you will find people doing that work. It may take a decade but the children in high school now will have very little formal economy as we've known available to them. Currently there are five people looking for every job opening (officially) and by the end of the decade it will be closer to 30 or perhaps even 50. (It was at 9 just a year ago.) And these are the official numbers, which are undoubtedly too low.

The memory of this economy won't take more than a generation or two to fade (at most) and then we'll have people doing whatever it takes for them to survive, just like the people in India doing this dangerous and back-breaking work right now (ship breaking):

Ship in yardMen carry steelMen breaking metal

(Many of them don't even have shoes.)

I have tried to look a few decades past 2030, when resource depletion and Climate Change REALLY begin to bite.

What I want is for basic human needs to be meet sustainably, depending on long lived investments made during the last years of the Age of Abundance.

I think population will be falling (reduced birth rate, increased death rate, although I hope modestly). A slightly shrinking population will mean more infrastructure, and resources for everyone.

More later

I have tried to look a few decades past 2030

Yes, I've noticed that and that's great! Almost anyone who is still thinking about individual transportation that isn't a scooter, motorcycle or very bare bones, non-highway capable car clearly isn't looking all the way to 2050. Once you start looking that far into the future, modes like rail make much more sense, in my view. (Though I think a "rich" person may have scooter or electric bike.)

Re: population, I have come across no reason to think the curve is going to look very different from Scenario #1 of Limits to Growth, which puts us at half the world population inside of 90 years. Yikes.

Scenario 1

Here is Ace's projection, which I ran by Anne Erlich. Her and her husband's modeling doesn't include oil depletion and her take was that she couldn't see anything obviously incorrect in the projection. Ace's comment with the graph was "using a simple logistic curve fit without any bottom up forecasting." The decline rate could be a little aggressive because it puts us a less than 1/3 the current population within 70 years. Then again, maybe it won't be.

The CIA's Millenium Report about future trends, mirrors these predictions. Not a good picture.

Just to elaborate.

Imagine 2050 with, or alternatively, without the following:

- An electrified rail system with enough capacity to efficiently carry, without delays, all goods between cities (a few % round about, 2x or more than a straight line). Passenger service added onto this.

A few major tunnels to make easy connections over rough terrain. Stout multi-century bridges, many ROW improvements to keep trains running efficiently (no helper locos on a steep stretch, that sort of thing). Double and triple tracks in many area.

An express freight + passenger service between major agricultural areas (especially for perishable food) and major population centers. The original design speeds of 100 mph freight and 120 mph pax may slow a bit, but 75 mph will still get tomatoes to market without spoiling.

And like the German rail system in WW II, a system with enough redundancy and alternatives that it can degrade and still keep functioning well (no single or even double/triple point of failure for most of the USA).

Plus the domestic industry to maintain and renew this.

- A sustainable electrical grid.

o Renew and optimize the existing hydroelectric plants (Chu is doing a good job here)
o Promote new small hydro (also some good here by Chu)
o A wide selection of smaller, medium and larger pumped storage plants all over the country (one group is looking @ 5 sites in Oklahoma). These can even out renewables.
o new HV DC and HV AC transmission along railroad ROW (easy to maintain with rail mounted cranes) and elsewhere. These can shift some renewables around
o Enough PV solar to meet, say, 33% of 2010 residential and commercial demand. Mainly on rooftops. Inverters last longer but DC appliances and lights become more common.
o Enough wind to meet more than half of 2010 total demand
o More geothermal (although they need rest after a while)
o Some simplified nukes (not enough for BAU, but some)
o New Canadian hydro imports - 4 GW Newfoundland, 25 GW Quebec, 5 GW Manitoba, 2.5 GW BC
Also a source of synthetic fuels (see below)

Plus the domestic industry to maintain and renew this.

- Enough bio-fuels to meet 2% to 5% of today's demand (grain feed beef almost gone)
- Enough synthetic fuels (electricity > ammonia, methanol or DME) to meet 0.5% to 2% of today's demand. Mostly made when wind is in surplus locally.

- MUCH more efficient and well built housing stock, sq ft at 1950 levels or smaller. 3% to 5% of today's retail sq ft.

Residential electrical service is optional, available when essential needs are served. In Northwest, on 90+% of the time. In Southeast, on perhaps 15%, or 60% of the time. Solar powered, VERY high efficiency/super insulated DC refrigerators are common. As are DC fans, computers and radios/TVs. The well-to-do have 3/4 ton, SEER 30 DC heat pumps to cool the bedrooms in the daytime off solar PV.

We can lay the foundations today for this.

Best Hopes,


Excellent comments, Alan. They cut right through the overbearing pessimism with real ideas.

I'm tired of hearing about collapse to medieval times -- with the exception of the use of modern American guns -- on this otherwise excellent site whenever oil depletion comes up.

Expressing such real solutions will help inspire positive action and foster neighbourhood confidence and consensus-building, but due to their scale they rely on regional and national political leadership of which there is little evidence in either the US or Canada, where I live. Instead, we witness followership of corporate lobbyists flashing their money behind the curtains along with their suggested sound bite talking points, and angry pontificators railing against the establishment in our faces via tabloid TV.

Once upon a time TV showed such promise as an educational tool. Maybe it's time to turn the damned thing off and save some energy.

Perhaps taking these ideas to the smaller-scale local level, especially in regard to agriculture and energy, will provide more effective results a long time before senior governments realize they must catch up. Some cities like Portland are producing plans to deal with "energy descent" (a very apt decription), but which state, provincial or national government in North America is doing so?

I believe the most appropriate model to strive for would be an incremental conversion of sub/exurbia to self-contained villages and towns that have community-operated market gardens at the edges on the best arable soils. Residents could pay farmers a fee to grow crops, or said crops could be delivered to public markets and family-run produce stores in town (only a few kilometres away) via an electrically-powered light passenger + freight system. If the community owned the farmland, then the farmers wouldn't have to assume a mortgage, just pay a reasonable lease, and we're talking about clusters of small farms, not the 10,000 hectare beomouths the Age of Oil delivered to the world. Monsanto's interests are mostly in industrial-scale energy-intensive agriculture, and wouldn't have much of a foothold in publicly-owned market gardens.

Just some food for thought.

"Sounds like a bunch of people stranded in suburbs desperately clinging to their bad investment…..."
I don't see where anyone is going to be stranded or living it up in a 'good' investment'. :-S

my grandpa preferred the outhouse over the one indoor toilet

I am having a hard time imagining how anyone could actually prefer an outhouse to an indoor toilet... Was he nostalgic for the heady smell? Ech..

If you build it right, there's no more smell than a regular toilet.

.. and my wife, whom I often think is the 'mainstream' one, has just finished reading the HUMANURE HANDBOOK, and wants to redirect our 'Main-Streams' into an indoor-outhouse. (Composting Toilet system, no water.. )

The idea that we've grown accustomed to doing our business into potable drinking water is increasingly obscene to me.

I'm trying to remind her, in the thrall of this book, just what the neighbors will view as obscene, and how to not just set ourselves up for a political fiasco.. but ultimately, I'm right there with her!


"My grandparents lived on a 1/2 acre lot in a rural town in Minnesota. They made it through the depression with 5 kids, little lawn, and one big garden. They had a well, my grandpa preferred the outhouse over the one indoor toilet, they had a smokehouse, and I can never forget my grandma keeping the birds out of the garden with her bb gun. Did they need sidewalks, sewers, and wide paved roads? No.'

This is where I live (not on your grampa's property, lol). I've been focusing/thinking about building a new garden next year, and starting to do some serious canning. I've been trying to stock up frozen fish supplies I've caught myself.
There are some great wood home heating systems I'd like to look into and get off forced natural gas.

Re. Commuting from suburbia

Commuters need to consider what is common practice in the timber industry - workers spend the week living at the site, typically in travel trailers they own, i.e., not company provided, and go home for the weekend. They typically take the company "crummy" to the site (ride sharing anyone?) from a central pick-up point. While people unaccustomed to this kind of life may find it distasteful, it has worked for a long time.

I'd also like to add that in the old days people lived at their work site. I personally know some old-timers from the timber camps around here. They lived in wall tents...the whole family. It was a major boost to get a company cabin. Further, they were, essentially, trapped there because the roads to the camp were unpassable for most of the year which meant they had to buy at the company store.

There is no reason a group of suburbanites couldn't rent an apartment/room and bunk together during the week and go home on the weekends. Sure it's a PITA but it has worked for lots of people in the past.

I agree with Jeff that suburbia will not be abandoned.


PS In my area this time period was documented via three large paperback books titled Through the Eyes of the Elders. If anyone is interested, I'll give you a contact since they are not generally available. Lots of photos and interviews. detzel at mcn dot org

Edit to add...People today simply do not understand how hard life can be. My property is part of what once was a 2,600 acre ranch. I knew the owner before he died and his son is a good friend who still lives on part of the ranch. One time the owner was out feeding his sheep during bad snow storm. The snow was so deep that his horse could not carry him so he had to hang onto the horse's tail and was dragged home though the snow for several miles. How tough are you?

Hi Todd,

workers spend the week living at the site

While working in India, we visited the site of a new office building being constructed for the company I was associated with. I was surprised to see cots and cooking utensils in various totally unfinished rooms (just bare concrete). I was told that skilled workers would come from various parts of the country and just live in the building until their tasks were completed - often several months. Apparently this was quite common.

As a kid growing up in Northern MN, my dad would take me fishing/hunting and often we stayed in Lumber-Jack shacks right along with working men - some of these guys went home on the weekend and some stayed there for months - especially in the winter. These places were not the Ritz!

But, we all know that Americans today will never be subjected to these abuses - we are the chosen ones.

Americans today will never be subjected to these abuses - we are the chosen ones.

Seems to me we are choosing to become the oligarch's serfs. Reality will hit all too soon.

That's actually crossed my mind. I have a NG car so I can commute a lot longer than your average joe or jane, but when it get's tight I was just going to roll out a sleeping bag under the desk in my cube. We have a Gym at my place of employment so I have access to a shower. Pack some extra clothing and change my telecommuting days to correspond to the weekend and I could get my commute down to once a week.

Sounds like what my Mom's father did during the years after the depression and during the war and a bit after. They had several homesteads, one near a town and two out in the woods or lakes of the region. Northern Ozarks.

They ran a saw mill and lived onsite, had a houseboat on Lake Table Rock, and a house near town, large garden and cows and chickens, so someone had to be there for part of the year when they had animals.

I don't know if I am tough enough to get pulled along on the tail of a horse. If snow is that deep, I'd have a hunting knife with me and make a snow sled to ride behind the horse, but that is just me and thinking in a fairly warm house, using a computer. But I have roughed it in snow country before, not that arkansas is snow country these days.

The world will be a tough place for the soft underbelly of the average US citizen. Things will change and having a place to get in out of the rain, and food on your plate will be the biggest issues for most people. Maybe we have gone to far down a silver spoon life, but I think that humans are tough in general, or else we would not have gotten this far down the time line as we have.

The weak and sickly might just fade away in 100 years, and not get cared for like they have in recent decades. Or maybe we are all just to much doomers and something will change in the coming decades that makes life a bit easier than we think it will be.

BioWebScape Designs for a better fed and housed world.

An excellent and insightful analysis of The Problem of Suburbia.

The emphasis on price signals is essential to predictions of where the solar panels, car pooling, victory gardening, and distributed manufacturing will go.

The unemployed and early retired can tend their gardens, instead of flitting around the world burning fossil fuels.

It's hard to think 'in the future' but this article shows it can be done well, juggling many elements, and capturing moments of conjunction.

Thanks, Jeff.

I grew up in the boonies (1940's & 50's), raised my kids in a suburb (60's & 70's) and now live in a big city. Each has its advantages and drawbacks. And it is interesting that commenters have focused on their personal feelings: being nervous when surrounded by hordes of differently-colored humanoids; liking private green space; the usual considerations, not much different from half a century ago.

Personally, I like city life, as I have it now. When I was a little kid, it was great to have whole woods full of trees to climb, hills everywhere to slide down in winter, and so forth, but when I got into my teens, the "life is elsewhere" mantra of Milan Kundera (whom I'd never heard of then) depressed me. Going off to college, I was "Free at last!" (Or so I thought.) Years later, in suburbia, one of my son's friends could see his high school from his bedroom window, half a mile away, but could not get there except by yellow schoolbus or by Mom-driven car. Yet it requires little in way of brainpower or imagination to figure out how to overcome the problems alluded to.

Two of my grandchildren live in suburbia, the other two in the heart of NYC. All of them walk or bicycle to school.

Regarding adaptations to Peak Resources and Climate Disruption, if only adequate price signals are properly introduced, I am certain people will oh-so-fast figure out how to adapt. Some of the adaptations will be fairly obvious; others would seem quite novel to a today-constrained paradigm.

Suburbia is already being abandoned.

In Detroit - to bulldoze 40 sq mi:

In Flint -

In youngstown:

A truly useless speech, filled with wishful thinking.

Suburbia can provide wood? How? It takes decades to harvest substantial wood, and then you need a fireplace to burn it in, which most suburban house lack. Most suburbs have so little soil, that trees grow slowly. What kind of trees? Not all trees have the same energy density or burning characteristics.

Suburbs are often hamstrung by local neighbourhood rules and regs that prohibit farming, livestock, etc.

I got 4/5 of the way through and said "forget this guy". He's just blowing smoke up my butt.

The suburbs are ALREADY being abandoned. They are getting poorer
and as noted above, once they cease to provide they are abandoned. And they should. They should be plowed under and used as farms for the cities.

The sunk debt? Only a problem if you have private corporations in charge of banking. Nationalise the banks, disband the fed, make the govt responsible for money supply, and the problem goes away. Easy. Peazy.

But, that's called "Socialism" and every red blooded 'Merkin gets his red white and blue knickers in a twist with the mere mention of it.

Which is why the USA is going to sink without a trace along with its miserable despair inducing suburbs.

Those were cities, not suburbs. This is all related to the auto industry leaving the area. Detroit has been a terrible place for decades. The links show what I said above, cities will fall in to disrepair, they already are full of economically irrelevant people.

Floridian wrote:
Those were cities, not suburbs.

No, they're suburbs, for the most part. The suburbs are a way of life not a location. If it requires mechanised transport to get there, it's a suburb, and doesn't matter if it's in the "city limits" of a given town. An example is Indianapolis, where the city limits are so huge, they include farms and exurbs.

The cities may well fall into disrepair, but they are not being abandoned on the scale that the suburbs (including the suburbs within city limits) are, and that's just a plain fact.

"Nationalise the banks, disband the fed, make the govt responsible for money supply, and the problem goes away. Easy. Peazy.

But, that's called "Socialism" and every red blooded 'Merkin gets his red white and blue knickers in a twist with the mere mention of it."

They are not getting their "knickers in a twist" about the disbanding the Fed. There is a long tradition on the hard right that the Fed is already or should be unconstitutional. See "The Creature from Jekyll Island."

Disband the fed I can agree with, and if you take 'socialism'... well I think you will find it a good cure for constipation...

"But, that's called "Socialism" and every red blooded 'Merkin gets his red white and blue knickers in a twist with the mere mention of it.'

government/social organization in future collapse: moderate socialism in face of shortage (too late)= national socialism (in the face of a collapsing society)= Anarchy (expedient last minute attempts at solutions fail)= the age of tribalesque warlords (particularily in what's left of urban/suburban areas) and feudal kingdoms (rural areas)= ?

Thank you Jeff for arguing that suburbia does have a future (especially since I'm one of the 150 million who also live in suburbia). But I'm pretty familiar with transportation and energy and I think the idea that we can reduce our energy consumption by 90% in suburbia is a bit optimistic. Transit is very expensive and is difficult to serve the suburbs energy efficiently. Transit service should be increased but perhaps not as much as you might envision. Ridesharing (filling empty seats in cars/vans) has a lot of potential, but it can be inconvenient as you mention. I think we do need to think about how we can reconfigure the suburbs so it works better. By this, I'm thinking of going back to the small. More stores, but much smaller ones located closer to where people live (of course buying food there will be more expensive). Also smaller schools, perhaps smaller doctor's offices. A reversal of the trends toward the big box stores, consolidated schools, and so forth.

That said, I think suburbia will survive because there's so much of it and we'll have to find ways to make it work.

A good and thought provoking article, thanks Jeff.

I came across this example of the comic artist Robert Crumb's thoughts about the future of American suburbia.

First, American History [drawn 1979]

American History  (196?)

Then, American Future [drawn 1988]

American Future (1988)
I find it astonishing that in 1988 Crumb could identify those three future alternatives.

Lastly, it seems Crumb voted with his feet. From Wikipedia, he now lives in Sauve

Sauve is a commune in the Gard department in southern France.
In the mid-1990s American underground comic artist Robert Crumb traded six of his sketchbooks for a townhouse in Sauve. He presently lives there with his family.
The drummer of the Rolling Stones, Charlie Watts, also has an apartment in the town.
Sauve is twinned with the village of Broughton in Hampshire, England


Google Maps satellite view: Sauve
As Robert Hughs (art critic) once observed:

The idea that money, patronage and trade automatically corrupts the wells of imagination is a pious fiction, believed by some utopian lefties and a few people of genius such as William Blake but flatly contradicted by history itself.

Hi Sin.

Google Maps satellite view: Sauve

Sauve is a bit west of Avignon - we did a fair amount of cycling the other side of Avignon in the Luberon valley and toward the slopes of Mt Ventoux. Wonderful, charming place - I wish lack of money and travel-guilt would magically revert back to the old days of blissful ignorance and a NASDAQ of 5,000!

Hi BD.

I'm jealous of your cycling experience in France.

As to a 5,000 NASDAQ and progress generally we are used to saying "there is no going back". On the other hand maybe there is but not like everybody thought.

I've already voted against suburbia with my feet which are now firmly planted in Tasmania. :-)


"flatly contradicted by history itself"

Ah, what has happened is what will happen?

The problem is that "what has happened" is an interpretation.

We can look to the ancient cities and suburbs, or more exactly, the remains of them (e.g. Babylonian, Egyptian, Mayan, and Angor Wat) and we see empty places of mystery.

Then we can read volumes of contradictory interpretations ("history").

One thing we cannot dispute is that they stopped being whatever they were for some overpowering reason.

If we get dogmatic and declare what happened, then extrapolate from that to predict what will happen because we "know" what did happen, we compound the foolishness.

In a peak oil context we can say we are going to run out of that commodity.

But we cannot declare as dogma whether the powers that be will believe that is true, so as to attempt to fashion a remedy, or whether the populace will believe it, thus we cannot say precisely what will happen to the cities and the suburbs.

The population is getting older and dementia is increasing alarmingly, and I am not referring to politics.

It can be horribly worse than our worse prognostications or far better, it is just that we do not know what people will do when confronted with such a daunting reality.

I am fond of saying "everything happens, therefore we cannot cite to particular events as proof that any one thing will happen as a result".

Everything will happen, but since God created time to keep it from happening all at once ;-), everything will happen (good, bad, ugly) in its own future allotted time.

I have to say Jeff, I read the statements on commuting and I had a little chuckle.

While I agree that the suburbs will stay, and distribution will have to increase, I think the airy waving away of commuting as an issue is wishful thinking.

You say yourself, in the US we are talking about 150m people. That size of issue doesn't change without a titanic effect on society. Riding sharing? Well that requires some big changes anyway if its to yield sizeable savings. They have to start and end journeys in roughly the same place, and at roughly the same time - the whole has to be organised. And just what jobs are they going to be going to? In an oil decline world, where growth stalls and goes into reverse, how many of those jobs will still exist? How many companies will go to the wall? What will be the unemployment rate - 50%?

And the change has to happen fast. With fuel rationing and the other inequality effects (such as exportland) the decline in available fuel for commuting will be swift. With your 90% figure fully in play, it will only make 4.5Mbpd difference to US consumption - and that could well be eaten up by a collapsed dollar meaning fuel goes to China not the US.

Plus, of course, there is the shopping, schools, and other usages of fuel to consider. Frankly its touch and go if the changes could be effected within 5 years, a rate that's barely likely to match the size and scale of the problems. If we manage to deal with commuting and local transport, we will have done well and will have dealt with most of the problem. Hardly something to dismiss, particularly when you remember we are talking about a liquid fuel problem. Solar PV is fun, but has little to say about this problem space.

Oh, and if you really think we are going to become independent units in suburbia, free of centralised control and imposed rules - well you haven't looked at 1000 years of history and are in for something of a shock. Would you really expect those in positions of 'power' to allow 150m p*ssed off people to do what they want, organise as they like, whilst they hold control of the liquid fuel lines? Centralised control will increase till it breaks down entirely in insurrection.

I'm thrilled to finally hear a narrative that doesn't start with the conclusion that suburbia is doomed, and hen build a case from the conclusion. I've thought about this quite deeply over time (as I'm sure most everyone at TOD has), and have come to the conclusion that in the short-term, while our current financial and economic system exists, suburbia will be a losing bet. However, once the bite of peak oil, and the punctuated economic equilibrium it will deliver sets in (imagine the world 5 years after the official decline sets in), I see suburbia as an asset.

As the beginning of the post states, the initial picture is an example of what will undoubtedly be abandoned and useless. The suburbia that I'm familiar with and have been around my entire life represents lots with breathing room between them (yay! gardens!), they have cul-de-sacs and limited entrance points (yay! building communities for security, shared labors/burdens, distributed risk), and the opportunity to transform a series of houses into a single lot (i.e. one house to live in that needs heating/cooling, one for equipment, one for drying and preserves processing, on for animals, etc.).

My reasoning is that the world and particularly the U.S. economies and financial systems are more leveraged and fragile than in 2008 leading to the conclusion that the next crisis will be impossible to mitigate. Hank Paulson has an interview from July 2009 where he states that even in Autumn '08 there was serious discussion in Congress/Senate in conjuncture with the Bush Administration about what to do if the financial system collapsed and social cohesion and civility eroded. He states in the article that the vast majority of the U.S. population has never realized how close we came to complete collapse, and the consequences that would have ensued. Either there will be a price spike in oil next summer (keep in mind hat over the last 12 months the mean price of oil has been the highest on record- inflation adjusted), or there will be a flight from the dollar, dollar collapse, hyperinflation, whatever you want to call it. My research says one of these two options is an inevitability (if no both) in the near future. After true economic collapse who will tell people to get out of their foreclosed houses; not that people can be evicted anymore anyway due to "foreclosure-gate" yes I hate the title as well. Imagine the world 5 years after this event, when the grips of peak oil truly clamp down. It will throw the U.S. into such a topsy-turvy dislocation that I can see communities rallying together, and sharing an entire cul-de-sac/neighborhood for not only pragmatic security, comfort, and food issues, but because a shared experience is all most will have to look forward too. The old suburbia of "Earl! I thought my neighbors name was Bob!" will turn into a truly engaged and shared experience. Please add, detract, criticize, etc. I'm eager for comments because I truly feel this is the way the world will pan out considering what 5 years of stagnant oil supply has done to the world economy (i.e. what will permanently declining production bring?)

Good point about repurposing existing structures. But I think there are still too many large structures for just about any sustainable use.

And yes, many of us are waiting for the other economic shoe to drop. Timing is, as always, difficult to predict with any accuracy. I hope to own my house free and clear by early next year, so I hope things totter along till then.

Where do you go for your economic and other data that your conclusions are based on?

But inflation is a good thing, if you're a debtor -- as is the majority of the population and the government.

The issue is, of course, that incomes have to keep up with it, so the rate has to be controlled and predictable. Also, many people's incomes are tied to the CPI, so the CPI has to be realistic. The debt-holders and the cash-holders get screwed, of course.

Imagine that it was necessary to establish a new city in the days of energy depletion.
I believe you would establish a centre and then have radiating public transport
lines radiating out at say, every 60 degrees. Homes would be established around
stations on those lines and between small town centres on those lines tramways ould be placed between those centres to centres on other radial public transport
rail lines.
You would have a spider web like structure.
Farming could be established between the radial public transport lines to supply
their nearest centres.

Now how would we get from where we are today with suburbia to something approaching
that ideal ?
I think it could happen almost automatically if the rail lines that were installed
were as I described. Those existing houses that were too far from the rail centres
would become cheaper and would ultimately be lost to extending the farming areas.

Of course geography would force a departure from the ideal but the principle would
still hold.
Using the present resources to get the infrastructure built as soon as possible
is a necessity but politicians world wide are not interested.

Google Columbus, OH and describe what you would change.

Columbus has a ring of interstates around the core center city. I-70 bisects it east to west. I-71 bisects it roughly nort to south. I-270 is a ring around the greater part of the metro area with a variety of businesses and shopping malls on the ring. There is a quite robust set of railroads that intersect near downtown and mostly radiate outward. The Scioto River is small enough so that it isn't much of an obstacle for bridging.

Shall we move everyone from Westerville to German Village? Is Westerville too far out, but Worthington not?

Sounds like you're describing Curitiba in Brazil.

Architect Jaime Lerner, who later became mayor, led a team from the Universidade Federal do Paraná that suggested strict controls on urban sprawl, a reduction of traffic in the downtown area, preservation of Curitiba's Historic Sector, and a convenient and affordable public transit system.

This plan, known as the Curitiba Master Plan, was adopted in 1968. Lerner closed XV de Novembro St. to vehicles, because it had very high pedestrian traffic. The plan had a new road design to minimise traffic: the Trinary Road System. This uses two one-way streets moving in opposite directions which surround a smaller, two-lane street where the express buses have their exclusive lane. Five of these roads form a star that converges on the city centre. Land farther from these roads is zoned for lower density developments, to reduce traffic away from the main roads. In a number of areas subject to floods, buildings were condemned and the land became parks.

Today, Curitiba is considered one of the best examples of urban planning worldwide.

Hi Jeff,

We now live at the dawning of the age of the market state

Free market advocates are in full blossom this election season. The free market candidates around here do not instill any confidence that we will evolve toward your vision of this "egalitarian substrate". Most often, these same folks think PO/GW is a hoax, Cap and Trade (or anything like it) is a crime, abortion is a crime, gays are damned, regulation of any kind is unconstitutional - as are any kind of social programs, etc.

I doubt you are a Tea Party supporter, but unfortunately, these are the folks that seem most comfortable with the "Market State" idea - assuming you mean that "Markets" need to operate fairly freely when you say:

We don’t need—in fact we cannot have—a centralized, federal government led effort to institute this kind of change

For many of the reasons that you and others have stated, I think that suburbs/exurbs that are not too dense have a lot of potential for reforming into a kind of "village" concept that could survive if several fundamental changes are made to lifestyles and expectations. But, I don't feel very inspired thinking about the current crop of political candidates that espouse your view that we cannot have a centralized federal government leading the way. One could paint a picture of these "no federal government" militia groups evolving into the same kind of warlords that happen all over the world when, as you say, the "Nation-State is dead".

Perhaps I misunderstand your Market State vision - but it sure sounds like very right-wing free-market talk. Please clarify if I've mis-characterized your view.

From my POV, I would like to see strong federal leadership to change the whole car culture for personal transportation. Something like 35 mph national speed limit and conversion of expressway lanes to mass transit would result in a huge change to the commuting paradigm. Of course this kind of change would have to be "sold" to the public before it could be implemented. Finding the leadership to lead this charge is another issue.

In my experience, some of the worst regulations are local ones - minimum sq ft for a house, min lot size, architectural appearance standards, trade licensing, unlawful use of land for gardens/goats, etc.

The market-state doen't really exist and IMO never will. Politicians go into politics to "get things done". They can't help themselves but intervene when the market is not delivering what their constituents want. They are happy to espouse teh virtues of the market on the way up, but quick to intervene when teh market is doing it's stuff on the way down.

One could paint a picture of these "no federal government" militia groups evolving into the same kind of warlords that happen all over the world when, as you say, the "Nation-State is dead".

I worry much more about your dedicated gang banger from the city who is already much more organized than bubba and company ever is going to be. Your gang bangers and other organized crime types are going to be your nucleous for your war lords, not earl and bubba. You're left wing media has painted earl and bubba into great big boogie men when they are just bumbling clowns. :-)

The concept of a Market State is problematic and impractical.

For example, roughly 30%-45% of sub/exurban land is consumed by public roads. Collectively, that represents hundreds of thousands of square kilometres/miles in North America. A Market State would probably assume many roads could will be sold off to the highest private bidder. Will Exxon buy up all the major arterials and freeways and leave the cul-de-sacs and lanes for the smaller fish, or to remain in public hands? How many toll gates will you have to negotiate to get home once this publicly-owned land mass is privatised? And who will maintain all the public services that rest below the roads?

You get the idea.

Lately we've heard much negative rhetoric about "creeping socialism." Yes, and the yellow line painted down the middle of the road is one of its most insidious devices.

Purely residential suburbs will have a hard time surviving. But these are the minority. Many of the more productive businesses are in the suburbs, while the city centers tend to be government buildings, hotels, restaurants, financial firms, casinos (but I repeat myself), and sports stadiums.

The remaining industrial firms are more likely located in the suburbs than in the city. There are only one or two large auto plants left in Detroit itself -- Jefferson assembly and American Axle AFAIK. Chrysler announced that it would be investing a few hundred million in its Belvidere, IL plant, which is in a more typical site for an auto assembly plant.

The "retirement community" may well decline sharply, since baby boomers will not have the savings and defined benefits pension plan income needed to move and buy homes in sunbelt states, nor will they be able to make frequent trips back to family in the north due to the high cost of air travel. Instead, boomer retirees may move into homes in the more remote suburbs around the metro area where they currently live, either as couples or in groups. Sort of an elderly version of "Friends" in McMansions?

At any rate, no prudent financial institution is going to buy mortgage securities backed by the "no-recourse" mortgages in the "sand states". Even small towns in Norway now understand how subprime in California works -- Terra Securities, Norway Towns Sue Citigroup For Subprime Loss

Poverty binds the homeless to the city.
Moving a Recreational Vehicle (R.V.) costs money.
I live in my car. It's a good car. It is my freedom. I am lucky to have it.
Parking overnight in town, from 11PM to 6AM, is disallowed.
Park and sleep outside the city limits. Be gone by 6AM or draw attention.
Driving to the margins and back, everyday, costs $7 per day or $210 per month... to live, near a small town, in your car.
The WalMart is in town. The pantry programs are in town. The gas station is in town.
The doctors and pharmacies are also in town... but these are not constant destinations.
Sleeping on the street avoids this expense. That's why people aggregate on the streets of the cities.
This is the trap.
Sleeping on the streets and dumpster-diving? There are lice in the cubbies and doorways where others sleep. Eating out of the trash offers hepatitis, tuberculosis, and the flu... all visited upon the schizophrenic brother of one of the end-stage alcoholics here and resulting in the death of the well-housed family patriarch. (Alcohol just eats people alive.) There is no code among the homeless anymore, not like in the old days. Others will steal what little you have: the decay of American common courtesy extends to all classes.
It is not the nostalgic return to simpler times.
Living on a mountaintop is absolutely beautiful. Shopping becomes an event. Driving to the pantry programs makes no economic sense. There might be ticks and rattlesnakes. The rats are artistic, capable, and curious creatures that want to live with you. Ravens visit, but few people. Wildfires pose a threat. Isolation offers to increase the dangers of any misfortune. Water may have to be hauled. Wood can be gathered to fuel cooking and heating. You need your health.
These are the trade-offs.
Transportation costs and times directly affect lifestyle options.
High population density and big-box stores are a system attempting a low energy state. The distances defeat the intent.
My small town has big-box stores, lower population density, and moderate distances. Sort-of the best of worlds in this present America.
Suburban housing tracts can be converted to tiny-towns with distributed everything scattered among the houses. Economies of scale will be lost.
But it is the sheer scale and the travel distances presently involved...
The cost-signal.
There is research to be done.
Just keep the flies out of the room.
Electron-beam free-form fabrication:

3D Lithography Mathematical Art This is made as a sintered stainless-steel form impregnated with molten bronze.

3D Printer:

3D Confectionery
Pretty song:

KalimankuDenku, thanks for those links! I worked with 3D prototyping and model making back in the 90s and was especially interested in derivations of platonic solids and fractals. I actually built large glass icosahedronic and dodecahedronic saltwater aquariums and placed video monitors with Mandelbrot animations behind them. I got some pretty cool effects, my ex wife may still have some of the pictures but I no longer do. I guess It may be time to build some new ones...

Liked your car too however why do you need to drive with it the tent open? Can't you collapse it and make things more aerodynamic while driving?

Be well!


What fun!
The Mandelbrot Aquarium

My first direct exposure to stereo lithography was 199..8? A fellow had some unusual cases made from an off-hand suggestion. There were little herring-bone patterns inside: artifacts from the rapid prototyping system. Took three days---cost $300. Model-maker would have taken weeks. Mold-maker would have charged $20,000.

The tent can do 65 miles per hour! It covers a direct-burial water-cistern roto-molded from High-Density PolyEthylene (HDPE). It is covered with an insulation system of polyisocyanurate foam-board. You can get into it from inside the car, above the driver's seat. I'm too sick to put-up and strike a tent everyday, so this is my solution. Works! I have the upstairs and my dog Little Dog has the downstairs.

Yes... aerodynamic drag is a 4th-power exponential: it costs 16X the gas to go 2X the speed if this is the dominant loss factor. A nose-cone would be a good thing.*


I could put my ice-box in it super-insulated to R40. A standard ice-chest is insulated to an R6. The "New technology insulation 1-week" ice boxes are also insulated to an R6 but feature vastly improved marketing terminology.
If you:
1. Put the ice up on a very smooth stand/shelf/table, just out of the water (A grate or a texture will force the ice to melt)
2. Place the drain so that about an inch of melt-water remains in the box (there is still a thermal sink available in the melt water)
3. Put about 8" of insulation under and on the sides of the box (the top is not so critical in this case)
4. Keep the space from the food to the lid filled with an insulation (loose plastic shopping bags)
then the ice will last a week. Block ice is best. Cube ice will act differently than it does in a standard picnic/camping ice chest: it will solidify into a mass. Put meat directly on the ice. The top of the box is closer to the ambient/room temperature. It is assumed the box opens from the top. A further refinement is to put the picnic ice-chest with its shelf and drain line into a taller, lidded box made of foam-board. Put meats and dairy in the picnic cooler. Put perishable vegetables around or on top of the cooler. The thermal leakage from the R6 cooler to the interstitial space surrounding it within the R40 enclosure will keep these cool.

As someone not based in the US this all seems horribly self-indulgent. I realise most writers and bloggers on TOD are US-based but to those of us living in the ROTW it's hard to care about such a self-interested perspective from a population that would no doubt consider oil usage and prices in many parts of the World to already be at post-apocalyptic levels. And one that consumes so far out of proportion with its size.

Seriously my gut reaction is 'who cares, grow up and deal'. Sorry if that seems unkind but maybe if there was a bit more coverage of other 150 million (2% of the population by the way) lots of civilisation there would be more empathy available for the US example. As it stands all this whingeing just has me reaching for a paper bag.


Just now reading "The World Without Us" by Alan Weisman (2007). A lot of suburbia was built with cheap energy, and it will become harder over time on the Peak Oil downslope to even maintain what was built, let alone build any of new stuff. Without maintenance, modern homes will be gone within 100 years in most places (see Weisman's book for the gory details). In Germany, one of the oldest surviving wooden structures is a church about 1000 years old. The ultimate fate of most wooden structures is loss in fires (ask an insurance person, they always want to know how close the nearest fire hydrant is located).

It makes sense to me at least if carpooling and such is necessary to save fuel on the downslope, then materials and energy to maintain houses and other infrastructure (traffic light signals, bridges, etc.) will also have to be pooled, and that means cannibalizing (oops, there's that cannibal word again) existing structures and recycling, perhaps an early start on Paul Thompson's age of scavenging.

Nothing is 100% but modern housing isn't going to make it 100 yrs without some serious maintenance I see it everyday at work. I've got a house built in 1927 that doesn't have the problems of most homes I see built in 1997.I have meet many a senior that has said cost of ownership is becoming a problem and several of my wifes co-workers have stated they moved to a newer house every 6-8 yr time frame but now are trapped and are doing maintenance they had left behind before and are amazed at the cost.In 1976 I spoke with a gentleman at a lunch counter that had foreman on his shirt and I ask him what he was building his reply "our future".My next question was what did he mean by that and his reply "the materials we're using won't last 50 yrs" he was about my age now 60.The burbs will die a long drawn out death as road maintenance will become a ever increasing factor slowing commute times.I think the burbs might continue and relocate next to major highways or secondary roads not varying far from maintained roads.I think Walmart is preping as new smaller stores in older areas of cities which the big stores will become the warehouse for the smaller stores.Tear downs won't be replaced with McMansions but homes with a more conservate use as a nice place to live and in some cases work.

I was told by a professor of architecture post-K that house designs were 1) built to code and 2) used to be built to last 30 years before major repairs when code did not specify.

About a dozen years ago there was a shift to 20 years before major repairs would be required.

Of course, in practice 20 years may be 27 years, designs are not so precise in life expectancy. None the less, repairs of oversized, energy inefficient, poorly built, poorly located houses will be a major burden, one that can lead to abandonment.

Look at the typical McMansion. Consider reroofing it. Each plane on a roof adds cost. Scaffolding for that foot wide strip over the cathedral ceiling window. That complex join between the central grand entrance and the two wings. That gabled dormer window. Cheap galvanized flashing that needs to be replaced. Edge of OSB board that became exposed to the weather and needs to be replaced, etc.

Compare to a two or four plane simple roof that was common till 1950 or so.

And that is just reroofing.


I'm a big fan of housing stock built before WWII. Real oven fired brick, dimensionally true lumber, plaster walls. Cross ventilation in the layout, doors with transoms. I've seen a lot of crappy modern construction, both in the city and the suburbs.

Nothing is 100% but modern housing isn't going to make it 100 yrs without some serious maintenance I see it everyday at work. I've got a house built in 1927 that doesn't have the problems of most homes I see built in 1997.

My sister lives in a 200 year old house in a little village in Germany the oldest and still occupied house in that village was built in 146O, it currently has doubled paned windows and solar panels on the roof... Modern construction used in most houses in the suburbs of the US today wouldn't pass code in Germany. Most of the post 60's US houses are literally a house of cards ready to come tumbling down.

My wife and I got exactly the house we wanted - it was a bargain because it was old (1953) and so not sought after in the area like the more modern stock-brick homes. The place is in great shape. Simple and solid as a rock. No maintenance done to date, and none planned. We had strong storms here a couple of years back - 150km/h winds - many homes damaged. I was sure something would have to give... nothing did. More than one person has commented that it will still be here in another 50 years.

Along that theme, they did a piece on Thatched Roofs on 'Living on Earth' last week, and how they can have a lifespan of 50 years and an R-value of 80 or more. Just from straw/reeds(?).. They follow an English Thatcher working in the US. (In New England, of course!)

Self-indulgent? Paper bag? Bit harsh maybe, but the US does currently seem to be an energy junkie, its addiction fuelled by increasing debt that it has no capability to pay back. The political system is dysfunctional, and we have the ludicrous situation where its potential for economic collapse cant make the news but a wired ink toner is headlines.

I thought Vail's presentation to be well thought out assuming a benign slowdown of economic activity. But such a slowdown seems to be at odds with the world view of the politicians, the media and the electorate, who dont seem to realise they have already lost the economic war with China. Cold turkey anyone?

In these types of posts, all of the models discussed, and extrapolations from them, come under one heading: COPE / COPING.

How will civilization cope is the subject matter. Will we cope in suburbs, cities, or rural settings is the question.

I find it astounding that we think human coping will improve as conditions deteriorate, because that is quite uncommon, quite rare.

Where will the coping mechanism come from?

Nothing in our society has provided psychological manifestations for us to cope even in good times (ask the cops & firemen - people rattle easily and go to pieces).

To cope with peak oil for example, governments would have foreseen consequences when Hubbert did.

Instead they increased dangerous reliance on oil, which shows the absence of the ability to cope with a clearly changing reality.

Coping is a mental, emotional function the degree of which must increase to meet increasing problems.

Even in the best of times coping is becoming more and more rare:

OUR government is ignoring what is likely to become the single greatest threat to the health of Americans: Alzheimer’s disease, an illness that is 100 percent incurable and 100 percent fatal. It attacks rich and poor, white-collar and blue, and women and men, without regard to party. A degenerative disease, it steadily robs its victims of memory, judgment and dignity, leaves them unable to care for themselves and destroys their brain and their identity — often depleting their caregivers and families both emotionally and financially.

(Etiology of Social Dementia - 2). Death from dementia is the final episode, and it has been in the top ten causes of death in the USA for some time.

Dementia is competing strongly, even as we speak, to become number 4, but will not stop there.

"Cope", "deal with it", "endure", "stay strong", "don't worry be happy"?

Tell that to the kids, demented, aged, and everyone else as we take on water (your popularity will change but not much more will change toward the coping direction).

Billions of people live in sustainable villages and they are likely to have more stable circumstances than suburbanites in the US. Although we`d like to classify the villagers as "poverty-stricken" or "disadvantaged" the truth is their future looks more stable.

I grew up in a US suburb of NYC and although I did not really like suburban living and I left the US for a place where I would not need a car and could bike anywhere (or take buses, trains, etc) I have to say that the suburban dream of all to live like landed and titled gentry injects a bit of pathos into the whole situation. "We wanted to live like kings!" everyone parents, too, immigrants to the US from working-class backgrounds in Europe. Not feel sorry for US suburbanites? Who merits sympathy if not them?? They didn`t think it all through, they did fool themselves and the (shared)delusions were truly beyond the dimensions of just one human mind....but isn`t that reason to pity them all the more?

Partly therefore the necessary changes are primarily psychological. I am not a king, I am a peasant, etc.....Once the thinking changes, the paradigm, the landscape, everything changes, maybe pretty quickly.

Yes I agree very much with your last statement.

I've always considered myself to be middle class, and grew up in such a background. Since 2008 and after doing alot of reading, I now understand that I'm a disposable peasant.

Such a change can be scary but also liberating. I look around at all the corporate strivers now, and I laugh.

They are nobodies pretending they are somebody.

I think it's also been good for me because I'm no longer intimidated by anyone. I know that 99.9% of the people I meet are also peasants.

We may be disposable peasants. But we are not pawns.

A series of posts.

First a sustainable model of Suburbia

Commuter rail lines connect villages and small towns with a "big city". Support workers stay in their suburb (school teachers, police/fire/EMS, grocers, one dentist & staff, a couple of GP MDs, priest/pastors) while others commute daily and bring back money and major shopping items. High level medical care in the city (cancer, heart operations, etc).

Each town is say, 2,500 to 10,000 and small enough, and dense enough, for most to walk to the city center/rail station. For others there are bicycles, segways & NEVs.

The larger towns would have some local specialized manufacturing that sells regionally, such as fabricating metal racks, eyeglass frames and furniture. A freight train comes by twice each week day (outside rush hours) to deliver raw materials and semi-finished goods (out bound) and pick up production (in bound).

In regions with more fertility than Massachusetts, local farmers have a market in both the small towns and big city and a store in the small town to buy farm supplies. Farm equipment is sold in the big city.

Suburban housing more than, say 1.25 to 1.5 miles (perhaps 2 miles) from a rail station is eventually abandoned (expensive repairs go undone because of the low value of the property and low income of the owner) while the housing within a half mile is densified. A couple of 3 and 4 story condos/apartments (with ground floor retail) may go up around Main Street, the rail station and close to the factory.

One could imagine a streetcar line from a rail station and going up, say, a valley and supporting extended Suburbia and small retail along the line (Peabody to Salem in Boston area for example)

Best Hopes for Choices,


PS: The map is of the MBTA's commuter rail lines. The newest line, Greenbush, is not on the map. That line follows the coast to the southeast of Boston for about 15 miles, around the "hump".

A more detailed map, which shows over 100 stops outside Boston. Purple is commuter, other colors are subways & streetcars except silver (bus rapid transit).

What these maps don't show is that the economic heartland of the Boston metro area is really the Route 128 corridor (now mostly marked I-95), and many of the most important businesses are between Route 128 and the more distant I-495 ring. Google map satellite view will show this well.

To a certain extent, many important business have always been in the suburbs. GE aircraft engines was in Lynn (now moved mostly to Evendale, OH, a suburb of Cinncinati), and Western Electric was in North Andover (now closed).

Boston may need another "big dig" to connect North Station to South Station. Downtown Boston, much of it based on filled marshes and cut by the river Charles and others, is a poor place to make a transportation hub. Which is partly why it became a linear city along Route 128, although the rail and T maps don't reflect that.

While the Boston area is a rare model of transit-oriented development, the inner suburbs where I live are also McMansion central, with attitudes to match. That's why the Transition movement has skipped this area and is taking root more in Western, MA.

When I spoke to the lady who runs the Global Warming Action Committee in Lexington after Bill McKibben gave his talk she said Transition simply would not work in an affluent town like Lexington. This sense of defeatism with the few red-pillers in the area is pervasive.

The people here live high-income high-burnrate high-debt lifestyles. When the economy tanks to the point where these doctor/lawyer households are impacted, these McMansions will go into foreclosure.

What happens after that, I don't know, since geography favors this area. The houses may keep changing hands as the white-collar class continues to implode so that it always represents the last bastion of BAU.

As a general rule, since the economy is the 1st casualty of peak oil, areas with high cost of living (house prices and property taxes) will drive people away before they even think about carpooling or victory gardens.

The carpooling and victory gardens thing is a meme that relies mostly on the shaky theory that people's income will remain the same and we'll only suffer food and fuel inflation.

I'm in an unusual situation since it's my parents' house and it's paid off, but most people in my spot have already sold out to the yuppies. Few would consider hunkering down for the duration if they could get out with a half a million or more.

As a general rule, since the economy is the 1st casualty of peak oil, areas with high cost of living (house prices and property taxes) will drive people away before they even think about carpooling or victory gardens.

The carpooling and victory gardens thing is a meme that relies mostly on the shaky theory that people's income will remain the same and we'll only suffer food and fuel inflation.

Another spot-on comment.

There are several commenters on here who don't adequately factor the economy into their thinking so they say things like carpooling will enable us to keep this economy going or that electric car sales will ramp up at fantastic rates as ICE car sales plummet, making the switch off of liquid fuel "difficult but manageable."

Instead, I see the current vehicle fleet shrinking as it rusts away (that has already begun) and most suburbs requiring far too much money and energy to maintain. They will be stripped of what is valuable and we will return to "rural" and "city" life (more like slums, though), as someone else noted here.

It's not always possible to simply run the clock into reverse to see what the future will be like but when assessing this area I think it's valid. When energy (and thus transportation) is cheap, it's easy to spread a settlement out. When energy is expensive, concentration occurs simply due to the laws of physics.

Bee Hive


Any Colony

Giant any colony (see incredible video here).

Medieval village

Medieval city in France.

The economy, climate change and energy descent all have to be factored in and then the additional changes brought about by human reaction to them. I believe that the impact of these factors will effectively remove choice and set us on an almost predetermine path. Population growth combined with resource depletion creates less per capita on average and in the case of energy directly reduces economic activity. Something which will pull the bulk of the population kicking and screaming towards the poverty end of the scale.

As you indicate, those relying on the money economy (the current economic paradigm) are most at risk as they rely 100% on the value of money for everything. In a worst case scenario the value of money can fall to zero almost overnight. So as you indicate, carpooling isn't much use if you've no job to go to or near worthless money can't buy anything.

Better to think along the lines of what we will end up with. As you indicate, concentration will be a natural reaction and in cities these will become ghettoes (defined by economic abilities rather than ethnic grouping) and villages/small towns in the countryside. A natural or hybrid economy will develop to enable trade between areas for goods and services. So transport requirements will become centred more around moving goods around rather than people or a hybrid of both. For example, I went to Paris last weekend to see family, but I went with a trailer full of firewood which I sold there, which paid for the trip. So there we have a trading link between rural Bourgogne and the densely packed city of Paris, defined by a family link. Now, if I could bring something back from Paris on the return trip a private trading link will have been set up between the two areas and trust maintained by family loyalties rather than contract. It's easy to see how a hybrid economy could develop very quickly around this trading link, with basic resources (food, wood, wine, etc.) going to the city and value added goods (building materials, fabricated goods, clothing, etc.) returning to the rural area.

Bartering and trading is mostly a lost art in the develped world, though it has always been an important part of the economy here in Western North Carolina. For so long, cash was in short supply in these mountains, and folks (mainly oldtimers) often prefer to deal in tangible goods and labor. I have grown to prefer this arangement myself. This summer we had a successful garden and swapped many vegetables for things we didn't grow this year.

This fall I traded a dozen jars of my pickles for ~25 kilos of nice red potatoes, grown "organically" though the old woman that grew them doesn't know what organic means. She's just been rotating crops and turning the livestock in for 60+ years.

I recently repaired some gates for an old guy in exchange for a nice ric of firewood. I would have done it for free, but for him it was a matter of honor (though I made sure that he had plenty of wood left to heat his home this winter).

My Daughter is expecting her second child and needed a 4 door car. Her husband traded 2 pounds+ (about a kilo) of gensing for (OMG!) a very clean Lincoln Towncar, a land yacht perfect for my Daughter since she only drives a few miles a week.

If (when) many folks find that cash is in short supply or worthless, I foresee that there will be confusion when they discover that the art of trading/bartering is a bit more complex than simple cash transactions. Those who may have travelled to parts of the world where bartering is the norm may do better.

People love the city, then they start having children. As a house painter, I've seen this countless times before. Around 2008 my customers with soon-to-be school aged children started having trouble selling their condos. The building boom and real estate bubble has trapped many young families where I live. They are worried, because the public school system in Chicago is a mess. Many of the suburbs of Chicago have relatively decent public school systems, particularly the North and North-western suburbs.

That can change and is changing in New Orleans.

I am two blocks from a public school with French (or Spanish) immersion, K-8. The Republic of France is setting up an ecole for grades 9-12 (French only). Graduates can apply to either French or American universities.

There is universal agreement that public schools, many of then charter, some magnet, have improved substantially since Katrina. More needs to be done, but the civic involvement is there.

Meanwhile suburban schools can be expected to deteriorate as their economic underpinnings decline and demographics shift.


Suburban schools decline? It's pretty difficult for New Orleans public schools to decline any further than they already have. New Orleans doesn't even really have traditional public schools at this point, it's mostly charter based. Education is really independent of the funding at the high school level, it is more dependent on who the student is.

Charter Schools are public schools. And those run by non-profits appear to be a success (some of the for profits will likely close).

About 70% of public school students in New Orleans are attending charter schools and the public (parents) are beginning to give them reputations (see for profit charter schools). The remaining non-charter schools are improving as well, but at a slightly slower pace.

Meanwhile the suburban schools decline, slowly at first.

Best Hopes for Public Education in Cities,


Exactly. When enough of them are "stuck" there, they will start insisting on better education, and they will often get it.

What rational human being would chose burnt orange shag carpeting with avocado colored appliances ?

Yet that was what most homes installed for a several years in the 1970s.

Harvest gold appliances and turquoise, lime green or dirty pink carpeting were acceptable alternatives.

Why ?

Because Americans chose housing by fads. Often illogical, irrational fads. Realtors always (at least till 2008) talked about the "hot subdivision" and "what the market wants" (granite countertops, NOT energy efficiency, complex shapes and sq ft were luxury, not quality construction).

American Suburbia is the biggest, and worst, fad of all.

Ending this fad, and creating a new fad focused on sustainability, community and quality is where are efforts should be focused. Not on saving the failed.

Trees will continue to grow post-Peak Oil. Construction labor is available. Quality construction with far less sq ft and common walls uses *FAR* less materials than 2 million McMansions/year did.

We can afford to rehouse the bulk of Suburbia in two decades or so. Some will remain, so not all 150 million have to move.

Best Hopes for The End/Shrinking of Suburbia with a Better Quality of Life,


So not all, but most of the 150 million will be relocating. How many will be resettling the rural landscape and the small towns, as jewishfarmer suggests? Most of the earlier rural homes have been torn down to make way for mega farms.

Will they have to go back to sod houses?--oops, the sod used to make those is gone, too.

How many of the materials used in McMansions be re-purposed for the construction of super-insulated rural homes for what may need to be a new wave of farmers?

If I could I'd buy land and make all the houses that were put up/in on it earth shelter passive solar with green roofs and/or water catchment roofing systems.

As to building in other countries there are a lot of good small scale nice building designs out there, many more than I could list here. Each area of the world has building designs that work for them better than what you see in the US as far as McMansions go.

I live in an older home, one that will reach 60 year old in a few years. We have the tools and most of the know how to fix anything but major things in the house. But then again we did once rebuild our bathroom from the dirt under the house up, replacing a floor joist and jacking up the floor sills. So skill is there to do most things.

The problem is that most things won't stay the same over time.

I live in the foot hills of the Arkansas river valley, when these houses are gone, it'll go back to forest and creeks, it never was good for farming, too hilly, and rocky.

BioWebScape Designs for a better fed and housed world.

Something I wrote about urbanisation earlier:

My own thoughts are along the lines of populations being concentrated into dense and easily controlled zones. As we're talking of millions of people these areas will naturally be formed in existing urban conurbations. There will be no razor wire or guards as people will be immobilised via energy and economic restrictions. Travel will naturally become restricted in the name of efficiency, conservation and cost cutting, people will simply have no incentive or wish to travel. Effective techniques can then come into play for feeding, providing necessary utilities and accommodating them to their de-facto incarceration via technology and illusion. These ghetto states will probably interact with the outside world through corporations that will be mandated to supply necessary resources and supplies.

and this:

The trends for this slightly dystopian future are already in place and increasingly being accepted. Transition movement, urban agriculture, walkable neighbourhoods, the maker movement, etc. encouraging in-place solutions, centralising and increased urban density to aid service delivery. People are being systemically guided to a promised future where survival is possible, but only if certain limitations are accepted. Meanwhile the other half of the new paradigm, the corporations, are being also guided into their new roles buying up farmland and other resources to feed, in every sense the ghettoes.

Suburbia isn't going to be abandoned any time soon, people will infact be trapped in them. I think that Jeff's view of suburbia is the sugar coated version, but the rality will be more ghetto than ecotopia.

Only for one or two generations though. People have always loved to travel, or else we would all still be living in one part of the world. You will get young kids looking over the next hill rise and looking for where the birds go to winter over and how the old books( if any survive) or stories of times when you traveled places, getting the wanderlust going and you will have people moving away.

Just wait till the local kids club to get in, makes the new or younger kid travel miles from home, then you get a breed of people that want to travel.

Sooner or later you will have people moving about again and finding places where the houses have all turned to ruin and the forest and grasslands have taken over and bang, a new city crops up on the waste land of the last one.

While in one way our live seems static, it is not, we change more than we know it or can see it. So just because we feel like we are stuck in a prison now, we will be able to get out later as long as we don't let people chain our ideas down.

BioWebScape Designs for a better fed and housed world, wanderlust is in my blood, and in my stories of the world out there.

I don't know Charles, I think travelling will become too expensive and too dangerous for most people. Of course there will always be people travelling, even in Medieval Europe people travelled, but they were a tiny percentage of the population. I believe most people won't have anywhere to travel to or be restricted by circumstances.

Say for example Jeff's correct and people grow their own food, recycle resources and create industrious community businesses in the suburbs. These people aren't going to leave their hard earned gains unattended to go somewhere else, even for short periods. There's simply too much to lose by leaving one's possessions unattended and untended, even if people are looking after them.

If people do travel it will probably because they've been dislocated for some reason. I think people are deluding themselves about their future, they currently have the choice of which type of poverty they want to live (city ghetto or rural peasantry). They should really be making up their minds and choosing now, before their choices are made for them.

Having grown up, actually, living the life style most of you talk about. Have a good time! Basically your assumptions are based on having a supply of energy appropriate for your assumptions and, of course, adequate income to purchase the appropriate supply. In fact, you're entire projection is based on the availability of lots of resources, which while less than you're consuming now but in a world of steadily dwindling supplies will not be available as time goes on. Do you know how to do car repairs? Ever fixed fuel injectors, tore an engine apart, installed a set of brakes, changed your own oil, done electrical wiring, tore a furnace apart? Believe me, the list is a long one. I know, I do it.

I grew up in a small house, no electricity, heating with wood, large garden and very, very broke. Sorry but you will not support a family on 1/4 acre. After a few short yrs, your soil will not grow much without a source of fertilizer applied annually. In our case, it was cow manure. And you're assuming availability of canning supplies. And you're assuming the garden does well each year. What about availability of seeds? Ever get your own? If you live in the country, how long do you think the local supply of wild game will last?

Regards to wood, if you want to sustain your "forest", you can only cut about 1/2 cord per yr per acre. I heat with wood at the present time. 1600 square feet of very well insulated house (northern Minnesota) is taking 4-5 cord a yr. Since I live on 3.5 acres, I purchase the wood, hauled here by truck, blocked up with a chain saw and split with a gas powered wood splitter. Then it needs to be ricked so it will dry. Don't dry it, add another cord. Then carried in the house. Then ashes from 4-5 cord to be disposed of. I can tell you, from long ago experience, doing the same by hand is not a welcome chore.

I live about 8 miles outside a town of 10,000. As I look around, see the numbers of people living here, do some calculations in my head and the answer is: We don't stand a prayer. And I haven't even mentioned the guy down the street that when he has no food, no money and has a hungry family will be at large with a weapon in his hand. Like you, I love to settle complex problems from the comfort of a warm house, food in the pantry, gas in the car and money in the bank. But when it hits the fan and I'm cold, hungry, desperate, it's a whole different world.


What all this money and energy allows is "living" in high population densities.

If you want to see a poignant example of low-density living versus high, pay the ten bucks to watch "Radio Bikini" online:
Near the beginning, we see the Bikini islanders happy and healthy, loving and cooperating. They live set far apart in lush greenery.
They are removed to double-row two-story barracks housing along a dusty road on a desert island. They develop all the urban problems.

Hopefully, if there is no economic energy source transition, the decline would be step-wise, not catastrophic, and over hundreds of years.
But, the scale of the problem and lack of a "basement" of distributed agriculture may depress the lower bound to any fall:
The Chinese empires represent rises to glories until each source of wealth ran out and each empire fell to a common baseline: the Chinese agricultural limit of sustainability.



An apartment building on 2.5 Acres may house 188 families.




I think these numbers are just for crops. Harvesting wood... add another 10 acres? Hunting? Raising/grazing for food/hauling?


Forty Acres and a Mule

Consider the very near future of high-MPG cars coming to market. Example: the Audi A1 hybrid. Looking at the MPG of this concept car if 2 people commute using this, it might be more fuel efficient than riding on a fully-loaded bus. You should read the original article for an explanation why this works so much better than other similar hybrids.

From the Audi website:
"...The first defining impression that the driver of the Audi A1 e-tron gets is that of nearly total silence. Even the Wankel engine in the back can barely be heard when it is running. The second characteristic perception is the power of the electric motor, nearly all of which is available instantly and thrusts the Audi A1 e-tron forward with authority. The innovative Mega City Vehicle, which despite its complex drive technology weighs only 1,190 kilograms (2,623.50 lb) delivers zero-emission driving fun in a modern and sophisticated manner. The vehicle accelerates from 0 to 100 km/h (62.14 mph) in 10.2 seconds and has a top speed of more than 130 km/h (80.78 mph).

The Audi A1 e-tron can also cover longer distances if the range extender charges the battery. The extra range, which is intended primarily for interurban driving, is 200 kilometers (124.27 miles).
According to the draft standard, the two different operating modes yield a fuel consumption of only 1.9 l/100 km (123.80 US mpg), which corresponds to CO2 emissions of 45 g/km (72.42 g/mile)..."

Looking at the MPG of this concept car if 2 people commute using this, it might be more fuel efficient than riding on a fully-loaded bus.

But of course this car will not be more fuel efficient than a "fully-loaded bus" using the same hybrid technology. Whatever efficiency technologies that are adopted for cars will also be available for transit vehicles, maintaining the efficiency advantage for transit, since the payload to vehicle weight ratio will always be better for transit vehicles than for personal cars.


There are fundamental forces at work that make centralization (cities) and public services like transit always more affordable on average than giving everyone their own home (suburbia) vs. giving them a big room in a big building (apartment) or everyone having a car vs. pooling resources to create a public transit system.

The fundamental inefficiency of the suburbs will become very clear soon to just about everyone.

For instance, I spent a few hours analyzing the age of the water pipe segments in my old county (Marin) and the two sets of pipes are coming ready to be replaced this decade. The first set was laid at the beginning of the last century and has a 100 year lifespan. The second set was laid after WWII and has a lifespan of 50 to 60 years.

How quickly is the county replacing the pipes? 1% per year, that's all they have budgeted. They aren't anywhere near the necessary replacement rate and the American Society of Civil Engineers seems to be saying that that is the case all across the U.S. and it's likely the same in many other countries.

We went on a building binge blindly assuming we would have money and energy to replace aging infrastructure as needed: highways, sewers, water pipes, electrical transformers, etc.

The reality is that we will be performing a very large triage operation. The cities will get the money and attention and most of the suburbs will be left to rot away.

P.S. If people don't believe me, I suggest doing exactly what I did: get a spreadsheet of the local infrastructure from the relevant agencies, whether it's water pipe segments, bridges or whatever. Tell the people in the county office that you want to push for more money to keep those elements in repair (which is what I said and was true) and they will be more than happy to give you the data you need to help push the case. My water district contact loved that I wanted to help him.

It is the very nature of the auto centric infrastructure that makes other ways of getting around unappealing and unsucessful. Of course, if you design the city or the town to become completely dependent upon the auto, then, of course, the auto becomes the first choice for the vast majority of people. Walk around any typical U.S. town, city, or suburb and notice how far everything is apart. So, the places where we live, shop, and work are set up to require the auto and then those who want alternatives are criticized because they do not want to do what the market demands. The structure determines the nature of the market. Change the structure and the results of the market will change. Just waiting for the market to take over will just result in an area still geared towards the auto but incapable of forwarding just about the only viable way of getting around.

In certain cities , there are wide swaths of the city where the auto is rarely found. It is not necessarily prohibited per se but most people in their right minds choose other alternatives like walking, subways, or street cars. Instead of making it difficult to walk, bicycle or take transit, they make it difficult and inefficient to use the auto. The results of the market, therefore, change, based on the essential structure of the area.

I grew up in a suburb without sidewalks. Surprise, surprise. Everyone drove and nobody walked. Only the poor took what little public transit was available. And I am old enough to see how the patterns of the city changed based on the changed nature of the infrastructure.

Lanes have to be removed one by one. Remaining lanes need to be dedicated to transit, bus or otherwise. Turn other lands into bicycle paths, pedestrian paths, and even additional space for residential and commercial activities. Leave as little as possible for the autos until the only people driving are pretty much the masochists.

Efficiency arguments are almost always focused on the auto vs transit without considering that the very nature of the town, city, or suburb is set up for inefficiency. The goal shouldn't be so much more efficient mobility, but less need for mobility in the first place.

In certain cities, there are wide swaths of the city where the auto is rarely found.

Other than in overspecialized tourist towns like Zermatt, where? Tokyo, London, Paris, Rome, New York (Manhattan), Beijing, Jakarta, Shanghai, Bangkok, Cairo, even Nairobi, all the well-known ones have flat-out insane auto traffic, except in isolated areas on special occasions (like the summertime Paris-Plage along the Seine.) It seems that as soon as people can gain access to more than just the narrow, parochial confines of overcrowded precincts accessible by mass transportation, they will do so, irrespective of what part of the world they live in, and with little regard for self-righteously nagging nannies who would instruct them otherwise...


Venice,Dubrovnik,Fes el Bali, Morocco,Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, Jerusalem(Old City),Malaga,Seville,Bilbao,Bruges,Copenhagen,Paris,Lyon,Frieburg etc., all have large carfree zones (including the whole city in some cases).

The reason that cities have car-free zones is that one person in a 2 ton car can displace and intimidate hundreds of pedestrians, so most European cities have at least a small region with laws and/or gates to reclaim at least some streets for the use of the vast majority of people who are not driving at any particular moment. Just because space inefficient cars clog old narrow streets does not mean that drivers are a majority, but just a high impact minority who consume a scarce public resource (urban space) because they are allowed to do so.

PaulS, as usual, can be depended on to defend the private automobile with italics as a primary weapon, from all the slings and arrows of outrageous fate that it receives on the Oil Drum, but I think the whole point of this website is that Business As Usual will not continue for those who love Happy Motoring. No matter how many people line up to attack mass transit and defend private cars, the historical blip of car-dependent urban development will be evolving to a future that non of us can predict. What choices people have historically made when oil was practically free will have little relevance when fossil fuel supply and demand cross over, and climate change starts to bite.

Hi Tommyvee, Hybrid diesel-electric buses have been in operation in various cities for years. They have often been only marginally better than the simpler diesel version bus. Only recently, however the muncipality transit unit at Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority (PSTA) reports in April 2010 that "...The agency’s 10 hybrids get an average of 6.4 MPG (US gallons), while the rest of the fleet meets the national average of 4.1 MPG. Most of the hybrids are customized as trolley buses and operate along the Suncoast Beach Trolleysm and Route 35. The slower speeds and frequent stops along those routes are perfect for maximizing fuel gains from hybrid technology. In fact, the hybrids that are exclusive to those routes average an outstanding 6.77 MPG. that they have good results..." So 2 people in a car that gets 124 MPG is roughly equivalent to 39 people in a hybrid bus that gets 6.4 MPG. Note that the hybrid technology used in the concept car will probably not work for the bus.

That's great when you put it up against a mythical 124mpg car, but a star bus getting 6.7 mpg over a fleet average of 4.1 is a 63% improvement.

With 10 people riding that bus you're already getting 67pass.mpg.. sounds like a good start.

Comparing hypothetical private cars to operational hybrid buses, is an apples to oranges comparison, of course.

Real-life Toyota Camry hybrids get 45 mpg, or 225 passenger miles/gallon (fully loaded which almost never happens, just look at any highway with average car occupancy around 1.1).
Meanwhile a real-life 6.77 mpg bus with 50 people gets 338 passenger miles/gallon. I can see full hybrid buses every day on the Skip route in my hometown Boulder, Colorado, and I would have to wait hours to see a single private car at capacity, although single-occupant cars are everywhere.

Since we are talking hypothetical, it's been a long time since I've seen a bus go by with 50 people on it. So I thing numbers are getting twisted all over the place. In my city the average ridership at peak hours may be 30 people per bus, but you may be luck to have 8-10 on off hours.

Hi Decarb,

Consider the very near future of high-MPG cars coming to market

Lets assume all the specs are correct. I have 2 basic questions for relying on this strategy for future personal transportation:

- Do we have all the resources (including monetary) needed to convert a meaningful portion of our global car fleet to this type of vehicle in a time frame that is truly useful?

- Even if such a car could be massively deployed, how likely is it that all the infrastructure to support this transportation paradigm will be feasible in the future (roads, bridges, police, gas stations, parking structures, pollution issues, medical care for accidents/injuries, etc)?

I wonder why so many of us are willing to gamble with the future just to maintain a transportation model that is so flawed? A true "power down" paradigm is possible and might have many benefits beyond PO issues.

The vast majority just want to hop in their car to go from point a to point b. It is assumed that all the infrastructure and the external expenses to do that is just a given and is essentially free. Using the auto needs to become an insufferable experience. Start by making people pay the full cost of all associated infrastructure. Even those on the right will demand that we continue to have socialized transportation through charging all taxpayers to pay for that infrastructure even if they don't drive, or drive way less than most others.

I was just explaining to a neighbor a few days ago that widening our half-width city 'feeder street' and connecting it across an arroyo (which currently creates a dead-end on each side of the wash) will vastly increase traffic. She seemed to have a difficult time understanding this simple fact.

I told her that our street would become a preferred 'shortcut' between several 4-6 lane divided medial major artery streets, and that our sleepy semi-dead end would turn into a residential speedway. I ensured her that widening and improving street connectivity would bring more traffic, not make our sleepy street have half as many cars per unit of asphalt as her simple mind seemed to think because of adding another 22 feet of width.

She drove away in her Expedition befuddled, after she changed the subject and made some comments about how our country will be back on the right path in a week or so (referring to the upcoming elections and the probability that her beloved Republicans would set everything straight).

I voted against about half of the bond measures when I early voted, including the one to 'improve roads'.

Here even through streets are being redone at 20 to 22'. If the speed limit is 25 to 35 mph, better compliance is achieved with a narrow street. A wide street is seen as an invitation to go faster.

In Honolulu, the residents of Manoa Valley "get it" and resist all efforts by the City and County to widen the entry roads from their current 2 lanes (one in, one out). There is plenty of right-of-way on both sides of the main 2-lane entry road, but it is grassed over and used as wide pedestrian and bike paths. Once inside, the many roads in the valley are relatively lightly populated by cars, despite Honolulu having the highest traffic density in the USA, on average.

I'm in accord with most of Jeff's concepts.

There are too many resources sunk into our suburban infrastructure for it all to simply be abandoned. Where would everybody go? How would they get there? By now, many people can't even afford to move, so they'll have to make do where they already are.

Most adaptations will be ad-hoc, like carpooling, jitney buses, bikes, walking, backyard or community farming, local shopping districts and neighborhood policing. Restrictive zoning laws will be ignored or overturned as conditions dictate, and decentralized community centers will evolve. Small-town life will gradually reassert itself.

Sewers, roads, water and energy utilities may be the only instances where there will be any attempt to maintain regional systems. Older communities will probably fare better since they are already integrated with natural resources and are built of higher-quality materials.

Eventually, regional utilities will start to degrade, and traditional technologies and practices will come out of the attic. Outhouses, wells, carrying water home and boiling it before drinking, heating only one room at a time, parasols, summer noontime siestas, bedtime at sundown, candles and lanterns, repairing broken things, making do, getting by, enduring, enjoying the simple things in life. Much of the world still lives this way and has never known anything else.

For Americans, the key to the future is the realization that we have all been very fortunate to have lived in the USA between 1910 and 2010, but the 'unlimited resources' game is ending and cannot be replayed. Hopefully the Chinese, Indians, Brazilians and others will be wise enough to stop trying to follow in our tire tracks, because it looks like a dead-end road.

We've learned many things during our fossil-fueled zenith that are well worth carrying into the future. We can adapt our most useful communications, engineering, medical and agricultural knowledge to a more modest set of expectations and conditions. There's no need to reinvent the entire 19th century.

The danger is that we will continue down the dead-end road and end up reinventing the 9th century instead of the 19th. Only a few of us have changed course so far. How about the rest? What will it take?

An alternative.

Foreclosed homes are repossessed and boarded up and the unemployed forced out. Some leave to squat in homes without utilities (until the police crack down), some live out of their cars (again till over night parking is prohibited) and others buy a tent (good till the police crack down on tent cities).

Compassion fatigue sets in for the rest of society. Somehow the new homeless will merge with the old homeless in the public mind, they all smell the same. Public attitudes influence limited government funding.

Average life expectancy of the homeless is 5 years I am told. So in a half dozen or so years, problem "solved". 50 million suicides and premature deaths is not out of the question (I pray that I am mistaken !). -50 million will help clear out Suburbia.

See the post-Soviet Union if you say that it cannot happen.


PS: Until they found a roof recently, I let two people living out of their cars shower and wash clothes at my place. I am selective in who I let in. One was a barber who could not stand all day anymore and ran into other problems. He does a good job for me.

Not sure how I would react to a Rush/Glenn Beck/Palin supporter that opposed supporting welfare queens "back in the good old days".

I have also helped over a dozen people apply/appeal for food stamps. Over half of first time applications are rejected in my experience, and many have no idea how to appeal. The bureaucracy frightens them.

When I was helping the Homeless on a daily basis, there were the hardened ones and then there were the new ones. People losing jobs and then losing the houses and having to live out of cars, or getting some money to shack up with other people in hotels of last resort. Those are the cheap hotels on the fringes of town that rent out weekly to folks that pay in piles of change or sometimes by doing odd jobs around the place, or even living 4 or more to a room. There was a big crack down in Little Rock over the past few years to elimenate these places that rented rooms out for more than a week at a time. The Powers the Be found that having homeless people bad for something or other.

An atcive effort was made to get them out of downtown Little Rock, no one wanted to have them depress property values, for all the new condos in the area.

What surprised me is that the area was not awash in them more than it was, most found ways to get into other cities that had better homeless care taking venues.

As Unemployment gets worse and people really start to lose their homes because they can't pay the rent or the mortgage, we will see more and more multifamily living, and more houses going toward dusty ghost towns. People who can move will and cities will ahve more and more problems making ends meet tax wise.

I know over a half dozen people who are living so close to the edge of income, that one bad month and they can't pay all the bills, some already do without a roof over their heads every night.

Then again I know a few guys that live in camps out on the edges of town and only come into the city for the free food at the soup kitchens. Where they live I don't ask, even if they would tell me.

As time goes by and QE2 fails, and more people fall off the rolls of the unemployed and into the forgotten by gov't, you'll see a movement of making some houses squatter homes in some areas, if it has not already happened in some cities.

BioWebScape Designs for a better fed and housed world.

One thing that dowsn't appear to have been discussed, is why suburbs came into being in the first place! On an earlier drumbeat story there was a throwaway line about suburbs being a hangover from the cold war, when it was planned to disperse the population to maximize the survival rates after any nuclear strike.

Creating a "love affair" with cars (removal of tramways helped) and suburban living has proven very successful. Now the reverse needs to be implamented.

The reason that suburbs came into being is that towns adjacent to a city were able to resist being incorporated into the city. Prior to WW II, cities were generally successful in taking over adjacent municipalities, while after WW II, they were not.

So, for example, Minneapolis and Saint Paul were able to grow to their current boundaries from the nuclei of Saint Anthony Falls and Pigs Eye. But they are now ringed by suburbs that would resist strenuously the idea of incorporation.

Part of this was due to "white flight" from the cities. However, the percentage of the population on farms and in small rural towns also fell rapidly while the suburbs were forming. Many suburban residents moved directly from farm or town to suburb without ever living in a city.

While this was happening, much of the manufacturing and other businesses moved out of the cities, either to the suburbs, or to small cities. For example, the Chicgo stockyards closed and meatpacking moved closer to the feedlots.

Merril - Just a bit of trivia: Annexation is alive a well in Texas. In theory one day Dallas and Houston (over 200 miles apart) could share a common boundary. There is no restriction to annexation crossing county lines. Or leapfrogging over other incorporated areas. The last big victem was Kingwood, a very high end suburb about 35 mils north of Houston. Top notch schools and police/fire protection. Not so much now in the minds of some. But no question about a huge boost in revenue for Houston. FYI: Texas may not have a state income tax but we do have huge property taxes that are also used to fund public schools. And the property values taxed in Kingwood are truly huge.

Rockman - Interesting. It looks like The Woodlands is going to be successful in paying them off instead of being annexed.

To make the City of Houston agree to release the Woodlands from its ETJ, the city and the development entered into a regional agreement by which The Woodlands put 16 million dollars[15] into a fund the city of Houston can use for general improvements. In return, Houston will release the development from its ETJ allowing The Woodlands to incorporate through an election in 2014 and create a city government.[16],_Texas

Merril - Interesting indeed. Some of the biggest corporate PTB are involved in the Woodlands trade. Poor little Kingwood didn't have the corpoarte power structure beind it...just some ticked of home owners. FYI: the Woodlands began with the help of a Fed loan to develop low rent housing. George Mitchell (Mitchell Oil), the Father of the Woodlands, finally built some apartments after fighting a Fed lawsuit for decades. The Woodlands: low income housing brought to you by the Fed gov't = one of the biggest jokes in local lore. Lots of rumors about various local politicians whose public careers now lay "with the fishes" when they chose to go after the Woodlands. Wonder how much of this 'compromise' is a survival tactic by Houston politicians.

Following is the number of single family new home sales by year since 1990 in thousands:

534	1990
509	1991
610	1992
666	1993
670	1994
667	1995
757	1996
804	1997
886	1998
880	1999
877	2000
908	2001
973	2002
1,086	2003
1,203	2004
1,283	2005
1,051	2006
776	2007
485	2008
375	2009
These years total 16 million units. Prior to 1990, most years averaged 600 to 700 thousand.

Many of the 16 million since 1990 are not new builds far out of the city. There is a lot of infill being built in close-in suburbs. So there are probably no more than 10 million units that are in really bad transportation locations, far from jobs and other resources.

Many of the 40 million homes cited in the original post are located in mature suburbs with employment, retail, services, etc. Here the main problem is not so much that housing and employment aren't balanced, but that people commute long distances because the transaction costs of moving keep them from finding a house nearer where they work.

Part of the solution should be to find a way to reduce the transaction costs of selling and buying houses. Or conversely, to make renting a much more popular way to live.

Part of the solution should be to find a way to reduce the transaction costs of selling and buying houses

A better solution is to move back into the city, and build urban rail to bring the workers in from all sections.

The isolated office park near a freeway exit model is unlikely to last. Although an office park next to a subway stop will#.

# In my last visit to DC I stayed in a Priceline motel in Silver Springs ($56.69) 5 blocks from the Silver Springs Metro station (about 1/3rd mile outside DC proper). I left the station, did NOT cross a street, but directly entered and walked across the NOAA campus and then up a highway each night.

Next to any Metro station is a viable option for an office building or other large employment center, but those closer in are more desirable and most desirable are those inner stations served by two lines.


I'm not sure that someone who lives in Montgomery County, MD and worked at NSA at Fort Meade or at NIST in Gaithersburg would want to commute via rail through DC. While Silver Springs is indeed a suburb of Washington, Montgomery is a substantial community in its own right with about 3 times the population and a roughly similar population density to the city of New Orleans.

As the table below shows, many of the major suburban counties in the US have population densities that are similar to or even exceed the population densities of many of the cities.

Further, in the east, many of the old uban cores are situated on harbors, often with rivers running through them, for example, Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Baltimore. This makes it extremely expensive to use these old urban cores as the rail hubs. The big dig and the recently canceled "tunnel to Macy's basement" between Secaucus and Manhattan are examples of actual and expected overruns in the several billions.

It would be better to plan on connecting the linear office and business park developments which have more recently come into being farther inland.

Counties            Population     Density
Bergen, NJ             895,250       1,459/km²
Union, NJ              560,541       1,953
Passaic, NJ            489,049       1,019
Middlesex, NJ          750,162         935
Nassau, NY           1,334,544       1,796
Westchester, NY        923,459         824
Orange, CA           3,010,759       1,473
Montgomery, MD         971,600         740
Fairfax, VA          1,037,605         993

New Orleans, LA        336,644         973 
Columbus, OH           754,885       1,373
Houston, TX          2,257,926       1,504
Dallas, TX           1,299,543       1,427
Denver, CO             610,345       1,507
Phoenix, AZ          1,601,587       1,188
Las Vegas, NV          567,641       1,604
Portland, OR           582,130       1,655

New Orleans has swamp (including wild life refuges) and farmland within city limits. Neither requires streetcar service. So the use you are making of the number is inappropriate.

Unfortunately, post -1955 or so sprawl does not support non-auto transportation very well, whatever the density. With some effort, much of it can be adapted.


So the "suburbs bad; cities good" meme is basically nonsense.

The important thing is to look in detail at where the businesses are, because they are hard to move and because that is where the jobs that remain will be. Then move the people closer to where they work, and provide retail and other services in these higher density clusters. Redesign transportation of goods, both between business and to retailers. Lastly, redesign the transportation of people.

Most likely, the least cost solution is to do this in the older suburban ring than to attempt to rejuvenate heavily decayed core cities. You can save the ring of suburbs in Macomb, Oakland, and Wayne counties; you can't save Detroit.

The core cities are no longer centers of production. They are centers of consumption even more so than the suburbs.

They will typically have a cluster of high rise office towers housing government, financial, entertainment and medical institutions surrounded by a belt of decayed housing heavily occupied by people dependent on transfer payments for continued consumption. Most othe businesses have moved their headquarters, adminstrative, and production facilities out of the city.

where the businesses are, because they are hard to move

Simply and completely wrong, with VERY few exceptions (ports, refineries and universities come to mind).

The central cities plus the inner-most ring of suburbs (say built <1955)make a viable unit.


Universities are easy to move if they are mostly liberal arts schools. Ones with lots of medical centers and scientific research labs are more difficult.

Of course other businesses are hard to move too. Coors brewery in Golden, CO would be a job to move into Denver. The Ford plant in Dearborn seems permanent, and the GM Tech Center in Warren would be as hard to move as a university. Government installations like NSA at Fort Mead or NIST in Gaithersburg are not readily moveable. How about the businesses in Research Triangle Park?

In fact, consider the list of suppliers you need for the long range plan you enumerated above. And their supply chains. I don't know where locomotives and rail cars are built, or where cement for concrete sleepers, turbines for hydro, and transformers for electrical transmission and distribution are produced. But it is unlikely that they are produced in core cities.

The two big loco makers, GE - Erie, PA & EMD (former GM) - London, ON. GE makes transformers in Schenectady, NY, others elsewhere.

Rail is milled in Pueblo CO and I think just outside Baltimore (Sparrows Pt). Nucor-Yamato is lookingh for a new site for a new mill.


You are describing the current situation.

You are not looking at how the decline of energy will change this situation between now and 2050.

I'm puzzled by the assertion that suburbs are more costly to maintain. Does anyone have any real numbers to support that?

Urban taxes are much higher than suburban taxes. Why is that?

Tax rates can be higher in cities for the same taxes collected/capita because the property and income /capita is higher in the Suburbs.

Suburbia, quite deliberately, and with gov't subidies, excluded those classes of people that require more social services. As as individuals require more services, they tend to migrate back into the cities.

Gov't subsidized much of the original infrastructure of Suburbia. Federal grants for new sewage treatment plants, new schools (but not to repair old schools) (both programs now ended now ended I believe), new and expanded highways (not ended, see $1.2 billion to add lanes to Huey Long bridge between suburbs) .

The deck has been stacked against US cities since WW II. Less so in Canada, resulting in much healthier cities.

BUT the wheel is turning.

Best Hopes for Healthy, Vibrant Cities,


Tax rates can be higher in cities for the same taxes collected/capita because the property and income /capita is higher in the Suburbs.

Well, I looked at the largest city in the US, and the one with the most transit: New York. It's average household income is $75,809, while the average for the US is $69,193. I'd estimate that local government tax rates are 60% higher in NYC than the average for the US - that would make the total average tax burden about 100% greater.

So, why is the cost of running this archetypal city twice as high as average?

So, why is the cost of running this archetypal city twice as high as average?

That's a fair question, and there are a few reasons, which applies to most ciites.

Firstly, the infrastructure in the City is always much older than in the suburbs, so maintenance is more expensive, as are replacements. To replace water/sewer lines in a suburban street, you can close of the street to traffic with minimal impact. Try doing that on a downtown street - you have to have all sorts of mitigation measures, work in the middle of the night, etc etc , which makes it MUCH more expensive. sometimes,with sewer lines, for example, they have to do epoxy re-lining from inside the pipe, as it is not possible to dig it up - very expensive.
Also, the way stuff was built a century, or even fifty years ago, is not how it is built today, so the City often has inefficient layouts of systems, by history.

Also, the City is used by many who live in the suburbs, all those people driving cars and trucks into the City from the burbs, causing wear and tear, but none of them paying City prop (or other) taxes for their maintenance. Cities have more VMT per road mile than suburbs, because of all those suburban drivers coming in and out. Suburban workers generate garbage while in the City, which the City must pay for, ditto for water, sewer, etc (which are rarely charged at their true volumetric cost)

Same for many other City services, like libraries, subsidised artgalleries, concert venues, sometimes stadiums, city festivals, etc etc. Look at the level of government services the City has to provide that a bedroom community suburb does not.

When suburbs start to become cities in their own right, i.e. they become their own commercial centres, then they inevitably face similar cost and tax increases. By this time, their infrastructure is also aging, and under increased load, etc etc.

So the people of the suburbs, and their municipalities, get a great free ride on the City's back.

maintenance is ...MUCH more expensive.

It sounds like the lower ratio of pipe-feet and road-miles per capita is more than compensated for by a higher cost per unit.

Also, the City is used by many who live in the suburbs, all those people driving cars and trucks into the City from the burbs, causing wear and tear, but none of them paying City prop (or other) taxes for their maintenance.

I think city departments of economic development would find this perspective very, very surprising -they work very hard to attract such visitors. All of those people come into the city to do something: work, shop, etc. Those activities have a multiplier which creates jobs, and each of the many transactions generated by each visitor pays taxes. Those tax revenues replace taxes that would be paid by residents, and improve economies of scale for city businesses, thus reducing average per capita costs.

I'd like to see a quantitative analysis before we conclude that the city is subsidizing visitors.

It sounds like the lower ratio of pipe-feet and road-miles per capita is more than compensated for by a higher cost per unit.

You would think so. But the installation of the suburban pipe was paid for the by property developers, and, mostly, it hasn't had to be replaced yet (50-60 yr life). The suburban governments are not putting enough money into their replacement reserve funds to cover the replacement costs, because they are trying to keep taxes down.
For the cities, they are all well into replacement cycles, so they are having to raise taxes as they are spending now.
Also, for many cities, the different utilities were put underground at different times, so you can have a very complex web to deal with that makes replacing one very difficult. They are laid out more efficiently in newer areas. You may have more people per foot of pipe, but you also need larger pipes, larger pump stations etc, and a higher level of backup/redundancy than for purely residential areas. City roads will also have many more sets of signals per mile than suburban.

Those activities have a multiplier which creates jobs, and each of the many transactions generated by each visitor pays taxes. Those tax revenues replace taxes that would be paid by residents,
Well, you are assuming that the city is levying sales and/or income taxes, which in Canada they can't. So all those extra transactions are great for business, but for the city, the only way they can get money (other than user fees for things like parking, etc) is through property taxes, (and transfers from higher levels of govt, though that is a hit and miss process).

There are more "social" services that cities have to provide too, in addition to the art galleries and the like. The city likely has some heritage building dept, and a bunch of these buildings to maintain - suburbs don't. Cities also have more policing to do, usually have to do more on social housing, homeless help etc etc. The suburbs benefit by having a City nearby that all these type congregate in, leaving them "cleaner".

We can go into all the minutae, but the trend is clear - city property taxes are more than suburban ones almost everywhere. I am sure that is no coincidence, and not by choice either.

The suburban governments are not putting enough money into their replacement reserve funds...You may have more people per foot of pipe, but you also need larger pipes, larger pump stations etc

It certainly sounds like the underlying fundamentals dense urban infrastructure costs are at least as high per capita as for non-urbanites.

assuming that the city is levying sales and/or income taxes, which in Canada they can't.

Cities in Canada don't have leeway to impose a variety of specialized business taxes, as opposed to more general ones like sales, income, and property? At minimum, revenue to city businesses will create income for city residents.

The city likely has some heritage building dept, and a bunch of these buildings to maintain

The programs I've seen have created regulations, but haven't actually paid for the cost of maintaing historic buildings.

the trend is clear - city property taxes are more than suburban ones

I agree. That seems to argue that suburbs will remain viable. Energy is a small % of local government budgets both city & suburban - even a large hike in fuel costs won't shift the competition in favor of cities very much.

New York City, the first subject of this thread, levy's city income tax on commuters into the city.

In fact, if you are a NJ resident and your job is in NJ, you are supposed to have your employer withhold NYC income taxes if you visit a NYC client or work in a NYC office more than 10 days per years.

Actually, the 10 days is the threshold for withholding. Technically, if you spend any days working in NYC, you are supposed to pay taxes on the prorated portion of your income. Usually this is enforced only on high profile employees, such as baseball and basketball players who play a few days at NYC venues.

Sounds unenforceable. Which genious dreamed that one up?

Concentration of population will win in the end. You are distinguishing differences that apply at this point in time but they won't in several decades.

Cities have always been generators of wealth and that won't change. Rural areas are good for growing food. The in-between area, where wealth could be created in a sort of no-man's land between a city and the country ("suburbia") will not have high enough number of entities (people/businesses) to generate wealth and thus will have decreasingly less reason to exist. Its tax base will erode as slums form in the city because people will want to live where there is some sort of chance to earn hard cash.

Suburbia is a temporary aberration.

Major cities are centers of consumption, not production. Most remaining industrial production is in suburban and small city locations. There is very little manufacturing in major cities.

Most likely, the office and industrial parks in the suburbs will form centers of population surrounded by new high-density housing and be connected by rail and bus lines. Putting up new housing and new transportation installations in the suburbs will be far less expensive than rehabing or demolishing and rebuilding in the cities.

Offices will move to where it is easy to get employees from, by walking, bicycling or Urban rail. That is mainly the cities or nodes along Urban Rail lines. The current office parks in Suburbs will be abandoned.

Light industrial production and distribution can move, and will move where they can get employees plus materials shipped in and out. See ports (river and sea) and rail plus above.

Heavy industry will stay where it is. Pueblo, Erie and Schenectady that I mentioned yesterday all had century old plant sites. New heavy industry will chose sites with good transportation.

Las Vegas and Phoenix have no transportation or energy advantages and they will not do well. Phoenix does have soap manufacturing, and low humidity helps form bar soap faster.

New Orleans has the port (river + sea), six Class I railroads, two medical schools, a dental school and six universities (at least a few will survive), major food manufacturing (about 30% of US coffee roasting, sugar refinery, other). I expect a movement inward here.

Your bias blinds you to the weaknesses of Suburbia. Suburbia is a leech on the central cities, but lack the advantages of the central city. An auto-centric design that cannot be easily cured.

Smaller cities and towns (which are NOT Suburbia) may do exceptionally well. Better than larger cities and better than Suburbia.


Yes, urban offices will move. They will move from the economically depressed city centers and be replaced by telecommuters. Heavy industry is dead in this country and has been in decline for decades, it will leave the cities you mentioned in entirety soon enough.

Big city offices are held to be more cost effective for the company as they only have the overheads for 1 office as opposed to, say, 10 distributed offices. The reality is that they have transferred the cost of those 10 offices to their staff who have the expense of commuting to the central office. If the companies had to cover all excess employee costs for travel and having to live more expensively to get to those offices I would expect a rush to break down and move the offices to the people.


Consider Tysons Corner.

Tysons Corner is Fairfax County's central business district, with the largest concentration of office space in Northern Virginia. The CDP includes a technology industry base and network infrastructure; around 2007 about 1,200 technology companies were headquartered in Tysons Corner. During that period the technology sector made for about 31.6% of the jobs in the Tysons Corner submarket and 20.2% of the companies in the submarket. Around 2007 Tysons Corner had 25,599,065 square feet (2,378,231.0 m2) of office space, 1,072,874 square feet (99,673.3 m2) of industrial/flex space, 4,054,096 square feet (376,637.8 m2) of retail space, and 2,551,579 square feet (237,049.4 m2) of hotel space. Therefore Tysons Corner has a grand total of 33,278,014 square feet (3,091,628.7 m2) of commercial space. The Fairfax County Economic Development Authority is headquartered in the CDP.[12]
The corporate headquarters of Booz Allen Hamilton, Capital One, Freddie Mac, Gannett Company, Hilton Worldwide, MicroStrategy, SAIC, Space Adventures, Spacenet, Sunrise Senior Living, and USA Today are located in Tysons Corner, though most use a McLean address and occasionally a Vienna address.[13][14][15]
Firms with offices in Tysons Corner include BAE Systems,[16] Compuware,[17] Ernst & Young,[18] Northrop Grumman,[19] PricewaterhouseCoopers.[20] Xerox,[21] and Vie de France.[22]
In 1995, AOL was headquartered in the Tysons Corner CDP,[13][23] near the town of Vienna.[24] Qatar Airways operated its Washington Metropolitan Area office in Tysons Corner,[13][25] although it later moved to Washington, D.C.[26]
A preliminary estimate from the Fairfax County Department of Transportation suggests that $7.83 billion in transportation infrastructure projects will be needed to help transform Tysons Corner into a high-density urban center from 2010 to 2050, most of which will be allocated to both phases of the Silver Line.[29] The Silver Line is expected to be fully opened by 2016.

Doesn't it make more sense to build on these suburban areas than, for example, concentrating everything in downtown DC.

Services are real production, really they are.

Healthcare, education, engineering, computer science, entertainment and the arts - these are all real and valuable.

Heck, even the much maligned finance, insurance, real estate and law industries are real, even if they've gotten a little overgrown lately.


Again, there is this puzzling assumption that oil can't be replaced, that it is somehow magically necessary for industrial/modern civilization. Oil has been cheap and convenient for the last 100 years, but the industrial revolution started without it, and modern civilization certainly will continue without it.

• 130 years ago, kerosene was needed for illumination, and then electric lighting made it obsolete. The whole oil industry was in trouble for a little while, until (Benz) someone came up the infernal combustion engine-powered horseless carriage. EVs were still better than these noisy, dirty contraptions, which were difficult and dangerous to start. Sadly, someone came up with the first step towards electrifying the ICE vehicle, the electric starter, and that managed to temporarily kill the EV.

Now, of course, oil has become more expensive than it's worth, what with it's various kinds of pollution, and it's enormous security and supply problems.

• 40 years ago oil was 20% of US electrical generation, and now it's less than .8%.

• 40 years ago many homes in the US were heated with heating oil - the number has fallen by 75% since then.

• 50% of oil consumption is for personal transportation - this could be reduced by 60% by moving from the average US vehicle to something Prius-like. It could be reduced by 90% by going to something Volt-like. It could be reduced 100% by going to something Leaf-like.

• As Alan Drake has shown, freight transportation can kick the oil-addiction habit relatively easily.
We don't need oil (or FF), and we should kick our addiction to it ASAP.

The only reason we haven't yet is the desperate resistance from the minority of workers and investors who would lose careers and investments if we made oil and other FFs obsolete.

Yes, I know you think we will retain our car culture, it will just move to your favorite technologies. Instead, I think we'll move to a motorcycle/scooter/bicycle culture.

I also happen to think we are going to be in a real mess, very soon. The existing cars will rust away and there won't be any money to purchase new ones. Once it becomes clear that the car can't be replaced, people will look seriously at moving to where it isn't required.

You will be rich indeed to own a highway capable car in twenty years and perhaps 1/10th of the existing car companies will survive the coming shakeout. Other businesses will be down by 1/2 or more, or will be replaced by mom and pop operations eking out a living.

That is the impact of:

  • decades of debt-accumulation
  • declining oil production
  • climate change
  • resource depletion.

Here is the debt situation:

Private Debt Dominates

By the time the debt has worked itself out of the system oil production will be down by 1/3 or more and we'll be fighting over what's left of all the resources, not just oil.

Moving to Motorcycles post-Peak Oil

Several years ago, when I was searching for the set of viable solutions, I looked at motorcycles. The most fuel efficient (125-250 cc) got 100 mpg or less.

Given the mileage of the Prius, not a dramatic improvement. Put an overweight American male on top and 100 mpg shrinks (motorcycle mpg is sensitive to rider weight & aerodynamics).

Capital costs are far less, true. Offset by accident rates.

After the 1973 Oil Embargo, motorcycle VMT tripled. Perhaps again in 2012. But I do not see motorcycles as a major part of the solution.


it will just move to your favorite technologies.

They're not my favorite technologies - I prefer bikes and electric trains. But, they're the technologies that make sense. They're cost effective, quickly scalable, and usable by almost everyone.

Once it becomes clear that the car can't be replaced, people will look seriously at moving to where it isn't required.

That would be far, far more expensive than replacing the car. It makes far more sense to buy an EV and amortize it over 20 years at a cost of less than $2k per year (about the amount they'd save on fuel), versus moving to a much higher cost environment (either higher rent or higher mortgage).

•decades of debt-accumulation

Debt is a symbol, a marker - what matters is the underlying productive capability of our economy, which will be just fine. Could we screw up the management of our economy, and go into a depression? Sure. But it's not likely.

•declining oil production

Again, that's pretty straightforward to replace. Heck, US drivers can reduce their fuel consumption 60% by driving a Prius, and 80% carpooling with one person in a Prius.

•climate change

That's a bit of a wildcard, especially with regard to drought. Still, there's no sign of a really major impact on the US economy in the next 10 years.

•resource depletion.

What do you have in mind? I've looke at phosphorus, copper, rare earths, and others - there's no sign of any really serious economic impacts due to mineral depletion problems. Let me know which ones you're concerned about, and I'll share my info with you.

We can go into all the minutae, but the trend is clear - city property taxes are more than suburban ones almost everywhere. I am sure that is no coincidence, and not by choice either.

I lived in a city, Calgary, that had much lower taxes than the surrounding suburbs. This came as quite a shock to newcomers to the city. They would go looking for cheap living in the suburbs, and find they were paying more money for fewer services.

There were a number of reasons for this. For one thing, Calgary is something of a hotbed of free enterprise, so the city council didn't believe in spending more money on services than absolutely necessary. This also came as a shock to newcomers, because they were used to getting a lot of freebies from a city government, like having their streets plowed in winter. If people wonder why Calgary has so many 4x4s, it has a lot to do with the small number of city snowplows.

Another reason was that the city had a huge number of corporate head offices (more than Montreal). It actually had about four times as much office space as you would expect for a city its size, and all these head offices paid taxes. The actual tax rates were low but the tax total was huge. This was largely a consequence of the relentless free-enterprise orientation of the city.

In addition, the city was into industrial land banking. It would annex large amounts of farmland, purchase it from the farmers, subdivide it, service it, and sell it to businesses at or below cost. This was very popular with businesses, and after they had moved in they would pay lots of taxes to the city. The general population was unaware of what was going on because the city put the industrial developments out of sight of the residential ones, and thus they never came up on the NIMBY radar. The only people who knew the industries were there were the people who worked for them.

A lot of this occurred because most of the politicians were businessmen as well. They thought in terms of what would attract their business to a city. Attracting more people was not a priority because they were already attracting more people than they could handle. Attracting more business was definitely a priority.

they were used to getting a lot of freebies from a city government, like having their streets plowed in winter. If people wonder why Calgary has so many 4x4s, it has a lot to do with the small number of city snowplows.

I expect that you won't be surprised that people on this particular forum might suggest that this is a very expensive way to save money.

sell it to businesses at or below cost.

Both of these appear to be corporate subsidies, at the expense of the local citizens. And yes, it may be a good strategy for Calgary to compete successfully for businesses, but is it a good strategy for Alberta, or Canada overall for cities to subsidize business, and pursue a race to the bottom?

Due to the 4x4 issue, we did often suggest that Calgary get more snowplows. However, as I said, the city councils showed a strong disinclination to spend money if they could possibly avoid it. They were blinded by the fact it doesn't actually snow very much in Calgary, and under normal conditions if you just wait a few days, the warm dry Chinook winds will come blowing in off the mountains and evaporate all the snow. It's only those few days between Chinooks that you need a 4x4 for.

Both of these appear to be corporate subsidies, at the expense of the local citizens.

The industrial land banking recovered most or all of its costs to the city when it sold the land, and then since the city taxed industrial land at a higher rate than residential land, the tax money from the businesses paid for services for the citizens. This was the basis for industrial land banking - the city paid a lot of money up front, recovered its costs, and then collected a lot of taxes from the businesses. This was one reason why the city had a much lower residential tax rate than the surrounding suburbs.

Another reason was that the provincial government forced local governments to tax agricultural land at preferentially low rates. The surrounding areas were mostly agricultural, so they had to extract most of their money from their few residential properties. The city cleverly converted its agricultural land to industrial land as rapidly as possible so it could get the additional tax money. If it had left it up to real-estate speculators, it might have stayed unused for a long, long time.

but is it a good strategy for Alberta, or Canada overall for cities to subsidize business, and pursue a race to the bottom?

The race to the bottom occurs in US cities. The suburbs attract businesses away from the central city with low business taxes, and then new suburbs attract them away from the older suburbs with even lower taxes. I was in one suburb in the US that had no residential taxes at all, and very low taxes on businesses. This was fine for the very few citizens it had, but it was kind of hard on the surrounding suburbs and central city because all the businesses piled up in the one suburb with low taxes, whereas most of the people who worked for them lived outside it and had high taxes.

The same thing happens in Canada, too, but at some point the provincial government will step in and merge all the suburbs and central city to flatten the tax rates across the area. The people who live in the less-taxed suburbs will scream bloody murder about it, but since there are few of them compared to the people whose taxes will go down, the provincial government will just ignore them because it knows that by the next election there will be more happy voters than unhappy voters.

It would also work in the US, but doesn't usually happen because 1) despite their theoretical rights in the Constitution, the US states in practice don't have nearly as much power to change things as Canadian provinces; and 2) there's a large lobby group in the US, paid for by wealthy interests, dedicated to confusing the issues for the voters. If the voters were actually able to sit down and do the math for themselves on who was actually paying for what, they would be very, very unhappy. They're unhappy now, but they don't really know why.

I was watching the recent US elections, and was struck by how very little factual information was involved. It mostly consisted of candidates slandering each other's reputations.

I generally agree. A quibble: the land banking may recover it's outlays, but it certainly appears to be allowing business to buy land much cheaper than otherwise, reaping an effective subsidy.

A quibble: the land banking may recover it's outlays, but it certainly appears to be allowing business to buy land much cheaper than otherwise, reaping an effective subsidy.

But it's not an effective subsidy because there is no net cost to the city. All it does is deprive real-estate speculators of land to speculate on because the city beats them to the table. If left to their own devices, the real-estate developers would probably buy it, sit on it for years, and then develop it as residential land, which would stick the city with lower tax revenues and higher costs. The city does its own development because it likes the higher tax revenues and lower unemployment rates that come from having more industrial land.

The real-estate developers usually manage to get on local councils and fudge the policies to their own advantage, but people who are not developers should be taking a very hard look at some of the things they do.

Have you ever considered that US local governments are actually subsidizing real estate developers? For some reason a lot of Americans think that developers should get all the profits, and cities should get stuck with all the costs. In fact, the developers often build roads, sewers, and water systems for a very short lifespan. They dump the houses on unsuspecting buyers, turn turn the flaky streets and water systems over to the local government, take the profits, and get out before everything falls apart.

Land use regulation, real estate development, and transportation improvements are the core of local politics.

But it's not an effective subsidy because there is no net cost to the city.

That's not realistic. If the city doesn't charge market rates for the property it sells, then it's giving away money to the businesses in question.

Just because there's no out of pocket cost to the city doesn't mean that there's no subsidy. For instance, the Price-Anderson nuclear liability cap doesn't cost the US government anything, but it's a very significant subsidy nevertheless. Similarly, not charging coal companies for the long list of costs they create (occupational health, mercury, sulfur, CO2, etc, etc) doesn't cost government anything, but it's an enormous subsidy for the coal producers.

All it does is deprive real-estate speculators of land to speculate on because the city beats them to the table.

It also deprives farmers of some of those profits.

Speculators aren't inherently bad. In any case, it appears you're talking about developers, not speculators.

developers often build roads, sewers, and water systems for a very short lifespan.

Interesting. Have you seen evidence for this? It would appear to be fraud, or at the least serious regulatory failure.

If the city doesn't charge market rates for the property it sells, then it's giving away money to the businesses in question.

It's not so much that the city doesn't charge market rates, but that it sets market rates because it is the market leader. Of course, a private company could do that, too. The difference is that the city is not in business to make a profit, it is in business to provide a good place for people to live.

In general, governments should operate to break even - making a profit is not part of their mandate and is actually a disservice to their citizenry.

It also deprives farmers of some of those profits.

The city buys farmland at market prices and the farmers get the same price they would from private developers.

Have you seen evidence for this? It would appear to be fraud, or at the least serious regulatory failure.

I've seen some pretty flaky developments. Developers in general will try to avoid as many costs as they can without making it obvious that they are cutting corners. However, a developer cannot give roads, sewers, or anything else to a government without that government's permission. The onus is on the government to inspect it and refuse to accept it if they don't think it is adequately built. If the government does accept it, then they have implicitly agreed that it is good enough for them. After that, they're stuck with all the costs.

governments should operate to break even

Previously the city was described as selling the property "at or below cost". That means the city was charging for it's out of pocket costs, not it's management, capital costs, opportunity costs for that capital, other indirect overhead of running the city, risk that the project wouldn't work out, etc, etc. The property was improved, and the market price had to have risen substantially, but it was given to business. That's a giveaway, a subsidy.

The same thing could be accomplished by a regional plan, and zoning, and we wouldn't have a competition to subsidize business.

Previously the city was described as selling the property "at or below cost". That means the city was charging for it's out of pocket costs, not it's management, capital costs, opportunity costs for that capital, other indirect overhead of running the city, risk that the project wouldn't work out, etc, etc.

Costs mean net avoidable costs, and by that I mean net of profit margins. Governments should not be operating to a profit goal. If there is a profit opportunity, governments should hand it off to private industry because making a profit is not a legitimate goal of governments. They should be operating to serve the interest of their voters, not extracting more money from them than they need.

If there is a profit opportunity, governments should hand it off to private industry

I think that probably makes sense. So, in this case that means land developers.

They should be operating to serve the interest of their voters, not extracting more money from them than they need.

The tone of this bothers me just a little. Government should maximize all appropriate revenue, so as to reduce tax burdens. If there's an appropriate fee or cost-capture that reimburses government for it's costs (all costs, including relevant overhead, capital costs, etc), they should be charged. Unless, of course, the activity should handed off to private enterprise, or there is a public policy reason not to do so (e.g., public libraries should be free).

This is not quite the Calgary I know.

All the suburbs are under one jurisdiction: Calgary city council. The city boundaries do not combine with separate jurisdictions, they subsume them. Existing "suburban communitites" with their own councils are in fact separate towns and villages often with their own central business, cultural and transportation focus (e.g. High River, Cochrane) and are very unlike the outer subdivisions.

Calgary's controversial annexation policy applies very strongly to mono-zoned, single family, large lot and highly car-centric residential subdivisions to the horizon, not just industrial subdivisions which are concentrated primarily in the southeast. These and the hundreds of kilometres of prefab concrete panel walls erected with the single purpose of attenuating the noise from Calgary's most significant urban design feature -- traffic arterials -- form its most distinguishing character outside of the inner city. Moreover, the residential subdivisions are subsidized:

>> Calgary is a fast growing city, but the way Calgary is growing is financially, socially, and environmentally unsustainable. New
homes built on the periphery of the city currently cost more to service (provide sewers, roads, transit, police, fire, etc) than they
generate in tax revenue and development levies – $10,000 more in just sewer and water infrastructure, according to one recent
study. The entire city is subsidizing every new home that is built. We can’t continue like this.
As well, the way new subdivisions are being designed focuses almost entirely on the private vehicle and on people at one lifestage.
So, although the Calgary Board of Education has almost the same number of students now as a decade ago, they need to
close schools in established neighbourhoods and build new ones on the fringes. This pattern can only continue while we
continue to build homogenous, non-resilient neighbourhoods. The City abets this – their rules governing development favour
unsustainable approaches to growth and stifle innovation. <<

That is a quote from the new mayor's campaign blog, and it roughly ties in with the comments above that the sub/exurbs generally do not pull their weight.

Those of us with an urban design background who grew up in cities like Calgary quickly conclude that not just the communting paradigm, but the outdated land use planning models will get more than shifted when gasoline nudges past $2/litre ($8/gallon). So far the comments have primarily addressed the potential economic impact of peak oil on private homes, businesses, and lives. But what about the impacts on the public sector? The amount of public land devoted to cars (roads, underground services ...) in Calgary's subdivisions beyond the 1960s ring approaches 40% of the entire suburban land base. Sure, developers pass the capital costs of public infrastructure along to suburban homebuyers, but the homebuyers are only partially paying for their upkeep in perpetuity. These considerations are in addition to the financial and energy inefficiencies focused primarily on designing cities for cars instead of for human beings.

Canada's federal government recently imposed full-cost accounting on cities. This is one of the few good things the Harper government has done, in my view. They tied federal funding for urban infrastructure to this policy, primarily, I assume, to get around the fact that the consitution foolishly places cities under the single control of the provinces. As a result of increased accountability, cities are for the first time attaching appropriate values to depreciation and replacement costs of public assets. It is shocking how many cities did not previously include the value, for example, of the land their huge expanses of roads rest on (other than the initial acquisition cost). It's horrendous. Further, the politicians are seeing for the first time in cold, hard numbers the tremendous cost of slashing maintenance costs from the annual budgets while also building new baubles in front of which they cut their ribbons at every election. I predict energy efficiency of public buildings and vehicle fleets will be a big issue sooner as the result of accountability than if we waited for the oncoming spikes in fossil fuel prices.

I now live in the "outer inner" city of Vancouver, and within one kilometre I have five bus lines (two using a fleet of articulated electric trolleys with signal priority and excellent frequency) and a driverless subway line (with 1 1/2 minute headways at rush hour) that take me almost everywhere I need to go. The arterials are densifying quite nicely outside of downtown with new shops, services and apartments. These are things I cannot enjoy in Calgary at present outside of he inner city.

Metro Vancouver has 21 separate municipalities (yes, 21 separate mayors and councils!), and an unelected Metro bureaucracy (mostly to govern cross-jurisdictional utility and transportation infrastrucure). While there may be some efficiencies in amalgamating four or five of the smaller cities (tri-cities and the North Shore communities, for example), to cram them all together into one jurisdiction is a political and economic non-starter. Most cities in the Lower Mainland are unique and have very distinct identities, and many residents would not want their town to be ruled by a very unweildly city council with 40 councilors (look at Toronto after amalgamation -- some council meetings go on to the wee hours on small issues). Vancouver is the most dense city that supports the bulk of the economic activity in the region, and has a billion dollar annual budget as the result. Burnaby, the city right next door, has a budget barely 15% of that by comparison. Tax distribution is becoming an issue not just in the city (residential versus business proportion of taxes), but between suburban municipalities, many of whom have thousands of residents who work in Vancouver and enjoy its services for 25% of their lives without paying for them.

In other respects, Calgary possesses a one-horse economy. Where oil goes, the town follows. And prospects look good. After all, it is the Houston of the north. But what now distinguishes it from most other white bread conservative towns is that it now has a liberal mayor who happens to be a Muslim who beleives in sustainability. Talk about paradigms getting shifted.

I should mention that Metro Vancouver is bounded on the south and east by the Agricultural Land Reserve which has protected thousands of hectares from development since the early 70s. We shouldn't experience too many difficulties shifting to local food production when the crunch comes. It helps that Vancouver is squeezed by mountains, the sea and the ALR. We do things differently than Calgary as the result.

I think city departments of economic development would find this perspective very, very surprising -they work very hard to attract such visitors. All of those people come into the city to do something: work, shop, etc. Those activities have a multiplier which creates jobs, and each of the many transactions generated by each visitor pays taxes.

I think if cities actually did a cost-benefit analysis, they would find they are losing money on commuters coming into the city. These people are using city services, but paying taxes in some other jurisdiction.

I have know cities to put choke points on their incoming roads which blocked commuters. They would narrow a four-lane divided freeway down to two narrow potholes lanes with no shoulders and lots of stoplights , and then widen it to four lanes a mile or two later to cater to the city's own commuters. Most outside commuters couldn't get in until after rush hour was over. I don't know if this was deliberate, or an accidental result of planning priorities, but it struck me as brilliant. If you're losing money on people, and they don't vote in your jurisdiction, just stop them from getting in.

This results in less traffic in the city and less demand on city services, and therefore lower noise and lower taxes. Of course it really pisses off the commuters, but if they don't vote in the same jurisdiction, why should the local politicians care? If some higher level of government offers them money to widen their roads, they should just turn it down unless it's enough to compensate for the cost of providing city services to the people who drive on the roads. Typically, this would be several times the cost of the road improvements themselves.

Most American city politicians don't think in those terms, but probably they should. They should hire some non-partisan consultants and do a cost/benefit analysis on every road development. If people coming in from outside are not paying their way, don't let them in.

These people are using city services, but paying taxes in some other jurisdiction.

First, in the US they're paying taxes where they work: taxes on the business in which they work, sales taxes on their shopping, income taxes (as noted by Merrill), etc. Even in Canada, I suspect there's some of this.

2nd, even if they don't pay taxes directly, they strengthen the local economy: more local business is better.

Alan Drake would disagree with you strongly.

3rd, what city services do you have in mind? Commuters are employed and middleclass, so they're not going to use police, courts and jails. They're not going to use social services. They might throw away a little trash at lunch....

You need to distinguish between tourists - who spend more than enough money (typically hundreds of dollars a day) in a city to make it worthwhile to attract them - and commuters, who go back to their suburban shopping malls to spend their money. The latter are a money-losing proposition for a city.

The biggest cost a city incurs in catering to commuters is the cost of transportation infrastructure. Nobody seems to think about it, but in the US, the cost of adding additional roads and parking for cars vastly exceeds any additional revenue the city gets from them. There are also hidden costs such as "free" parking, which is not actually free (the book "The High Cost of Free Parking" explained this).
Public transit is even worse, because in the US it normally recovers only a fraction of its costs from the commuters.

There are ways to recover these largely hidden costs from commuters, but it is very difficult to extract enough taxes to pay for them from people who do not actually live in the same jurisdiction. The central city gets stuck with the largest costs (roads, parking), and the suburbs get most of the taxes (property, sales).

There are solutions - Vancouver levies gasoline taxes which must be on the order of 50 cents per gallon these days to pay for transit, and just then doesn't bother to provide more roads and parking; London England has its "congestion charge" which is over $12 per day per vehicle for commuters coming in, local residents exempt. That would be over $2400 per year for commuters who foolishly want to bring their cars in every working day - which would come close to covering net external costs to the city.

But the normal Canadian solution is that the provincial government just annexes all the suburbs to the central city, putting everyone into the same tax pool. That happened to Toronto in 1998 and Montreal 2001. I suspect it will happen to Vancouver eventually because the band-aid solutions aren't working that well. Some new provincial government will come in, decide to fix things for once and all, and BANG! it will be one big city. It's so much simpler than levying weird and wonderful new taxes or congestion charges.

the cost of adding additional roads and parking for cars vastly exceeds any additional revenue the city gets from them.

In the US, the highways that bring in commuters are paid for by Federal Motor Fuel Taxes.

There are also hidden costs such as "free" parking, which is not actually free (the book "The High Cost of Free Parking" explained this).

In dense cities, such parkers are forced into commercial garages, which are not cheap, and are reasonably heavily taxed.

Public transit is even worse, because in the US it normally recovers only a fraction of its costs from the commuters.

The marginal costs from additional commuters aren't large. They arrive during rush hour rail, which is the easiest and cheapest thing to serve. It's the cost of evening/weekend service bus service, especially to urban neighborhoods farthest from the rail trunk lines, which is most expensive.

There are ways to recover these largely hidden costs from commuters, but it is very difficult to extract enough taxes to pay for them from people who do not actually live in the same jurisdiction.

New York, the subject of our case study, certainly has a wide range of effective means.

the highways that bring in commuters are paid for by Federal Motor Fuel Taxes.

Plus General revenues. About $100 billion in stimulus for example (from memory)

OTOH, the fuel I burn, is largely burned on city streets paid for with property taxes. So my fuel taxes (and income taxes) help subsidize Suburban commuting. I get to pay for the city streets they use as well.

such parkers are forced into commercial garages, which are not cheap, and are reasonably heavily taxed.

A VERY low value use of land. Spreads things out, commercial parking is a net negative. The less, the better.

Ask the Governor of New Jersey about the marginal cost of serving rush hour commuters ! (And NJ only had to pay 1/3rd of the cost of a 3rd tunnel).


the fuel I burn don't burn much.

I get to pay for the city streets they use as well.

Commuters don't get off the highways for much longer than the time required to find a garage.

commercial garages - A VERY low value use of land. Spreads things out

I agree. OTOH, a high density city will place parking garages in the lower levels of high rise buildings. And, of course, expand rail...

Ask the Governor of New Jersey

I'm not sure of your point. How much of the tunnel was expected to be paid for by NYC?

The cost split was 1/3rd State of NJ, 1/3rd Port Authority of NY (de facto NYC) and 1/3rd feds.

And once upon a time I burned much more fuel, before I learned better. And all taxes to subsidize Suburbanites commuting in.

Commuters do clog up the streets at rush hour, slowing buses & streetcars, etc.


The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey is definitely not New York City. See

New Jersey was obligated to fund all overruns, which were looking to be about $5 billion above the $9 billion that the 1/3 split represented.

The New York end of the tunnel was to be at a new deep underground terminal that did not connect with Penn Station, the subway or the existing PATH station.

New Jersey commuters pay the PANYNJ $8 if paying with cash, $8 peak hours with E-ZPass, and $6 off-peak hours with E-ZPass to cross eastbound to New York City via any of the bridges or tunnels.

ARC was a tremendously bad deal for NJ. I'm not pleased to see the money spent on roads and bridges in NJ. The $3 billion should be spent on rail inside of NJ.

Putting parking in the lower levels of a high-rise building is a hugely bad idea from a security point of view.

A bank inherited through merger a data and operations center located above several floors of parking. I believe that it has largely been closed in the last few years.

Guard services to inspect cars entering the parking are very expensive.

You're thinking of car bombs? Does it really matter if they're in a garage, or in the street next to the building?

I say take all of the roughly $500B per year we're spending on oil wars and related security, and use it build out EV/EREVs and rail. We'd be done with the transition in less than 10 years, and the ME could do whatever it wanted with it's oil and bombs.

Physical security is important in the design of any city development or transportation system development. A bomb under the building is more effective than one adjacent to it, particularly if barriers are used to keep the vehicles away from the building and direct the blast upward.

I sympathize on the view re the ME. Unfortunately, it is too late to avoid more or less perpetual conflict with ME terrorists. Vendettas are hard to stop. Besides, as social stress builds, there will be more indigenous terrorism.

In the US, the highways that bring in commuters are paid for by Federal Motor Fuel Taxes.

They have never covered the cost of local streets, which are generally paid of property taxes, and in recent years they haven't even covered the cost of highways. More and more of it is paid for by income and other taxes. However, the illusion still persist in the US that fuel taxes pay for the roads. In fact, in recent years a lot of it has ultimately been paid for by the Chinese, although they are eventually going to want their money back with interest.

A point I made elsewhere is that if highways to bring in commuters are paid for by higher levels of government, but local streets to carry them in the city are paid for city residents, then the city should turn down the highway money and put barricades across the incoming roads during morning rush hour.

Alternatively, they should levy a congestion charge paid for by commuters using the streets, like London and other global cities, but that concept is way to far out in deep space for most Americans.

The marginal costs from additional commuters aren't large. They arrive during rush hour rail, which is the easiest and cheapest thing to serve. It's the cost of evening/weekend service bus service, especially to urban neighborhoods farthest from the rail trunk lines, which is most expensive.

The marginal costs are huge because the system has to be sized to accommodate the peak rush hour flow. If you don't have as many commuters, you can skip subways and elevated trains and use light-rail and streetcar technology to keep your costs way down. In addition, if you get rid of the peak hour load and run small light-rail trains, you can run them much cheaper evenings and weekends than a full-blown subway. Power costs are almost nothing, and staff costs are two guys in the control room and one driver per multi-car train.

New York, the subject of our case study, certainly has a wide range of effective means.

If they were effective, New York would have low taxes. In fact, New York has a lot of very, very expensive infrastructure to maintain, and can't collect enough tax revenue to maintain it. It really needs to put in a congestion charge like London's $12/day/vehicle levy, but I can image the hysterical reaction in the US if they actually did it. The car and petroleum lobbies in particular would have a screaming fit, and they would throw enough money at the politicians to make the congestion charge go away.

More and more of it is paid for by income and other taxes.

have you seen statistics? I'd be very curious to see that.

The marginal costs are huge because the system has to be sized to accommodate the peak rush hour flow.

But then you'd lose the large-volume rush-hour traffic, and be left with the much more expensive local traffic.

If you don't have as many commuters, you can skip subways and elevated trains and use light-rail and streetcar technology

That's much more expensive, because the ratio of driver to passenger is much higher. The rush hour subsidizes everything else. Mass transit would become unaffordable without commuters.

If they were effective, New York would have low taxes.

You appear to be assuming that commuters can pay for a large % of NYC's costs. I'm not sure why you'd assume that.

In fact, New York has a lot of very, very expensive infrastructure to maintain.

My point exactly.

. It really needs to put in a congestion charge like London's $12/day/vehicle levy, but I can image the hysterical reaction in the US if they actually did it.

NYC came very close to doing just that, recently.

have you seen statistics? I'd be very curious to see that.

If you want to see statistics and have a lot of time on your hands or are short of sleep, here is a document from the Transportation Research Board: The Fuel Tax and Alternatives for Transportation Funding Warning: It's quite a large PDF.

The document actually focuses on an upcoming crisis in transportation funding - as fuel economies improve and alternative fuels are introduced, fuel tax collections will plummet, and will be able to support less and less road development. The worst case is the EV which will generate no road improvement revenues at all. The report suggests new funding sources such as charging tolls and road use fees on most roads. The alternative is to experience a collapse in the US road system, which I have to admit is a not-too-unlikely possibility.

But then you'd lose the large-volume rush-hour traffic, and be left with the much more expensive local traffic.

The local traffic isn't expensive, it's having to build capacity for the rush hour that is expensive. If NYC had only to handle local traffic, they could get away with a light rail system. Of course I'm thinking in terms of non-US systems where you would see a lot more evening and weekend passengers than you would in the US. The US has developed its way into a corner by putting so much emphasis on automobile, where as in other countries you can get around without them, and many people do. These people are the weekend and evening riders.

That's much more expensive, because the ratio of driver to passenger is much higher.

Have you ever seen a high-efficiency light rail system in action? They can be operated with fewer staff than your typical subway system. The extreme case would be the Vancouver SkyTrain, which has no drivers at all because the trains are completely automated. And Vancouver has a lot of weekend and evening riders compared to US cities.

You appear to be assuming that commuters can pay for a large % of NYC's costs. I'm not sure why you'd assume that.

Well, they can, if you find some way to extract the money from them. The trouble is that local governments lack capability to tax people who don't live there. (and even the NYC government is a local government with de-facto lack of taxing powers.)

as fuel economies improve and alternative fuels are introduced, fuel tax collections will plummet

There is a really easy solution - raise the tax rate. That would only begin to internalize costs like pollution and security. Fuel taxes are far too low currently.

The US has developed its way into a corner by putting so much emphasis on automobile

Yes, we have to deal with the existing infrastructure. Reversing that will take a long time.

where as in other countries you can get around without them, and many people do.

Yes, but rail only handles a small % of vehicle miles, wherever you look. Calgary, for example, has a good rail system, but it only serves about 5% of miles traveled, and those miles are dominated by commuters. The Vancouver Skytrain only handles about 1.5% of miles traveled.

Vancouver SkyTrain, which has no drivers at all because the trains are completely automated.

I'm taking look. Do you think it could be widely copied?

the NYC government is a local government with de-facto lack of taxing powers

Did you see the other comment about NYC's income tax on commuters? Looked pretty effective.

Replacing car passenger miles with rail requires a considerable investment.

If light rail cars have capacity of 100 passengers, operate at a load factor of 50% for 10 hours / day and move at an average speed of 40 mph, then each car delivers 7.3 million passenger-miles /year.

US car and light truck passenger miles are about 5 trillion / year.

To use light rail instead of cars/trucks for 40% of those miles would need about 274,000 light rail cars.

At $5 million / car, this is an investment of $1.37 trillion.

Still working on the formulas for the cost of tracks, stations, and moving dwelling units close enough together to make this work.

Note that light rail cannot replace rapid transit or urban rail in terms of speed or capacity.

Plus, you still need infrastructure of some sort for emergency vehicles (e.g. fire trucks, ambulances), as well as for delivery of food, merchandise of all kinds, construction materials, maintenance crews, etc. which is today done by trucks of various sizes.

If light rail cars have capacity of 100 passengers, operate at a load factor of 50% for 10 hours / day and move at an average speed of 40 mph, then each car delivers 7.3 million passenger-miles /year.

I think that the load factor and speed might be a bit high.

US car and light truck passenger miles are about 5 trillion / year.

Vehicle miles traveled is just under 3 trillion. I believe the average passenger:vehicle ratio is under 1.2.

formulas for the cost of moving dwelling units close enough together

The US has about 100M households. If we rebuild 50M @$200K each (which is conservatively low) then the cost would be $10T.

I think rail is great, but I don't think it's a primary solution for our personal transportation problems. HEV/PHEV/EREV/EVs will be the main solution.

2008 statistics were 2,553,043 million "Passenger car" and 1,921,960 million "Other 2-axle 4-tire vehicle" passenger miles. So that is about 4.5 trillion passenger miles. Sorry for the rounding. Passenger miles were higher in 2008 and I'd expect that they have gone back up.

The main statistics page is at

I'd expect that the cars would be designed without many seats like NY subway cars so that the 100 passenger capacity is at least 2/3 standing. It's also the only way to get the cost down to $5 million / car. Otherwise 100 seat tandem cars are more likely $10 million.

about 4.5 trillion passenger miles.

Interesting. So the ratio of passenger: vehicle is about 1.5:1. That's higher than I've seen elsewhere. I wonder why?

In volume production, costs drop dramatically. $5 million to $750,000-$1 million would be reasonable.

New Orleans, fabricating 24 streetcars to their own design in an 1880s shop, got the the price down to $1 million each after the first 5.


Rail centric cities reduce VMT by more than half.

There is no need to replace every mile driven with an equivalent rail mile.

There is a need to reduce parking and street/highway surface area so as to allow everything to be closer together.



What do you think of the driver-less trains in Vancouver? Do you think that could be extended to places like Boston and Chicago?

A trade off between medium priced labor and lower complexity for a mix of high priced and low priced labor + complexity.

First, driverless requires complete grade separation (as most 3rd rail systems are).

Second, complexity is added and high priced labor to support it. Last time I looked (@ 6 years ago) no system saved money going driverless.

Now driverless can increase capacity on a very dense lines. Less time between trains, and save perhaps 4% in schedule time.

And, in most systems, one needs employee eyes around (the low cost labor). Security or other name. Drivers reduce the need for other eyes (how much depending on how isolated they are from the pax).

So I am not a great believer in what I consider a fad.


complexity is added and high priced labor to support it. Last time I looked (@ 6 years ago) no system saved money going driverless.

Really? I should think that the high priced labor would be in the initial software development, and that as this was amortized that such a system would be much less expensive to operate. Have you seen a real, quantitative analysis?

driverless can increase capacity on a very dense lines. Less time between trains, and save perhaps 4% in schedule time.

Because software can optimize better than human drivers?

one needs employee eyes around (the low cost labor). Security or other name. Drivers reduce the need for other eyes (how much depending on how isolated they are from the pax).

If you have a 8 car train, and a single driver locked up tight in a little compartment at the front of the lead car, I don't see much security benefit. Possibly some marginal benefit in that one lead car. Maybe.

All sensors, communication, control have to be maintained. An ongoing expense for high priced labor. Ed Tennyson did an in depth cost analysis perhaps 8 or 10 years ago. No major changes when I reviewed it a few years alter.

My one and only experience in Las Vegas with their driverless Monorail has a complete and utter disaster. One hour plus shutdown because someone lit a cigarette in one car. Fire alarm etc. etc.

Some time savings because computers have smaller standard deviations than humans.

Many cars have emergency call buttons. The level of human contact varies, with the trend being to less and less.


All sensors, communication, control have to be maintained. An ongoing expense for high priced labor.

That's puzzling. That suggests that, in effect, there is an electronics tech for every train in motion. That's hard to believe. Also, in the US train drivers (if you include their benefits) are at least as high priced as electronics techs.

Nick, don;t obsess about the cost of a few train drivers - in the scheme of things, it is not that big a deal.
For Calgary, their hourly cost is $163/train. figure the driver at $30, and they under 20% of the cost. Now Calgary has done a great job of keeping all its costs down, so the driver % is higher than would be the case for almost any other system

As Alan said, Vancouver's driverless system has not really saved any money. The cars, and whole system are VERY expensive. Haven't got the numbers to hand but read somewhere that Vancouver's costs/passenger are more than double Calgary. You can run them at tighter headways, though Vancouver's system is nowhere near that point.

The real evidence is that no other cities have adopted the system. It HAS cornered the market for airport people movers - but that's about it.

There are lot of costs involved just to replace the driver. The money is better spent on improving the design and operation of the system, to attract more riders.

For Calgary, their hourly cost is $163/train.

Have you seen a breakdown of this cost? What would be the marginal cost of putting a train in the field, except for labor and power? Power is likely to be something less than $30/hour, so where does the rest come from?

figure the driver at $30

That appears far too low. Wages might average $25 for all paid hours, but if you include the cost of benefits (lunch and breaks, vacation, holiday & sick time, health insurance in the US, pension, direct management (1:10 ratio?), etc, etc) I think you'll get up to $50 per worked hour pretty quickly.

The real evidence is that no other cities have adopted the system.

That doesn't tell us much. The transition from 2 drivers to one in other cities has been slow and difficult. Change is difficult, especially when it has a direct impact on people who can fight back, like union members.

The cars, and whole system are VERY expensive....There are lot of costs involved just to replace the driver.

What are those costs?

True, that is why I used 40% of current passenger miles.

If you relocate 200 million people into cities with 10,000 people / mile^2, then you need 20,000 mile^2 of city. I think that you need about 0.5 miles of 2-track roadbed per square mile of city to keep walking distance to the stations within 2 miles.

That would be about 10000 miles of roadbed at another $35 million / mile or $350 billion?

I'd assume that for $35 million per mile you can also get the stations every 2 or 3 miles and enough sidings to allow express operations through stations.

The main costs are for relocating the 50 million dwelling units.

In fact, for least cost, it may be best to build more rail and move fewer dwelling units.

The French are building 1,500 km of new tram systems (track, cars, maintenance, et al) for 22 billion euros. And to a very high aesthetic and comfort standard.

And they take every August off, strike occasionally, retire @ 60/62, etc. Basically a significantly shorter work year.

The US system is designed to maximize costs, not minimize them.


So, that's 930 miles for about $27B, or about $28M per mile?

They're generally at grade?

The purchasing power parity of the euro is just more than $1. The French build things nice, which adds a bit to costs (but worth it IMHO).

Yes, at grade. They usually take a very busy bus line, take a lane out of the street from rubber tires and put in a tram system. Also abandoned rail lines (and now some active ones, but minimal volume). Or cut across a local farm, or ...

Best Hopes for Aesthetics,


Also you may want to just go through some of these links. Note how much as been built how quickly, and not just in large cities.


Light rail and tram systems are under construction in Angers and Toulouse. Systems are planned in Brest, Le Havre, Reims, Tours and Fort-de-France

Select a town, such as Rouen (one I had not looked at before), and get

1.7 km underground in the city centre ... 18.2 km .. open 1994 ... 65,000 riders

Click the city and find The city proper had an estimated population of 110,276 in 2007 .. ... metropolitan area at the 1999 census was 518,316

No doubt useful post-Peak Oil :-)

Best Hopes for Oil Free Transportation in France

Another site: Tramways in France

In your next chapter will you deal with all of light rail (e.g. Bergen Hudson Light Rail), rapid transit (e.g. MTA subway, PATH trains), and commuter rail (e.g. NJ Transit, Metro North, LIRR). What are the cost - performance tradeoffs for the different classes?

Commuter rail & rapid rail (subways) are generally tied for lowest pax-mile costs. However, the quality of management has almost as much impact on costs as the mode.

One other note. Line B always adds to the density (tennysons) of Line A when it opens, Line C adds to the density of Lines A & B, etc. The greater the density, the more economic.

Streetcars create the greatest TOD, Light Rail is hit or miss, rapid rail is good TOD generation, commuter rail very small TOD effect. And the TOD impact is vital in the transition to Oil Free transportation.

Miami had a comprehensive plan for Metrorail (basically 100 miles of elevated subway) that had 80% of the population (before TOD would move them closer in) within 3 miles of a station and (from memory) 30% within a half mile. Add some streetcars, bike lanes and perhaps a half-ring outer line and personal Oil Free transportation is a viable option for the vast majority of Miamians.

I found an archived copy of the proposed lines (Phase 2 lines in light brown).

Post-Peak Oil build these lines. perhaps one or two more lines, a few streetcar lines, bike lanes and Miami will be OK.


One economy ignored in transit planning is building single track for "end of the line service". Both Baltimore and San Diego Light Rail lines opened as single track lines, serving fairly dense ridership. Requires good management.

One example where a single line extension "makes sense" is going west from the western terminus of Portland's Blue Line, Hillsboro, to close to the Pacific Ocean, Forest Grove. Double track the new terminus station and perhaps one station half way (stations are good for passing on single track lines). During rush hour, have half the trains go on from Hillsboro to Forest Grove, have the other half return east towards Portland OR.

Another example would be a southern (by SW) extension of Miami's Metrorail. Today a 13 mile busway does not work very well (I have riden it) from the current SW terminus.

I suspect that the best solution is elevated double tracking a couple of more miles and then single track (or gauntlet to save on switches) with widely spaced stations (w/Park & Ride) every 1.5 to 2 miles with double track @ the stations. At ground level, have streetcar service with frequent stops. Design for double track and more stations if it is ever needed.

Later NEVs can use the Park & Ride. In fact give them priority if spaces are too few to meet demand.

The Earhart Expressway is a limited access highway till it enters Orleans Parish. Then 4 lane street that crosses another 4 lane street and then > 2 lanes. Years later the the 2 lane street was improved to 4 lanes.

Unfortunately, I-10 is under state control and they have spent hundreds of millions (billion ?) widening it into New Orleans.

The 24 mile long Causeway bridge goes from the North Shore suburbs into our largest and oldest suburb, Metairie. They wanted to bring it into New Orleans, but no. Post-Peak Oil such commutes (60+ miles/day for most) will not be viable.


The deck has been stacked against US cities since WW II. Less so in Canada, resulting in much healthier cities.

Such is true. Also, cities in Canada are under the total control of the provincial governments. If a city starts to malfunction, the provincial government will feel free to reorganize it and fix the problems.

Provincial governments occasionally annex most the suburbs of a city to the central city without consulting the residents. This happened to Winnipeg in 1972, Toronto in 1998, and Montreal in 2001. I kind of wonder when the same thing will happen to Vancouver.

In Calgary, where I lived for years, only about 8% of the people lived in true suburbs, although they used the term "suburb" to refer to communities which were actually within the city. Since Calgary's tax rates were much lower than the surrounding areas, it was relatively easy to convince the outlying taxpayers that they should be in the city.

That doesn't stop the provincial hammer from falling if local politicians step out of line. I remember one year when the provincial government fired the Calgary School Board. The board refused to balance the budget, so BANG! they were gone. The provincial government held new elections six months later when everyone had calmed down.

RMG, When you are talking about Calgary's "suburbs", do you mean suburban areas like Mackenzie Towne, Country Hills, etc, or do you mean places outside the City boundaries, like Airdrie, Springbank, Cochrane, etc?

For the time I was in Calgary I was always a renter so never worried about prop taxes.

As for your comments about commuters from the "bedroom communities" I whole heartedly agree. It is great for said communities to have people have high paying jobs elsewhere and then come home and spend their money in the local community, and push for better schools etc etc. All this without the bedroom community having to do any of the hard work of trying to attract real commercial business (i.e. office space) or the dirty stuff of manufacturing. You can have these nice idyllic suburbs/towns because the economic engine is somewhere else - and that's fine, as long as the people can get to and from that somewhere else.

But for the place that hosts the offices and manufacturing, the commuters are a net withdrawal of money from their economy, and that is also fine, as long as they are a minority. When everyone lives outside the city, you have a real problem as then you don't even have any voters left!

I would think many cities could do much worse than adopt Calgary style management - it is a very practical approach

the commuters are a net withdrawal of money from their economy

I'd like to see that quantified. If those businesses were to leave and move to the suburbs, I suspect it would hurt the central city quite a bit.

When people talk about the "suburbs" of Calgary, they usually mean internal suburbs like Mackenzie Towne, Country Hills, which don't meet the normal definition of suburb. They look like the typical sprawling external suburbs of other cities, but they are actually part of the central city.

Calgary annexed most of its true suburbs long ago, and nearby towns like Airdrie, Springbank, and Cochrane haven't managed to grow to a sufficient size to make much difference to the city tax base. They only contain about 8% of the population of the metropolitan area, and I imagine the city will try to annex them before they get too much bigger. (Based on past history).

Yes, I expect Calgary to try to annex the neighboring towns, but I can't see the towns going quietly. They love having their residents work in Calgary and bring home their disposable income to spend in their lower tax town.

These towns are, of course, asking for provincial funding for passenger rail service into Calgary to make it even easier for their residents to work there!

Thanks Jeff for something a bit more hopeful on the place where many of us live. I disagree with you however on what is the most important energy issue in the transport vs building energy efficiency.

Transport becomes a critical issue as soon as walkability diminishes beyond comfortable. Some studies have suggested that this is about 800m which can be extended by cycling. Beyond that, it becomes much harder to transport masses of people and goods in and out of suburbs on a daily basis without mecahnised transport. If people cannot get to their jobs/schools/shopping etc, those activities will have to become less frequent and in some cases will just cease. The 50Km commute for example may need to become a once a week/month trip and that will fundamentally change the relationship that people have with their jobs and homes. Some people will choose to dumpt the job (if this decison is not made for them) and some will dump the home. I'm sure there will also be some innovative transport sharing going on in suburbs but I expect that this will be much more prevalent for short trips, to commonly visited destinations like local shops and village centres than daily long haul commutes to jobs in "foreign parts".

Building energy efficiency is not a problem for every suburb and it is easier to retrofit and insulate a room or two. More people sharing the same space can increase efficiency dramatically also just as putting a passeneger in a car does. The economics may dictate that some houses get dismantled and rebuilt for energy efficiency and the skills to do this are more common than those required to build an electric car.

The thing that suburbs will have over densley packed cities is the ability to handle some of its own waste. A huge amount of the organics that currently go to land fill could be composted in a home compost bins with very little fuss or inconvenience. Composting toilets are harder to install but if municipal sewerage breaks down or the product becomes more highly valued, then these will go in, permitted or not. Much garden waste could be processed at home or at neigbourhood level as well and a lot more recycling of durables can be handled in the wider spaced suburbs.

The concept of resilience is central to the Transition movement which gets people to focus on their own local situation and make the most of local resources. IMO as jobs disapear and more people find themsleves spending more time in there suburbs with few means of escape, they will start to do what humans have always done and exploit the resources around them, whatever they are.

half his speech and points are new age buzz words that neither take into account the resources and systems needed to be maintained to support the systems he is promoting nor how badly they will fail in a energy constrained future. nor i think he realizes that at their current population level's no one is going to be able to grow enough food nor provide enough water.

the most cringe worthy ones are relating to open source innovation and distributed manufacture. ignoring the raw material resource factors needed to run the latter(unless he thinks those rapid prototyping machines run like replicators, then he is even more deluded.) they both require a system that while designed on paper was supposed to be robust but has been tweaked and made for the sake of speed and capacity over that. this system requires constant always on power, or at the very least predictable power on all it's major components all needing to be run at the same time. he basically seems to think we will keep the internet going at all costs, not realizing the infrastructural requirements to do so puts it near the top of the lists of stuff to get rid of for low hanging fruit of energy conservation.

Pretty much informative!!

It's interesting to see how events have unfolded since the following video was released in 2004: "End of Suburbia: Oil Depletion and the Collapse of the American Dream"

Here is the trailer:

For anyone who has not seen it, it's available on NetFlix.

The basic problem with this piece is in the title: "Rescuing Suburbia." As if Suburbia was something that was fine and wonderful, and all that it needs is a little upgrade, with the introduction of some backyard chickens and tomato plants.


The average family farm in 1850 was 200 acres. 200 acres! Not a 1/8th acre backyard suburban garden. So, if you want to talk about local, naturally-grown food from family farms, you should be thinking about 200 acre farms.

Then, since only perhaps 10% or 20% of the population is directly involved in farming, we need a format for those other 80%-90%. The only real format, for the entirety of human history, in any culture on any continent, has been the "Traditional City," whether a tiny village or a metropolis. This might be surrounded by farms, so that the nearest farm is only a mile away or even less, but the Traditional City itself is NOT a place where food is produced.

While 200 acres may be an average for a particular place and time, you can go a great deal smaller and still be viable. If you not competing against cheap energy. It's cheap energy that has driven up farm size, particularly after WWII. The whole game has been minimisation the expensive resource (labour) & maximising the cheap resource (energy). More land with few workers (generally just family members). Take away cheap energy and you're not going to keep the labour demand for ag down to 2% to 3% of the population. Look at Asia & Eastern Europe for classical examples of small holding (<5 areas) ringing cities.

Growing food in the city is not the way to go (apart from its value as green space & pleasure). However small market gardens in the former sprawl fringe would be viable.

How much of the last 250 years we undo all depend of exactly how expensive energy gets!

Give it a rest, you heavy-breathing peak-oilers -- people who are looking forward to the destruction of society.

No, I am looking forward to a revitalization of society, as the soul-deadening (and obesity generating) Suburbia shrinks and cities revitalize. Social isolation shrinking will be good for us.

*IF* we make the right choices, we can enjoy a higher quality of life, with much less oil and energy.