Why We Drive

(Or, why mass transit and land-use changes probably won't help our problems very much).

Breakdown of 2001 household vehicle miles traveled in the United States by purpose. Source: Table 6 of Summary of Travel Trends: 2001 National Household Travel Survey.

I think most of us on this site would agree that figuring out what to do about this terrible trio:
  1. The need to accomodate peaking or plateauing of global oil supply.
  2. Carbon emissions contributing to global warming
  3. Dependence on oil from politically unstable, especially Middle Eastern, sources
is our major generational challenge.

Although reasonable people can differ over the timing and shape of the oil peak (#1), only fairly unreasonable people now believe that we can continue to increase our CO2 emissions without severe consequences in the future (#2). And almost everybody agrees that we have a serious near-term problem with #3, since so much of global oil supply comes from parts of the world at risk of "regional conflagration", to use our new Secretary of Defense's term.

So what to do?

There are a variety of answers out there: more efficient cars, better land-use planning, more mass-transit, consuming less, switching to alternative forms of energy to name a few.

Recently, for reasons that will become clearer in future posts, I've been trying to come up to speed on transportation issues. I'm tentatively coming to some conclusions that I know a lot of people on this site aren't going to like. I thought I'd start putting them out there and see what holes in my argument folks can find.

Specifically, it seems to me that neither changes in land-use, nor changes in transportation infrastructure (transit etc), are terribly promising as approaches to the terrible trio.

To put this in more concrete terms, I mean that these possibilities can only be very "thin wedges" in the pile of wedges that need to be stacked up between the declining oil usage or carbon emissions we would ideally like to have, and the accelerating usage/emissions we would be likely to get with continued business as usual. Roughly speaking, it appears to me that we need 6-8% of wedges (meaning enough things to get us from 1-2% annual increases down to 5-6% annual decreases in either emissions or oil usage). 5-6% is a reasonable number for illustrative purposes: it's what Hubbert linearization suggests for eventual global decline rates, it's the decline rate achieved in global oil consumption from 1979-1983, and it is also what the Institute for Public Policy Research suggests we do to carbon emissions to have high confidence that global temperature rise will not exceed 2oC. It's in the range of "pretty painful but probably not impossible". So in that context, a big wedge is a 3% or a 5% wedge. A small wedge is 1/2% or less.

The following figure illustrates the general idea (which can only be seen as a rough approximation, but good enough to be useful).

Illustration of the idea of large and small wedges making up the difference between a 5% decline over the next twenty years, and 2% growth over the same time period (in any relevant quantity, such as oil production, oil imports, or carbon emissions).

Firstly, let me, for the sake of completeness, justify why one would focus on transport, and specifically autos, if worried about any of the terrible trio:

In the US, transportation represents 2/3 of our oil consumption:

Breakdown of US oil usage by sector, 1949 and 2005. Source: Figure 5.13a of EIA Annual Energy Review 2005.

Of that usage, the majority (a shade under 2/3) is used by light vehicles on the highways. Similarly with carbon emissions. For example, here in California, where we just committed to cut carbon emissions 25% below business-as-usual by 2020, over half of the problem is transportation.

Breakdown of 2000 California carbon emissions by purpose. Source: California Energy Commission.

And then there is the energy dependence problem. 96% of US transportation is oil powered, and a large fraction of global oil supply comes from the following mix of less than ideally stable exporting regions.

Proportion of global oil supply coming from various regions of less than ideal political stability. 1965-2005. Click to enlarge. Source: BP.

As you can see, dependence on the unstable regions peaked in the 1970s, and then declined as North Sea and Alaskan oil were developed. However, now that those are declining rapidly, dependence on unstable places is worsening again. Since the only possible source of much new oil from stable places is now Canadian tar sands, and growth in that source is expected to be relatively slow, this situation is all but certain to get worse unless demand for oil can be shrunk.

Not only is transportation critically linked with both oil and carbon emissions, but the quantity of transportation used (which can be measured by vehicle miles traveled) has historically been extraordinarily inelastic. It tends to increase inexorably year after year. Even the 1970s oil shocks produced only tiny 2% reductions in annual vehicle miles traveled.

Year on year percentage changes in US vehicle miles traveled, with GDP for comparison. Major oil shocks occurred in 1973 (Arab embargo), 1978-80 (Iranian revolution and Iran-Iraq war), and 1990-1991 (first Gulf war).

All in all, highway transportation is both the most important and the most intransigent aspect of our energy problem, so it makes sense to focus on it. We really love to drive. And I should say, since much of this piece is about the downsides and externalities of driving, that in my opinion, mobility is actually a good thing and a thing critical to a developed economy. There's a reason that kids can't wait to drive when they turn of age, and there's a reason poor countries use mules while rich countries use cars. It's the same reason why GDP and miles driven are highly correlated in the graph above. Being able to drive, or otherwise get around, allows workers to choose amongst more jobs, it allows contractors or salespeople to reach more clients, it allows employers to choose from a larger set of workers. In general, mobility promotes improved division of labor and economic efficiency, and thus wealth. Conversely, wealth allows more people to pay for more mobility, which they do with great enthusiasm all over the world.

We also just like the convenience of driving, as well as the aesthetic experience of piloting a couple of tons of steel with a few hundred horsepower of motivation.

So the question is how to have the upsides of getting around freely while cutting the downsides.

A popular answer with many Oil Drum readers, environmentalists, and a significant fraction of the urban planning community is mass transit. This has historically made intuitive sense to me since certainly these modes require less energy per passenger mile when operated at a decent fraction of capacity (and I commute by Caltrain many days myself). However, it doesn't take long with the data to make this look like a very unlikely solution to our terrible trio.

Firstly, as most people are aware, hardly anyone in the US is using transit:

Passenger-Miles of Travel by Mode: 2002. Source: Transportation Statistics Annual Report 2005, Figure 1-1.

As you can see, railroads, light rail etc are less than 2% of passenger miles. Buses are another 3%. Cars and trucks are almost the entire picture, with air transport the main long distance mode.

Not only is the share of transit ridership tiny, but it's been falling over recent decades.

Source: Transportation Research Board: Commuting in America III.

Ok, but maybe this is because, due to the evil car companies and oil companies, we underinvest in railroads and transit? Well, a few hours digging around in government statistics suggest otherwise. For orientation, here is the fraction of GDP that is expended on investment in transport infrastructure.

Investment in transportation infrastructure as a percentage of GDP by mode. 1977-2000. Source: Transportation Investment and GDP 2004: Table 6.6.

As you can see, we mostly spend a little less than 1% of our GDP on investment in our transport infrastructure, and that mainly goes on highways. However, look at this next graph. It shows the proportion of all transport infrastructure investment going on each of the non-highway modes.

Investment in non-highway transport modes as a percentage of total transport investment. 1977-2000. Source: Transportation Investment and GDP 2004: Table 6.6.

What becomes clear to me is that the proportion of investment on transit and railroads is completely disproportionate to their ridership and has been for decades. Far from underinvesting in these modes, we are overinvesting. We invest comfortably over 15% of our total transportation infrastructure national budget into railroads and transit, and yet they are carrying only 1.5% of passenger miles. So each of those modes is roughly a factor of 10 worse than highways and airports in terms of the return (in actual useful movement of people) on the investment (in transport infrastructure spending). That's appalling and suggests that transit projects, at least taken in the aggregate, are basically a giant black hole for dollars that deliver little value. (Caveat: the long-haul railroad spending may have a stronger justification in terms of freight, but I didn't analyze that).

Ok, well why won't Americans take the train? Well, the rough answer is that it takes nearly twice as long to get anywhere (36 minutes versus 21 minutes for an average metropolitan area US commute according to The Road More Travelled). More specifically, transit critically depends on high population densities. There have to be enough people close to the station at one end of the ride, and enough interesting destinations at the other end of the ride, to make the ridership viable. It also helps if population density is high enough to make roads very congested. The following graph makes it amazingly clear:

Transit and private vehicle share as a function of census tract density. Source: Commuting in America III.

And, again as most of us know, America was not developed with high density in mind. The number of places with densities in excess of 10,000 people/sq mile is extremely small:

US Population Density by County. Source: US Census Bureau.

Thus as a result, transit share is extremely small except in the very largest cities, and then only in the city core:

Transit share as a function of metropolitan size for both central city and suburbs ringing it. Source: Commuting in America III.

So in short, transit is quite simply never going to work to reduce auto VMT significantly at any reasonable cost in the present pattern of US urban development.

Ok. But we should start fixing all this, right? It may have been that American sprawl is "the most destructive development pattern the world has ever seen, and perhaps the greatest misallocation of resources the world has ever known" in Kunstler's memorable phrase, but we can fix it, no? We can promote Transit Oriented Development, and all will get better?

Only very slowly. The core problem here is the longevity of the housing stock. Here's the number of new housing units completed each year as a fraction of the existing housing stock:

Annual housing unit completions as a percentage of total housing stock 1970-2003. Source: HUD, US Housing Market Conditions, Aug 2006 (Table 4 and Table 25).

As you can see, we only add a tiny and dropping fraction to the housing stock each year - now well less than 2%. Thus any changes we start to make in where we put future housing units will only make a very small difference each year. To get another look at the same things, here's the age distribution of US housing units:

Age distribution of US housing units (Y-axis is cumulative percentage of houses younger than the age on the X-axis). Source: US Census Bureau, American Housing Survey for the United States: 2003.

The median housing unit is 35 years old, and many houses last a century.

To put this in wedge terms, consider the following thought experiment. Suppose, by politically draconian measures, we insist that all new housing development henceforward occurs such that the average driving of residents of those new units will only be half of the resident of existing units and we insist on retiring old units at the same rate we build new ones. That is, we basically force all new development to occur next to transit or in places of very high density. For this inconceivably herculean political effort, what do we get? Well, since about 1.25% or so of units turn over each year, we get a 0.6% wedge - not a major factor in our solution.

Contrast this with the situation for cars and trucks, which have a median life of only 5-6 years. Thus a herculean car replacement policy that insists all new vehicles are twice as fuel efficient as the old ones will create about a 4% wedge (ie something that makes a real difference). And this is why fuel economy responses were the leading demand-side response to the 70s oil shocks, and will probably be even more important going forward.

Age distribution of US light vehicles (Y-axis is cumulative percentage of vehicles younger than the age on the X-axis). Source: Transportation Energy Data Book, Table 3.6.

Finally, let me close with one last graph, which I finally tracked down: what are we all doing out there on the roads?

Breakdown of 2001 household vehicle miles traveled in the United States by purpose. Source: Table 6 of Summary of Travel Trends: 2001 National Household Travel Survey.

As you can see, the largest share of miles go in commuting, but social and recreational mileage is very close behind. Miles on personal errands and shopping are also significant contributions. So we would need to attack several of these categories to have much of an effect on vehicle miles traveled. More on that next time.

Well, I've changed my driving habits, again. Working out of my house was nice, but we couldn't scrounge up any sort of health care. So I just took a job in Charm City. For the first few days, I got in an hour early and walked the neighborhood until I found an 'apartment to let' sign only five blocks away. I moved in yesterday.

The problem around here is what to do with the car. I still must travel on some weekends, and as Stuart mentions above, the train and bus service take over seven hours for a three hour drive, and leave only once per day.

I also need a car for occasional business meetings. The local garages all have waiting lists for monthly parking, and you can get ticketed for feeding the meter in the same spot. Three of those tickets cost the same as monthly parking at a garage a mile away, so I guess I'll stick the car there and ride the Xootr over when I need it.

Why don't you hire a car when you need it?

I lived in Montreal for a year before I got a car, I only got one after I got married.

Montreal is rare amongst North American cities in that it is centralised enough that one can live without a car.

Amongst cities where one could live (maybe) without public transit: Montreal, Vancouver, Ottawa, Toronto, New York, Boston, Chicago, San Francisco...

mostly eastern cities, all densely populated, mostly Canadian cities.

Even in Toronto, which has an extensive public transport system, it's basically no good if you live outside the 416 area) ie only half the population of the GTA (2.3 million/ 5.0 million) and I can tell you if you live more than 2 miles off the subway line in Toronto (most in the north of the City do) then transport is a nightmare.  There is a reason the 401 Highway is one of the widest in the world.

I would add pre-K New Orleans in certain neighborhoods.  Close enough to walk to major employers, food, shopping, services, etc.

Pre-K, 3 of the 5 apartments occupied in my "house" did not have cars.  One bicycled to work, one was retired and one was an artist.  Each made limited use of public transit.

Best Hopes for walkable enighborhoods,


That's crazy talk.  The guy lives 5 blocks from work.  When we sold our car we told ourselves that we'd rent a car if we needed one.  In over a year, we've never needed one.

Do we live in a densified coastal city?  No, we live in public-transit-hostile Louisville, Kentucky.

I probably would if I didn't already have a car that was paid for years ago.  Renting a car three times a month costs more than the parking garage.
Why don't you join a car sharing program?  I've never done it but the idea of having a car sit in your parking spot for days on end just depreciating would drive me crazy.  
Would it be better if you kept it company while depreciating?
They do more than just depreciate, they rust pretty bad if you don't drive them as I found out when my disk brakes needed to be replaced after 3 years and 5K miles.  
Hello SS,

That is why I purchased a used, cheap, small scooter.  It drastically raised my gas mileage, but retains my 'mobility freedom' here in the Asphalt Wonderland.  Obviously, the climate, no mass-transit, too few buses, and lack of urban density make this a good solution for me.

Bob Shaw in Phx,Az  Are Humans Smarter than Yeast?

Ohhhh how I hate scooters.
They spew out MORE pollution per minute than a fuel
efficient car.  When I ballparked the figures a while ago my Chevy Sprint (52hp, 1L, 3 cylinder engine) put out less pollution than my 3hp lawn mower!  It only takes around 10hp to cruise the highway and scooters, lawn mowers and other machines of that ilk have no pollution control equipment.  A scotter also doesn't get much better milage than my Sprint (still on the road and gets >60mpg on the highway).

Of course we now use a push mower; but that's mostly been done away with by planting clover, wild strawberries (keeps the kids busy for many hours each summer) and using a neighbours electric push mower when we decide to hack it back.

Of course not using a pollution spewer unless you need to can make a big difference.  In the case of our car the cost of purchase, maintaince, licensing, insurance and plates is many many times the cost of fuel (aprox 6,000 driving km/yr) and, for us, we'd not be able to move the kids on a scooter (the reason to have a car is to get the kids/family somewhere).  I wonder what the cost of a scooter is?  I'm cynical enough to think that the cost of insurnace would swamp the cost of purchase, fuel or maintaince.

Neighbours rent a car only when they need it - but now that they have a second child they're looking at buying a car.  We thought about car sharing - but it doesn't work unless it's local - really local - as you can't just leave the kids behind while you go get a car ...

Cynically I think that when the #@$@$ hits the fan - that small changes like this are irrelevent.  We'll be making big changes and fast.  I'm just too cynical about rising debt, lack of savings and generally being overextended.  Peak oil will deal a nasty blow when it's acknowledged and there is some panic.

There are some decent electric scooters around.

This place in DC has a few:


Hello Praetzal,

Thxs for responding.  Agreed, old two-stroke scooters are bad news--I would never own one of those smokers that is too underpowered to ride on city streets.  The recent 4-stroke models are very much improved with computer-controlled programmed fuel injection and other emission goodies:
Honda's Silverwing is powered by a 582cc DOHC parallel-twin, liquid-cooled motor, putting out a claimed 50hp (@7,500 rpm) and 37 ftlbs of torque (@6,000 rpm), Vibes from the 360-degree crank are kept at bay with twin balance shafts, fuel is injected, emissions are reduced by an exhaust air-injector and catalytic converter, and final drive is by CVT.

400-600cc Scooters are tiny compared to the big Harleys and Honda Goldwings in engine displacement and acceleration performance.  But if one just needs acceleration superior to most traffic--these scooters are sized just right.  The big bikes and crotch rockets can accelerate like missiles--most car drivers have no appreciation of the unbelievable "get-up and go" these high power machines are capable of achieving.  It is not necessary to have a big bike or crotch rocket unless every now and then you wish to 'goose it' for a thrill.

Bob Shaw in Phx,Az  Are Humans Smarter than Yeast?

A photo of the parking lot at the factory I work. There are both 2 stroke and 4 stroke engines. Almost every engine is 125cc or less. Probably not enough cc's for the current average American, but they preform fine for the workers here.

Click to enlarge photo

Hello Oilfall,

Cool picture!  Looks like about 500 bikes--compare with the acres of real estate required to park 500 cars.  Glad to see all the helmets.  Covered parking is a smart incentive too.

Bob Shaw in Phx,Az  Are Humans Smarter than Yeast?

I get a login request when I try to enlarge the photo.
i agree that vehicles are a major problem, but land use is an equal problem

found this today at the united nations website, its not just transport!!


Livestock a major threat to environment
Remedies urgently needed
29 November 2006, Rome - Which causes more greenhouse gas emissions, rearing cattle or driving cars?


According to a new report published by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, the livestock sector generates more greenhouse gas emissions as measured in CO2 equivalent - 18 percent - than transport. It is also a major source of land and water degradation.

Says Henning Steinfeld, Chief of FAO's Livestock Information and Policy Branch and senior author of the report: "Livestock are one of the most significant contributors to today's most serious environmental problems. Urgent action is required to remedy the situation."

With increased prosperity, people are consuming more meat and dairy products every year. Global meat production is projected to more than double from 229 million tonnes in 1999/2001 to 465 million tonnes in 2050, while milk output is set to climb from 580 to 1043 million tonnes.

Long shadow

The global livestock sector is growing faster than any other agricultural sub-sector. It provides livelihoods to about 1.3 billion people and contributes about 40 percent to global agricultural output. For many poor farmers in developing countries livestock are also a source of renewable energy for draft and an essential source of organic fertilizer for their crops.

But such rapid growth exacts a steep environmental price, according to the FAO report, Livestock's Long Shadow -Environmental Issues and Options. "The environmental costs per unit of livestock production must be cut by one half, just to avoid the level of damage worsening beyond its present level," it warns.

When emissions from land use and land use change are included, the livestock sector accounts for 9 percent of CO2 deriving from human-related activities, but produces a much larger share of even more harmful greenhouse gases. It generates 65 percent of human-related nitrous oxide, which has 296 times the Global Warming Potential (GWP) of CO2. Most of this comes from manure.

And it accounts for respectively 37 percent of all human-induced methane (23 times as warming as CO2), which is largely produced by the digestive system of ruminants, and 64 percent of ammonia, which contributes significantly to acid rain.

Livestock now use 30 percent of the earth's entire land surface, mostly permanent pasture but also including 33 percent of the global arable land used to producing feed for livestock, the report notes. As forests are cleared to create new pastures, it is a major driver of deforestation, especially in Latin America where, for example, some 70 percent of former forests in the Amazon have been turned over to grazing.

Land and water

At the same time herds cause wide-scale land degradation, with about 20 percent of pastures considered as degraded through overgrazing, compaction and erosion. This figure is even higher in the drylands where inappropriate policies and inadequate livestock management contribute to advancing desertification.

The livestock business is among the most damaging sectors to the earth's increasingly scarce water resources, contributing among other things to water pollution, euthropication and the degeneration of coral reefs. The major polluting agents are animal wastes, antibiotics and hormones, chemicals from tanneries, fertilizers and the pesticides used to spray feed crops. Widespread overgrazing disturbs water cycles, reducing replenishment of above and below ground water resources. Significant amounts of water are withdrawn for the production of feed.

Livestock are estimated to be the main inland source of phosphorous and nitrogen contamination of the South China Sea, contributing to biodiversity loss in marine ecosystems.

Meat and dairy animals now account for about 20 percent of all terrestrial animal biomass. Livestock's presence in vast tracts of land and its demand for feed crops also contribute to biodiversity loss; 15 out of 24 important ecosystem services are assessed as in decline, with livestock identified as a culprit.


The report, which was produced with the support of the multi-institutional Livestock, Environment and Development (LEAD) Initiative, proposes explicitly to consider these environmental costs and suggests a number of ways of remedying the situation, including:

Land degradation - controlling access and removing obstacles to mobility on common pastures. Use of soil conservation methods and silvopastoralism, together with controlled livestock exclusion from sensitive areas; payment schemes for environmental services in livestock-based land use to help reduce and reverse land degradation.

Atmosphere and climate - increasing the efficiency of livestock production and feed crop agriculture. Improving animals' diets to reduce enteric fermentation and consequent methane emissions, and setting up biogas plant initiatives to recycle manure.

Water - improving the efficiency of irrigation systems. Introducing full-cost pricing for water together with taxes to discourage large-scale livestock concentration close to cities.

These and related questions are the focus of discussions between FAO and its partners meeting to chart the way forward for livestock production at global consultations in Bangkok this week. These discussions also include the substantial public health risks related to the rapid livestock sector growth as, increasingly, animal diseases also affect humans; rapid livestock sector growth can also lead to the exclusion of smallholders from growing markets.

"Livestock now use 30 percent of the earth's entire land surface" and yet the FAO are projecting meat and milk production to double in the near future? And the environmental problems associated with spiralling livestock numbers are going to be helped with those feeble "remedies"? Why can't we just encourage people to reduce their gluttonous consumption of meat and milk?
If you are talking about scooters with 2 cycle smoke belching engines, then I would agree with you.

My scooter is an e-max and it runs on electricity generated by wind power from the grid. I also have 4 small solar panels that I use to recharge the batteries in the summer.

The only bad thing about the scooter is that I do not use it much in December or January because of the weather here in Utah. When the weather is bad I drive the Prius to work. If they start selling a plugin version I will be first in line to buy one of those.

The black and decker electric mower is a good solution for the lawn duties along with an electric trimmer.

 I always liked the looks of the Chevy sprint, to bad GM does not still build new ones.

Hi Stuart

If we can't get the suburbs back to town, why not bring town to the suburbs? In my estate in Coventry ,UK, I notice we have very few amenities within walking distance. This is because the town planners who designed it didn't believe in mixed-use. I think there might be some mileage (he he) in building small local centres at strategic points in suburbia with shops and workplaces. It'll mean that people have the option to live closer to work and have a walk or a much shorter drive to their local shops. These centers could maybe be linked together by freeway, tram or rail.
 This might be a way to avoid Kunstler-burbs, basically by bringing some granularity to existing low density suburbs. These new "town centres" might contain higher density housing and may attract locals to live there, abandoning the most hard-to-reach 'burbs in an energy shortage.
 I think that this will be the cheapest and easiest way to the future. It gives people ways to localise.

I second this motion. It wouldn't be too difficult to develop a town center in many suburbs.  Seize a block by emminet domain and develop a grocery, a few offices, a train or trolley station, ground floor retail, etc.  It would look like a traditional American small town.  People could then walk, bike, scooter, or what have you the few miles to their town center instead driving 30 or 40 minutes as they do now.
Great post. Personal automobile use is the "low-hanging fruit" of conservation. The main questions to be answered are:

  1. What will stop people using personal automobiles for commuting purposes
  2. What will stop people using personal automobiles for social and recreational purposes
  3. What will stop people using personal automobiles for shopping

The obvious, but politically nigh-on-impossible, answer is to tax gasoline to a level that is so painful that people have no choice but to use the bus, train or other (where such exists) to commute, reduce their social and recreational motoring, and plan their shopping trips to buy as much as produce as they need for as long a period as economically practicable.

Aside from the difficulty of finding a politician to back such a vote-losing proposition, another problem with the obvious solution is that it is a burden borne foremost by the poorest people first, and thus may be seen as a tax predominantly on the poor. Arguably, this is not in itself a problem as long as alternatives are available at a reasonable price and utility.

It may therefore make sense to use a significant proportion of increased gasoline taxes to create and subsidise a more efficient, reliable, pratical, cleaner and cheaper public network of buses, trains etc. In this way, people get financially squeezed out of their cars but ultimately benefit financially and otherwise from a better transport system than previously existed. In turn, richer people who elected to continue to use private transport would essentially be directly subsidising the poorer masses who are forced into using public trasnportation.

These are just some knee-jerk thoughts to Stuart's post. Interested in thoughts about practicality or otherwise of the above, as well as ideas about the sort of public transportation required. As an example, I believe that local networks of buses (similar to school bus system) would be required to deliver people from home to station and station to place-of-work.

High gas taxes are practiced in Europe for decades and they work just fine. They are not a burden on the poor at all because everybody can reduce their consumption simply by buying a smaller car, which is exactly what happens. So the only ones put out of their misery are oversized cars. People still commute. They still drive for fun. They just move less sheet metal.
My point exactly (I am English, living in UK). As you stae our private car fleet is more efficient (in MPG) than that of the US as a result of higher taxes on gasoline.

I believe that even higher taxes would force people out of their cars and am not in principle opposed to this, as long as a substitute service is provided with the taxes raised. This means more bus, train, tram and underground services operating more efficiently over a wider area (such that door-to-door service is almost available as with private cars) at a lower cost than at present.

However, on the whole, you are right, the LOWEST hanging fruit in conservation in the US is a transition to smaller more fuel-efficient vehicles. That would however necesitate a change in the non-negotiable way of life.

Only people who have six figure salaries talk about non-negotiable lifestyles in the US. Most everyone else has to fight daily for a minimum of security and luxury. I don't take any of that crap talk seriously. Market forces and taxation work in the US just as well as anywhere else. The difference is that political parties in Europe do their job (to govern) reasonably well, while the current political establishment in the US is a hopelessly ineffective, broken system.
I live in the UK. Petrol tax is high here compared to almost anywhere, but I think this dates from pre-North Sea days and was designed to limit the economic damage of imported oil at a time when the car was not seen as a birthright. It must have been very easy to keep this high tax in place after N Sea oil had been discovered. The US seems to have the opposite problem, in that domestic oil was abundant in the early days and people now violently resist the notion of taxing it heavily.

The point I'm making is that high or low taxes are just a matter of historical expediency, not sound economic management by the government. In the UK so called "green" taxes have actually fallen since Labour came into power 9 years ago and the pre-budget speech by Gordon Brown contained just a couple of pathetically mild measures which will make no difference to anything. The US political system might be broken, but no more so than in the UK. Economic growth is still seen as the number 1 priority vote winner and the environmental is more of a lip service thing.

No petrol taxes were hiked in the 90s by successive Conservative Chancellors, and then by Gordon Brown.

The 'escalator' was a tacit agreement by both parties that petrol duties could be raised by inflation + 3%.

The logic was simple.  It was easier to raise taxes on petrol, than on VAT or income tax.  The UK raises £20bn pa from petrol taxation, a very large sum, and has some of the highest petrol taxes in the world.

In 2000, the straw broke the camel's back.  Petrol crept over the 80p/ litre level.  A group of truckers, farmers, and others blockaded the fuel depots, sparking a popular revolt, and a nearly complete shutdown of the country for 3 days.

Since then, guided by Tony Blair's grasp of what is acceptable to the common man (and the Daily Mail) and in particular the key swing voter 'Mondeo Man', a suburban dwelling, car driving bloke, the Chancellor has not been allowed anywhere near the motorist.

I'm really struggling with this comment, because it seems to me that the problem is more that the American  public simply does not want to be told that they need to reduce their exuberant lifestyles, and the lack of political will to address our problems here is simply a recognition by politicians that to do so would be , well, counterproductive to their reelection efforts. Why is Europe different?  I suppose the people there have different values, and those values are reflected in their policies.
Well, look what we have just done.

Not about cars for sure, but involved in the small problem of transport in general:


Aberdeen Airport is to be extended to enable transatlantic flights. Cost? £300 million

Should be ready by 2015.

Will make a nice skate board park from 2020 onwards.

If we look at user fees aka bus fare as a tax then it becomes one of the most regressive taxes ever levied.  In my decades of work in public transit I always advocated the elimination of bus fares.  In total the bus fares brought in a little less than driver wages.  The costs of benefits, mechanics' wages, office salaries, fuel and parts, and other costs were covered by taxes on the whole population.  As a government service we added the tax of bus fares to the poorest people in our communities.
For several years I drove a downtown parking shuttle where people could parked for free and rode for free.  The state provided a per passenger subsidy to the transit system. Ridership was so high on the free shuttle that it was the only route that made a profit for the agency.
Free busses have been tried a few times in Sweden in small or very small towns. The result use to be less walking and bicycling and no difference in the ammount of car travel.

If you want to get people out of their cars onto collective transport the fare matters little here but it helps to have a dense schedule, preferably every 20 min or less, good cleaning of the wehicels, air conditioning and they are for some strange reason more attractive if they run on rails.

The income from fares is usually about 30-50% of the total cost for collective traffic in Sweden. The tax subsidy is large :-( The only collective traffic running withouth subsidy are the main rail routes, private bus companies between some large towns, airport shuttles and air travel from large airports.

About the subsidy - the person most responsible for Karlsruhe having such an excellent and forward looking transit system has always been very upfront in saying the system will always require money apart from the fares, but that paying for the non-monetary benefits of the system is a worthwhile exchange.

Cleaner air and streets not full of cars, for example, or being able to enjoy an evening downtown without having to worry about driving home, or the children who can ride the system for free or a very small fee, or the access to the city for people who live in smaller towns without a vehicle (that one tends to have the merchants support him very strongly, by the way).

In other words, much like the parks and playgrounds, or the museums and theaters, as long as access is broad enough, such things are worth having, even if they don't pay for themselves in a free market sense.

Good questions, but they will be more effective if rephrased:

  • What will attract people to alternatives to using personal automobiles for commuting purposes?

  • What will attract people to alternatives to using personal automobiles for social and recreational purposes?

  • What will attract people to alternatives to using personal automobiles for shopping?

The key is in meeting commuter expectations rather than thwarting them.

One aspect, which has yet to receive much discussion in this thread, is pricing other than fuel.  One of the reason that people in the U.S. drive so much is that it is relatively inexpensive to drive and park a car.  As the total cost of commuting increases - fuel, insurance, tolls, parking, congestion pricing, etc. - people will have more incentive to look at transportation alternatives.  Certainly, when I worked in downtown Portland, the main reason that I rode the bus was that a bus pass was cheaper than parking.  Conversely, working in downtown Austin today, my parking is provided free of charge, and I have less incentive to use the less convenient transit.

One of the big issues currently being debated in Texas is how to pay for our roads.  The governor has proposed a major toll-road building program that has met with significant public opposition.  The other possibility is to increase the state gas tax.  Regardless, driving costs in Texas, already the state with the highest transportation costs, will likely be going up.

Returning to the original post, flaws and gaps in the data relied upon undermine the conclusions.  For instance, the Passenger-Miles of Travel by Mode chart omits any categories for bicyclists and pedestrians.  Now, these will be small percentages, but they need to be included.  Also, as pointed out by others, when measuring trips rather than miles, these modes will rise in significance, particularly for the major urban areas.  For instance, I just returned from walking two blocks to lunch:  low mileage but two trips.

I also question the methodology used to generate the Summary of Travel Trends pie chart used to open and close the post.  Given the breadth of the other four categories, I cannot begin to imagine what trips are included in the "15% Other."  This raises questions about how the data was gathered and interpreted.

In closing, VMT can be reduced through a combination of pricing, land use, and transit, but the potential reduction will be partially offset through shifts to higher mileage vehicles.

I think Perry's going to ram those toll roads through, no matter what, and also his favorite, the TransTexas Corridor. His reelection ensures this.
Really, it's the only way.

While I think there's a lot more elasticity of the social fabric built in before we proverbially 'resort to cannibalism,' (or any other image of Doom), there's a hell of a lot more to be done than simply requiring lighter hybrid cars, or spending a fraction of a percent of GDP on trains.

EVERY aspect of how we live needs to be examined from a systems perspective, with an eye towards saving energy.  This will not happen at The Speed of Congress - being slower than any impending catastrophe, including a peak 30 years out.

The only way to make it happen is to make gasoline energy a significant percentage of the cost of driving(rather than the silver-plated Peltier-effect cupholders), to make natural gas energy a significant percentage of the cost of heating a house (rather than ammortization of the fake fireplace you bought), to make bombs cost more to produce than the pilot that drops them.

The only way to force this level of attention is a free market approach, combined with subsidies for durable systematic improvements (rather than consummables).

You should be able to drive around in that Hummer all day long if you can afford it, and you can offer me just compensation for taking more than your share of the pie, and shitting in my air supply.

So here's the plan:

We tax energy.  Heavily.  At the source.  To levels comparable to Europe - which would force severe, rapid change in the US (yeah, we're not Europe, I get it).  The tax has two parts (let's call them equal for sweet, light crude): Pollution, and Energy Security.  Energy security is levied on imported energy.  Pollution is levied mostly on GhG equivalence, and minor amounts on toxic portions of coal, oil, uranium, etc.

Taxing is done at the heavy industry level - refinery, mine, powerplant, distributor - whatever.  It trickles down in a way that cutting taxes for the rich never did.

No fucking carbon trading.  No paying people for trees that they didn't cut down, oil they didn't buy, or trips that they didn't take.  No rationing.  No exemptions, deductions, or allowances.

Then, we give it all back in a rebate at the end of the year.  One equal check per tax paying US citizen.

This handily solves the political problem (it's minimally progressive, even, as the rich spend more energy), it's enforceable, it caters to the isolationist masses which teem after a major war, and it creates a market for energy saving solutions, changes in culture, and relocalization that nothing else can possibly do other than a postpeak drawdown.

A major energy tax is necessary, but it's not enough...

There was a question asked in a HuffPo article a few days ago - what would you spend, given one free Act of Congress, on sustainability and solving Global Warming, and how much of it would go where.

I think around 2% of GDP - $250 billion a year is necessary in government spending, on top of the energy tax mentioned above.

30 billion / yr  to create a national inter-metropolitan area highspeed maglev network, designed to obsolete the long-haul trucking industry, the airline industry, and some of the long-distance features we currently require in automotives.  Anything should be haulable from Boston to San Diego in 12 hours.  Existing lowspeed rail networks form a last-mile approach, and could be reactivated commercially if such a system were in place.  Stations are under major airport terminals every 100 miles or so.  Shades of the Interstate project.

30 billion / yr in matching funds for electrified urban and semi-urban rail, starting with Alan's projects.

20 billion / yr in incentives for wind energy capacity, mostly using emminent federal domain to defeat NIMBYism

10 billion / yr goes into a fund that purchases progressively larger, progressively cheaper solar installations in a non-bidding scheme:  "I'll buy 1GW at $2/watt, then 1.5GW at $1.80/watt, then 2GW at $1.60/watt"  Solar energy is noncompetitive without major cost improvements.

20 billion / yr goes into subsidized energy efficient home and commercial systems: Mostly insulation + insulation retrofits, multipane windows, shutters and windows that open/close, better lighting, weathersealing, cheaper solar thermal solutions, greywater recycling systems... the list goes on for a few pages.  Intended to be exceeded by private sector activity, but this provides a leg up.

20 billion / yr goes to giving the UN teeth to fight its own wars by consensus rather than using our oil, in combination with a major drawdown in US military forces designed to allow this much spending on energy.  We attacked Iraq, while letting Darfur burn, North Korea glow, Al Qaeda open branch offices, and the Taliban grow heroin.  An internationalist military bent (call it what you will) is simply much cheaper in energy, political willpower, and human life than being the world's only military superpower, on hundreds of billions of dollars of national debt a year.

5 billion / yr goes into a new energy research organisation resembling DARPA which provides numerous small-scale grants and overview for scientists and inventors doing research on sustainability, energy, etc.

20 billion / yr on 3G nuclear fission.

10 billion / yr on nuclear fusion.

10 billion / yr on undeveloped biologicals (crops lacking lobbyists, but suitable for growing in the US), with an emphasis on algal biodiesel, and secondary emphasis on jatropha and pongammia biodiesel, and gasification  from a wide variety of sources.

1 billion / yr on whichever ends up being higher ROI and higher energy / pollution ratio: CTL or Oil Shale.

5 billion / yr goes into providing cogen systems for heavy industry, with utility hookup: there are a lot of waste heat sources out there, and a lot of hot water heaters, radiators, and steam turbines to be spun.

2 billion / yr in federal assistance to science & engineering students

1 billion / yr to implement geothermal + hydro wherever possible.

The rest goes into a program that shifts in allocation: the first year, all is put into protectionist trade measures to keep manufacturing here and cushion the economy.  The next year, 10% goes to energy production capacity improvements based on best-available technology improvements, the next year, 20% goes to capacity.   By the end of 10 years, all of it goes to capacity.


This is designed to be implemented in 2008 by a PO-aware tri-majority Democratic president, and to have enough momentum that A) it would achieve energy independance and a major reduction in carbon footprint before 2020, B) it would accomplish a major cultural shift, and C) it would be impossible (fight oil lobbyists with wind/nuke/etc lobbyists) to completely dismantle given a change of party in ensuing elections.

Americancs won't vote for large energy taxes, and they will throw out any politicians who attempt to impose them. Next idea?
They voted a nickel a gallon tax to build the Interstate Highway System, roughly a 20% increase at the time.

IF there is a goal that they will buy into, they can tax themselves.

IF they accept that Peak Oil is a reality and $4.80/gallon is just the beginning, then higher gas taxes for a "way out" are supportable, IMHO.  Not overwhelming political support, but doable.

Clinton did manage a 4.x cent gas tax BTW.


"Clinton did manage a 4.x cent gas tax BTW"

He tried to get a 50c tax in 1993, and Congress cut it down to 4c. And what happened to the Democratic party in 1994? Oops.

I think HOT lanes are probably a more promising approach than a gas tax. Convert existing HOV lanes to HOT, and then as people get used to them, make more from the regular lanes by degrees. I think that has more chance of working because people might see advantages for themselves in the existence of the HOT lane (ie that they can get somewhere fast when they need to if they are willing to pay). However, I imagine it will still be a slow and hard-fought process.

I think raising CAFE is more promising again, because voters are more willing to put the problem on the auto companies than take it on themselves. However, Detroit will no doubt push back mightily. But there might be enough political will at the moment with all the concern over energy independence.

Timely Wall St Journal poll

80% favor forcing auto makers to build more fuel-efficient vehicles even if that raises prices.

I think the politicians have their marching orders and need their feet held to the fire until they get it done.

Even if the Fuel Tax Administration sends them a check for x dollars every year?  Even if it neatly solves illegal immigration objections by turning them into a revenue stream?  Even if it's pushed as a way of fighting for our future against a rising tide of scary foreign dominance?
Absolutely true that Americans will vote out any politician who advocates an energy tax to encourage conservation or to diminish CO2 emissions--but suppose the tax was defined as an "energy independence tariff" on oil and gasoline imports? Of course this would be the equivalent of a gasoline (and other oil products) tax in terms of raising prices, but if it were presented as "a tax on foreigners" for "national security" then possibly the tariff could be sold under the flag of patriotism. (Yes, I know, the last refuge of scoundrels. But you do what you have to do.)
I'm hoping we'll reach a tipping point where we'll see that the cost of gas (oil) is going up.  Now it can go up through high taxes that we can then reinvest in ourselves. Or it can go up when demand exceeds supply and we can send all that money to Iran, Venezuela, etc.  In my view, we'll need higher prices to get people to walk and bike more, take the bus or train, live closer to work, and fill up all those empty seats in other cars (carpool and vanpool).  We'll never completely replace the automobile, but given enough time we in the U.S. can change our land use and transportation systems to more closely resemble some of those in Europe.  And it's already happening in small ways in some areas (e.g., Portland, OR).  Just because it's going to take some decades, doesn't mean it won't happen.

What I'm looking for her is a tipping point when it becomes so clear that oil is a loser that we start to change how we do things in a big way.

An alternative to encouraging large scale shifts in mode is to encourage better efficiency. The graph below from Environment Canada shows CO2 emissions per passenger-kilometre under two scenarios: actual use, and what it would be if all seats in the vehicle were full. The data are old but serve to make a point. A big wedge is available by increasing utilization of existing modes of passenger transport.


Another big wedge is available in the USA through switching vehicle use from SUVs and pickups to passenger cars. Light trucks make up approximately 50% of new vehicle sales in the US but most are used for tasks like commuting and transporting the kids to school. CO2 emissions and fuel consumption are directly related. Driving an average new light truck to the supermarket uses about 42% more fuel than driving an average new car. The savings from switching to a small, fuel-efficient car are even greater.  

Re: mass transit and land-use changes probably won't help our problems very much


Social & Recreational -- 24%

Fill'er Up For
Happy Motoring!

I believe when Jim uses the phrase the greatest misallocation of resources the world has ever known, we now begin to grasp what he really means.

Seriously though, Dave - can you really blame those of us with gloomy long term outlooks when we know we have to achieve a 5%-6% wedge per year for decades to come once peak hits just to keep up with decline? And then we see this sort of information?

Kunstler's words struck home with me a long while ago and I agreed the first time I read them. Further, I'll state that I think homo americanus-automobilus is doomed to extinction within a century at the most.

This is only correct if you truly believe in communism and think about life as a series of five-year-plans optimising industrial production with the least amount of energy/matter input. We know already where that model went... right into the garbage can of history. Sadly enough it took a couple hundred million lives with it.

There is nothing wrong with recreational driving. There is a lot wrong with using 5.8l 300hp engines to move 2 tons of sheet metal penis enlargement to do it.

"as a series of five-year-plans optimising industrial production with the least amount of energy/matter input"

This is news.  Where did these five year plans with the 'least amount' of energy/matter input occur?

In reality? Nowhere. In theory? In most communist countries. The system did not work because it was based on the idea that a central planning commission could predict the needs of a whole nation for years to come and that pre-designed plans could be fulfilled with 100% efficiency. What really happened was that everyone submitted fake plans and fake reports how those plans were carried out. On paper eveything looked good, in reality people were freezing and starving.

There is nothing wrong with markets playing the real-time equivalent of these idealized controlling instances. We know it works... up to a point. Markets need to be regulated to stay within reasonable bounds and be left alone to sense trends that are not appearent to any logical analysis. There are judgement calls here.

In the end ... the oil markets will regulate the SUV out of existence. It will come at a very high cost but it will come. One could do the same thing at a much lower cost by using regulatory mechanism like the gas tax. Oh... actually... most of the world has. Only the US is lagging behind.

On paper eveything looked good, in reality people were freezing and starving.

Bullshit, and especially re the freezing and starving, except for the latter ONCE in China in the early fifties (and even that is disputed, e.g. by William Hinton).

The system 'worked' extremely well. In the USSR/DDR, one did not pay, e.g. mortgage costs, rent, or even utilities. Imagine, you Yanks: a society where one does not pay the banker, or the landlord, or even the utility company! GASP! Where money is largely 'tokenistic', some pittance you give up to get on the tram (Orlov). It's entirely against the natural order! It is IMPOSSIBLE! Surely no modern society could ever have done such a thing!

Uh-oh, flame war time. 300 million brainwashed Americans about to tell me how everyone in the Soviet bloc was starving and freezing, just like the Western press has always told us!

Propaganda notwithstanding, the Soviet bloc had fully functional industrial societies with well-fed populations. (except Romania).

So eff off with your stale anti-Communist propaganda.

By the way, one of the largest 'planned economies' on Earth is the Pentagon. And I think it does rather well, except of course when it comes to fighting :)...

Hello Franz,

No flames from me.  I think it entirely possible to do the same in America if TPTB can be convinced [and that is the difficult part!], that it is an excellent way to help reduce violence postPeak.  But I am not enough of an econ-expert on the topic of a 'gift economy' to know how this should be designed and implemented.

I think this is what Richard Rainwater will do to get his South Carolina neighbors to rally around to build a large communal survival habitat.

Hey, Don Sailorman!  Are you there? Care to comment?

Bob Shaw in Phx,Az  Are Humans Smarter than Yeast?

Please.  Don't think all 300 million of us are like InfinitePossibilities.
Sorry, I should know better by now... :)

being from Germany, I can maybe add some little aspects to your glorious communism that were observed at the time:

- Yes, nobody starved.


  • In general, the economy didn't work very well. When Germany was reunified, it turned out that most of the East-German industrial base had been systematically worn-down from the already low peak it achieved after it had half-way recovered from the destructions of WW2 and the disinstallations the Soviets did.

  • The environment generally suffered heavily under the emissions of long outdated technology and complete disregard for the health of the population.

  • Not having to pay a landlord, almost equal incomes, little private whealth and all the other glorious achievements of East-German socialism (it has never been real communism!) resulted in a lack of initiative and care for the common possessions. Example: I live in a part of the former East Germany and it took all the years since 1990 to redevelop most of the ruined building stock to any reasonable level.

Having seen all that, I strongly advocate using market forces for most aspects of resource distribution but strongly reigned in by far-sighted government regulation.



I agree with your statements, but I have one question: How are we to get "far-sighted government regulation."? Most elected politicians look into the future only as far as the next election.

To deal with peak oil and global warming more government regulation will be needed--I don't think there can be any doubt as to that conclusion. However, my guess is that until there is a major crisis (say equal to the Great Depression), the U.S. government (and most other governments) will react with feeble legislation and regulation and only incrementally.

I don't want a major economic collapse. I don't want a major war. But one or the other will probably be required to make major changes in a society as car-centered as is the U.S.


there are some examples of fairly far-sighted government regulation, as in the catalytic converter regulation or the ozone hole chemicals regulation.

However, these were certainly easy compared to the challenges of peak oil. So I agree that we will probably not see any timely reaction from the governments.




Let's add the little coda that the German Democratic Republic had a network of informants and police spies that numbered literally millions: perhaps as much as 1 in 10 East Germans.

And they had prison camps, and tortured and murdered opponents.

And they built a wall around it and shot anyone who tried to get out.

Soviet Communism was amongst the most odious regimes ever invented by the human race.  Fascism was arguably worse, but Marxist-Leninism did more damage to more people, by the sheer virtue of being around much longer on the face of the planet.

Catholicism is still the undisputed champion of causing human misery. Torture, genocide, overpopulation, ... you name it - they did it.
the really big genocides, as far as I am aware are:

  • Australian aborigines - the (Protestant) British Empire
  • North American aboriginals - see above, also the United States (no Catholic President pre 1960)
(the French married them, the English and Americans slaughtered them-- Riel was a Catholic priest before he was a resistance leader)
  • the liquidation of the Kulaks and the Great Purge in 1930s Russia (say 12-15m dead) - Stalin
  • the Great Leap Forward in 1959-60 China (say 10 million) - Mao Tse Dong
  • Genghis Khan (20 million, 30 million?  who knows?)
  • the Holocaust (6-7 million)- the Nazis
  • Japan in China in the 1930s (Rape of Nanjing etc.)

None of these can be wholly, or primarily, or indeed at all, awarded to the Catholic Church

We can count against the Catholics what happened when the Spanish conquered South and Central America.  Although of course disease did much of the work for them.  And latterly, the Church took responsibility for protecting the natives against colonial depredation.

We could count the Belgian 19th century genocide in the Congo, but since Belgium was an independent nation, albeit a Catholic one, I'm not sure how well that would work.

Which particular atrocities were you seeking to balance against those?

Not that I think the church to be especially bloodthirsty, not at all - but after almost two millennia of Realpolitik you inevitably end up with blood on your hands.

The church had and in many places still has a very big cultural influence: keeping the disdain for jews alive and thereby providing ground for countless pogroms and similar policies, providing a moral ground for the domination and exploitation of heathens, blocking the spread of a responsible attitude towards family planning, etc.

The goal of the church in the colonies was simply to expand its power, whether by sending priests after the conquistadores or missionaries before them - as long as the heathen were converted, and adopted European culture everything else didn't matter (remember the debate of De Las Casas vs. Sepulveda). The colonization of Africa was a similarly messy affair of economic exploitation, and do you really think that the humanity of the plantation masters depended on the flag on their villa?

We need to see the church (any church) as it really is: an organisation that, in the first place, seeks to gain power and to perpetuate itself.

Yes, but.  I agree with you about the many ills of the Catholic Church (arguably Luther was a bigger influence for anti-semitism than the Catholics, though).

Humans have an (apparently) innate need to seek the spiritual.

That tends to lead to organised religion.

If the motive were entirely self centred, I don't think religion would thrive in the way it does, in human affairs.

And nations without strong religious institutions (I am thinking post communist China and Russia) have their own pathologies: a kind of mindless selfish materialism.

"Fully functional industrial societies" whose coal-based pollution put America's to shame, especially as far as creating unliveable areas.

"Well fed" if you ignore the Ukrainian terror famines and crop failures in the 'stans, not to mention the Aral Sea catastrophe.

As for not freezing, that was mostly 'thanks' to district scaled hot water distribution systems that were exceedingly wasteful.

The Soviet Union had all the energy wastefullness and profligacy of the United States, and none of the fun.

My plan to reduce US Oil consumption by 10% (Transportation use by 13.3%) in 10 to 12 Years with mature existing technology.


I also have a $125-$150 billion dollar list of "on-the-shelf" Urban Rail projects that could be started in 1 to 3 years.  A second wave of $300 to $500 billion in 5 to 8 years (start construction, not complete).

Now, I assumed "pre-Peak" conditions (somewhat rising oil prices) in my "10% savings" projection.  Raise oil prices, put 50 mph speed limits on, change gov't policies and I can "promise" 20%, not 10% savings !  Perhaps even 33% of total US oil consumption in ten to twelve years.

I look at the less than 1% drop in US oil consumption with recent oil price increases and I see economic recession/depression as the only way to get even -2.5% to -3% annual drops in oil consumption with "free market" responses.  Start considering -8% compounded for a half dozen years and {insert image of computer blue screen}

IMHO, post-Peak Oil will not be a stick, it will be a hammer !

The only refuge from this destructive hammer will be clustered around non-oil transportation, using little oil & NG for other needs.  We may be in a situation where "extraordinary" events unfold and previously unthinkable choices are made.

I live in post-Katrina New Orleans and my sense of what is possible is much greater than most.

I look to history.  The US totally changed our urban form from ~1950 to ~1970. We killed (or at least marginalized), with very few exceptions, every one of our downtown commercial areas !  We invented new urban forms (strip malls, drive-in everything, regional malls, interstate highway development) ! A truly remarkable "achievement".

We also built, largely with "coal, mules and sweat", subways in our largest cities and streetcars in 500 cities, towns and even villages, in twenty years from 1897 to 1916.  No advanced technology, very little oil till towards the end of the period, but astounding results !

IF we start now, even with modest goals, this will enlarge and speed up a later, much larger transformation.  Spend 85%, and not 15% of our transportation capital on electrified rail, muc of the rest of buses, HOV lanes, etc.  Starting from a slow walk is much easier than from a recliner, asleep.

I want to start walking in the right direction !  Then we can start running when we have to.

Best Hopes,


great article  i will have to read all of it later        it occurs to me though that what you refer to as "extraordinarily inelastic"  is what the befuddled one refered to as " addicted to oil"  
Great article Stuart, thanks for taking the time to dig all that information up.

Here in London, lack of housing is has caused a huge runup in pricing so I wonder if pricing could be a mechanism to force the closedown of suburbia?  However having said that if the cost of transit to/from work becomes a major major factor then we might be on the verge of city collapse anyway...

Regards, Nick.

Pricing is what keeps suburbia selling like hotcakes.  You can drop $200,000 on a 900 square foot house on a postage stamp near the city, or put that same $200,000 on a 3,000 square foot house on 1/2 acre in the burbs.  It seems they rise lock-step with one another, so the city never becomes attractive price-wise again.  Suburbia makes you feel like you're getting your money's worth.
In Ohio, where housing prices have not been hyperinflated, I've wondered if it's really cheaper to live in the burbs.  You're going to spend an extra $2000 a year in property taxes (for schools) in the burbs vs. the city for a $200,000 house.  You're going to spend an exta 1 to 3 dollars a day in gasoline for each vehicle (not to mention extra costs with depreciation, maintenance).  Furthermore if you live in a suburb and work in the city, you pay two local income taxes (one for your residence, one for your place of employment).  This eats up an additional 2% or so of your income.  

I have a friend, a college profesor, who elected to stay in town even though they wanted a bigger yard for their three boys.  When they figured in the cost of having to go from 1 car to 2, they realized ir just didn't make sense (He walks to work).  Now they live in a slightly bigger home with a slightly bigger yard that's one block from a city park and they're still a one car family.  If Americans really thought about it, it doesn't always make economic sense to live in the burbs.  Perhaps in hot markets like Boston, but not in your average midwest city.

I think status is still a big driver in the continued growth of suburbs, plus suburbia is needed to maintain the large corporate home builders.  A large behemoth like Toll Brothers cannot survive doing urban redevelopment- tucking in a house on a empty lot here, building a 12 unit condo building there.  They need 400 acres for a 800 home development to sustain the machine.  

Wow...you guys have some innovative(?) taxing schemes. Different school tax rates? Ours are uniformly high, and perhaps higher in the inner cities. Local income taxes? Never heard of these at all, much less two of them at once.(My fellow Texans would revolt: a state income tax is a nonstarter, hence, the extremely high property tax rates). Overall, I think suburbia is cheaper than inner city here.
Yes all municipalities charge an income tax, taken out of your paycheck.  It's usually 1 to 2%.  If you live in one and work in the other, they'll both hit you up for it.  Each school district is responsible for raising its support through property tax.  The state tries to even things out with lotto taxes and other funds but wealthy suburbs may spend several times more per student than poor rural or urban district.  City schools usually have lower property taxes.  Perhaps in part due to property taxes on the businesses and also bc/ suburbs are usually full of young families.  If every home in your district has 2 or 3 kids in it, you're going to hae to tax a lot.  If you only have one school-age kid for every 3 or 4 homes, you can spread the taxes out thinner.  The Ohio Supreme court has declared this system unconstitutional repeatedly but they cannot enforce a change.  The ohio legislation cannot agree on a remedy.  The US supreme court will not hear the case since education is generally a state and local issue.
Funny, our method of funding schools has been tinkered with and found unconstitutional on a regular basis for the past 35 or so years. There seems to be no end in sight.  Property tax rates here approach 3% in the city, perhaps 2.5% outside city limits. Most of it is school taxes.
This is why I think Kunstler's right.  Most of suburbia will be abandoned.

Where in the world do you think everyone is going to go?

The cities are already crowded.  Sure you could build up, but it isn't cheap.  New construction in Boston or Cambridge (the city) routinely goes for $400k+ for a 1 bedroom.  And I know here in Boston there are tons of historic districts that fight any new addition to the skyline.

There's no way the suburbs are going away.  I could certainly see a little reconfiguration with commercial and retail being blended in, but this vision of empty housing developments as far as the eye can see is crazy.  The cars people drive will radically change (smaller/lighter) long before you see any sort of mass exodus from ther suburbs.

Where in the world do you think everyone is going to go?

I think we're going to crowd in together, like they do in Third World nations.  

Here in the U.S., we laugh at the idea of taking in a boarder to make ends meet.  We pass laws to keep immigrants from crowding 15 people into a small apartment.  We consider it practically child abuse if each kid doesn't get his own room.  

That will change.  In the Great Depression, tent cities sprouted near cities, full of people looking for work.  I think we'll see that again.

The problem of insufficient housing infrastructure is a problem only if you think every family needs their own apartment...or 3,000SF McMansion.  

Remember the 100 square foot tiny houses?  A lot of those can be fit in small backyards.
Katrina Cottages

308 sq ft (about 31 m2)


Best Hopes,



I rent, and I don't have a backyard.  I like my space.  I like being able to do what I want, when I want.  I like never having to wait for the bathroom, and being able to scream with joy without worrying about waking anyone if the Yankees hit a walkoff homerun at 1 am.

But if my family needed a place to stay - my parents, my grandparents, my sister and her partner, my cousins, etc. - I would welcome them with open arms.  I think most people would, if things were Great Depression-bad.

And if prices keep getting higher while my income does not, I would give serious consideration to renting out my spare bedroom to a coworker.

This is what happened in Argentina after their financial crisis in 2001:

The best way to see a city as expansive as Buenos Aires, is to go high up, so we flew above the second-largest city in South America, a place named after its patron saint, Maria del Buen Aire, or St. Mary of the Good Air. But visitors can't help but notice there's nothing good about the air of the city. That's because the population of Buenos Aires is exploding -- more than 13 million people inhabit the sprawling city centre and the surrounding area. And after the economic crash of 2001, the poor flooded Buenos Aires looking for jobs and relief. And where people go so goes pollution, garbage, and traffic jams, which from above make the roadways look like clogged drains. And now Buenos Aires is suffering the most crippling housing crisis in recent memory. The middle class has completely collapsed. And the once well-off now live flat up against the crushingly poor....

....Cumbia music was born in places like these -- in the narrow streets of the dozens of shantytowns that ring Buenos Aires. They're called Villa Miserias. We visited Villa Miseria number 31 - the only one located within in the city proper.

And though these shantytowns have always been home to the desperately poor, now it's where those who suddenly find themselves poor go for shelter from shattered dreams. As we mentioned, Buenos Aires is in the middle of a crippling housing crisis--one so dire, city officials have declared a Habitat Emergency. And according to official estimates, about half a million people in Buenos Aires live in inadequate housing -- five per cent of them here Villas Miserias.

Suburbia on sale

An excerpt from the daily meltdown (housing bubble blog):

The Orlando Sentinel reports from Florida. "Resales in the core Orlando market fell 34 percent in November to 1,597 homes compared with a year earlier, the Orlando Regional Realtor Association reported Tuesday. It was the largest year-over-year percentage decline so far in 2006."

"Sellers, adrift in a sea of properties for sale, are feeling the pressure. `There's a lot of competition out there,' said George Martinez, who has been trying to sell his southeast Orange County condo unit without success for several months. `I can't even find a renter, and I've been doing a lot of advertising.'"

I'm not surprised that housing built purely on speculation and financed by crazy building loans can't be sold at an outrageous price.  

Eventually though, all of those houses will be sold and occupied, it's just that the price will have to come down first.  This might take a bankruptcy or two, but it will happen.

Peak Oil doesn't mean an end to energy.  It's a gradual decline of cheap energy being replaced with more expensive energy.  This will create imbalances in the market, which creative entrepenuers will capitalize on...  

In any capitalistic society there is always a risk of recessions and depressions, but to see peak oil as a never ending great depression is a bit far fetched I think...

I wouldn't say 'endless' depression, but I do expect it to last for a long time - far longer than the Great Depression of the 1930s, because the excesses of recent years have been much greater than they were in the 1920s. I have been discussing the issue here - perhaps you would like to join the discussion?

Good stuff.  I agree with you on the FED's impotence.  They won't be able to cause inflation if they wanted to.  I read everything you wrote -- twice.  Why is it that it's so easy to get people worked up about inflation, but any talk of the opposite goes in one ear and out the other?  There probably aren't five people on this board who agree with your outlook.  I know the feeling.  Keep up the good work.  

I haven't been posting because I've been busy -- not kidnapped.  Hello, everyone.


Hello SAT...good to see you again.

Any reads on the current market?  Not wanting to profit from it, just curious.

Probably because very few people are old enough to remember deflation, and Americans tends to be pretty weak on history.

I remember when I was a kid, I had a math teacher who told me about how he and his sister never agreed on money.  She saved everything, he spent everything.  His reasoning?  Spend it now, because it will be worth less in the future.  I asked him if his sister was older than he was.  He said she was.  I told him that maybe her view was different because she could remember the Depression, and its deflation.

Despite the fact that he was much older and better educated than me (he was a college math instructor), he had never heard of deflation.  He said there was no such thing.  Finally, he went and got an economics teacher.  She told him that yes, there was such a thing as inflation.  He was astounded.

Arrghhh.  That should be "there was such a thing as deflation," of course.
Probably because very few people are old enough to remember deflation, and Americans tends to be pretty weak on history.

Just to make sure about what you are saying: under inflation, you spend it now; under deflation, you don't spend it because the money will be worth more later.

As the saying goes, In deflation, cash is king.

Based on historic examples, I believe that some of these new built homes may not ever be occupied. They will eventually be boarded up and abandoned till the roofs cave in/they are vandalized.  Then torn down.

That is if we are on a turning point towards post-Peak Oil.

I have seen well built homes in the "wrong neighborhoods" suffer this fate in years past.


What is the banking system going to do with millions of recently built foreclosures.  They will have to sell them at a loss because that will be what buyers can afford.
Really? We had a mini-view of this in Houston in the 1980s. They didn't sell the homes because there were no buyers. Whole neighborhoods sat boarded up for months and in a few cases a few years. Who is going to be able to buy in a contracting economy? Because that is what constant energy decline means - a contracting economy.
They won't foreclose. Foreclosure is good against deadbeats in good economic times because you can sell the property right off. During a depression, the banks don't want the liability from sitting on the deeds while GOd-only-knows what might be going on on the properties. So they sign forebearance agreements with the owners.
That's not what happened in the Great Depression.
There is a famous neighbourhood outside Detroit.  They built the infrastructure, the Crash of 1929 came, the town was never finished-- you can find broken up pavements and fire hydrants in fields.

To date, the urban decay in America has tended to be from the inwards out: Detroit the canonical case.  The City has just hollowed out-- there are open fields where once there were Victorian houses.

I don't deny the opposite is possible (think of any number of cases in other countries, for example, post oil booms), think some of those dying towns in Siberia.

"There is a famous neighbourhood outside Detroit."

What neighborhood is that?  My impression is that suburban Detroit caught up with the 1920's buildout sometime in the 60's or 70's...

I can remember the book I read it in 'New York by Night' but I cannot remember the name.

Basically I think the Ford Motor Company planned a new plant, and a new community to house its workers.  When the Crash of 1929 came, the community was never built.

The housing slump has nothing to do with energy prices. It simply follows from the misguided strategy of the baby boomers to mostly invest in real estate. Now they retire and need the money while at the same time their own strategy has priced young families out of the market.

Big deal... not. We will simply see more baby boomers stay on the job a couple years longer and maybe help out at the grocery store.

>The housing slump has nothing to do with energy prices. It simply follows from the misguided strategy of the baby boomers to mostly invest in real estate. Now they retire and need the money while at the same time their own strategy has priced young families out of the market.

Declining Energy production, a historic credit bubble and an aging working population points to the "perfect financial storm". All three seem to be converging in 2008.

"this vision of empty housing developments as far as the eye can see is crazy"

Ever seen Koyaanisqatsi? http://www.koyaanisqatsi.org/films/koyaanisqatsi.php

Plenty of scenes of "empty housing developments as far as the eye can see" - admittedly mostly inner-city project-style buildings, but the point remains the same...

Increase density, reduce sq ft/person.  A family of 4 can live comfortably in 850 sq ft.  I live in a 1890 home cut up into 6 apartments.

Take space away from the auto.  Build housing on parking spaces (either new structures or expansions).

Best Hopes,


Did you even read Stuart's article, Alan? Housing turnover doesn't occur that fast. To force it to occur faster means hundreds of billions or even trillions of dollars in invested housing have to be completely written off. And if you don't force it, then the changeover rate cannot keep up with decline.

Issues like this are why the market cannot and will not provide an answer to this crisis in time except in one manner - discovery of a new energy source to continue the binge. Data like this demonstrate why this is "the long emergency" and needs to be addressed like an emergency, probably with emergency powers.

But we won't do it. We'll refuse and claim it is our right to be stupid. Thus and so shall die the automobile culture and with it much of what we know as the United States.

trillions of dollars in invested housing have to be completely written off

Yes, I agree.  Adjusted for inflation & GNP, the writeoff of downtown commerical property (not counting residential) from 1950 to 1970 was of the same relative magnitude.

the changeover rate cannot keep up with decline

I think it can.  I have lived in post-Katrina New Orleans and my view of what is possible and tolerable it much broader than yours.

Best Hopes,


I think your view is distorted then, Alan, and no personal offense meant. New Orleans still had but a fraction of its original population. Huge sections of the city are still in disastrous condition. Many of those who returned have done so for the same reason as you - love of the city itself. Large portions of your criminals, gangs, and other trouble makers are elsewhere, like here in Houston, and causing stress on our police, judicial, and other systems. And this is in a time of plenty! What happens when you can't export your "problem" children and even if you do the other location cannot handle them? Finally, acknowledge it or not, it remains true that New Orleans is getting tens of billions of federal dollars. What happens when the federal money spigot closes down?

As I said, I fear you are being too optimistic.

The no bid (and Republican contributing) contractors are getting billions no doubt.

The City of New Orleans has had to pay for a search of dead bodies "missed" by FEMA contractors (see above).  Over 100 dead found so far.  We ran out of money just before last Christmas and no doubt some bodies were put into dumpsters as homes were demolished in the 2 months that followed.  We started up the search again with the sales tax $ from Mardi Gras, but stopped again a month or so ago.

The Fire Dept. chief made the valid point that he had limited personnel and had to chose between the living and the dead.  Fire protection is minimal (at best) and he pulled his men off the search.  Off duty fire fighters continued the work as volunteers and found the 28th body since Mardi Gras last week,

There has been no "federal money spigot" for New Orleans, just the largely out of town contractors.

Best Hopes, but not for FEMA,


850 sq ft? Certainly. I live in 500 sq ft with four people and two cats. The space is not actually the issue: rather the light, cleanliness, access to prevailing breezes. (I lived in a larger, dingier, dirtier, breezeless place before. Yuck. Give me the new place).

I came from Australia (space galore) to Hong Kong (space at an incredible premium). I have thrown away almost everything I own, and look forward to culling the rest.

I do not make these remarks as any criticism of Alan, but rather against anyone who says 'Can't be done'. People can certainly get used to much smaller spaces - especially when they have to.

How about resettling in towns and small cities?  If economies become more local and regional rather than national and international, and if argricultural yields decline post-peak (causing a larger percentage of people to work in Argriculture), towns and small cities may flourish again.  My town had around 10,000 people around 1900 yet it had several electric street car lines (including one to a neighboring city 15 miles away), at least 2 theaters and a compact, central business district.  Nowadays, the central business district hangs on as a tourist attraction and a place for small specialty stores.  The 2nd, 3rd and 4th floor of these buildings were apartments until a couple generations ago.  Now they sit empty or are used as storage.  The old train tracks are still visible in the places where prior city governments had enough common sense not to put asphalt over the brick street. There are empty lots along the old train lines and 2000 square foot victorian homes often occupied by 1 or 2 people.  Homes that were doubles were coverted to singles.  Homes that had been split up into 3 or 4 apartments became single family homes again.  Granny flats above old carriage houses are not used.
How about resettling in towns and small cities?

One of my greatest fears - the hordes trying to escape the unsustainable cities will descend on the little burgs.  

At first this might seem like a boon-time for the small towns and cites, but more than likely they will be likely be overwhelmed with city refugees and unable to cope with the extra burdens of delivering necessities to the refugee populations.

I imagine the city refugees will consist mostly of former middle managers with limited useful skills, and there families.  

Then again, maybe these refugees will become good "migrant labor" for the smaller towns and the surrounding farmers whose fuel rations fail to meat their planting and harvesting needs ??

Stuart, Oh how we've missed your wonky data presentation and analysis...

Coupla things.  Several talked about this above - in my (early 90's) thesis, I took a look at the real vs. market cost of gasoline.  We pay billions in health, environmental and defense costs associated with 'our oil' and 'our non-negotiable way of life' that does not get reflected at the pump, nor per mile driven, as it ought.  Just leveling that playing filed would go a long way toward pushing us from the private car to the publci train.

But to me we've got to keep the bigger picture always in mind.  Where are the people going to go?  Suburbia can't go away?  Well, a little ol' thing called carrying capacity may have a thing or two to say about that.  We are deep in overshoot, and William Catton showed that 25 years ago.  On the other side of peak, not only is our commute going to become more dear, but so is food production, and everything else that underpins our easy motoring lifestyle.  We'll be plowing up yards to grow food, and yes, I expect there to be scavengers.  Which is apt, as that's what we've become, detritivores living off the death of eons ago.  It's so utterly unsustainable that to be arguing over gas tazxes and transit subsidies is absurd.  The planet cannot sustain 8 or7 or 6 or ? billion of us, especially living as Americans feel entitled.  Economize, localize, produce, as WT says.  where will the people go?  They will go hungry, then they will go away.  You know where that is, right?  It's where we throw our trash, where we offshore the unsightly aspects of our unsustainable lives, where we pump our pollution, where we turn our eyes away from.  Away is coming our way, sooner than most would think.

Very well put.
Well, if you take "we are deep in overshoot" as a premise, sure.

The problem is working it as a fact-based conclusion.  That is hard to do without combining those facts with assumptions of future behavior, future lifestyle, future technology.  It would be interesting to see an overshoot argument made, while carefully noting the assumptions made along the way.  IMO, there are are a lot of assumptions made in connecting those dots.

Do you believe we're in overshoot? If not, why not?
It's another thing that seems indeterminate to me.  Overshoot says that we've gone too far on population and resource consumption, and will crash back.  Well, I can see things that look "too far" in my subjective judgement ... but I don't get to decide.
Your opacity is part of your charm here on TOD...was that a yes?
Are you trying for an ad hominem there?
I was thinking it was a compliment, actually; you do resist being pinned down, don't you?
Sorry .. in combination with other posts, other threads, etc.

I don't feel like I'm being pinned down thought, because there isn't any secret underlying position.  I really don't know.

And even then I could be wrong, and change my mind ;-)

Re:  The "Non-negotiable" US Way of Life

Jim pointed out that by refusing to negotiate, we will have a new negotiating partner chosen for us--reality.

And IMO, that reality is coming hard and fast in the shape of the expectation of increasing US imports against the reality of declining world export capacity.  

The only way for imports not to grow from their current level is if our consumption falls, barrel for barrel, at the same rate that our domestic production is declining.  And this has to happen every single year going forward.   But this is also true of all the new emerging importers, such as Indonesia and the UK.   Some reports suggest that Iran could be a net importer in as little as 10 years.  If everyone is on their way to becoming net importers, who is exporting?

I think I'm the only one here who uses the word construction "pre-adaption."

I use it to reinforce the idea that we are looking for adaption today, in preparation for scarcity tomorrow.

Stuart's a smart guy, and I think he gets that above.  He shows a lot of charts of current trends, but when he uses the words "[5-6% is] what Hubbert linearization suggests for eventual global decline rates" I think he's making careful use of the word "eventual."

Eventual as in when?  If eventual is 20 years from now I think we have a lot of time for pre-adaption.

On the other hand, catastrophists would have us fear that eventual is next week, and the time for pre-adaption is past.

I haven't seen a good case to support that kind of deadline.

Odo...au contraire...I have used "pre-adaptation" numerous times when discussing how in evolution, a characteristic that may seem useless today could be highly advantageous in the future when an environment changes.
We might be on the same vibe then.  Some people do suggest that hybrids are worthless today ...
What are you going to do with those 20 years, Odo? Build more suburbia? Because that is precisely what we are doing which means the crisis is even worse when it arrives. I'll pay attention to claims of "pre-adaptation" when I see them happening and right now those claims are purely hot air. And further, as Stuart's data demonstrate, by the time the decline begins, we need to be on a 6% "wedge" to stay ahead of that decline. We're not prepping for that now in the least form at all. No, we're continuing "the greatest misallocation of resources the world has ever known" without any real change that is meaningful.
We just demonstrated an initial reaction last year, with higher prices.

I assume that over that 20 years signals, and their associated responses, would build.

I don't assume steady-state until some fanciful cliff.

I think the 'doom' meme needs some fine-tuning. What we are talking about is doom for the US.

I always had this problem with Duncan's Olduvai Theory. The grids are going out in 2008! Worldwide!

Wait a minute... US, maybe... but worldwide? How do we get from US to 'worldwide'?

This is what I call the 'World Series Fallacy' - that the US is the entire world.

Just because the US (and, unfortunately, my native Australia) has a particular set of social, political and economic problems that means it will be hit very hard by Peak Oil, does not mean everyone else fares the same. The Third World will do even worse, Europe may do better ... provided they ditch you Americans and start cozying up to Russia, like smart people would in the circumstances.

Okay, I know this blog is US-centric. Still: keep it in mind. Death of US suburbia is not the end of Western society.

The US is such a large portion of anything that it can, and will, have a big impact elsewhere.

Europe may be more economical in some ways, but it is also crucially dependent on exports, and on imported energy (something like over 80% of our total energy use is imported).

Europe also has a hugely inflexible labour market and complete labour immobility.  So any fall in aggregate demand feeds right through to unemployment, and hence to political stability.  An Energy Crisis would hit Europe as hard as it would the US, even though we consume less oil per person.

If the US has a severe recession, Germany et al will follow.  The US is 1/4th of the world's economy, and for the last 5 years at least, the US and China have accounted for something like 2/3rds world demand growth.

You are correct, but only insofar as business as usual continues, and that is the whole question: can it?

Under a business-as-usual scenario, when the US goes into recession, so do Germany, Japan, China and so on. If you think about it, it is ridiculous that the world can be organized in such a fashion.

'Doom' in the US means that these world 'business as usual' arrangements must be written off. The US would be on the mat and would not be getting up again, and this would be clearly visible to everyone who is left standing (and there will be, Peak Oil being more fundamental than the illusions of our 'globalized' i.e. US-weighted, economy). Those that have the physical capacity and resources would then cooperate amongst themselves.

I think Peak Oil takes down the US before it does Europe, and Europeans will adapt to what that means.

It sounds like you are substituting your fantasies for analysis.

You write that you "think" "Peak Oil takes down the US before it does Europe, and Europeans will adapt to what that means. "

But it sounds like what you mean is you "hope" "Peak Oil takes down the US before it does Europe, and Europeans will adapt to what that means. "

That doesn't make it true and your utter lack of support for your ideas doesn't make them very convincing.

Actually I think the general consesus here is that Peak Oil will be worse for the US compared to Europe because a) the society is massively car dependant b) government does not function as well as in Europe c) the US has lost its manufacturing base and d) the Europeans have the option of cozying up to Russia, something the US is very unlikely to have. I did not bother to spell any of this out because it common knowledge on this site.

That's good enough for me as a first-order approximation.

But for you, it appears that mere mouth and projection serves as 'analysis'. It is you who 'hopes' and 'thinks', apparently, from your lack of argument.

Suit yourself.

Franz: What is fascinating is that you have a country (USA) that totalled 60% of global GDP 50 years ago, and currently totals 22%, yet many cannot envision a future where that 22% continues to decline (why not?). The trend is for the USA to total 14% of global GDP by 2030 (yet the myth of permanent supremacy continues).
Studying the history of the British Empire is instructive (and Nial Ferguson wrote a good book about it 'Colossus').

The US is shrinking from the unsurpassed top dog, to one of the top dogs, in a much more interdependent world.  China will be as big an economy as the US (sometime after 2040, perhaps 2050), and in aggregate the US will be a smaller portion of a (larger) pie.

Britain found this unbearably difficult, and went through economic and political crisis after crisis.

In the end, we invaded Suez in 1956 in collusion with Israel and France, and without American support.

Eisenhower thought this was an idiotic piece of colonialism, and refused to support the pound.  Faced with a currency collapse, the British government had to withdraw in humiliation.

Could Iraq be America's Suez?

Leanan: I, too, find some of Kuntsler's predictions on the suburbs as persuasive.  As much as the current TOD debate between westexas and Robert Rapier, although important, isn't as important as another implicit fissure between westexas and Stuart Standiford.  Stuart argues that PO decline will probably not be steep.  Whereas, westexas if I understand him correctly argues that PO will be accompanied by an export decline crisis which will in itself will make PO more severe for oil importing countries.
And I am not convinced the steepness of the decline matters all that much.  I think the political and economic consequences may swamp the actual production changes.  Everything from recession to hoarding to oil wars to a dollar collapse.  
The non-linear will trump what could be a somewhat more manageable situation.  Let's say Stuart is correct and the decline will no be steep.  And there was a concerted global effort to educate the population, start planning, do risk management, etc., there would be a much better chance that we could have a "soft" landing.

Well, as my Swedish gramma used to say, "Ufda!"

Should translate litterary into "often" but with the right way of saying it it means "yeah, right!"


Translating "ufda"?: Well, nothing like Wikipedia to come to the rescue.  

Uff da is an exclamation of Norwegian origin that is relatively common in the Upper Midwestern states of the United States, meaning roughly "drats," "oops!" or "ouch!" especially if the "ouch!" is an empathetic one.

Amazingly, there is a lot more at the link.

I tried saying it out loud with english pronounciation and then it kind of made sense as "ofta".

We have a winner.   The reaction of many to the contractions in spending will result in problems.

What do you think will be the reactions to a lack of spending on 'social programs' - as I expect they will be cut before the military is.

To an extent, this is what worries me the most, at least in terms of the U.S. and other states which may find themselves in desperate situations.

This view is the one which most logically leads to war - and Iraq and Sudan are merely the opening acts.

This may be a slight oversimplification, but I believe the primary reason we like to drive so much is that we're told to by advertising.

As others have noticed, every car advertisement shows you all alone in your beautiful shiny new car driving in some gorgeous location on this earth.

Until we stop painting car ownership and operation as though it is a club med type experience, people will keep doing it in the hopeless attempt to "get" that vacation experience in the car that they saw on the TV ad.

I'm a little tired of hearing the standard line about how "people love to drive".  Some do, certainly, especially the young. But if motoring is such a blissful experience, why do we hear so much these days about "road rage"?  

The fact is that people drive to get from point A to point B.  In North America, save in a very few spots, that is best done by private car.  If the driver actually enjoys the sensation of motoring, well and good. That's just a bonus. Many others dislike the stress but drive anyway. They have a destination to get to.

People drive because they 'feel' that their time is more valuable than the extra cost of the car.  This feeling is so strong that many household budgets are severely strained even though a bus stop is a hundred yards away.
Actually... no. The only times I LIKE to drive is when we take a break and go to a national park, the coast or some other place to relax. Everything else is more or less done for necessity. I admit that one could probably optimize that part and drive 5-10% less, but that is probably it.

The advertising problem has to do with the size of the car, not the number of miles driven. Manufacturers are now advertising with people living in their cars... which is done to emphasize size and comfort, not basic road performance. The times when road performance mattered in ads is gone for ten years. Now it is all off-road performance (yeah, right... when did Mom take the Hummer into the mountains and drove all the way to the peak?) and size, capacity, towing etc..

We are being sold features and product performance we don't need. And too many people buy into that. They could be prevented from doing so... with a simple gas tax.

Well, living as I do in one of the few places where public transportation is a viable option to get around to just about anywhere, I can easily see why most people who can afford to choose to drive instead:

1.) It's much faster. As mentioned above, it takes at least twice as long to get just about anywhere, except into and out of the city during rush hour, when we're all in a world of hurt (cars still have a slight advantage, though).

2.) It's much more convenient. You don't have to wait on a bus platform or a wind-swept winter street for 20 minutes waiting for the damned thing to finally show up, you just get in your car and go. This is tied in with number 1 above. Also, you can go to the grocery store whenever you like and haul away as much as you want without having to worry about personally carrying it all back home for 45 minutes.

3.) It's much more dignified. Let me tell you, I think this one might have more to do with it than 1 and 2 put together. All other things being equal, would you rather sit in relative comfort in your own little heated/air conditioned space that's at your beck and call, or would you rather run your ass off to jump aboard an overcrowded train/bus, to be packed cheek by jowl with all manner of people (both savory and unsavory) while the conveyance lurches back and froth, tossing you into each other? Yeah, I thought so.

These three factors will combine, I believe, to make it so that cars will trump mass transit even when it is available until the last possible moment, if that moment does arrive.

Adam.  That's the kind of tough thinking we need.  What do we really want and what will we give up to get it, and what WON'T we give up to get it.  

So, thinking about all that, I advocate the auto club, where your cell phone connects you to any kind of transport you want- limo, junker, big van, garbage truck-- at the push of a button, which connects you to that educated computer which knows your preferences and sends the right thing to fit your needs and your pocket just right, and fast.

My student simulated this concept for our small town and it worked  fine, saving huge amounts on money, parking, time wasted and the rest.

Some places have tried this in a sort of half-way, but not to the full degree that will capture the real value.

Owning a car is a stupid and inefficient way, relatively speaking, to get what we want.  Why not own a bunch of them, and in the process forget about parking, upkeep and all the rest?

I have no patience at all with the pathetic creature who thinks owning a fancy car somehow makes him anything more than the jerk he is.

BTW,  I enjoyed riding buses in LA, wherein I was almost always the only Anglo,  treated with great friendliness by all the peasants, even tho I could only understand a fraction of their conversation.  It was also fun to note that there seemed to be an unmentioned agreement with the driver that they didn't actually pay for their ride.

I was in Paris last week (following westexas' advice to see the art treasures of Europe while it's still affordable), and I totally loved the Paris Metro and its artsy little underground metro stops.

Also loved the tiny cars of Paris, especially the Smart Car.

You walk a lot more in Paris, but it's like walking through a giant art gallery. And the sidewalk cafes are simply great.

Because of the walking, I suppose, we simply didn't see any fat Parisians.

Even with all the wonderful food they eat.

Paris makes sense to me.

The "Treasures of the Louvre" are supposed to be at the New Orleans Museum of Art next summer (at the terminus of the Canal Streetcar Line at City Park).  One stop only show (our gift from France :-))

Our food is better than the excellent food of Paris, our architecture is different, we have LOTS of SUVs & pickups with Texas plates now, but hopefully gone by then.

Come visit :-)


Alan, I agreed with everything you said about NOLA until you started dis-ing Texans.
Before Katrina, I was aware of only one car scraped on my block (28' wide, one way with parking on both sides) in 6 years here.  Since Katrina, at least 3 have been scrapped.

"Duallies", Hummers, Espalanades, etc. were extremely rare pre-Katrina, and now common (most with Texas plates).

Oversized SUVs & PUs blasting down the street, faster than the 25 mph speed limit (locals drive 15-20 mph usually due to parked cars, people walking, etc.) are now common.  More often than not with Texas plates.

Had one Aggie (gig em on bumper, Texas plates), turned wrong way on one way, backed up, cracked my light, and then refuse to stop as I blew my horn for about a mile.  He ran red light to get away from me.

We welcome walking Texans :-)


I think you nailed that one, Alan. Perfect description.
But it is seldom 35 centigrade and humid in Paris (as it is in most American cities in summer).

And it is seldom minus 5 degrees and snowy in winter (again see US cities).

There's no way to easily reconfigure US cities to look like European ones.  And indeed European cities are sprawling: people are moving out of the centre of Paris, and Madrid is sprouting new suburbs by the day.  I always notice with my French friends that they all have cars, and many drive in Paris itself (in London, this is something I avoid if possible).

German cities are probably, on average, the best planned and nicest in Europe (we destroyed almost all of them in 1944-45, and they rebuilt them quite sensibly).  Nonetheless Germans drive a lot and have a a lot of cars and suburbs, and drive at 100mph+ on the motorways.

The process of "reconfiguring US cities to look like European ones" is in full swing where I live. New urbanist redevelopment and infill is evident all over downtown Boulder and Denver. New infill condos in downtown Boulder are selling for over $1 Million and low density uses are rapidly being converted to higher profit, higher density redevelopment. The biggest obstacle is zoning/building codes but developers are finding ways.
Sure Europeans drive "a lot" but Euro vehicles get 40% higher mpg and travel 30% less VMT per vehicle (see http://www.martecgroup.com/cafe/CAFEmar02.pdf),plus there are many fewer vehicles per capita.
When I visit my wife's French relatives I am always amazed at the number of people who choose to sit in gridlocked Paris streets in their mini-cars while pedestrians pass them by, but those chosing to clog the streets are a very visible minority, while the vast majority uses feet, metro, and buses (in that order).
Yea, same here.  The state is starting to encourage it also.  I think Valuethinker is basically not up to speed on what has been happening in many places in the last 10 years.  On the other hand, there are still plenty of communities and states that are doing nothing different then they have been during the stupid-growth, sprawl-era and they will suffer the consequences.  
The data I have seen on US cities says the 'downtown migration' is marginal in the total picture.  US downtowns are going from totally dead, to having living communities as part of the greater urban fabric, but it is still early stages.

The migration to the 'exurbs' and 'ruburbs' is as great or a greater factor.

Even in a city like Toronto, where the construction of downtown is palpable (a micro city of 25,000 people being built along the lake, in the old railway lands)and where public transport is extensive, what is striking is the degree of sprawl into the Greater Toronto Area (60 miles by 60 miles) that is taking place, rather than a 5% increase in the population downtown.

Agree I haven't travelled widely in the US outside the coasts, the last 10 years.

When the people moved to the suburbs, but commuted downtown, then mass transit worked well. But now cities are configured around 'edge cities', big box stores and 'here there and everywhere' commuting (suburb to suburb, exurb to exurb, rural to suburban, urban back out into the suburbs).  People shop, live and work in the extended megalopolis, rather than radially between suburb and downtown.

The effect is rather Los Angeles like.  LA is a relatively dense city by US standards (who knew?-- it's one of those truly odd statistics) but population and work sprawl in every direction.

There are different ways of playing this: Denver investing in mass transit, v. Phoenix or Dallas Ft . Worth which are more sceptical of that approach, but the sprawl continues.

My conclusion is that more fuel efficient cars, smarter traffic management, are the more likely response rather than a recentralisation of American life.  

Just wanted to mention that both Dallas and Phoenix are building/expanding light rail (Dallas FortWorth system has had a very good reception).http://www.dart.org/


Clearly all these cities continue to sprawl, but like almost all US cities are also investing in rail infrastructure as they go.

19 yrs of NYC life didn't leave me feeling this way.  Coming intown from Astoria or Brooklyn, I would read and daydream, sometimes meet people, sometimes sleep..   I would walk for miles when I didn't feel like riding, or was broke.. I was in much better condition for it.

I like our Subaru, but I'm glad I don't have to drive every day.  The luxury of traffic lights, congestion, regular maintenance and eventual breakdowns anyway is enough to remind me that the enjoyment of cars is costly, and often not convenient through and through..

Re the 'sometimes meet people'... you are right, and in fact sufficiently well-utilized public transport is actually genuinely sexy. I have met several beautiful women on trains and on buses, but I have of course never met a single one from the isolation of the driver's seat of my car.  

Sociobiology applied to public transport?

From a psychological viewpoint, people perceive cars as their private space. That is also an important reason behind road rage: being hindered while in 'public mode' can be anticipated, but when you think you are on your own turf and are hindered by a car..
I thought that was a unique feature of New Orleans streetcars (we talk to strangers, other Americans do not).  Also meet our only billionaire on the streetcar on his way to work.  A cross section ofsocial classes as well :-)

Best Hopes,


I felt very welcome in talking to people on the streets of NO.. something that is a little less easy in Portland ME,.. but NY is appropriately somewhere inbetween. Even in the middle of the night, people will step up to the plate when someone needs help, asks for directions, etc..  I think it's also recognized that Most people aren't threats to you, and the more you have made some kind of contact with those you've sensed are in your boat, so to speak, the more likely you'll have some kind of an ally if there was some kind of trouble.. it's no contract, mind you.. just a sense that making some friendly contact leaves doors unlocked, if not open.
It has come out of the planning process that the #1 thing people want to preserve about New Orleans is the way that we relate to each other.  #1, above food, music, Mardi Gras, architecture, walkable neighborhoods, streetcars (all of which we want to preserve).

Best Hopes for New Orleans,


Adam's three factors fall under two different categories.
1 and 2 are objective, can actually be measured, and are clearly related to the level of public transit in one's locale.  Frequency of service is everything.

Factor Three is of a very subjective nature. It is a question of social conditioning.  And what you call "dignity", Adam, would call "snobbery".  As I say, it is very subjective.

Snobbery, huh? Just to be clear, I don't own a car. Riding on the bus and train here in Chicago is very frequently an unpleasant experience due to overcrowding.

The Red Line to or from the Loop during the evening rush hour? Forget about it. I take the ever unreliable bus to and from the Blue Line to get to work just to avoid the Red into the Loop.  There has been more than one occasion when I have boarded an already extremely overcrowded train in the evening coming home from a visit to the library downtown to find that after another stop or so, no one could board the car. There physically was not enough room for anyone else to fit. I guess it's really snobby of me to want to be able to stand without forced contact with numerous strangers, most of whom aren't real friendly about it! That whole line about how Chicago is a big city that feels like a small town is a load of garbage. Public transportation brings out the worst in people; there are just too many of us for anyone to feel much like being polite.

Do you own a car?  Do you take public transportation on a regular basis?  Do you enjoy running for your bus or train for the umpteenth time that week, diving on board out of breath or even worse, running your ass off just to watch the train pull away from the platform and doom you to 20 minutes of waiting (at times). Being able to go where you want and when you like is dignity. Being at the beck and call of others is not and never has been, though some of us forego it for various reasons.

I know a fair % of the operators of the St. Charles Streetcar Line (and miss the line terribly !  Reopen late 2007).

I often have to stand (or I give up my seat).  Which can be an experience in our unairconditioned 1923/24 streetcars !  The lash on the gears is 1/4" (6.4 mm), the air compressor is loud, etc.

Half the time I get into a conversation on-board.

I much prefer this to driving.

Best Hopes,


You "often have to stand"? How about "often have no room to move whatsoever" or "are often literally packed like sardines"?  Standing is de rigeur on Chicago transit.  It's pretty enjoyable when I get to sit, which is maybe half the time. Maybe. As for loud, the trains here aren't terribly soundproof, so when they get up to speed it's quite noisy.
This is all just sidestepping anyway. We aren't talking abotu what you, personally, might or might not enjoy. I think if everyone found it as pleasant as you to ride public transportation, we might have a better system!

This may be a slight oversimplification, but I believe the primary reason we like to drive so much is that we're told to by advertising.
As others have noticed, every car advertisement shows you all alone in your beautiful shiny new car driving in some gorgeous location on this earth.

"Let yourself be inspired by the following pages. Because driving a Porsche starts with your eyes."


We've had little pressure to change in the US.

Some of us buy hybrids because we think gas is expensive, but that is often simply because we are old.  We remember 29c/gallon or something.  It comes as a shock to realize that 29c might work out to $2 today, adjusted for inflation.

Energy prices refuse to budge.  They refuse to show future scarcity.  $3/gallon doesn't slow us down that much.  We are simply an affluent nation.  

The thing is, we at TOD want consumers to ignore the current price signal, and buy into widescale pre-adaption for peak oil.

That's not going to happen (without a strong price signal).

Global warming might be a good motivator in the future.  Right now a large population of skeptics, combined with an "I'll reduce when you do" game strategy, means little action.

I'm hopeful that we'll see some change, because I agree that these trends are based on the old worldview (cheap energy, no global warming).


Completely agree.

We saw record LOW prices for energy in the late 90's.  Sure, there's been a spike upwards since then, but accounting for inflation gas at it's current $2.25/gallon is very affordable.

M3 was running at 10-12% growth before they discontinued publishing the measure.


I agree with your view.

Price is the only thing that will motivate significant behaviour change.

Perhaps more important, price expectations.  It seems clear to me the average SUV buyer thinks that oil prices will get back down to 'normal', like they did in the 90s, rather than rising from here.

In many ways, I worry about 'peak gas' more than 'peak oil' (irrationally perhaps, as there should be 20 years more gas out there before peak), because I can see what we can do about  having less oil (drive more fuel efficient vehicles, for one) but I cannot see what we would do about having less gas, except burn more coal.

Stuart, you are the master of the "big picture", bringing diverse sets of analyses to bear on a common issue.  Thanks for once again blessing us with your contributions.
A great set of reasoning - good to hear someone else pointing up the real world issues.

However, some points:

  1. 6% decline rate is probably too generous. Taking into account growth in other parts of the work, plus the difference between production and exports, I suggest an average case of 8-14% is more realistic (although painful).

  2. The commute can be hammered if the will is there. Not only can you move closer to your work, your work can move closer to you. The big expensive office blocks in the middle of city have had their day. Count that double for telecommuting.

  3. Long & medium distance rail and coach makes sense - particularly if airlines go to the wall. However as you point out, scaleup is a real concern after decades of under use/investment in the US. Others have it better.

  4. That couples well to the social, domestic and pleasure slice. Organised trips anyone?

  5. Free online shopping and delivery anyone?

  6. You can make that 4% car efficiency wedge fatter by preferentially exchanging the inefficient and high usage vehicles for more more efficient ones. In practice that might mean banning vehicles will less than 25 mpg, and only allowing the sale of vehicles with greater than 40 mpg. I can hear the screams now. It would be interesting to find the right data from somewhere and crunch the numbers to see how think the wedge would be under those circumstances.
For why I believe decline rates are likely to be relatively modest on a global basis (a "slow squeeze"), see here for the basic idea, and also here for better data.  This is the summary:


Even if the overall decline rate is 5% to 6%, I think we have to look at a reduction in fuel usage significantly higher than 5% to 6% for several reasons:

  1. EROEI is going down. The amount of oil used in the production of oil will be increasing, leaving less on a net basis.

  2. The cost of military, agriculture, and emergeny services are likely to come off the top, before we as consumers and ordinary businesses get our share of the oil.

  3. Countries with growing economies like China will expect to get more than their share of the available oil.

  4. Countries producing the oil will tend to reduce their exports by more that their total production drops.

  5. Modern production techniques will tend to "hold up" production longer, and may make the drop in production more extreme than would be expected by HL. (If techniques are developed for increasing the output from otherwise depleted fields, this could help offset this effect.)

  6. The likely near-term decline in natural gas will put further pressure on oil, as a substitute for the missing natural gas, and because production of diesel fuel will be impaired.
Good points.

I think many of us are assuming that we will keep winning the bidding war for oil.  That may not be the case.  

"I think many of us are assuming that we will keep winning the bidding war for oil.  That may not be the case."

I agree.  I think that the bidding war against Europe and China is going to be very, very tough.

BTW, the long term post-peak decline rate for the Lower 48 has been about 2% per year, but 4% for Texas, which peaked later than the Lower 48, relative to Qt.

This of course suggests a sharper decline rate for Saudi Arabia (which is what we are currently seeing), especially since Ghawar makes up such a large percentage of their production.  

So, while I think that overall world production will fall gradually, I think that net exports are going to fall much faster, so we are--IMO--in the very early stages of a permanent, and severe, net oil export crisis.  

The decisive factor in the " bidding war" is how much value is  added per barrel of oil. The US can´t compete with europe. Per  unit of GDP our oil input is about half the US input. So Europe should be able to afford twice the US price.
Europe may do ok, Britain may not do so well.

The pound has been (effectively) a petrocurrency since 1977. We used the oil and gas to demolish old industries but failed to replace them with meaningful substitutes. As we import more oil and gas than we produce then the ability of the pound to retain parity will reduce.

We dont make much anymore. We sell complex financial instruments, sell each other Cafe Lattes and cut each others hair, and make music, and wait on tourists.

None of which will put food on tables in the decades to come. Not good in a world that will resemble barter transactions rather than fiat currency.

Will the pound survive?

Before North Sea Oil, the UK lurched from crisis to crisis, a crashing pound, strikes, blackouts, pay and price controls, currency limits for foreign travel, jumbo collars, frizzey hair, rose shaded sunglasses, sideburns, Morris Marinas, stack soled shoes. The Electric light Orchestra. You name it, we had every horror you could think of.

Nope. We hosed it all away. We will struggle to keep the lights on when the Coal fired stations fail and the nukes are switched off due to age and we will not have the loot required to substitute nukes or alt.s. for gas fired power stations.

Nothing works now: Police dont work, Hospitals dont work, educaction is in the pan. Taxes are through the roof.
Public transport is a joke. Army benefits are being cut, body armour, armoured vehicles are short. Bullets that jam and missfire are recent scandals. Nobody gets fired for crap leadership.

Just add the burden of buying half your oil and gas in 8 years time and see what happens next.

But our politicians are good at talking the talk.

Right now they are talking about a salary rise from £60 k to £100 k with commensurate pension benefits. - Plus existing 'expenses' of circa £130 k per annum

Maybe they know something we dont.

TOD readers should understand that it as English to be down about the future, as it is American to be positive about it.

And also to do England (and Britain) down, is another national trait.  A sort of general grumpiness.

Speaking as an immigrant to these fair shores, the country is not in bad shape.  It could be better (lots better, especially re transport), but it is not in bad shape, compared to many other countries I have visited.  It remains a civil, green and pleasant land, with a deep undercurrent of humour which sees it through World Cup (soccer) disaster after disaster.

There is a reason 300,000 Poles have migrated here in the last couple of years, and that is that it has the best job opportunities in Europe, and one of the fastest growing economies.

People assume that the only factor in where a constrained oil supply goes is price. I think this is wrong. If things start to get really bad generally, I'd expect Muslims to prefer supplying other Muslims rather than non-Muslims. In other words, while these are tiny factors in trade negotiations now, in the future issues of ethnicity and religion may become far larger to those with the oil. And I honestly could not blame them. Their reaction would be to first help those closest to and most similar to themselves. Surely "price" will be an issue but maybe not the only one.
I don't see that at all. People sell to whomever will pay the most, or to whomever has them over a barrel. That's how it works for us, and it is no different for Muslims.

Ethnicity and religion are the excuses for resource wars. In some alternate universe, where, say, all the oil was in China and we needed the Muslims to help us fight the Chinese, then Islam would appear hardly any different to the other Abrahamic faiths, and Christians, Jews and Muslims would all appear as brothers against the 'heathen Chinese'. We would gladly refer to them as 'People of the Book', fellow monotheists who understood the value of Scripture. We would stress their rescue of Aristotle and count them part of 'Western civilization'.

And precisely this kind of mental flexibility will come into play when defining who is a friend and an enemy: the guy with the most to pay for the oil is a 'friend'...

I also think we assume oil will remain fungible.  This could perhaps end as some exporters decide not to sell to the US.
All of that, plus another key point.

When we are undoubtable, indubitably, post-the-peak we are in a different phase entirely of oil production. The game changes, and with it peoples' behaviours. Everyone keeps thinking that production mindsets will carry on the same, but people will quickly view things very differently. Not the least of that is the idea that what's not pumped today is worth more tomorrow.

In short I expect a spiral process towards lower production rates - pushing the decline rate higher than would otherwise be predicted. At its furthest extent, people produce only what is needed for national consumption - extending the life of their supplies much longer than otherwise.

I believe you may be correct here.  No way to measure how people/nations/companies will act in this scenario.
Hello Gail,  Yes, good points.  Almost everything brought up on TOD leads one to conclude that we will be facing tougher sledding than we might think from a 5% decline rate.  Also, a 5% decline for 5 years equals 25% down.  Just try to envision a world with 25% less gas in 5 years.  AAARRRRGGGG!
Remember 1983?

Was the world about to end if the decline had gone on for another year or two?  That sure wasn't my impression at the time.

I don't remember much about 1983 - it wasn't much of a problem, just a recession, if I recall correctly.

I remember 1973-1974 much more distinctly. My employer at the time went bankrupt, and the larger insurance company I went to work for shortly afterward came very close to backruptcy. The financial problems of both insurers were related to a combination of high inflation, a drop in the stock market, and an increase in bond yields (causing the value of the old bonds the insurers held to drop). These problems were directly related to the decrease in oil availabilty at the time, and the many indirect financial results.

I expect that when people start realizing that the decline in oil is irreversible, the consequences will be vastly worse than in the 1973-1974 period. All of the issues that have been pointed out by others as well as me point to the need to look at net rather than gross oil availability.

In addition, my experience in the 1973-1974 period says that we should also look at the financial consequences of decreases in oil production. How will insurance companies and banks fare? How many lenders are going to want to make long term loans when they see that the likelihood of payback in 20 or 30 years is slim? What will that do to the economy?

1973-74 came at the end of a long period of rising inflation, spurred by worldwide growth and President Johnson's decision to have 'guns and butter' ie to fight the Vietnam War, but not to raise taxes (which sounds earily familiar with another more recent Texan President ;-).

The US devalued (exiting the Gold Standard in 1971) and inflation pressures kept growing.  The 'wage price' spiral was kicked off, when unions (America used to have strong unions) would use higher inflation as a justification for inflation beating pay rises.

The Oil Crisis may have kicked off what happened, but there was also a worldwide grain shortage following a failure of harvest in Russia (previous Russian regimes would simply have starved their people, but by 1974 the cracks were beginning to show in the Soviet monolith, and Brezhnev sent his commissars to buy grain from the Americans).

Also the world was going through a cold snap, which affected global food supplies quite severely.

So the oil crisis (arising from the 1973 Arab Israeli war and the subsequent embargo on the US) was the coup de grace.

Banks got into trouble because there deposit rates were Federally regulated (it was a little before this that Donald Regan at Merrill Lynch invented the Money Market Fund, a way of getting interest on your cash at more than the 5% legal maximum).  Banks were trying to borrow from their depositors at 5%, and lend at 12%-- their depositors took their money elsewhere.

(in the adaptations the government made to this situation, were the seeds of the Savings & Loan crisis of 1989-91)

Presidents Nixon, Ford and Carter struggled with inflation, but were unable to tame it.

Finally Paul Volcker (a Democrat) was appointed Chairman of the Federal Reserve System. Armed with the new tool of monetarism, invented by Milton Friedman and others, when the second oil crisis hit (1980, the Iranian Revolution and then the Iran-Iraq War), Volker determined to crush inflation.

The result was brutal.  US interest rates rose to 21%, the highest ever recorded.  real interest rates were something like 9%, again a level never previously recorded except in the bottom of the Great Depression (when prices were falling so fast, that even very low interest rates pre inflation were quite high post inflation).

The US economy seized up: unemployment soared (over 10% at the peak).  It would be most of the 80s before it fell back, and it would never again reach its 1960s lows of 2 to 3% (until the late Clinton-Gore years).

However the banking system was largely preserved, due to deregulation of deposit rates and mergers.  THe next banking crisis would be 1990 (Savings and Loan).

Inflation (and government bond yields) have been on a downward trend ever since, culminating in 0% interest rates after 9-11.

I think your infrastructure comparison is flawed, at least in terms of cost, as you did not include the cost of the cars, their fuel, and their maintenance, a number which I assume is most definitely counted in the budget of the transit authority. Further, there are additional car costs, such as parking in a city, which would also seem to be logically fitting. Quite honestly, I can't believe that the cost of a rail line running in Northern Virginia, using rail which has been in places for decades, is 15 times more expensive than a new highway with several bridges, unless you count the entire operation of that rail line while ignoring the cost of operating all the vehicles using the highway.

Still, seeing how trapped America is, demonstrated in a rigorous way, is the sort of thing which tends to confirm my belief why so many people in America who become familiar with peak oil see nothing but doom.

Still, seeing how trapped America is, demonstrated in a rigorous way, is the sort of thing which tends to confirm my belief why so many people in America who become familiar with peak oil see nothing but doom.

garyp addresses stuart on the critical issue - rate of depletion.

people who see nothing but doom have a depletion rate in mind (one that is "too fast" if not actually numeric), but do we know at all?

Doesn't really matter what the depletion rate is or when peak is.  What I get from Stuart's post is that more efficient transport isn't worth the investment now because it's not being used.  It's more societal than anything; we're not going to change until reality forces us.

And maybe not even then.

The depletion rate only matters if you want to know how much trouble we are in.  It only matters if you want to know if the fleet mpg matters 5, 10, or 20 years from now.

People who go with their gut don't need that number ... they'll be happy to tell you their fears.

The most reasonable guess is one based on historic data for large producing regions that have gone into decline. And that's what Stuart has previously assessed and why he thinks a decline rate of around 5% (maybe 6%) is reasonable. Given that we do need to try to plan for this (as in risk management, just as we plan for other risks) if it occurs, what would you suggest is a reasonable number? And further, do you have justification for that number? I think the historical decline rates are the best indicator we can have of what future decline rates will look like.
I think the interesting thing is that the number is unknown.

To me that means we must do iterative cycles of rough prediction and reassessment.  We can't just call the far future once, now, from here.

All we know now is that Americans talk about the "addiction to oil" problem, and make small pre-adaptation.  We don't know how soon trouble will hit, nor how soon those adaptations must accelerate.

Of course it is unknown! It's the future! But it is a possible future that could end badly for many of us, hence the desire to plan for that future. You know, the way ancient farmers stored excess production for years of famine and such? They didn't use the excuse that they couldn't know and therefore shouldn't do squat. Instead they knew that some problem would likely arise and therefore took risk management steps to mitigate the problem.

You continually try to imply that since we cannot know something with certainty that we cannot act decisively. That's just plain wrong. Just as farmers once planned against famine not knowing which year it would arrive, so too can we plan against future resource constraints, if we act before the constraint is upon us just like those farmers did for thousands of years.

Your response is always to waffle, odograph. Waffling didn't save farmers from famines. Waffling will not save us from a decline rate that exceeds the market's ability to adapt to that decline rate. And precisely because that decline rate is unknown, and precisely because the market's adapative pace to housing and transportation is known and further that the adaptive rate of the market is extremely slow compared to historical oil decline rates is exactly why we should take preemptive action rather than rely on the market to mitigate the problem.

The evidence is in front of your face that there is a high probability that the market alone cannot mitigate this problem without severe economic dislocation. That you choose to ignore that evidence simply boggles the imagination.


I'm reminded of that scene in An Enemy of the People, where that guy who keeps saying "moderation in all things" gets chased out the window by the fed-up, umbrella-wielding hero.  ;-)

I say that it is foolish to choose one of ten million possible futures, and then plan for that one alone.

It is wise to lay bets widely, to hedge, to reserve judgment ... and people who do those things seldom pop up to disagree with me.

BTW, we neither rely on "the market alone" now, nor do I recommend that as the plan for the future.

You certainly misrepresent me if you suggest that ever was my position.


Thanks again for another fantastic post to TOD!  The timeliness and relevance of the information posted and linked here never ceases to amaze me.

I agree with Expat on the missing cost of the automobile aspect of transit.  Automobile infrastructure is more than just highways.

Also changing land use patterns in the United States will be critical for more than just transportation reasons.  In Florida, we are gobbling up natural and agricultural lands so fast that we are rapidly eroding our regional resilience and adaptive capacity to whatever changes in the global food economy await on the horizon. If (when) we no longer have the energy infrastructure to ship food from thousands of miles away, where will we grow it regionally/locally if we develop all the critical lands.

In case those of you in other states or countries don't quite grasp what is going on in Florida, I suggest you check out this new report:


Though the analysis and policy recommendations might be exceedingly difficult, we need to view natural resource depletion mitigation strategies (oil or otherwise) as multi-dimensional wedges.  In other words the wedge of increased automobile fuel efficiency may help from the total amount of oil used and CO2 emitted, but the combined increased density/mass transit wedge not only does the same but also relieves development pressure on agricultural/natural lands, allows multi-modal options for lower income citizens, etc.

All that said, Stuart, your analysis is excellent.  I'd be curious to see how this U.S. example compares to other developed countries with significant mass transit infrastructure (i.e. Western Europe, etc.).  Do your conclusions apply outside the U.S.?  Or is there something fundamentally different about our culture, urban development, etc. that separates us from the others?

I am not Stuart, but one true difference is scale or size - America is simply built on another scale.

Another difference, at least in Germany, is that a good number of people do not have driving licenses, and the interests of those who are not car drivers are considered equal to the interests of car drivers. That is, bicycle paths are always a part of road planning, for example. Or even more concretely, the fact that a number of malls in America are absolutely unreachable by foot/bicycle is incomprehensible.

Not incomprehensible, intentional.

Car ownership socially and economically pre-qualifies the customer.  

Interesting - screening mechanism to keep out undesireables.
Except that the absolutely most expensive malls I know of DC (yes, there is a Nieman Marcus in DC) are very, very accessible by foot/transit/limo, and even Tysons Corner is theoretically reachable on foot.

What was striking is that people living in Fairfax City could not walk to Fair Oaks Mall - nobody cared about them, though the demographics were exactly the same as if they drove.

Though it is certainly not wrong to think that screening is practiced in American society, I think to a major extent, no one can even imagine customers who don't drive - they just don't really exist.

A mall next to a recently opened light rail station did not want a ped bridge from it's parking lot to the new station.  they feared loss of parking more than gain of customers.  They finally agreed to allow one to be built, open in 18 months.


This is what a German would find incomprehensible - the number of customers coming off the train would be higher over times than the number of lost parking places, so only a businessman who can't count would think such a bridge would be a bad deal. (Now, as for who pays for the bridge....)

But that is German thinking, the world's leading exporter, which means that obviously, they know nothing about how to sell products successfully.

Mall jobs are low wage jobs and depend on public transit to bring in enough low wage workers.  Welfare to work programs will carry by bus low wage workers from as much as 50 miles away to fill those low wage jobs.
And if we just had the serfs, I mean low wage earners, just live in abandoned SUV's in the parking lots...

Some people's callous attitudes repel and amaze me

and the interests of those who are not car drivers are considered equal to the interests of car drivers

I wish it were so, but it isn't, at least from my perspective as all-day cyclist.

In Germany all non-motorized traffic is virtually marginalized. The (unverbalized) credo is: Cars first. That's the reason, for instance, why streetcars were widely abolished in most cities after WW2.

In Paris/France they just have a new tram going in service (german article)

Information on "rolling stock" is not included in the graphs above (neither cars, buses, trains, planes, or ships), only infrastructure (rail lines, airports, highways, etc).  I wasn't able to find a breakdown of it by mode that answered the question you are raising.  I would guess that the ratio of rolling stock costs is higher for highways than railways, but in a way it doesn't help, since people are willing to pay for their own rolling stock on the highway, but will perceive rolling stock costs as an added tax burden in public infrastructures.
The Hirsch Report discusses the "rolling stock" of cars and trucks in the U.S.
The transit #s included rolling stock (even replacement rolling stock is considered a capital expense due to long life.  90+% of bus capital transit spending is for new buses.

Your comment

in a way it doesn't help, since people are willing to pay for their own rolling stock on the highway, but will perceive rolling stock costs as an added tax burden in public infrastructures
is NOT a good reason for not including car & truck sales as part of the capital expense for highways.  As noted here in comments, a family being able to go from 2 cars to one justifies massive changes on living patterns, and "public expenditures" for highway use (see Iraq as one example, Social Security disability claims for another) vs. "private expenditures" are all part of the economy and we should take a global overview.

And 1977 is a VERY poor date to start from.  The Interstate Highway system was largely complete by then.  Post-1976 roads (SWAG) carry perhaps 15% to 20% of total Vehicle-miles (1% in my area, higher in newer suburbia).

But vehicle-miles are simply the WRONG metric.  You state that mobility is "Good" and by inference more of a "good thing" is also good, I profoundly disagree !  We need to restructure society so that fewer pax-miles are needed to survive and fewer are wanted.  Within my own life, the large majority of things I want to do are within 3 miles and the vast majority within 5 miles (visiting family & conferences excepted).

BTW, you lump buses and Urban Rail together in your analysis, dismissing both together.  The two are quite different and should not be lumped together. Buses = zero TOD, no indirect energy savings, bus ridership is in decline.  Urban Rail = TOD and long term indirect energy savings > direct energy savings.  Urban Rail ridership climbing.

Buses have no efficiency gains as scale expands, Urban Rail has massive efficiency gains as scale expends.

Best Hopes,


"The transit #s included rolling stock (even replacement rolling stock is considered a capital expense due to long life."

No they don't. I specifically excluded them. Go look at my sources.

It is known that government invests in railroad infrastructure. Most of the public investment is, however, allocated to commuter rail and subways, which are counted in transit mode.

Transportation investment made by non-transportation industries accounts for 6.7% of GPFI and 1.1% of GDP, respectively, whereas that by the transportation industry accounts for 4.2% and 0.7%, respectively (Figure 13). In other words, transportation investment made by non-transportation industries (all in rolling stock) is about 60% more than that made by transportation industries (including infrastructure, rolling stock and other equipment)

In summary, for the period of 1977 to 2000, overall transportation investment (including household purchase of rolling stock) on average accounted for more than 6% of GDP. Of this overall transportation investment, investment in rolling stock accounted for 83.3%, and that in transportation infrastructure and in other transportation equipment, 14.2% and 2.5%

A detailed question that may need to go to BTS.  I have never seen rolling stock taken out of an aggregate total for a US Urban rail project, they are just "rolled in".  (Unlike highways, Urban Rail rolling stock is often about 1/4th or less of total start-up costs).

Your analysis appears to be focusing in on the 14.2%/16.7% to the exclusion of the elephant 5+% of our GNP that is highway rolling stock.  That is not appropriate IMHO.

What is the specifc link to the attached chart, I could not find it.




The problem is that I can't find an adequate breakout of the rolling stock by mode. Here's what the BTS gives for the rolling stock:

They don't separate out the personal autos from buses or light rail, so there's not very much we can conclude unless someone comes up with better data (I've looked, but so far without success). However, the data that I gave in my piece is definitely infrastructure and not rolling stock.

Since I have never seen rolling stock seperated out from total projects (I once looked & asked others for a different purpose) AND they were spending $10 billion/ year on "transit infrastructure", I really do think that they just rolled transit rolling stock (including buses) into the infrastructure total.  Along with some maintenance $.

Yes, there is funding for new bus garages, transit shelters, transit agency HQs, but not over $1 billion/year.

New Starts Urban Rail is about $2 billion/year (FTA & local).  Maintenance (St. Charles Streetcar Line (1834/35) was about to start a $10 million rework of the electrical system when Katrina hit, the first in 50 years, new should last even longer) also absorbs over $1 billion/year.  Is this "transit infrastructure" by BTS definitions ?

Are HOV lanes "transit infrastructure" ?  Buses use them but they are a small % of total vehicles.  HOV lanes seem to be over the $1 billion/year level (guess), especially if the original cost of a restriped freeway lane is assigned to transit when paint is added (despite 99+% of the vehicles being private autos).

Quite frankly $10 billion/year WITHOUT including rolling stack and maintenance and/or HOV lanes fails "the smell test".  I just do NOT see the #s adding up.


OK - but those numbers still seem strikingly out of balance to my eyes, which is not the same as doubting them.

I still suspect that there is another explanation for such a disparity.

 Personal vehicles are the real world pandemic.China and India have now caught the disease.

 All the recent innovations: electronic engine management, aluminum blocks, elimination of the iron rear axle housing,high strength steel technology, and increased use of plastics - have all been put in service of larger volume and increased power-to-weight.

 It doesn't take a genius to compare the 0.04/1 payload of an SUV commuter to a 2/1 earth mover or even a 10/1 bicycle rider and recognize massive waste.

 It also doesn't help when the Hirsch report has a relatively dismissive bias toward this issue and would sooner have Americans focused on harvesting coal.

 Industry believes in conservation for themselves, but not for their customers.

 You can get an idea of the US on $6 gasoline by looking at the UK - hardly a revolution in personal transportation.

Industry believes in conservation for themselves, but not for their customers.

Money spent by consumers means someone has a chance to make a profit.  

Profit is good, right?   Expanding the economy is good, right?

  Right - the foreign suppliers of crude and product you're paying $1/4 trillion a year, and counting, agree with you completely.
Here's an observation after 10 days in the UK, commuting to work and travelling inter-city by train.  Even though public transit options are vastly greater, fuel costs are about 2.7x that in US and other car ownership costs are much higher as well, most people seem to drive almost everywhere.  Traffic congestion, in the south at least, reminds me of the Washington DC area here.  It seems to me that cost/price alone is not going to lead to significant change.  Something much bigger has to happen to change the paradigm.  
"It seems to me that cost/price alone is not going to lead to significant change"

You will get this paradigm change  - just turn your statement on it's head.

*A significant change in cost/price will lead to reduction in miles travelled**. There has not yet been enough of a price change to affect driving. Here in the U.K. I know personally of 2 very low income families that still have 2 cars and drive in excess 15000 m/y. How?

Because it is stil relatively cheap.


Stuart's previous article on VMT did show a change, a deflection, in US driving correlating with higher US prices.

I think it is reasonable to take that as confirmation that prices change patterns of behavior, and that even higher prices would lead to even more changes.

Did you notice the many cars with 1.3l engines and the scarcity of cars with 5.8l engines?

That is the real difference. You can see it if you know where to look.

Your observations on the UK are spot on.

I live in the centre (north east) of London, and I live without a car, mostly, using public transport.

I've never had the guts to cycle anywhere (scarier, much scarier, than Toronto in this regard) and if I lived anywhere outside Zone 1-2 of London, I would need a car.

Even in suburban London, I would need a car.

IMHO you are comparing apples to oranges. People can not be transported compacted like earth and the bicycle example does not include the engine weight, which is all your bones, muscles, lungs, heart, etc..

It is also not true that innovation has generally been put to the wrong use. It has indeed been put to the wrong use in the US where SUVs have become a standard. But the very same car companies have used the very same technologies in Europe, Japan and most other parts of the world to create cars which are twice as efficient as they used to be just 25 years ago.

Actually... one should say that these technologies have not been put to use to design SUVs and pickups at all. Just look at the price and design of a typical Ford pickup... it makes use of the cheapest materials and sheet metal construction techniques. There are no elaborate aluminum and plastic parts. It is all blunt force trauma engineering to satisfy a stupid buyer's price point.

If I want a well designed modern car, I will go for a high efficiency compact or a luxury car. If I want a cheap sheet metal protector for my frail ego, I will buy a Ford or GM pickup truck.

It is as simple as that... the crisis is one of mass psychology, not one of engineering or primary energy sources.  

 1)Imagine the load of earth is one commuter.

 2)Cyclists don't carry gasoline in their water bottles - so for the purpose of this discussion, they don't qualify as engines.

I don't see car-pooling to work mentioned as one of the possible solutions.  I feel that people will accept car-pooling as an easy way to double or triple their mileage on their daily commute.


If you look at the "Modal Trends 1980-2000 graph", you'll see that it's share is going down.
A lot of our behaviors have been in the wrong directions lately, Stuart.  I don't think that marks out a predictable trend for the future.. we are still waiting to see how far back the Coyote can get on his slingshot before he's catapulted in the opposite direction.

  If we have a cold winter this year, if oil and gas prices shoot up again, for whatever reason, it's not unthinkable that a very strained and debt-ridden working class will start to break away from unworkable habits and find solutions like carpooling to become not only acceptable, but unavoidable..  but like the Mall-owners above who 'couldn't count', as Expat properly described it, the lifestyle most people try to live is a set of habits that a natural conservatism will fight against changing, even if there's pretty clear evidence that a change would improve your lot.  I feel this is the case with a whole range of transit issues, also largely influenced by an American attitude about being 'alone'.. sitting in a gang of strangers on buses, even coworkers in a carpool hits a bunch of resistance since we still revel in the 'Luxury' of solitude.

Bob Fiske

I have done 90% of my chriastmas shopping on-line this year. I do some regular shopping on-line also.

I can see in the future, the amount of real shops dwindling as more people move 'on-line'

One delivery van carrying 100's of orders instead of 100's of car journeys. It's a win win situation. You didn't leave your house. No crowds. Parking, avoiding the rain etc... etc..

In my experiaence the older the person the less they shop on-line. So there can only be an increase as successive generations become normalised to this method of shopping.


It also presents some interestingly top-down approaches to alternative propulsion: Aerodynamic and propulsion improvements on only four vehicles due for a fleet refresh could actually make a significant dent in national fuel consumption.  More importantly, it's a decision you only need to convince four people of, rather than 40 million.
I think it is a percentage game. Little bit of this, little bit of that.

When gas gets more expensive, people will think about fuel mileage when they buy the next car. You can buy an ordinare car which runs 40 mpg or even above 50 mpg and for less than 10k$ if you want.

The median car is about 6 years old, according to the graphs, and since cars depreciate negative exponentially (every year about 20%, first year a bit more) that would mean the average car is only worth 25% of what it used to be. If because of gas prices, people trade in their cars a bit earlier than they used to do, that would be a percentage loss of that. So in total a 1-2 thousand $, and you have no problem anymore with gas prices until they reach 6 $/gallon. (About the price in Europe now)

I think the first stage (5-10 years) of PO will be quite easily absorbed.

Just my 2c's

You are absolutely spot on. Your observation will cover between 10-15 years after the peak, easily. Now add to that the innovation potential during the same 15 year period. 100mpg cars have not only been demonstrated, they are under development as mainstream products. The current Prius gets 48mpg in the real world and it can be expected that the next generation will get 55-60mpg with a gradual increase over the following years.

Loaded with 4 passengers a Prius achieves close to 200mpg/person and future cars will be closer to 300mpg. That is a far cry from the 14mpg/person that a single driver gets in a typical SUV. It is, in fact, over 20 times as much.

I don't think there will be 4 people in a car on average. That's a bit wishfull thinking. Currently it is something like 1.5 people/car, if we are 10 years down the road I guess it will be 1.8 max. 20% improvement still, but only 20%.

I also don't think that 100mpg cars are around the corner. Europe has had +6$/gallon gas now for 30+ years, and they are still not there.

My argument is not that PO is not a problem. I only think that fuel-availability will not be a problem. The real problem will be the consumer confidence. If that starts to drop, that will have very serious consequences.

So I think there won't be any fuel-lines, but there will be unemployment-lines. People will be evacuated from their home because they lost their job, not because they have no petrol to drive to work.

btw: You can buy gas powered cars nowadays below 10k that run more than 50 mpg. No hybrid needed. Anybody who has done the math on hybrids, knows they are a no-started.

For Urban travel the US standard is 1.1 people/car (1.15 is somewhat older).  If one substracts the non-destination passengers (taxi drivers, moms taking child to or from soccer practice) then the #s drop.

Inter-city travel has significantly higher "head counts" inside.  This may be where the 1.5 # came from.

Best Hopes,


For people interesting in how we got into this automobile mess, I recommend a book by Kenneth Jackson titled "Crabgrass Frontier".  It describes how development in America is a function of the primary mode of transportation.
Estimated Personal driving miles this year: ~1000 miles.


50% To and from girlfriend's parents house
50% Holiday/vacation trips

There were almost always 2 people in the car, if not 3-4.

The car probably gets 30 mpg on highways, which was most of the driving.

That's 1000 miles /30 miles per gallon = 33.3 gallons of gas. Then divide that by two to get my portion, which is 16.6 gallons.

The rest of my transportation needs are covered by mass transit, biking and walking and maybe 1-2 taxi rides per month. The key to NYC is that everything is so closely packed together.

We invest comfortably over 15% of our total transportation infrastructure national budget into railroads and transit, and yet they are carrying only 1.5% of passenger miles. So each of those modes is roughly a factor of 10 worse than highways and airports in terms of the return (in actual useful movement of people) on the investment (in transport infrastructure spending).

Several minor points (I am quite busy today, more tonight/later).

Transportation infrastructure (new, not maintenance) is on a longer time frame than you envision.  I traveled to and from the Boston ASPO on a subway that opened in 1898, and that probably did not show up in your 15%.  I use a streetcar line that opened in 1834, which again, probably did not show up in your analysis.  I travel mostly over streets built by 1880.  The Interstate Highway System was largely complete by 1970/75 (small fragments left incomplete by then).

New Infrastructure spending carries a very low % of our pax-miles.

Also, to be fair, one should include the cost of vehicles in your "15%" ratio.  Buses and rail vehicles are included, so please add the revenues of all the major car & truck makers (US sales) to the highway #s.

All in all your analysis is flawed, but more later.

A couple of additional concepts to throw into the mix.

Urban Rail reduces, often dramatically, demand for transportation pax-miles.  Exurbia dramatically increases it.  So your metrics are the simply the wrong metrics.  I walk 2.5 blocks to a corner grocery store, and that probably escapes detection.  My brother drives 5 miles each way to a grocery store, and that certainly shows up. My "pax-miles" are less than 1% of his for the same function.  My mode (walking) exists only because of the streetcar nearby, yet the data for grocery shopping for 2 siblings is 0% Urban Rail, <1% walking, >99% auto.  Obviously, we need to spend 99% of our transportation $ (devoted to us two) on supporting the auto and make it faster and easier to drive to the grocery !

It is generally recognized that the indirect energy savings of Urban Rail exceed the direct savings, that these savings grow over time (max in 40 to 50 years in a "stable" environment).

Urban rail ridership grows on every segment anytime a new line is added.  And the TOD effect increases significantly as well.  The more widespread the Urban rail system, the faster & easier it is to use, the greater the TOD effect, and the more cost effective it is.

Your analysis is based upon a past, stable environment, and post-Peak Oil will be anything but stable !  Thus any conclusions from that era are not applicable towards the future.

You fail to account for the "total costs" of the different modes.  Add deaths & life altering injuries to highways (almost zero for Urban rail), pollution, GHG delta, obesity, etc to the equation.  Most Amercians do not have a choice in life-styles or mode of transportation.

Per the University of Kentucky architecture professor, today no money is "wasted" on building that will last beyond 20 years unless required by code.  This is down from 30 years "not that long ago".  Major repairs can be expected within 25 years.

The US abandoned well built housing and commercial building "en masse" from ~1950 to ~1970.  We did it once, we can do it again !

Best Hopes,


Also need to add the interest/fees paid on car loans and leases (not just booked sales).

And add vehicle & liability insurance.

These are very big numbers.

Our city study tells us that residents are spending (on average) about $700/month on car transportation. They, of course, are promoting monthly bus tickets at $47...  

Have you ever heard the expression "time is money"?

Sure, travelling by bus is cheaper then travelling by automobile when you look at straight costs, but when you factor in the unpredictability of the schedule, as well as increased travel time (walking to the bus stop, waiting for the bus, increased ride time (due to all the stops), and then walking to the final destination, there is a huge "time" cost in terms of lost productivity.

Most Americans I know already feel like they don't have enough time in the day.  Adding an extra hour to their commute, even for a modest cash savings, doesn't make sense, certainly not at these gas prices.


You must live in the suburbs <g>.

If you lived in town as I do and most of your trips < 2 miles, you might sense that $700-$47 = $653 is a reasonable pitch.

That's a decent amount of walk-around money (or cab-fare), even if you make >$100,000/year.

In fact, for much of our student population (it's a college town) this money equals the rent. This is causing some consternation among the real estate crowd. The students are beginning to ride the buses and they are beginning to rent further from the "core" student district near the U. This is causing rents to drop in the heart of town but rise on the better bus routes. The R.E. fellows missed this trend initially. Now they are loading up on in-fill projects. They  are tearing up parking lots and old stock and building mixed use (residential + business) on bus routes as fast as they can. It's working.

So yes, time is money. The R.E. fellows doing the in-fill are in a hurry in Madison, WI.


I live about 12 miles outside of Boston.

I don't disagree with you, that for certain people in a city, with lots of Mass Transit options, giving up the car for a train/bus/cab may make sense.  

ZipCar is a unique auto rental scheme in a ahdful of cities with cars parked in the neghborhoods, so that if you only need a car a couple of times a month you can reserve it online, and then just pick it up at it's designated parking spot a block or two from your house.  My girlfriend uses it.  It costs about $75/day for the car, which as you state is far cheaper if you only need it a few times a month, and the rest of the time you take public transport.

The problem is this sort of solution doesn't work for anybody but an inner city dweller.  I do take the commuter rail into the city everyday for work, but I still need an automobile for personal transportation when tooling around the neighborhood, or visiting friends and family on the weekend.

I'm down to around 6000 miles per year.  If gasoline doubles again I'll get a motorcycle for the summertime, which is when I do most of my driving anyways.

You must live in the suburbs.
Perhaps ggg71 does but it doesn't matter that much. It's one thing to live without a car if you are a student in or near downtown Madison, with your main daily trip being to the campus, and your meals expensively and perhaps unhealthily taken in restaurants or the Residence Halls food service. It would be quite another thing once you graduate, and you have to travel to a job that is likely not to be just down the block, because it probably changes faster than you could follow it.

But most people are not students or recent grads. It would be really, really something to keep it up once you have children, and you have to take them here, there and everywhere for school functions and the like, and you have to haul groceries, and you have responsibilities yourself. So it really all depends.

And if your trips are fairly short, that only compounds the problem with the bus - that the service is totally random and chaotic, and the wait time is just utterly disproportionate to, well, the few minutes it usually takes to drive a mile or three. And if you do need to go further, you get to rinse-and-repeat at the "transfer point". By the time the first bus deigns to show up, you could drive out to the countryside. By the time you get across town, you could have driven to Milwaukee.

On the other hand, the exit routes (E. Washington and University) are becoming parking lots during rush hours. But the bus does nothing much to help with that, they just get mired. So the university staff, many of whom will never be able to afford to bring their families downtown, are now starting to enter a world of hurt. But it will always take two or three or five times as long for most folks to ride a bus rather than drive. And that is one of the points in Stuart's original post.

Back when I worked in NYC, I had a colleague who moved from the city to the 'burbs (New Jersey).  Being a city boy, born and bred, he had no clue what suburban living was like.  

He was shocked at the amount of driving that was necessary.  In the city, his school-age kids had everything they needed, right on their block.  They didn't even have to cross the street.  School, dance lessons, shops, piano lessons, basketball, the park, etc.  They were used to letting their kids walk to school and after-school activities.  

In the suburbs, someone had to drive them.  This was a serious problem, since both parents worked.  There wasn't even anyone for the kids to play with, unless they drove them to a friend's house.

Yeah, I grew up with a situation somewhat like that, where I walked to school (unaccompanied by parents) and to certain other things. OTOH, people from "further out" did not consider my area "safe", so activities that reached beyond a local scope tended to require car travel, since they simply didn't happen unless the venue was "further out". That problem is now infinitely worse. I'm not sure that the objective statistics show a greater danger, but then again, every single incident is now plastered onto lighted signs on every freeway across an entire region or even this whole vast country. So it sure feels more dangerous than ever.

Where I live now, there is a political demand for pedestrianized facilities, local library branches, and all the rest, and the place is much "safer" than where I grew up, but I can't imagine most parents letting their kids out of sight for even a second, much less letting them walk to school or to that local library. "Something might happen."

Interesting the many odd ways these things tie together.

"But it will always take two or three or five times as long for most folks to ride a bus rather than drive."

Which is one reason rail is so much preferable to bus transit, because rail can sail right through the gridlock which traps buses and cars alike.

As a parent who has raised two children to ages 15 and 18, I think much car dependence in the US is a result of attitude even more than infrastructure. Although my family owns a car, bikes, feet, and buses are the major transportation mode for all of us. I have been living this way for more than 30 years, so I smile a little when someone says reducing car dependence for families is "impractical".

The benefits to reducing car-dependence are not just adjusting to some possible peak-oil, global-warmed future but major economic advantages right now. Our family has invested the money we saved by only owning one car and driving it infrequently into rental properties,etc.

It is strange for most tenants when their landlord rides up on a bicycle to do some maintenance, sign a lease, etc. But I think the stupid money that so many of my tenants waste on depreciating automobiles is a major factor in keeping them tenants instead of owners. Every single one of my tenants has more money sunk into automobiles than I do.

Have you ever heard the expression "time is money"?

Yes.  I have.  

Yet the same people who like youing it never quite get around to considering:

What is the value of a photon -> electrical conversion VIA PV (near instant time)
What is the value of the Photon -> electrical conversion via wind?
Via Hydro?
Via biomass?
Via coal?
Via oil/gas?  (98 tons of pre-historic plant matter to make a gallon of gasoline.   That's a whole lotta photons a long time ago)

If 'time is money' stored photons expressed as a fossil fuel should have more value than it does, no?

Most Americans watch 3+ hours of television each day. Not enough time?

I don't want to argue semantics.

The reality is in order for public transportation to work it either needs to be:

A - The same cost as driving, but faster or
B - Cheaper, and take the same amount of time as driving.

When you compare time, you have to compare door to door times.

Trains (subways, commuter rails, etc...) generally run on pretty good schedules, so you can minimize the amount of time you spend standing at the station.  I know I can set my watch by my train, and as such usually arrive 1-2 minutes before it arrives.

Buses on the other hand are completely unpredictable.  They are at the mercy of traffic and street lights, and I find you often wait 30+ minutes, and then see threebuses coming all in a row.

And no, there isn't enough time.  I don't know anyone who would trade their 3 hours of "TV" spent at home with their spouse and kids for a hellacious public transit commute.


The trend in watching television is for every family member to have their own tv set in their own room - not a family experience. But enough about that.

Buses should of course have their own lane, or they're pointless.

Regarding the cost of transit: mass transit is paid all at once, private transit costs are spread out. That may distort the comparison, and we're not even talking about the societal benefits then.

$700/month seems high.  The IRS estimates $400/month, and I think that's for new cars.

Do you know how the two compare?

Another point to consider is that the rail infrastructure isn't soley used for passenger transport - quite a lot of it is freight. So to see if your overinvesting in rail infrastructure, a comparison based soley on passenger miles is invalid.
I live in a rural county and contemporary transportation planners say "not dense enough for public transport."  And yet, historically, this place had far more rail than it does today, including short, narrow guage lines. Sure, those lines were also used for lumber and cattle, but lumber and cattle haven't disappeared from the scene--just hauled on trucks instead using 10 times more energy than if they were hauled by rail.

AAA estimates the average personal auto costs between 7 and 9K per year.  Once folks are vested into that form of transporation, they will do most anything to support and protect it, including sucking all dollars for alternatives into building larger freeways.  


You are giving TOD readers the impression that your town has zero public transportation  when, in fact, it does. (I live in the town north of Jason's.)  The bus service is designed to take people from his town to the next city south.  In other words, it is for communters not local service.

And, why would there be no local service?  Because, although the urban part of the town is densly populated there are too few people to support what would be considered regular service. The vast majority of people in the area live outside of the town proper.  They would have to drive between 15-30 minutes to get to a local public transportation service.  Why would they want to change to a bus when they can drive the entire length of the town in under 10 minutes (barring "rush hour" and special events)?

Further, even if someone lived in town, it is unlikely they would want to use public transportation.  Why?  My SIL owns a house in town (and I've owned property in Pine Mountain, a development miles outside of the town itself).  
Her house is four blocks from where the bus runs now.  Given the town's weather much of the year, why would she want to walk to the busstop, shop, lug her groceries to a return bus stop and then haul them home when she can drive to the closest grocery store in about 5 minutes?

Perhaps, you would like to see more people commute to the southern town by bus.  Again, why would they want to do that?  The bulk of them are driving 15-30 minutes to get to the highway and the southern town is about 20 minutes away.  And, then because stops in that town aren't close, they'd probably have another 15 minute walk.  And, this assumes they wouldn't have to transfer to another bus.

In my town, they run a van once a day because it couldn't support a mini-bus.  And, the issues are much the same as your town - people have a long drive to get to a bus stop.  I'll use myself as an example.  It takes me 20+ minutes to get to my town where there is a bus stop.  But, it only takes me another 25 minutes to get to your town.  Why would I want to take the bus/van even if it ran hourly?

Yet, interestingly, lots of people in my town used to take the Greyhound bus when it stopped here.  Greyhound cancelled it a few years back even though they probably got $20k in fares and they were passing by anyway.

I think the planners are correct in their assement.


My point is that when cars where rare, investment in public transport was given high priority.

Now that cars are common, public transport is poorly funded relative to the public infrastructure and private capital that supports cars.

But this doesn't mean that public transport can't work, only that we appear locked into a system we have invested heavily in.

Go to any poor country where individual cars are rare and you will see:  people walking long distances with groceries, kids to school, etc.; bikes used to haul people and cargo; trucks and vans loaded with passengers and their personal items.  

But if gas is so cheap and people have a choice, right, they go for that.  What if gas is not cheap and people don't have a choice? What should public funds be going for now to prepare for that?  How many transporation planners can even comprehend that possibility?  Around here, almost none.

I realize transportation infrastructure is very long-lived - probably even more so than housing. That reinforces my point. It will only change very slowly on the margins and hence will not have a big impact on our oil usage in the near term.

"Urban Rail reduces, often dramatically, demand for transportation pax-miles".

You make large number of claims like this, with no sources whatsoever, and no quantitative analysis. How about you cite some data or studies (preferably online) to support your points. Otherwise, it comes across as faith-based rather than fact-based.

"My mode (walking) exists only because of the streetcar nearby, yet the data for grocery shopping for 2 siblings is 0% Urban Rail, <1% walking,>99% auto. Obviously, we need to spend 99% of our transportation $ (devoted to us two) on supporting the auto and make it faster and easier to drive to the grocery !"

Don't reason from your own life. You are out in the extreme tail of American behavior and you cannot predict what other people will do based on what you do.

Also, did you not see this graph up above?

The y-axis is "commuters" not "miles", so the fact that walk commutes are shorter doesn't play in. Nonetheless, walking as a way to commute is a) tiny, and b) shrinking more rapidly than anything else. Walking is not ignored in transportation surveys. For example the household survey is based on calling people up and asking them to reconstruct all their trips for that day, but all modes.

As far as I can tell, what you want to do is invest a trillion or so on urban rail in the hope of making a difference in VMT. Over the last couple of decades, we invested something like 0.1% of GDP in transit, which is about $10 billion a year, or a couple of hundred billion since the mid eighties, far higher in proportion to the userbase of the existing transit systems. The result was that transit share declined and VMT has increased at a rapid clip. Why should we throw lots more good new money after bad?

I suggest that a far more useful focus for activism is getting high fuel economy standards for new cars. The potential impacts are much greater.

(I should say also that I'm not opposed to new development being more transit oriented. I just don't think it's going to make more than a tiny difference at the margin. "Your analysis is based upon a past, stable environment, and post-Peak Oil will be anything but stable ! Thus any conclusions from that era are not applicable towards the future." I disagree. People will change in response to the circumstances, but they will still be people, and the changes they make will be whatever provides them the path of least resistance forward. We will be starting with all the same infrastructure we have now and making whatever changes politicians think they can sell to their voters (who will be average car-driving Americans), and/or people adopt in the marketplace.

"New Starts" Urban rail funding is $6.1 billion for the 5 years 2004-2009 under TEA-21

FTA expects to enter the period likely covered by the next authorization (fiscal years 2004 through 2009)
13 with over $3 billion in outstanding New Starts grant commitments. In addition, FTA has identified five projects estimated to cost $2.8 billion that will likely be ready for grant agreements in the next 2 years. If these projects
receive grant agreements and the total authorization for the next program is $6.1 billion---the level authorized under TEA-21

Thus, about $1.2 billion/yearin federal funding, not $10 billion.  I propose a $125-$150 billion federal funding program as Phase I, with disbursements peaking in Year 4 and 90% completion in Year 7 or so.  Phase II would be well underwayby then.

It is hard to do controled studies on changes in Urban Form due to the advent of Urban Rail and related TOD effects.  Washington DC is one example and Portland OR is another.

A New York Times article about how Portland OR meet Kyoto.

http://www.nytimes.com/2005/07/03/opinion/03kristof.html?ex=1166158800&en=60a58a55d5e61931&e i=5070


Most funding for transit is state and local. Hence the BEA derived estimates I cited are more useful.

It is hard to do controled studies on changes in Urban Form due to the advent of Urban Rail and related TOD effects. Washington DC is one example and Portland OR is another.

A New York Times article about how Portland OR meet Kyoto.

So Portland did a whole bunch of things and reduced carbon emissions (good for them!). Kristof provides no breakdown on which things made the difference, and which things were cost effective. So this article provides very little support for your idea.

So do you have other evidence to support your projections of how much impact a $trillion in light rail will have, or is this article it?

Maybe you are playing devil's advocate here.

Investing in urban transit is politically very popular. The list of cities which voted to tax themselves to construct rail systems is long (probably 30 or more in this article

Whenever oil depletion starts to bite, rail is going to be the best tool available to reduce oil consumption. Rail is the most fuel efficient mode (except walking/biking) and rail capacity on existing tracks can be expanded with a fraction of the investment required to expand highway capacity.

So here democracies around the world are deciding to invest in the best system available to adapt to peak oil and somehow you are arguing that it is bad because it does not fix the whole problem and requires subsidies to operate in the context of cheap gas and massively subsidized highways.

No city has succeeded in building enough highways to prevent roadway traffic congestion, but most major cities worldwide have built rail to at least offer people an alternative to sitting in gridlock.

I think you are "baying at the moon" and despite your arguements, the momentum for rail will only continue to grow. The experience here in Denver metro was that the most recent rail line came in under budget, with ridership nearly double projections, and the public easily voted in a 4.7 Billion sales tax-funded city-wide rail project (Fastracks). Given the high ridership on disconnected lines, we can expect even higher ridership once the whole area is served by an interconnected system.

"Maybe you are playing devil's advocate here". No, I'm doing what I always do - looking at the data, thinking for myself, and telling the truth as best I can determine it.
Public transport is something of a no win.


Because if you improve public transport, and more people use it, then it is faster to drive than it was, previously.

More cars use the roads then, filling up that excess 'capacity' that public transport created.

(the same applies to new roads, btw)

Now it is not a pure lose: more people take more journeys, and some of those journeys are made more efficiently (public transport).  And preferences for public transport (eg bus lanes) may drive users off the roads.

But still, it is worth recording that systemic effect.  London has a vast public transport network, so does New York, yet both have horrendous traffic problems.

I can't wait till Denver is connected to Boulder/Longmont.

Then my wife and I can go out and BOTH of us can drink.

I think you just hit on the most under rated advantage of mass transit. The ability to ride under the influence RUI.

I live in Tokyo ride the train system everywhere all the time. You can go out with you wife/friends have a few (or more) drinks and get back home. No DUIs, no designated drivers, no MADD.

Its wonderful :-)

Alan, are you listening? Use that to sell mass transit. It can't be overemphasized.

Most funding for transit is state and local. Hence the BEA derived estimates I cited are more useful

Not so for New Starts Urban Rail.  It was 80% FTA funding with only very few 100% local projects until the Bush Administration (now at 50%).  In the last decade+, the only 100% locally funded Urban Rail projects I am aware of were a couple of streetcar projects (Kenosha WS, Memphis, ??), NJ Riverline (diesel light rail), Austin's commuter rail and south Boston commuter rail projects.

You lump "transit" with Urban Rail and tar them with the same brush.  (I strongly suspect that new buses are the largest use of that $10 billion/year capital spending).  New Urban Rail has been roughly $2 billion or so/year for the last decade and a half.

The "whole bunch of things" that Portland did could not have been done without their Light Rail and streetcar systems.  Unfortunately, your article appeared at an inopportune time.  I am working up the budgetary cost estimates for the Elysian Fields & Desire Streetcar Lines for the planning process before leaving for Christmas and other issues.

However, a ten minute review of the http://www.vtpi.org site and found http://www.vtpi.org/documents/public.php which has .pdf files of "Rail Transit in America: Comphrensive Evaluation of Benefits".  

Also "Evaluating New Start Transit Program Performance: Comparing Rail And Bus" may be of interest.

I would recommend the site, a small scale but quality effort.

Best Hopes,


There are several studies that confirm rail transit reduces the VMT of households. The modeling is getting more sophisticated all the time, able to account for more demographic factors, self-selection, etc. Here's one finding from study released last year (not online):

By looking at the 26 American cities with rail transit systems, the study found that "rail supply has the largest effect on driving of all our sprawl and transit variables." The study concluded that a 10 percent increase in rail supply reduces the probability of driving by 4.2 percent.

--Bento, Antonio, Maureen Cropper, Mushfiq Moborak, and Katja Vinha, "The Effects of Urban Spatial Structure on Travel Demand in the United States," The Review of Economics and Statistics, August 2005, Volume 87, Number 3, pp. 466-478.

I don't dispute that urban form affects travel. I don't dispute that rail/transit displace driving. When your reference says
Urban planners can change travel behavior, reduce vehicle miles traveled and the rate of automobile ownership - even in the car-oriented United States - by comprehensively supporting higher densities, increased investment in transit systems and by putting housing in closer proximity to jobs, according to a new study by a University of Maryland-led research team. "Each of these measures individually reduces the vehicle miles traveled by only a little, but by combining them all together - density, transit and jobs-housing balance - you can have a substantial effect," said Antonio M. Bento, the lead researcher on the project and a research professor at the University of Maryland's National Center for Smart Growth Research and Education.
that sounds right to me. Here's my core point. The constituents of urban form change slowly and only with great expense. The turnover rates are very small. Therefore, it will be very difficult to make a large quantitative change in the problem by working on these aspects of the situation. I'm not saying that the way Americans have built their cities was wise. I'm not disagreeing that 19th century urban forms are significantly more energy efficient than 20th century US ones. I'm not saying we shouldn't change the way we do new development in the future.

What I am saying that now we've built all this sprawl, we can only make changes in it at a very slow rate, and therefore, the impact on the problem achieved this way will be very modest. And if you throw transit solutions at unsuitable low density neighbourhoods, then all you'll do is waste massive amounts of money (which apparently is what we've been doing).

Yes, transportation services must be matched to land use. Every transportation engineer will agree with that. There are certain situations where a subway is best, certain situations where rapid bus is best, certain situations where on-demand vans are best.

However, a substantial portion of the U.S. lives in urban areas that are not, but could be, served by mass transit. And a portion of the U.S. lives near suburban centers that can be retrofitted for mass transit. There are millions of households that fit that description. There are hundreds of development projects currently underway that fit that description.

As for speed of change, you're right about land use: it takes decades to see substantial, large scale change in development patterns. But transportation can change more swiftly. Remember that the electric streetcar was perfected in 1887 and within six years there were 250 electric streetcar systems nationwide in the U.S. Rapid bus lines on dedicated lanes can be instituted in a few years.

Those actions are are well within the realm of possibility in case we need to draw on them.

What I am saying that now we've built all this sprawl, we can only make changes in it at a very slow rate,

And what I am saying is that there are historic examples of massive changes in a generation.

  1. ~1950 to ~1970 - Creation of a new Urban form, abandoning almost every downtown commerical district and trashing much/most pre-WW II housing.

  2. 1897 - 1916 - Peak Streetcar, subways & elevated in amjor cities (Boston Green Line to ASPO), 500 cities, towns and villages getting streetcars.  Reduced residential density in Manhatten, increased it in other areas

  3. 1900 - 1930 was the peak change in rural/urban split in the US (from memory)
"And if you throw transit solutions at unsuitable low density neighbourhoods, then all you'll do is waste massive amounts of money (which apparently is what we've been doing)."

I'm still confused. Why does building a post-oil infrastructure ahead of the peak concern you as "massive waste", while the much more massive mis-allocation of resources to spend trillions on highways and SUVs does not seem to be a concern.

As I have mentioned upthread, rail infrastructure has a useful lifetime measured in centuries, not decades, as the experience of New York, Paris, and London systems shows. Observing any working rail systems will show that rail functions as an incentive to change urban form very quickly. Developers are swarming to build transit-oriented development along the rail stops for Denver metro's new rail system (see http://www.rockymountainnews.com/drmn/real_estate/article/0,1299,DRMN_414_5147294,00.html)

Certainly there are a few examples of poorly-designed rail implementations in the US (San Jose's system which does not connect to BART, Amtrak, etc. is a prime example), but the vast majority of rail expansion in the US has resulted in public approval and high ridership. Much of your negative data was from ~2000 in periods of extremely low gas prices. Newer data from 2006 shows transit use increasing  3.3% in the third quarter of 2005 versus 2004. Light rail ridership was up 8.8% year over year.http://www.apta.com/passenger_transport/thisweek/060123_2.cfm
What do you expect to happen to transit ridership when the next price spike hits. Whether we expect fast or slow decline rates, the rail infrastructure we build today will still be in place when we need it. How is that a waste?

When one ranks US cities by VMT per capita, there is a wide range and a strong correlation between Urban Rail system mileage and VMT (cross correlated with density, the 3 factors are tied together).  

Washington DC went from poorly frequented bus system (4% of commutes in 1970 census) to a first class (but not extensive enough) Metro system and transit modal share has risen to over 40%.  Signs of TOD are common in DC (I stopped at a new station (New York Ave) on an old line, Red, and saw half a dozen high rises under construction within 3 blocks).  It is clear that TOD is still evolving in DC about two decades after substantial completion of the original system.

Meanwhile, VMT ranking among US cities   However, because of Washington DC has steadily dropped.

Now, the FTA is pushing BRT (bus rapid transit) and I (and most others) think that it is a waste of time and money with marginal benefit. The World Bank under Wolfowitz (neocon fame) is now pushing BRT on the developing world. So condemning Urban Rail for the failures of BRT is bad analysis.  Urban Rail ridership is rising, bus ridership is failing in the US, yet you lump them together and damn them both.

Miami has enacted a half cent sales tax to pay the local match for a system that is much like DC Metro (except all elevated) with a final length almost identical to the design length of DC Metro.  However, because of limited FTA fudning, is expected to take 25 years to complete. 90% of the current population will be within 3 miles of a station and a bit over half within 2 miles.

Miami built a starter line in the 1980s that was widely ignored by developers.  When I was there in 2004 (to give paper @ APTA) 15 of 23 building cranes were within 3 blocks of a Metro station.  Clearly, the announcement of expansion had triggered a refocus of development towards TOD.

My SWAG is that 20% of population and 40+% of employment will be within 3 blocks of a Metro station upon completion.

Salt Lake City and Denver both have long range plans that will transform their cities and drive them down the list of US cities ranked by VMT.

  1. Urban Rail systems, not single starter lines, are needed to transform cities (Portland OR will have something close to a system when the current projects under construction are finished).

  2. Buses have no TOD effects, Urban Rail does.  Urban Rail builds it's own density in many/most cases but not all.

  3. TOD effects currently take decades to build out and maximize.  Post-Peak Oil I expect that to be dramatically accelerated.


PS: Vancouver BC and Toronto are "unAmerican" but their Urabn Rail is good to excellent and VMTs low.

I wouldn't rate Vancouver's urban rail as 'excellent'.

One Skytrain, which doesn't go to that many useful places.

I was struck how much is dependent on electric trolleys and buses.

It would be hard to live in Vancouver without a car, outside the West End (downtown).

The city is really not set up for bicycling, either, which is even more baffling given the mild climate and the general outdoor fitness orientation of the population.

Toronto is very good on public transport but recent years of budget cuts have sharply reduced off peak bus transport (one every 30 minutes on my parents' route).  The TTC is in a thoroughgoing fiscal and planning mess (the new subway ends in the middle of nowhere, with very poor usage outside of rush hour).

The TTC has never served the NE and NW extents of the metropolis well (Etobicoke and Scarborough) and over half the population of the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) lives outside of the Metro, and has very little public transport at all -- that's 3.5 million people in GTA but not Metro.

If I lived off the subway in TO, I would probably get a car-- I waited for too many buses in those wet, freezing winds, in my time.

The auto addiction runs really deep. What better way to widely display one's economic status?

Can You Afford to Drive a Ferrari?

The warranty on 550 S/N 111317 ran out in March, 2000, at about 13,500 miles. Our subject 550 went to the third owner in September 2006 at 36,200 miles, so the total miles out of warranty was 22,700 miles, with a total spent of $65,760.50, or $2.90 a mile, right at $11,000 a year.

Ferrari ownership is both a lifestyle and a socio-economic statement, just as owning a polo pony is a different venture than keeping a draught horse. As one former owner of S/N 111317 put it, "I spend more than that on crap on eBay every year." No other statement quite sums up the difference between those who lust for a Ferrari from those who can pay the price of ownership.

Note that the author is a Ferrari broker! The old statement "If you have to ask how much, you can't afford it" comes to mind and he is reinforcing the perception. (Not recalling where I hit this gem, I apologize if it was TOD!)

Then there is this Minnesota pundit (James Lileks, Newhouse News Service, December 13, 2006), apparently one of the earliest bloggers, reinforcing preconceived notions (Google News "cow flatulence"):

Cows are nature's way of saying, 'Chill'

America is not their model; America is the example of what is wrong with progress. The idea of people living in large houses with nice lawns, driving a personal vehicle (by themselves, on the route of their choosing) to the store to buy big steaks subsequently cooked on a carbon-emitting outdoor grill -- well, who wants to live like that?

About 6 billion people, if you give them the chance. But forgive them, Kofi; they know not what they do.

The idea of people sitting at home in sweatpants watching a big TV while shoveling in the Haagen-Dazs mortifies the social engineers; they can practically feel the planet wobble on its axis from the cumulative weight of so much freedom and prosperity.

The preferred model for a nice, controlled population is a dense city where your small apartment has a tiny fridge stocked with bean curd molded into pleasant, food-like shapes. Trains take you to your job, which is either building trains, fixing trains, designing public service posters for trains, cleaning trains or writing software to operate trains. Once a week you'll pull on your best taupe-hued hemp jumpsuit and take the train to the biweekly Culture Expo to hear something held up to enlightened ridicule (anything's game, except Islam and Global Warming).

It may sound like hell itself, but at least it's sustainable

Note the take on public transportation. (P.S. For physiologic and anatomical reasons, cows burp while horses have flatulence.)

Except for the bean curd part, I've lived in a dense, interesting, highly entertaining  city in a relatively small apartment with a tiny refrigerator and great public transportation.  I could even take the subway as far as the mountains for cross country skiing.  I had a wonderful time and traveled all over that city each for about $40 a month. It was in Germany and I would trade a big house with a big lawn for that lifestyle any day.  Given that grocery shopping was less than a block away from my tiny refrigerator, it was extremely convenient to keep my tiny refrigerator stocked.

Sustainability is not hell.  James Lieks is an idiot and can take his big suburban house and shove it.  Big suburban houses and big refrigerators are way overrated.  

Yeah, but the article is a good representation of the attitudes of quite a few people, kinda what I think they're talking about when they mention a "non-negotiable" lifestyle.  My SWAG is at least 40-60% of the American public would let fly a rousing "hell yeah" to that article. Prying our cold dead fingers from the steering wheel is about what it will take.
On why people will hang onto their older, lower MPG vehicles, without a vast increase in MPG combined with HIGH gasoline prices...

Assume Gasoline at $10/gal

Joanna with 2004 Camry 23city/32hwy...average 27mpg

wants to buy the new 2009 Camry which gets 30city/40hwy...avg 35mpg...price $25,000.

How much gas she could otherwise buy:
25,000/10($/gal) = 2,500 gallons
2,500gal*27mpg = 67,500 miles

Mileage at which fuel economy improvement pays back: 296,000 miles
Years to pay back at 15,000miles/year: 19.7 years


John with 2005 Ford Exploder 15city/20hwy...avg 17mpg

Would like a 2009 Ford Escape Hi-mileage 31city/35hwy...avg 33mpg...price $30,000

How much gas he could otherwise buy:
30,000/10($/gal) = 3,000 gallons
3,000*17 = 51,000 miles

Mileage at which fuel economy improvement pays back: 106,000 miles
Years to pay back at 15,000 miles/year: 7 years


Theoretical 25mpg vehicle
Theoretical 50mpg vehicle costing $20,000

How much gas one could otherwise buy:
20,000/10($/gal) = 2,000 gallons
2,000*25 = 50,000 miles

Mileage at which fuel economy improvement pays back: 100,000
Years to pay back at 15,000 miles/year: 6.7 years

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

Note that the mileage and payback years DOUBLE at $5/gal gasoline (i.e.  600,000 miles and 40 years for the Camry upgrade; 212,000 miles and 14 years for the Ford Explorer to Escape Hi-mileage upgrade)

This encouraged me to do a quick and dirty payback caculator:


I only showed net fuel savings per year, since true payback would have to include such arcane data as trade-in value, financing options, insurance rates, etc., etc., etc.

Obviously "fuel savings" increase with fuel costs, but what you do with that savings is your business.

Nice little calculator.  It really highlights how little fuel costs compared to the rest of the vehicle, especially in terms of small MPG changes.

It should probably be noted that if the payback time is greater than 15 years or 300,000 miles, then it probably exceeds the lifetime of the vehicle.

People can behave in odd ways. Myself I have wondered why ground source heat pumps have been selling so well even when the amortization time is longer then the service life of the heat pump itself. Its not as bad as it sounds since the hole in the ground etc is the most expensive part.
Ground source heat pumps?

What amortization? My old outside heap pump was shot, even though I personally changed out the compressor twice, including new driers,etc.
That old one just cost me $300 but I did all the work on it myself. The new one cost mhhhh...maybe $1500. This means no outdoors split unit. Has a nice scroll compressor and therefore will have a very very long life.

I did install it myself and it was a snap due to no hi/lo lines to run. I piped in the water and that was it. Works very well and quite efficient.

Hole in the ground? You can run it on your well and pump the output back into the well or lay the lines in a pond/lake. Yes putting it 5 ft. down is a good way to go. So borrow a backhoe and put it in yourself. BUT you must have some land in order to do this. Not something that works in  the 'burbs' or cities. A rural answer to heating and a very good answer at that.

I couple it with my Buck woodstove for when the temperature takes a real dive. Like last week. But for this week with daytimes in the high 50s and nitetime in the 40s? It hardly ever comes on and thats handling a 3,000 sq. ft. loghouse. Of course the biomass of the logs matter greatly. They store the heat and keep the outside cold at bay.

I have 3 inches of foam under the roofing and that also makes a huge difference. The basement is warm enough without any heat there that I could live there very comfortably with zero heat upstairs.

This is the only way I justify the size of the house. I don't even put ducts upstairs because its an open floor plan and the heat rises enough for that.

airdale--just my solution..however I am selling the house and some land and moving back to the barn where it will be even cheaper. Back to 900 sq. ft. I will keep enough land to be sustainable though.

A woodstove is a great way of getting cheap "peak" heating when the heat pump isent enough on its own. And its a good backup.

When heat pump installation is around 10% of small houses you have run out of do-it-yourself people a long time ago. Its sold as a complete installation. A crew arrives with a tiny backhoe, a small well drilling rig and a container for the mud from the drilling. They drill an 80-100m hole or so into the bedrock, dig, rip out the oil fired boiler and the oiltank, install the heatpump, plumbing and electricity and send a $15-25k bill.

Another consideration is that the cost to purchase is up-front while the gasoline is paid as you go.  With payoff times exceeding 10 years, you really need to take into account the time value of money.
I just ran a similar calc comparing two clothes washers.  The best in class uses about 160 kwh/year.  The $500 special uses 240 kwh/year.  At my electrical rate (around 12c/kwh), that's about $10 per year.  Payback for $1000-2000 alternatives could take quite some time.

For what it's worth:


Those numbers look way too low.  I think the kwhr consumption of a washing machine is a lot more than that?

I run the machine say, 5 cycles a week on average.  5 X 5kg laundry loads.  Each cycle is about 90 minutes.  (we all use front loaders, which use a lot less electricity and water than the US top loaders).

I don't know what the kw is off hand.  Say 2 for argument?

2 kw X 90 mins X 5 = 15 Kwhr/ week or 750 kwhr pa?

Mind, I pay 24p (28 cents) per kwhr.

In my own shopping (UK) the efficient appliances had identical prices to the inefficient ones (give or take £20).  It was a no brainer, and I wondered why the government allowed the inefficient ones to be sold at all.

I've been using this web page:


The xls version, for real data addicts, is here:


I did not look at the details of their per-year assumptions.  I figure they are for 3-4 people, and at 1-2 I'm way below that.

FWIW, a quick check at Sears shows a cheap ($288) top-loading washer using 420 kWh/year.

This number is the estimated annual energy use of this machine under typical conditions. It is based on an average usage of 392 loads of laundry per year, or just under 8 loads per week.

I guess I do 2-3 loads a week, which drops my yearly electric savings (mid-range versus high-range, new models) to a couple bucks a year.

Ah well, I'm doing my part for the global warming, and to save Mono lake.

(I also get a $35 rebate from my gas company, and a $100 rebate from my water company.  It is interesting how we structure things in our non-free-market economy.  Apparently we charge ourselves collectively more so that we can give ourselves rewards for conservation.)


estimates 'up to $110 pa'.

If we took the typical UK conversion (£1 here buys what $1 buys in the US) then that would be £110, which seems reasonable.

Payback would be 1-2 years given the differences in cost.

I have no idea what my (20 year) old one uses ... I was just looking at the "payback" of the high-end, versus mid-range, models.

That may have been confusing, sorry.

You assume that people with trucks will upgrade to a slightly better truck at $6/gallon. They won't. Europe shows that people will instead ALWAYS buy a high efficiency compact. Payback time: 0 years... these people were never stupid enough to buy a truck they don't need in the first place.
"these people were never stupid enough to buy a truck they don't need in the first place."

Chelsea tractors?  That's the problem with "always."

Can't remember who said it but there's a phrase "No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public."  It just doesn't seem likely that people are going to change their buying habits (in the US) anytime soon with rising gas prices.  Gas really is a small part of ownership of a vehicle, and to get any kind of payback incentive means a large increase in fuel efficiency, which probably means trading down in size, power, etc.  People don't like trading "down."  If they're in a financial pinch they're even more likely to hang onto their older vehicle for as long as possible.

You are right. I should have said "are MUCH more likely". But I guess you got the idea.

"People don't like trading "down.""

Have you ever seen people parking their semi-trucks? All the manouvering, difficulties to see what's behind the truck... the fear of hitting something? Especially the soccer Moms are worth a laugh.

People buy these monsters for ego, not because they are "trading up". An S 500 Mercedes convertible, a BMW 745, a Porsche, a Ferrari, a Lamborghini... that is trading UP. A discounted $11,500 Ford pickup... is just desperate.


Cars deteriorate.  Maintenance and repair costs go up as time marches on.  Eventually, it becomes a wiser choice to buy another vehicle rather than trying to keep yours running.  This happens regardless of, and alongside, the fuel consumption, though cars have gotten more reliable than their commercial shelf-life in recent years.

Fuel costs compound on that, they don't provide a singular reason to force an upgrade. They just provide one reason.  And more importantly, a reason to choose a fuel-efficient model when you do upgrade, even if it costs 10% or 20% more.

Yes, improving MPG is not terribly much of an immediate wedge if you consider a 10-15 year average service life of an automobile.  It's just one relatively easy wedge of hundreds (more than half of which are accomplished by direct or compounding effects of high energy prices).

all new housing development henceforward occurs such that the average driving of residents of those new units will only be half of the resident of existing units and we insist on retiring old units at the same rate we build new ones. That is, we basically force all new development to occur next to transit or in places of very high density

You fail to understand TOD (Transit Orientated Development) at all.  Your choice of "50%" as "draconian" and the best case reveals this.  In today's environment, I would have picked -80% and post-Peak Oil, the same development could be -99% in driving.

Also, figure in higher density in existing structures.  +1/3 to +1/2 is certainly doable (if zoning does not interfere).  New Orleans doubled density in surviving housing post-Katrina (doctors on futons, professors on air mattresses, but we DID IT !)

Study the transformation from 1950 to 1970 in the US, when we abandoned virtually every downtown (most still standing) and trashed many/most pre-WW II housing.  Now imagine that applied to the less well built suburbs & exurbs.


Well, I wouldn't say "You fail to understand TOD (Transit Orientated Development) at all.", but Alan's right, a 50% reduction in private passenger motor VMT isn't TOD, it's more like rebuilding the inner suburbs.  

Here's an example.  Most of the people who live around me use the standard suburban model of personal transportation - they get in their car and drive everywhere, mostly by themselves.  I did this for one year working 30 miles from home before I decided I had more valuable things to do with my time than swear at other motorists.  I took a job in town, and have biked to work ever since.  The goal of TOD is to put the people within walking or biking distance of most things, and transit distance for all of the rest.  

I live on the outer fringe of a small city, but I don't need the car to get anywhere.  I can bike to work in 12 minutes, I can walk to the bus line with 15 minute service within 5 minutes, I can walk or take the bus to the Amtrak station and go most places, or catch a shuttle to the airport and go just about anywhere.  I can (and mostly do) buy all of my groceries, clothing, etc by bike or bus and have those things I can't get in my bike trailer delivered.  Our one car for our family of four is a nice convenience that largely gathers dust in the garage.

If oil depletion gets really problematic, the remaining development can progressively go to places where personal motor vehicle use is completely unnecessary, or as Alan puts it, 90%+ reductions in personal motor vehicle demand are possible.  This could be through a combination of building housing in some areas and building retail/commercial in other areas.  Will that result in a fast enough reduction to solve the problem?  Between this and other alternatives, of course; the demand will be destroyed one way or another.  Will we be able to rescue the American suburbs?  No idea.  

It would be extremely draconian to require that all new development be transit oriented, when most places don't have a transit system. I'm giving the transit/land-use option every possible benefit in assuming there's any circumstance under which that could be done.

Also, Cervero, Murphy, and Ferrell, in an extensive review of TOD, say that "TOD improves the efficiency and effectiveness of transit service investments by increasing the use of transit near stations by 20 to 40 percent" and "TOD can lower annual household rates of driving 20-40 percent for those living, working, and/or shopping within transit station areas. "

So my 50% is very generous. Your 80% is unrealistic.

But either way, the larger issue is that only a very small fraction of the housing stock gets created anew each year, so the chance for TOD to have an impact is limited. You start with 1-1.5% of annual new housing units, multiply that by whatever share you think can be TOD (which in reality would be much less than 100%) and then multiply that by the 20-40% reduction in VMT (I'll give you the energy usage of the transit system itself for free). That's going to be your TOD impact, and it isn't going to be very much of a wedge - far less than 1%.

You forgot densification of existing housing stock.  Conversion of buildings into housing (common in New Orleans even pre-K) is counted in housing starts (I assume) but requires far fewer resources than new subdivisions.

The rate of new housing starts as a % of existing in 1950 (the effective start (+ or -) of America's unique urban form) was much higher than 1% to 1.5% from vague memory (50% increase in a decade after WW II from vague memory).  If significantly smaller, energy efficient housing is built, much higher rates are sustainable even with limited resources.  We can build 2/3rds as many square feet in new construction and add 3% (or even 5%) to the available housing supply by # of units.  Add higher density/unit for existing and new units and larger #s become possible.

And you are wrong that behavior of the past will model the post-Peak Oil future.  Behavior is not immutable, but is impacted, heavily, by constraints, incentives and alternatives available.

Add a "risk premium" to FNMA & GNMA mortgages for distance from Urban Rail (zero within 1/4 mile, 1/32 % within 1/2 mile, 1/16% within a mile, 1/8% within 2.5 miles, 3/16% within 5 miles and 1/2% if further than 5 miles) and you will see a dramatic change in real estate development and living patterns.

The gov't "changed the rules" after WW II and dramatically affected life & urban patterns. Post-Peak Oil with annual declines in available oil and higher prices will have an even more profound effect on "the rules".  Behavior WILL change.

The massive rural > urban migration was another example of fundamental economic "rules" changing and behavior changing in response.


Very good information and graphs.

Looking at them I am struck by two of the pieces of the usage pie. Other personal and family uses and Social...together they add up to 43% and are basically fairly non-essential.

So why is this done? The personal and social aspect?

  1. Kids usage(teenagers who drive to school vs busing,joyriding,hanging out at the mall,other stupid uses.
  2. Families are bored and get out just to get away from the boredom of suburbia. Suburbia is a dead end as far as having any real social value.
  3. Soccer mom bullshit. Hauling the kiddies everywhere. Even from the end of the driveway ,kids get off school bus, to the garage..sometimes only 100 feet or less. This I see in the rural areas a lot. Mom in the car idling at the end of the driveway.
  4. Kids need to walk to school. I did and it was ok. Busing for less than a mile is non-essential but we have this fear of 'stalker' and pedophiles, a fear well deserved because we now place them in suburbia after letting them go. Perhaps they should have been executed for their crimes if heinous enough.
  5. Going out to dine. Mom forgot how to cook and the kids surely don't know how so each day many go for takeout or to McDonalds. I see whole families eating their suppers at McDonalds or Wendys.
  6. Driving to church. Each Sunday a huge parade takes place for this activity.
  7. Traveling on holidays. "To grandmothers house we go".essentially BS. Granny is in a nursying home but still this mystic forces millions of cars on the highways. I saw this last Thanksgiving. This Christmas I will be staying home alone.
  8. We don't know our neighbors and develop no relationship with them so we drive long distances to the 'Jones' who we still know. When I lived in the 'burbs' I hardly knew anyone
nearby. Didn't socialize with my next door neighbors. I wanted maximum privacy and so eschewed forming relations that allowed for activity that I did not wish. Hard to get privacy in the 'burb's unless you act as a loner.
  Block parties? Never hear of them. The 'club house' nearby? Almost always deserted.

Going to buy food and to work are essential. If you shopped wisely and cooked at home then you could eliminate a lot of useless trips. Like to Starbucks for lattes. I have my own espresso machine and don't have to. I store lots of food her in the country in my large pantry. I have at least 30 lbs of various flours and lots and lots of canned goods. Mostly what I canned as well as many dried foods. I can go a long time but when I go I try to buy in quantity. Many will run to the shopping market just for a stick of butter.

So the 43% is basically not required. Thats where the majority is frivilous. Not much chance of forcing this to change unless you stop all the ignorant advertising and get more control over your children.

One of the biggies to me is women in the workplace. This had to have added enormously to the overall increases in VMT. Its likely no one can define it or pick it out of a set of statistics and you would be insane to even speak of it, such as I am. But consider that women not being housewifes likely had a huge effect of VMT. More dining out,children running around in vehicles,useless shopping just for the hell of it,etc. So each typical suburbanite family could have many vehicles. Dad,Mom,Junior,Sis and of course each needs a cellphone and plenty of clothes and gas money for hanging out at the mall is not cheap.

airdale--don't blame me, just the way I see it and yes my wife never worked outside the home but ,not at my insistence. It was her choice. Yahsee? And the few times she did it cost more than if she hadn't (extra vehicle ,clothes , etc)

airdale-let the flames begin

There is not much to flame about. You are partially correct (about suburbs being a dead end) and pertially wrong (about single income families being the norm). What you suggest is not going to happen. Like most everyone else you overlook the fact that one can maintain the same lifestyle with half the fuel consumption by hauling less sheet metal around. It is the size of cars that causes the problem in the US, not so much how they are being used. It is the size of cars that will have to change.  
The size of cars? I disagree.

Out on those interstate I see far more little cars now. Sporty little things that buzz by you 20 or 30 miles over the speed limit. They don't have much sheet metal.

Reducing the size is just not going to make much difference and won't save our asses by a long long shot.

Single family income? No I said it used to be that way. Certainly not now. The change of the family life structure(mom working) has IMO caused a lot of the increase in VMT. That was my point.

Little sporty cars mean they just run faster, cause more accidents and don't get that much better gas mileage. I got 33 mpg in my wifes Jeep GC Limited on my trip to N. Carolina recently . I used to have a Eagle Summit, smaller engine etc and didn't get that much better mpg than the Jeep(4.7Liter).
Actually it was mine but I gave it to her for I drive a Jeep Wrangler. Lots smaller and a whole lot less metal but only get 18 mpg. So I don't believe you stance on size.  

The small cars I see were not made to be fuel efficient and if they were the driving styles exhibited surely has a negative impact on the mpg.

So you think just changing the size of the vast number of autos we drive is the solution to the problem and everyone can maintain their current lifestyle?

You might want to do an essay on that for posting on TOD. I would love to see your 'metrics'.

As stated earlier, I expect the next "oil supply interuption" (even if we are still pre-Peak) to bring with it 50 mph (88 kph) speed limits.  Over time, traffic cameras will be added for enforcement.

This will not only increase fuel mileage from existing vehicles, but reduce the # of VMT.

So after driving at 50 mph for an extended period, gotten a couple of $250 tickets for "drifting" up to 56 mph in view of a camera, paying outrageous sums for gas and STILL running into empty gas stations all too often, the joys of driving may decrease.

Best Hopes for Happy Motoring,


Hi Alan,

 A perhaps naive Q:  What's your view of a 55 or 50mph speed limit, starting... like, today?  Do you think the "interruption" is required in order to put in place a national energy policy, with several parts (speed limits being one)?

All in all, a good idea (for both GW & PO).  Even a nation wide 60 mph (more acceptable) would be a good idea.  Never going to happen under current Administration.

Trucks have slowed down, just due to economics of high fuel.

But once the SPR is a third down and no relief in sight, 50 mph will come !

Today's market has little in reserve, so "modest" drops will cause problems.

Best Hopes,


Quick point, 1.6 km per 1 mile, so 50mph = 80kph & 55mph = 88kph.
Yes, my error.  After the 1973 Oil Embargo, the speed limit was 55 mph (88 kph).  I expcet slower next time, but I may be wrong.  It could be 55 again or even 60 mph.


>P.S. I admit freely that both of my offspring are to blame just as much though I was not a boomer. I took the stick. Each day I fought the good fight and lost. The MSM took care of that. Divorce in the offing took the rest. Children who spit on your ideas and thoughts about how to live properly. Yes I fought and lost. Now its me, the dogs and the farm.

>P.P.S. Screw you Dr. Spock and your buddy Dr. Phil. Jerks!

Hey Airdale,

 I just came across some of your older posts. When your kids' and ex's world doesn't pan out as they planned, they want to move back in with you, but they'll still disagree with you until the very end.

Tech Guy,
Yeah they would disagree but they likely won't move back in.
They are too far into their lifestyle.

When TSHTF they might try to come back to the farm but if it goes chaotic then they won't be able to. In any event they would not contribute for they just don't know how.

They will try to hack it out in the suburbs.

airdale--started a loner,likely end up a loner

The inventory numbers are just in and, again all..crude, distillates, etc. have decreased ...is this the beginning of your export/import scenario?  Your comments would be most appreciated.
Being discussed already in the open thread.
Thanks Leanan,
I didn't mean to disrespect the main topic...sorry.        
First, Alan make some great counterpoints above that everyone should read. VMT is not an end in and of itself and it's correlation with US economic growth is assocation, not necessarily causative.

I've often thought that what you really need to do is rip up all residential-only zoning laws across the country. Allowing just a few small commercial zones into even loosely populated suburban areas would vastly reduce the number of miles traveled. Instead of driving 20 miles back and forth to the grocery super-store or restaurant or drug store, all of those amenities should be situated as close together as possible.

We also need more mixed income communities. Right now you have huge tracts of land with "only poor" "only affluent" etc. This increases VMT dramatically as the poor have to commute even further (and more expensively) to work the jobs in the more affluent-only areas.

More mixed use and multi-income districts is the key to success. Then increase density slowly over time...which energy price trends will reinforce over time and people will move closer to their employment.

In this post, you talked about what people would like to do. If there is a strong urge, like a price spike, people will:

  • form car pools. Savings: 50% of commuting miles, or 14% of total, if on average 3-person car pools are formed (allow for inefficiencies of picking up people)
  • economize on shopping trips. Potential savings estimate: 1/3 of shopping trips or 4% of total
  • economize on other trips: let's say only 1/5 of these trips is still 11% of total gas consumption

Conclusion: if we are really forced to, there is a savings potential of 29% of gas consumption that can be realized within one year.
Car pools are a great way to waste lots of time, unless you and all your partners have the few remaining jobs where you get off precisely on time every day. Similar to the bus, another great way to waste time, which is probably why car pools are declining.
IMHO,our great dependence on the car is going to lead to great tragedy here. There is no easy way of backing out of what we have here. The suburbs, the sprawl, the dispersion of employment which makes the car a necessity, and the suburban mentality of individualism (meaning: hostility to even the whiff of collectivism of any sort), the destruction of the land by agribusiness, the dependence of the economy on weapons production -- all these things are intertwined.

So what will happen is that we will "stay the course" -- but not all of us. Huge chunks of the middle class will start dropping off like ice slabs off the glaciers. Goodness knows what hatreds will be stirred and exploited to prevent people from reasoning things through to find collective means of addressing their misery. (Actually, one can guess some of them.)

I more or less agree with Kunstler, Pfeiffer and others on the direction we need to go when we do finally get sick of killing each other and overcome porfolio disease. We will have to live in dense communities that go up four or five floors, are walkable and bikeable, are surrounded by horticulture, a less mechanized agriculture, parks, jobs there, and are interlinked by trains.

It was, in some ways, great to live in the oil age in the middle class of a wealthy (imperialist) country. It was a unique time and place, but it ain't gonna last much longer. We all know that.

I thought the following extract might speak to your comment about the methods that people will be subjected to to prevent them from finding "collective means of addressing their misery."  

The key quote for the purposes of this discussion is, "What we have seen is an enormous mobilization, instigated and guided by an alliance of the dominant classes of the North and the South, aimed at stimulating multi-class religious or nationalistic mobilizations that leave key class relations unchanged."

Excerpt from: The Worldwide Class Struggle
by Vincent Navarro

Inequalities among Countries and Their Social Consequences

That inequalities contribute to a lack of social solidarity and increase social pathology is well documented. Many people, including myself, have documented this reality (The Political Economy of Social Inequalities: Consequences for Health and Quality of Life, Baywood, 2002). The scientific evidence supporting this position is overwhelming. In any given society, the greatest number of deaths would be prevented by reducing social inequalities. Michael Marmot studied the gradient of heart disease mortality among professionals at different authority levels, and he found that the higher the level of authority, the lower the heart disease mortality (The Status Syndrome, 2005). And he further showed that this mortality gradient could not be explained by diet, physical exercise, or cholesterol alone; these risk factors explained only a small part of the gradient. The most important factor was the position that people held within the social structure (in which class, gender, and race play key roles) and the social distance between groups, and the differential control that people have over their own lives.

This enormously important scientific finding has many implications; one of them is that the major problem we face is not simply eliminating poverty but rather reducing inequality. The first is impossible to resolve without resolving the second. Another implication is that poverty is not just a matter of resources, as is wrongly assumed in World Bank reports that measure worldwide poverty by quantifying the number of people who live on a dollar a day. The real problem, again, is not absolute resources but the social distance and the different degrees of control over one's own resources. And this holds true in every society.

Let me elaborate. An unskilled, unemployed, young black person living in the ghetto area of Baltimore has more resources (he or she is likely to have a car, mobile phone, and TV, and more square feet per household and more kitchen equipment) than a middle-class professional in Ghana, Africa. If the whole world were just a single society, the Baltimore youth would be middle class and the Ghana professional would be poor. And yet, the first has a much shorter life expectancy (forty-five years) than the second (sixty-two years). How can that be, when the first has more resources than the second? The answer is clear. It is far more difficult to be poor in the United States (the sense of distance, frustration, powerlessness, and failure is much greater) than to be middle class in Ghana. The first is far below the median; the second is above the median.

Does the same mechanism operate in inequalities among countries? The answer is increasingly, yes. And the reason for adding "increasingly" is communication--with ever more globalized information systems and networks, more information is reaching the most remote areas of the world. And the social distance created by inequalities is becoming increasingly apparent, not only within but also among countries. Because this distance is more and more perceived as an outcome of exploitation, we are facing an enormous tension, comparable with that of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, when class exploitation became the driving force for social mobilization. The key element for defining the future is through what channels that mobilization takes place. What we have seen is an enormous mobilization, instigated and guided by an alliance of the dominant classes of the North and the South, aimed at--as mentioned earlier--stimulating multi-class religious or nationalistic mobilizations that leave key class relations unchanged. We saw this phenomenon at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. Christian Democracy in Europe, for example, appears as the dominant classes' response to the threat of socialism and communism. The birth of Islamic fundamentalism was also stimulated for the same purposes.

The left-wing alternative must be centered in alliances among the dominated classes and other dominated groups, with a political movement that must be built upon the process of class struggle that takes place in each country. As Hugo Chávez of Venezuela said, "It cannot be a mere movement of protest and celebration like Woodstock." It is an enormous struggle, an endeavor in which organization and coordination are key, calling for a Fifth International. This is the challenge to the international left today.


Amazing analysis. Unfortunately, depressing.  The more I know, the more I realize how hopeless it all is.  Especially didn't like the bit about investment in transportation.  Maybe there's a flaw somewhere.  Does it really make sense to exclude freight.  It may be that we shouldn't exclude all the private investment in private transportation.  Also, I suspect people are only looking at a subset of variable costs against mass transit costs when making transportation decisions.

But as Einstein said, "what exists is possible".  When there is less oil, there will be less consumption.  People will drive less regardless of their proclivities.

All of this is pissing around the edges in an attempt to maintian the status quo, i.e., growth-oriented, consumer society.  But, it is likely that the status quo is doomed to collapse within the next generation (note I am not saying society will collapse although I tihink that is likely) due to resource declines, population growth and, possibly, global heating.

It makes more sense, although with little likelyhood of it occuring, to bit the bullet and make a dramatic change in the paradigm.  How about adopting the Ecotopian economic structure of a 20 hour workweek and "core stores" where basics can be purchased cheaply?  Or, how about pay in BTUs?  Sure, it would be hard to assign a BTU figure to all goods and services but so what?  It would be a good time to work out what ERoEI really means.

My point is that people like Airdale, Ron and myself are old enough to have seen how society has changed over the past 60+ years.  We know that life can be satisfying at a far lower energy level.  My guess is that when all the efforts to maintian the status quo fail, that society will be lucky if it only drops back to the energy levels of our youth.

September 06 Traffic Volume Trends Report is out (http://www.fhwa.dot.gov/ohim/tvtw/06septvt/index.htm).  The five straight months of year-over-year decline in vehicle miles travelled has come to an end, due in large part to the comparison being with Katrina-influenced September 2005 figures.  There is still a -0.36% decrease in VMT compared to September 2004.  (To compare, Aug 2006 was -0.61% compared to Aug 2005, and -0.28% compared to Aug 2004.)  It doesn't seem that the decline in gasoline prices that started in September has done much to curb the signficant decline in driving in 2006.  (While the reductions are small, it is still significant since this year we have seen the only multi-month decline in VMT since the oil shocks of 1980.  Every year in between has seen an inexorable rise in VMT.)
My comments come from my experience initiating a sustainable transportation week in a Midwest city population 25,000.  There is a core group of people who will not change unless fuel prices really start to seem high.  We completed a survey that showed that global warming was an emerging concern that might start motivating some change.  The resistence to changing our travel habits is very deep.  Despite this, there are opportunities that can be developed:

  1.  We have a bus system in town; the perception is that only the poor or elderly use it.  We need to change that perception.
  2.  Rates of walking and bicycling have been declining, yet 75 percent of trips of less than one mile are made by car.  There is room for great increases in bicycling and walking.
  3.  We need to find some skillful social marketers who can find ways to increase the appeal of carpooling.  The internet systems to make the matches are up and running.  www.erideshare.com is one example.  I think carpooling is great but most people are reluctant to do so.  The good news is, when Kunstler's world arrives, people will be forced to relate to one another again around transportation.  We might actually learn how to help each other out once again!  And have conversations with real people!
  4.  Businesses need to get on board with this challenge, helping employees making carpool matches; offering emergency ride home programs for employees who bus, carpool, or bike; allowing telecommuting; or providing company cars for employees who need occasional use.  Transportation flexibility around these issues will give businesses the edge on hiring employees they need.  Furthermore, since health rather than transportation is the biggest bottom-line concern for most businesses, and many of our health problems are caused by obesity, it would only make sense for businesses to start promoting bicycling, walking and transit use.
  5.  Obesity, rather than peak oil or global warming, is the transitional motivation that will also get schools to get involved in the transportation issue, encouraging kids to walk, bicycle, carpool, or take the bus.  Let's get everyone really alarmed about obesity and pose the transportation alternatives as part of the solution.
  6.  Also, I agree that we need to find ways to allow mixed use development in the suburbs.  Right now I live in the suburban fringe and must drive to the store since I lack bike, pedestrian and transit access.
biologist has it right. During California's grand electrical power ripoff in 2000, power consumption dropped by 20% in about 6 weeks. We casually drive a huge number of non-vital vehicle miles. When we hit the twangy end of price elasticity people will reconsider that second trip to the mall this week.

It is almost encouraging. If we were blowing all this oil out the door on absolutely vital processes, any shortage would be an inescapable disaster. Our strip mall economy will suffer greatly from a constricted oil supply, and undoubtedly have a depression. Nevertheless, we will have a lot of oil supply buffer in this non-vital travelling.

What I forsee is a sawtooth pattern. Supply drops to a certain point, so price rises to an elasticity threshold, which causes a spike in demand destruction. Oil use drops, there is a temporary glut, and oil prices drop again, so use creeps back up. Lather, rinse, and repeat, with prices ratcheting up and use ratcheting down.

We are already seeing a mild version of this, with SUV sales going up as gas heads back towards $2.

The best policy I have heard about is a carbon or BTU tax being used to reduce payroll taxes. People can either drive per (almost) usual on a revenue neutral basis  or drive less and bank the tax savings.


Why does it have to be tax neutral? Because Americans can't imagine taxes actually going up? Please... I need to see an economist's argument for that. What the US needs is a renewable energy infrastructure over the next 30 years. It will cost money. Somebody will have to pay. Somebody is called "the tax payer". Add a dollar to the gas tax and you have $100 billion to build renewable energy. Give $100 billion back in income tax and you will have another 100,000 millionaires a year buying SUVs and BMWs and no energy infrastructure.
Because A) we would rather write checks our grandchildren have to cash than raise taxes on rich people now, and B) a simple energy tax is hugely regressive in a situation where driving is not optional - that 60 year old fixed income retiree with the '80's pickup, living in the sticks, isn't going to just drive less, he's not going to buy a new place in the city, he's going to starve or go homeless.
Here is this 'revolutionary' device, which seems to have had
zero effect on VMT. Therefore can one reason that there is/willbe  NO device which will voluntarily have any impact on the increasing VMT that we are addicted to?


"The Segway is designed to replace larger forms of transportations like cars, vans, SUVs etc, much like other scooters or motorcycles do, yet be even lower impact (much cleaner, quieter, smaller and safer). Kamen's Vision: The EPA states that 500 million car trips per day in the US are less than 5 miles and contain only one person in the vehicle, if only a percentage of those used a tiny electric "car" instead, the positive effects could be considerable.

The Segway was notable for the hype and secrecy surrounding its 2001 unveiling; Kamen only revealed that he had designed an object that would "revolutionize" modern life in some way, and the tremendous build-up to the release and subsequent lack of overwhelming public interest became a source for frequent satire."

Way way way back. Maybe 1950s us kids were enthralled with motorscooters. Made by Cushman. We all had them. The precursor to that were motorbikes. Bikes with pedals and a small gas engine mounted under the bars.

Later we evolved up to small motorcycles and then of course cars when we could afford to. My parents never would have considered buying me a car. I had to work for that and pay for all my gas myself.

I don't think its that way today as it was back then. I see highschool kids driving better wheels than the wheels I drive currently. Who gives them this and why? So they can drive to school? Drive everywhere they care to? Who gives them the money for gas?


The Segway was expensive and impractical for carrying groceries etc. Meanwhile U.S. sales of scooters are doing well, and electric scooters in China are doing even better. The electric bike segment is taking off in the U.S. with dozens of new models introduced over the past few years.
As for replacing autos in urban areas, I've stated before that I can see a rapid move towards regular bikes, small scooters, electric bikes, one and two person cars (Sparrow-like, or Smart Car-types).  This would allow people to retain their freedom of independent travel and work schedules.  Infrastructure is already there in the form of roads, though designated lanes for travel for slower moving vehicles would be preferred for safety. The percent of these designated lanes/roads could be increased each year. The cost of these small vehicles is much less, so the transition would be less expensive.  (OK, on Sparrows and Smart Cars not yet, but maybe with increased competition in this size range they will be.) And one last comment about urban areas--the assumption seems to be that life will go on as normal, that the jobs everyone has had will still be there, and that may not be the case, so much less commuting may be necessary. The corner grocery store will come back as a necessity.
Now, for non-urban areas, trains and buses plus electric vehicles?  Hybrid-electric buses?  There was a plan described recently where buses would not be routed through cities, but stops would be on corners of well-traveled roads, so as not to slow the service so much.  
Here is this 'revolutionary' device, which seems to have had
zero effect on VMT. Therefore can one reason that there is/willbe  NO device which will voluntarily have any impact on the increasing VMT that we are addicted to?


Nope.  Its a datum point you can select, point at and CALL 'revolutionary' then feel good about your position of 'I live off the land, foraging for food'.

The 'revolution' in transportation is high voltage and current semiconducters making electric cars more of a reality.  Add in the mix Neodyminum magents, advances in steel making and the high quality and cheap machining and you have things like good quality low cost elecric bicycles.

The electric bicycle will have more effect on transporation than the Segway.

(If Kamen wants to 'change the world' a low-cost solar powered stirling engine is the way to go)

Thanks for adding all that up, Stuart.  Here are some problems I see with the way you've laid things out so far.

  1. You're using VMT, instead of trips for your measurements.  Transportation officials use VMT both because it's relatively easy to estimate and because it makes it easy to see how many lane-miles are appropriate for road development.  However, for our purposes, the more important measurement is the number of trips, and the fuel consumed per trip.  One person driving by themself 50 miles to and from work per day will use between one and five gallons of gas per day.  One person driving 50 miles as part of a car pool uses between 1/4 and 5/4 gallons per day.  One person biking, walking, or using electric transit to work uses zero.  In all cases two trips were accomplished.  

  2. Motor vehicle trips are easily estimated and non-motorized trips are generally ignored. Higher-density areas tend to generate large numbers of non-motorized trips that don't get counted.  We don't have automated traffic counters for urban sidewalks like we have for roadways.

  3. All housing units are not alike.  The question should not be how quickly we can build McMansions in the cities, but how many small apartments can we build for the cost of a McMansion and how fast can we build them.  Alternately, we would want to know cost per unit of small apartment construction, and see how many units we could build with the full US residential construction spending per year.

  4. Fuel economy improvements were the largest change from the 70s because they were low-hanging fruit and because the situation had resolved itself by the 80s.  I think the 80s would have played out a bit differently if the mid-70s had been the actual peak.  Certainly fuel-economy changes will be the first line of defense this time as well, but this time we may have to move to other measures as well.  

  5. We choose personal automobiles over other transportation modes because we can afford them, both in terms of time and money.  If personal automobile travel becomes too expensive compared to transit, then people will switch to transit and transit will quickly improve.  It isn't written in stone that transit has to be slower than travel by automobile.  With additional ridership, transit timing and routes can change to be more efficient for various travelers through increased frequency, routing changes and express service.  Likewise, our transportation network is currently optimized for individual automobiles, but that could be changed quickly, through things such as priority signaling and HOV lanes.

  6. Finally, since automobile transportation is basically free, we don't tend to make distinctions between "necessary" and "desirable" travel very well.  I expect based on your last chart you may be getting to that in a later post.  If we only need to drive to work and the grocery store, then we can eliminate a great deal of additional trips, very quickly if needed.  I suspect the two small reductions in VMT in the 70s were because of this.
The "ride downhill" in oil consumption will not be a smooth one, espceially for the US.  Various external forces (hurricanes, wars, revolutions) will force sudden drops in oil availability. One political response is already well known, lower speed limits.

One can reasonably assume traffic camera controlled 50 mph speed limits "within the decade" EVERYWHERE (tickets at 55 mph).  Slightly longer term, one can see expansion of HOV lanes by simple stripping and taking of existing traffic lanes. (Hybrids with 50 mpg - HOV+2, others HOV+3)

Add those two factors together and VWT will drop as will the desireability of suburban living.

A fast acting, low capital means of reducing fuel consumption and reducing VMT.  IMHO, any future plans should consider this eventuality and be made for this type environment, not the "easy motoring" environment of the mid 1980s & 1990s.

BTW, one nice thing about Urban Rail is the expandability of it.  The recently opened Hiawatha line in Minneapolis can expand capacity by 1/3rd for 7% of the capital cost by just buying more vehicles.  

Excellent points. I'd like to add evidence from this outstanding presentation by Professor Arthur C. Nelson. Between 2000 and 2040, there will be 80 million dwellings built -- which will be 50% of the total housing stock at that point. The market will generally not be for large lot, exurban McMansions. It will be for condos, attached houses and small lot houses in mixed use, pedestrian oriented or transit oriented neighborhoods.
Stuart:  Great analysis.  That said, I've long believed that increasing energy costs will result in a networked transporation system.  Private transport takes the commuter from home to local transporation node.  If they live near the node, they walk.  The local node takes them to a node attached to a long distance trunk.

This may sound complicated, but it's little more than organizing bus lines properly.

I live near I5 in San Diego.  I'd walk to the trunk.  Those who live east of me, say five miles from I5, would either (a) drive to the trunk or (b) drive to a branch node, which takes them to the trunk.

I think the use of modern communication devices, in particular position location system combined with cell phones, will make it easier for individuals to tap into a transport network that will take care of some of the time inefficiencies.  The bus sytem, for example, may require that I used a particular communication device.  Then the bus won't leave the main trunk line unless it knows there is someone waiting to get on that line.  Registered wirelessly.  The system would allow a user to know where and when the next bus can be picked up.

In addition, I think there are many opportunities for companies to band together--and for private companies to provide a service--for work bus pools.  For example, in India, everyone I knew at Tata, or most, took the work bus.  It's a company bus that drives along a fixed route.

Aside from that, in the morning and evenings, in India, the streets are filled with people walking.  Walking to the bus lines.  Walking to the local transport nodes.

I think similar services can be provided here in the US.

I have no analysis to determine how this might be developed and what fuel savings would result.  But looking at present usage patterns, as you have done, and housing stock, does not tell me that we are stuck.  I'm not saying we haven't got problems.  But when I look at San Diego, for example, which is a very large geographic region, with people spread out all over, I see most commuting take place in several hops.  A hop from terminal route to intermediate route(side road to main road).  Then a hop from intermediate route to trunk route (I5 or I805 or I15).  And the reverse at the other end.

Consider shopping.  For example, all the people driving around with trucks because, maybe three times a year, they buy something enormous.  If fuel becomes expensive enough, the delivery of purchased items may slow down.  I purchase the billiars table, it shows up a week later when the service used by the company makes a drive to that area.  In other words, the argument that I will not use public transport because I can't carry all my stuff back.  Well, in the future, I might not be able to carry all my stuff back with me.  It's just not done.  I purchase items at UTC, south of me, or a diffent shopping center.  At the purchase, for larger items I can't carry, I carry them to a transport service. They show up later in the week.

We will have to slow down.  Mail service every day.  What is that about?  Seems pointless.  Having mail trucks drive to every home, ridiculous.  Put the mail in a central location within 5 minutes walking distance of homes.  Or ten minnutes.  New rule:  you walk to get your mail.  If gas is precious, people will.

There are options.  I don't know what slice or amount of reduction we'd see in fuel consumption by pulling most or a significant number of the cars plugging the I5 and I805 and other freeways around here each morning, but if people were lining up for buses here as in India, the freeways could be almost empty.

As always, it is easy to look at the services as currently structured and determine that it appears little can be done.  But we also have to look at exactly what services are provided.  What is it we are trying to achieve when driving, etc.  Add in the convenience, including time.  And then determine whether similar services, lower grade in many cases--in particular convenience--might result in savings not considered in your analysis.

Just a thought.  Still, great work.  I always like visiting the oil drum and reading your work in particular--no offense to anyone else.

This analysis is wildly flawed because it ignores the health costs of auto use. Every year since the end of WW2, there have been at least 45,000 people killedby cars every year. Maybe even more costly is the lesser-known statistic that every year at least 750,000 Americans are crippled by car accidents. This is defined by the loss of at least one eye, leg, or arm. Think of the medical bills and rehab costs. Put those in the equation, and cars will never cost out as a preferred means of transport. By the way, the accident stats are much worse in China, India, and the rest of the developing world.
Hi atanoi,

 Thanks for adding this point -('though I'd use the word "limited", not "flawed" - we're all pretty perfect, here!)
A link: http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov/portal/site/nhtsa/template.MAXIMIZE/menuitem.a8131659c3c0a23816010

Here's something from the main page on injuries:
"Injuries dropped from 2.79 million in 2004 to 2.68 million in 2005, a decline of 4.1 percent." (Severity not specified here.)

 How would you figure this in? Here's what they say:
"NHTSA estimates show that highway crashes cost society $230.6 billion a year, about $820 per person."

Good analysis, Stuart. I agree with many of the comments above, that allowing suburbs to increase in density and diversity {adding shops, jobs, and more housing types within walking distance) is a good way to reduce auto dependence. Doing so is not a matter of imposing draconian requirements; rather, it is a matter of eliminating existing draconian requirements in local planning codes which prohibit denser forms of housing, multiple units on a lot, or a mix of uses. As some clever planner once said, "suburbia is not so much designed as legislated". Segregation of communities by income, housing type, and use is a result of government intervention. Places that developed before those restrictions existed have denser and more diverse urban forms where more trips can be made by walking, bicyling, and transport. If I could figure out how to post an image, I would share a graph from Hank Dittmar at the Prince's Foundation for the Built Environment that plotted data from San Francisco, LA, and Chicago on the relationship of density to driving. What the researchers found was that vehicle miles travelled (VMT) was highest where densities were lowest; households at one unit per acre drove and average of 30000 miles per household per year, while households at 100 units per acre drove an average of 5000 miles per year. The other finding was that increasing the number of households per acre in the lowest density areas caused the greatest drops in VMT per household; moving from 1 unit per acre to ten, for example, caused VMT per household to drop by half, while increasing the density of already dense neighborhoods caused only modest decreases in VMT. Thus allowing residential density to increase in the least dense places, rather than the densest, may prove to be an effective "wedge" in decreasing automobile dependence. It can be done in pretty unobtrusive ways; adding in-law units in existing houses; adding backyard cottages or units over garages; converting garages; building apartments over strip commercial; allowing new townhouses or small apartment buildings on vacant lots; or even dividing big Mc Mansions into multiple flats. Most suburban communities also have dead or dying shopping centers that could become new town centers if the zoning allowed.

Thanks again for proving the intuitively obvious for the consumption of the totally and intentionally oblivious.

Here in San Jose, our light rail system is indeed a black hole of public expenditure.  We get less than 10% of operating costs from the fare box.  Some community leaders have advocated shutting the system down.  We'll both save money and pay off the bonds faster.  Usage is trivial - anyone can see with their own eyes the near empty trains rolling by even during the commute peak.

"Smart Growth" planning has required higher density apartment housing near rail stations but those are turning into ghettos.

Don't get me wrong, I have gratefully used public transportation.  When I lived in southern Marin County I daily commuted on the Sausalito ferry to downtown San Francisco.  Yet, that is not an example for the rest of the nation could or should emulate.

San Jose is the worst planned, and one of the most gold plated operations in the US (and the world)#.  I have known various transit professionals that have given advice to San Jose that has been ignored.  Their "vision" is simply not practical IMHO.

Still, despite this, a fairly large (1,800 apartments ?) is going to be developed on the old Sony HQ.

One should not use San Jose as a "comparable".

Buffalo NY built about 1/3rd of their planned first line (the subway section) and then economic disaster hit and the city lost half of it's population.  That short subway section does "OK" but it also is not a good metric given the circumstances.

Best Hopes for Good Planning,


#San Jose sold a fleet of good LRVs at midlife at a STEEP discount and bought all new LRVS.  Everyone in the industry was amazed.  Salt Lake City & Sacramento (?) got quite the deal on the used ones.

Well, that's cold comfort - you seem to be saying that public transit doesn't get much worst financially or managerially than San Jose's.

I checked the possibility of commuting on our system and it would take 90 minutes one way plus about a mile of walking with few sidewalks.  Driving takes 10 minutes on the freeway (off peak) or 15 minutes on city streets.

I would add that I adore Amtrak's long lines but who can afford five days coast-to-coast?

As to a big hike in the federal gas tax, the advocates seem to forget that we live in a democracy and the citizens are not likely to consider the soultion to $3 a gallon gasoline as $4 a gallon gasoline.

Looking at current intercity rail in Japan & the EU, high speed rail begins to lose to air at about 400 km (250 mile) and very few take even high speed rail past 1,000 km (600 miles).

China, with lower income, does take rail longer distances.

Oil will have to go VERY high before Amtrak gets even 1/4th of the Los Angeles-NYC market.  Much more likely is just less longer distance travel, and that will still largely be by air.

Regional rail (up to 250 miles or even 500 miles) will become a major factor post-Peak Oil IMHO.

Yes, San Jose is a mess :-(  New Orleans was covering 80% to 100% of our operating expenses for our streetcars (half built 1923/24) from the farebox + ads pre-K.  Buses rarely did better than 40%.

As for democracy, it depends on the quality of the citizens.  In 1998 (remember oil prices then ?), the Swiss voted to spend 31 billion Swiss francs on improving their already xcellent rail system.  Increased VAT was one source of revenue.  Adjust for population and currency, and it is like the US voting to spend $1 trillion.

In the US case, I would advocate 3 cents/gallon/month increase for 25 years (adjusted for inflation).  The knowledge of coming increases would change behavior now.

Best Hopes,


Personally, I've been a supporter of the SF-to-LA high speed rail link.  The voters passed a bond issue but so far the planning has been halted by...

The Sierra Club.

The issue is over the routing.  To serve the South Bay (aka Silicon Valley and San Jose) the route would go SF to SJ then through a dorky state park. The environmentalists want it to go SF to Oakland to LA through an existing corridor over the Coast Range.  That would put half the population and the most energetic commercial areas of the Bay Area in a cul de sac.

To be fair, it is not only the environmentalists, regional rivalries are in play too and the tree huggers may just be a tool.

Even today, one can drive down I-5 from San Jose to Orange county in the same time as flying.

As to a big hike in the federal gas tax, the advocates seem to forget that we live in a democracy and the citizens are not likely to consider the soultion to $3 a gallon gasoline as $4 a gallon gasoline.

We have a payroll tax.  I'd much rather trade it in for a $4/gallon carbon tax.

Spot on.
My wife & I tried to take the SJ Light Rail over the weekend.
It is so user-unfriendly for first time users.
No instuctions on the fare box, no maps, no attendents at the stations. Maybe they should take a corporate jet flight out to NY City to see how a "real" train system is supposed to be run. Don't get me started. Gold-plated & over-rated says it all.
Thanks for your good work.

Some very good comments so far, to which I would like to add that people and nations can in fact adapt to new scenarios.  

Example: I live in a place (Japanese city) which is a case of what I would call TOR, or Transit Oriented Re-development.   Ever since the Meiji era, with the bringing of rail, this area has been redesigning itself from a millenium of feudalistic land usage.  After WWII, a great deal of building had to be done, and many of the current operating rail lines were laid.

It continues today - JR has just finished some new elevated rail lines and the now freed space below is being rebuilt into the mixed-use that is common in Japan.   A new subway line will open very soon, and that will change the travel of many people in that part of the prefecture.   People - businesses and residences, will adapt to new daily routines, as always.

While that 1.5% of transportation use being supported by 15% of the spending doesn't sound like a good deal right now, what you are overlooking is the long term, as in century-length, change it brings.    You also have not analyzed the up-front capital costs for land and right of way and support, which newly developed transit systems confront and pay for today, but for which a great deal of the surface road system incurred quite some time ago.

As critical mass (of transit) is reached for any given city, the non-linear effects (i.e., change in social habits) will add up, and they will multiply and those effects will continue year after year.  

For example, I don't have a car, don't need one.   Everything I do and need is within walking distance or by train, with very rare exceptions.   Back in the US I would use my car to go out at night and socialize, and would drive home anytime I wished (usually after midnight.)   But here my socializing is built around the train schedules, so it is home by midnight.   Me and millions of others.   It is difficult to upfront calculate how such social changes affect the energy consumption picture.

You've take on a very large and complex topic - hope you persevere with it!

This article is a good compilation of statistics, but the overall conclusion is just wrong.

Extrapolating future transportation from the past couple of decades of US-only experience is just as wrong as projecting infinite oil production increases from the upslope of a Hubbert curve.

Given the discretionary nature of most auto trips, trip reduction can occur very rapidly once the financial incentives are in place. The whole point of the Oil Drum is that the oil "business as usual" will not continue for much longer and financial incentives will rapidly increase.

Several posters have mentioned how a basic transit infrastructure reduces auto trips by concentrating uses at nodes that are often accessed by foot or bicycle, so they are either un-reported or under-reported in transportation studies. Investing in transit infrastructure facilitates this consolidation process and is amortized over many decades. Paris built much of its' Metro nearly 100 years ago and that expenditure has been so well amortized that its' initial magnitude no longer really matters.

The statement "We love to drive" is contradicted by most survey data (from ABC 38% polleddislike their auto commute,
http://abcnews.go.com/Technology/Traffic/storyid=485098&page=1 )
Clearly US infrastructure forces people to drive since no other practical choice is available, whether they love or hate driving.

The conclusions about density and transit are also very parochial and US-centered. Many (most?) places on the planet have very effective transit at densities much lower than the US. Mexico provides very comprehensive bus transit through vast empty deserts, with population densities far below US suburbs.

The "hopeless" tone of the article is contradicted by the transit successes that so many US cities are experiencing and the transit mode share data is outdated, with 2006 data showing transit ridership sharply up http://www.apta.com/media/releases/060921_ridership_climbs.cfm
This just the first wave of oil price increases we can expect along the "bumpy plateau" and already people are adapting. VMT elasticity must be divided into long-term elasticity and short-term elasticity. People get up in the morning and drive to work, whatever the pump price is. However, their choices of what to drive, how to travel, and where to live form part of the long-term elasticity. Since we have not lived through truly high gas prices for many decades, we simply do not know what the long-term VMT elasticity is, but I am optimistic based on the attitudes of my co-workers.

Even in the context of current very low inflation-adjusted gas prices, my hometown has had major transportation successes. The link below shows that Boulder has moved from 63% to 51% single-occupant vehicle mode share and from 9% to 15% transit mode share between 2001 and 2005, with only 36% of downtown Boulder workers driving alone. http://www.ci.boulder.co.us/files/City%20Council/WIPS/2006/09-14-06/2B.pdf
If we had sat around telling each other how hopeless it was, we certainly would not have achieved these gains. Now we have infrastructure in place that many other people will be able to take advantage of as gas prices increase.

It seems to me that Stuart's subtitle was contradicted by his text.  He really seemed to be saying that we need higher density/mixed use to make walking/transit work, not that mass transit is not usable.

Having just been unceremoniously pushed out of (relative) public transit nirvana, NYC, where I didn't want or need a car for 25 years, because a family of four cannot afford an apartment within a decent school district unless they make close to $200,000 a year, I want to propose another possibility: massive public funding of housing.

Apparently Donald Trump would not be a household name if it weren't for the fact that his father made millions building Federally-funded housing in Queens for G.I.'s returning from World War II.  Let's assume that we follow the recommendations of of J.H. Crawford in "Carfree Cities", that buildings should be four to five stories high for best density/comfort levels, then why not pour hundreds of billions into higher density housing in cities, together with huge investments in light rail, a la suggestions made by Alan Drake on TheOilDrum?

It seems to me that Stuart's arguments against mass transit were very weak.  The only time that the U.S. spent more on mass transit than highways was during the Carter Administration (there's a GAO report on infrastructure from about 1999, nothing since then to my knowledge).  Spending a small amount on an inadequate mass transit system and then being shocked, shocked! that more people don't use it brings to mind a thought experiment:  How about if we spent a paltry amount of money on highway repair, so that only half the lanes on a typical road were usable, meanwhile spending billions on shiny new rail systems, how would car-driving stand up?  Probably would look like throwing money at an unused transportation problem.

Finally, while I personally hate cars I understand that people "love" driving, however, the issue of where the fuel for all that fun-loving driving is supposed to come from -- let's even assume oil peaks in 30 years -- the era of the big, fast, wide-ranging car will eventually die.  The reason mass transit seems to be popular on this site -- by the way folks, as far as I can figure out, more popular than with big environmental groups -- is that we really won't have much of a choice.

I agree with Alan that this analysis is flawed. Here are a few reasons why.

  1. It's misleading to say "hardly anyone in the US is using transit." Where transit systems are opening or where they exist, ridership is increasing. The reason cars and trucks have such a large share of VMT is because the statistics include all the  urban areas and corridors where transit systems aren't in place, as well as intercity car & truck travel where the miles really add up.

  2. On the cost issue, I'm not sure if your charts include expenditures on municipal streets. Certainly they don't include private streets, which are a growing share of the total. The figures also don't include costs of parking (5-9 spaces per average vehicle) or policing, emergency, and medical response (43,000 killed and 2.7 million injured annually in U.S. traffic crashes). Todd Litman makes a persuasive case that transit is more cost-effective that commonly assumed when all costs and benefits are accounted for.

  3. A map of density by county is nearly useless for transit analysis. Counties include water, deserts and mountains. The number of places with transit-serving density may be small, but look at the maps -- many people in the U.S. live in those places.

  4. For fixing the situation, market forces can go a long way. This study found that across the U.S. more than 14.6 million households are likely to want to rent and buy housing near transit by 2025. About one-third of homebuyers nationwide want to live in walkable neighborhoods.

  5. According to Commuting in America, only 18 percent of VMT nationwide are for commuting. We can accomplish a lot by retrofitting cities, suburbs and towns to be walkable and mixed use. There are very inexpensive transit solutions available, and street networks can be retrofitted to serve low speed electric vehicles.

Transit is not a panacea, but Stuart is underestimating its potential, IMO. It may be that Americans will rather fight wars over dwindling oil supplies, but there are pathways open to us that don't necessitate that bloody future.
As Alan keeps pointing out, if we did it 100 years ago, why can't we do it now?


Superb post.  I can't see how we motivate the institutional change that is required without a strong price signal.  I believe the best approach would be to institue a Carbon Tax, the proceeds of which could go to any number of projects to reduce our need of high carbon fuels.  With fuel costing more because of the tax, there would be much more motivation to increase fuel economy in our vehicles.  Demographic trends the rely on the automobile will slowly turn around, and social uses of the auto will slowly be replaced by other social functions that don't require an auto.  With a strong price signal there is a chance to move society - without it there is no chance!  
Where in the world do you think everyone is going to go?

The US has land, so it builds.  Without abundant and affordable energy, the distances between point A and B become crucial.  A house is no longer something that has a gazebo, a darling jacaranda tree in the yard, or an Ikea kitchen, but a building in a certain geographical spot.  Interesting to see slow realization dawn (not the ppl on this board.)

In my small corner of the world, any crunch has the same simple solution.

Double up, that means share and better use whatever resources are available.

Here (Switz), it spells communal kitchen, communal child care, communal laundry, a quick return to the very local and tiny school without its own building, local `clinics', privileges for high ups that must be carefully controlled, a good chunk of the able men (CH has a conscription army) to do the hard work  - in ww2 that was agriculture.   A careful consideration of who is best at what, who can do what, etc. How to make the plan, the flow chart. Who has the authority to decide.  And so on.  

Of course, none of this will have to happen any time soon, it is only germane as an imaginary, anticipatory societal response that everyone knows about and agrees on.  

But it is very different from what people in the US discuss.  I'm not being snotty, the situations are different.

Exactly and well put. The US is not the world. The US goes down the toilet, the rest of us do not necessarily follow ...

Good post Stuart, tons of info to digest, and one of the most realistic looks at driving in America I have seen....one thing keeps bothering me, though:

In that first pie chart, it has a 15% wedge for "other".  This is beside all the other fairly inclusive wedges, shopping, work, recreation, personal and family business...and still 15 stray percent!  I would love to know what all else that don't fit the other wedges could be in there?

Roger Conner  known to you as ThatsItImout

Maybe it's driving done at work?  As opposed to commuting to work.  
It's a little hard to tell because Stuart's pie chart reports the NHTS figures incorrectly. Here's the full breakdown:

Purpose                    Person Miles of Travel, %
To/from work               18.1
Work-related business       8.1
Family/personal business   17.3
Shopping                   14.0
School/church               5.9
Medical/dental              2.3
Vacation                    2.7
Visit friends/relatives    11.6
Other social/recreational  16.2
Other                       3.8
I accurately report Table 6, which is a breakdown of vehicle miles, rather than this table of personal miles which you cite (and which is also interesting).
Okay. That would imply either a) non-motorized travel makes huge differences in the VMTs for various trip purposes, or b) there's something not right about Table 6.
Sorry, that should read

"That would imply either a) non-motorized travel makes huge differences in the Miles Traveled for various trip purposes, or b) there's something not right about Table 6."

There's also the possiblility that vehicles with many passengers, i.e. mass transit, accounts for the difference.

One thing that strikes me is that kids being shuttled places might affect things.  If you take your kid X miles for a playdate, that's X miles of social/recreational VMT, but 2X miles of personal miles for the same purpose.
Maybe so. That would be a whole lot of chauffeuring! Another reason why it's good for kids to be able to walk or bike to school, activities and friends' houses.

Elsewhere on this thread there was a mention of kidnapping. Studies (like this or this) indicate there is no epidemic of child abductions, and not even an increase in child abductions over the past few decades. However, there has definitely been more hysteria in the media about stranger danger, and that has significantly affected Americans' attitudes toward free-roaming children.

The other 15%?

Driving around looking for waves, of course!

The stats you cite are 5 years old. Fuel prices have more than doubled since then and use of public transit has increased significantly. Yet your basic premise and argument are still valid.
Public transit has been a victim of what I call threshold economics. In semiconductors there is a threshold voltage that must be applied before any current will flow.  Below a certain level of spending social programs have little or no benefit to society and feed the arguments of the conservatives that those programs need to be eliminated.  For public transit to have a significant effect on reducing automobile use the headways must be reduced significantly and the number of routes greatly increased. 30 to 45 minute headways are a cause for the longer commute times. Most riders don't have destinations on the same route that they live on. This causes a 20 minute drive to become a 120 minute bus ride. In most metro areas that would require at least a tripling of the current spending on capital and operations.  There is simply a lack of political will to make those expenditures.
If you are not already living in a place (high, medium, or lower density it doesn't matter) where you could reasonably walk or bike to work, groceries, school, parks, neighbors, friends, family etc OR your community is not agressively changing in order to enable it, then you are screwed.  The real question is why on earth would anyone that is on this forum NOT be in such a community.  The only reason I can think of is that you can't afford it, and that would be because everyone else is already trying to get into such communities and there aren't enough to go around at the moment.    
Many peak oilers believe that salvation is a homestead out in the boonies.

Well, I know there are a few other TOD peak oilers besides me who live in the boondocks because we like the boondocks.  I lived in the country until I was 12 when my folks moved to an ajoing city that was semi-urbanized.  I did the college and chemical trip where I got to spend time in cities from NYC and DC to SF.  I hated them.  I'm not into the stuff most people seem to like about cities such as "thngs to do", "vibrancy", etc.  The nearest house I can see is over 5 miles away on another mountain.  I went to my first movie in 25 years to see An Inconvenient Truth.  I thought the experience sucked but I liked the movie.  And, clearly, after more than 30 years in the boondocks, I wasn't concerned about peak energy when I moved here.

What sent shutters down my spine was the post above mentioning 100 housing units per acre.  I have 57 acres but I'll use 50 for ease.  Gad!  That's 5,000 units on my property with, maybe, 20,000 people.  It reminds me of the old rat experiments where they were allowed to multiple until they all went nuts.  That is not a human way to live.


I wonder how much things would be different if US population was only 100 million? Forget light rail because everyone could drive a biofuelled car on the uncongested roads. House prices would be more affordable. You would have to pay people a middle class wage to pick lettuce, flip burgers or work in a big box store. For the last half century we have been told more is better; perhaps there is 'peak population' in terms of quality of life. This of course assumes that the basic infrastructure is already in place, the legacy of the fossil fuel era.  
I wonder if the investment cost for transit "infrastructure" also includes rolling stock. If you started including the price of cars, and associated maintenance for road transit, maybe the picture would be different.

Also, roads rarely pay for the real estate they occupy, especially inside cities.

And each person that takes the bus or the train means one less car on the road, thus creating "value" for drivers, not accounted for.

One way through this maze is to consider what will happen as certain realities come into play: A thought experiment, if you will.  As long as those realities are not sudden and catastrophic, we might have a chance--although I think sheer population growth does us in finally.

For example, at the outset, as gas prices rise--obviously driving is curtailed.  More and more shopping will be done on-line--even as far as groceries and staples are concerned.  If stores cannot move to the customers, at first they may offer deliveries, scheduled for certain areas on certain days in order to make the travel efficient.  In short, society will at first become more and more regimented, scheduled, efficient.  Even employees who must travel to work will have scheduled pickups--perhaps offered by the employer or some entrepreneur.  Efficiency will govern all schedules and routings.

My culminating scenario is not a pleasant one: Eventually, the regimentation may break down, as pockets of the destitute and poor grow in size.  Hoarding will be a crime.  Fascism will grow. Rigid birth control will be a necessity.

There is one possible good bit of news out there: There may now well be way of storing hydrogen at room temperature, making hydrogen powered, pollution-free cars a real possibility.


In the end, just too many people, too few resources.  We have been too successful as a species.

Just an observation - people in the US seem far more worrried about peak oil than here in the UK. They wonder if it will make their entire way of life untenable, since it has been constructed on a combination of abundant oil and vast open spaces.

The US is also the temple to market forces. Nowhere else is the belief so strong that market forces rule and can be relied on to take you in the right direction.

Why then is there this sudden lack of confidence that market forces will deal with peak oil? There is so much slack to take up with inefficient use of cheap oil - market forces will navigate the US economy through peak oil and down the downslope quite seamlessly.

And if not there is always plan B - nuke China and India.

In the USA we have a place called "Texas". It goes on for miles and miles of empty nothingness. If you're caught out here without a car and a tankful of gas you're as good as dead. The market won't help ya.

Best watch out. Looks like a nasty storm coming our way.

Hi Scrambler,

 When I read the last, I felt a shock, because it hurts to imagine the suffering of people, as much as it's in the background, given our subjects here.  And though it must be sarcasm, I'm confused about what you meant. (And it still feels painful. to me.) Could you explain more?

In terms of the concept "MAD", http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_states_with_nuclear_weapons

 In terms of "the market" - many posters have talked about this question, eg. "GailTheActuary" has commented on the role of timing. Otherwise, some obstacles: volatility, lack of a plan, also. The matter of food. http://www.energybulletin.net/23538.html.  And, then there's..."...down the downslope..." - to what?  

"I think most of us on this site would agree that figuring out what to do about this terrible trio:" From what I'm finding on Internet about the relationship between peak oil and peak natural gas, perhaps peak natural gas should be added? http://www.prosefights.org/gas/gas.htm I'm impressed on how much natural gas is used for "cracking" and other uses in oil refining.
I'm still learning and trying to understand futures.  Seems like most future trading; appears to be mostly short term trading.  But if you believe in PO and that people will not stop driving until they are forced to and will pay just about anything for that; why not put some money where your mouth is and buy the longest term oil, gas, or other future and just hold it?  I'm new at this, but Light Crude Oil seems to be going for $66.00 (CL, NYMEX) in DEC 2012.  http://futures.tradingcharts.com/marketquotes/index.php3?market=CL

Trading Unit:  1,000 U.S. barrels (42,000 gallons)
Tick Size:  $0.01 (1¢) per barrel ($10 per contract)
Initial Margin:  $4,050   Maint Margin: $3,000
Contract Months:  All 12 months.
Daily Limit:  $10.00 per barrel ($10,000 per contract)

The way I understand this, is that you would still have to have the cash ($30 per barrel would be 30K) and in the end you could loose a ton of money but then again you might not; so what is wrong with the logic?  Just seems like 66 is cheap?  What does someone really knowledgeable in this area think?  And why?

"But if you believe in PO and that people will not stop driving until they are forced to and will pay just about anything for that; why not put some money where your mouth is and buy the longest term oil, gas, or other future and just hold it?"

Not for sale?

The way I understand this, is that you would still have to have the cash ($30 per barrel would be 30K) and in the end you could loose a ton of money but then again you  might not; so what is wrong with the logic?

Looks like you already have the reason: risk. Effectively you are betting that there will not be recession, or even a downturn. As gambler's say, only bet with money you can afford to lose.

A sensible investment strategy would be to split your investment 3 ways, one part in low risk, low return, one part in medium risk/medium return, and one part in high risk/high return.

You can manage risk to some extent by diversification and hedging. e.g. be careful of investing in stocks in the same sector as your job. If there is a downturn in your sector, you might lose your job and your investment value.

The question is not really whether the crystal ball is correct, but is the level of risk acceptable to you and where does it fit into your investment strategy?

Incredibly informative post,thanks! I have passed
along the discussion URL to our Transportation Guild.

A couple silver BBs here in North Seattle :-)

This summer, we partnered with King County Transit to encourage healthier travel options like busing, carpooling, bicycling and walking in Ballard. Local high school students measured distances and created a map that showed time required and how far you could get by walking, bus, or bike.


  • 842 pledges to drive less

  • 3053 healthy travel info requests

  • 11,570 trips saved

  • 186,659 miles of driving saved

  • 9333 gallons of gas saved

  • 181,059 pounds of CO2 emissions saved

In July 2007, we plan to prominently tag locally-produced items at our local grocery store, as part of our 100 Mile Diet project (encouraging less transport in food items. Or as Kunstler calls it, the 3,000 mile Caesar salad :-)

Finally, on a larger city note, the City Council has just deliberately created policies to drastically reduce parking space for cars:

Full article at New rules: parking spaces optional

To wean people from their cars, encourage new small businesses and add greenery, the Seattle City Council told businesses and developers Monday they no longer need to provide parking in some areas but must plant more shrubs.

"This looks to the future for a vision of a city that is less auto-dependent," said Councilman Peter Steinbrueck.

The council also passed the "Seattle Green Factor" on Monday, which will require all new development in commercial zones outside of downtown to cover 30 percent of the property with grass, trees, green roofs with vegetation, vine-covered walls or permeable paving. Steinbrueck believes Seattle would be the first city in the nation to impose such a requirement.

Hello Stuart,

Briefly, here are a few items you might consider when revisiting this topic:

Infrastructure investment:  Do these figures include vehicles?  Public transit requires public investment in vehicles, whereas highways place the burden of vehicle expenditures on users.  This is obviously tied to issues of equity:  Not everyone can easily afford the costs of vehicle ownership.  

Your conclusions:  I agree that improving highway vehicle efficiency is the low hanging fruit.  However I believe you underestimate the potential impact of land use/transportation changes.  Specifically:

  • It is not simply a matter of building housing near shopping/employment.  You can also build employment/shopping near existing housing stock.  This can create more opportunities to walk/bike for some of those shopping and leisure/recreation trips if nothing else.

  • You must take into consideration the annual LOSS of housing stock, as well as the rate of new construction / space loss in other sectors, if you want to get a meaningful handle on potential rate of change in the built environment.  Save yourself some time and read this report:  http://www.brookings.edu/metro/pubs/20041213_rebuildamerica.htm

Here are a few snippets from the summary:

"In 2030, about half of the buildings in which Americans live, work, and shop will have been built after 2000. The nation had about 300 billion square feet of built space in 2000. By 2030, the nation will need about 427 billion square feet of built space to accommodate growth projections. About 82 billion of that will be from replacement of existing space and 131 will be new space. Thus, 50 percent of that 427 billion will have to be constructed between now and then."

"While these projections may seem overwhelming, they also demonstrate that nearly half of what will be the built environment in 2030 doesn't even exist yet, giving the current generation a vital opportunity to reshape future development. Recent trends indicate that demand is increasing for more compact, walkable, and high quality living, entertainment, and work environments. The challenge for leaders is to create the right market, land use, and other regulatory climates to accommodate new growth in more sustainable ways."

(The rolling stock question is discussed elsewhere in the thread).

The median house today is 35 years old, so if the median house in 2030 is 30 years old, it wouldn't be too different.  However, the trend of the last 25 years is that stock turnover is mostly lowering, so the median house life is probably creeping up.

I think that's probably a good thing.  If we create a 40% or so increase in total space by 2030, it's going to be quite hard not to make the total built environment spread significantly further, and it's hard to see how that can't increase the demand for VMT.  On the whole, it seems like you planners are going to have your work cut out just to mitigate the degree to which you worsen the problem - it's hard to see how you can contribute to solving it very much.  To the extent ya'll can create those compact walkable neighbourhoods, the rest of us will be very grateful.  And to the extent you can do upwards redevelopment rather than add to the edges of town, that's got to help too.

Good planning is not about stopping or controlling growth, it is about managing it.  If the population and economy grow, then of course "mitigating" the total increase or reducing the per capita increase would be quite an accomplishment.  That is nothing to sneeze at.  

There are a number of institutional barriers to making this happen, but who knows what a good energy/economic shock to the system could do to change attitudes and laws.    

To the extent ya'll can create those compact walkable neighbourhoods, the rest of us will be very grateful.  And to the extent you can do upwards redevelopment rather than add to the edges of town, that's got to help too

Without "wasting money" on Urban Rail, it will very difficult to do so.

Best Hopes,


your link to the brookings institute study doesn't work, could you provide another one?
Don't forget something important.  In many places in the US there are no sidewalks.  Even if you are close to anything it's difficult to walk, and dangerous as you either walk on the road (where police stops you as you are doing something strange - seen it a couple times in my last visit) or go through the woods/lawn.

On my last visit, we had to use the car to go to the library, which is on the same block.  It would be less than 5 minutes walking if it were possible.

Hi Stuart, some remarks:
What becomes clear to me is that the proportion of investment on transit and railroads is completely disproportionate to their ridership and has been for decades. Far from underinvesting in these modes, we are overinvesting. We invest comfortably over 15% of our total transportation infrastructure national budget into railroads and transit, and yet they are carrying only 1.5% of passenger miles. So each of those modes is roughly a factor of 10 worse than highways and airports in terms of the return (in actual useful movement of people) on the investment (in transport infrastructure spending). That's appalling and suggests that transit projects, at least taken in the aggregate, are basically a giant black hole for dollars that deliver little value.

A typical Liberal viewpoint. To sustain mass-transit the State has to support not only the transport infrastructure (railroads, bridges) but also the vehicle fleet (buses, trains, etc) and the human resources involved (train operators, bus drivers, etc). For motoring the State has solely to provide for the basic infrastructure (roads, highways, etc). Comparing these two options on a budget basis is an ill judgment. I believe you have to abandon that Liberal way of thinking to correctly analyze this. Mass transit works and worked very well on Socialist or Social-Providence States.

Ok, well why won't Americans take the train? Well, the rough answer is that it takes nearly twice as long to get anywhere (36 minutes versus 21 minutes for an average metropolitan area US commute according to The Road More Travelled). More specifically, transit critically depends on high population densities. There have to be enough people close to the station at one end of the ride, and enough interesting destinations at the other end of the ride, to make the ridership viable.

People don't se mass-transit because they can use a private owned car, that's all. I was very young, but in the late 1970s early 1980s very few mid-class people here had a car - they couldn't afford it - they all used mass-transit. Those days people would be crammed on rusty buses that broke oftenly. Now they have the option of comfortable, faster than motoring, rail systems, but the roads are crammed with cars.

So in short, transit is quite simply never going to work to reduce auto VMT significantly at any reasonable cost in the present pattern of US urban development.

I think you fail to make that point, a thoroughly urban-planning analysis on the typical US Suburbia would be required to get to that conclusion. There's at least one successful example of mass-transit in suburbia - school buses.

To put this in wedge terms, consider the following thought experiment. Suppose, by politically draconian measures, we insist that all new housing development henceforward occurs such that the average driving of residents of those new units will only be half of the resident of existing units and we insist on retiring old units at the same rate we build new ones. That is, we basically force all new development to occur next to transit or in places of very high density. For this inconceivably herculean political effort, what do we get? Well, since about 1.25% or so of units turn over each year, we get a 0.6% wedge - not a major factor in our solution.

You forget two things:

. A new paradigm in housing would require smaller apartments (high-rises, etc) that would be of much faster development.

. You don't have to build new homes for people to relocate. Here during the 1960s when population growth became unbearable in small country villages, folks immigrated massively to the industrial centers. During the first decade of this process it was usual to have 2, 3 and sometimes 4 families living in the same flat.

Everything will be different after PO.

Contrast this with the situation for cars and trucks, which have a median life of only 5-6 years.

In the Hirsch report that number is 20 years.

I don't know where you're trying to go with this post series, but if the things you're saying where true most of Europe wouldn't be what it is today. BTW aren't you from Manchester?

Wallasey, close to Liverpool.
Thanks, Stuart, and Luis for looking at another side of this.
FWIW: People I know in California (west coast), who want to take the train, don't, because the organization is poor. Apparently the frieght companies own the tracks, and the passenger rail (Amtrak) hasn't managed to work out any way to get the reality to mesh with Amtrak's advertised schedule. (Freight co. takes precedent in case of a break down, is what an Amtrak engineer told me.) My take on it is the trains would be packed, if the service improved a bit.  Say, if trains were even approximately "on time".  
Stuart, you are looking at pre peak oil data. Dr. Bakhtiari said in a Senate hearing here in Sydney
that old economic rules will no longer apply post peak.

(1) Due to the inelastic behaviour of most motorists there will be physical shortages after peak oil which will change the whole ball game
(2) Car-pooling for long distance commuting will come first, also increased use of motorbikes as they are comparatively cheap to buy (in 1980 I lived in a country which introduced 20 ltr/car quotas; it was so time consuming to get those 20 litres that after getting it I drove my car home, parked it safely in my garage and used it as a filling station for my motorbike; got me going for a whole month)
(3)The physical structure of our cities is a given when peak oil hits, so is our car fleet. Purchasing power after PO to rejuvenate the car fleet to make it suitable for ever declining oil production without sufficient alternative fuels will be limited.
(4) There can be consolidation in suburbs, that is building upstairs extensions and subletting the extra space; that will also help paying off mortgages, Council and tax rules may have to change
(5) Light rail on arterial roads PLUS feeder buses AND/OR park and ride will be the only long term solution. Look at what Perth in Western Australia (WA) is doing. They are building rail lines on the median strips of freeways
with bus interchanges on top of the stations.
The WA Planning Minister knows about peak oil, was briefed by Dr. Bakhtiari 2 years ago. These rail lines were pushed through by Prof. Newman who is now at the Uni of Virginia.
“Sustainability and Cities: Overcoming Car Dependance”
See also
My only fear is that after PO there will not be enough time and money to do these investments. We are running out of time now.
The Stern Review
contains a graph for a 450 ppm CO2e stabilisation in which emissions have to be reduced by 60% between 2010 and 2030. It is an illusion to think we can afford to continue with our carbon based fuels. All genuinely renewable energies produce electricity, not fuels. At best, there may be a niche market for electric cars powered by PV panels on homes for those who can afford it. But in general we need light rail for the suburbs. Since densities are low, residents will have to walk, cycle, kiss-and-ride, park-and-ride or take the bus to the LR stations.

"But it will always take two or three or five times as long for most folks to ride a bus rather than drive."

That isn't necessary at all, though it may be true for many in the US.  Reserve half the width of the road for public transport.  Use part of the rest for a bicycle lane. What is left should wind,  with a speed limit and radars, and be one-way.  Add lots of nice red lights, some flashing yellows for good measure, as the public transport and foot/bike/ers have priority.  That was just done `outside my door'.  Bit extreme, heh?

I went and drove down this particular piece of urban planning. I regretted not having taken a book and felt just like someone who is very inappropriately dressed and SMOKING in a restaurant - lots of dirty looks, which you can easily experience, as half the time you are at a standstill, the other half at 20 kms. an hour.  An hour later I reached a bypass and a traffic jam...

This effort was centrally planned. Or rather, it was centrally advised and partly centrally funded and carried out locally, with much power for the locals.

Why we drive (good head post), leads to the question, Why we don't drive?

And social pressure is a big part of the answer to that, beyond the price of cars/gas/etc.  People don't behave in terms of the rational calculations of economists or clever, thrifty housewives.  Ask any shop-a-holic, banker on cocaine, or 20 year old temp. worker.

One scheme that has had some success here (Geneva, Switz.) is for the Gvmt. to work with businesses and corporations.  The Gvmt. offers a `mobility' program, that is, a palette of services / incentives / ideas (to reduce commuting car use), some of which it will subsidise a little.  The business can pick and choose, make up its own plan, and then mobilises its employees, going heavy on the advantages offered and civic duty.  The idea is to use the employers clout and get people to make up group solutions, mobilise them as a group, in function of their particular characteristics - make people aware, get them moving (or rather, moving in a different way.)

The subsidies are spread out all over the place - from a free bike for a month (so that people need not buy one to test if it is fun or feasible) to reductions on public transport, etc.  One large international organisation simply destroyed 50 to 100 parking places, to the utter shock of its employees, who gawped at the bulldozers.  (Car pooling hadn't worked!)

Drop in the bucket, of course. Err, I mean a drop which stays in the bucket? Something to do with drops.


  • A problem for mass transit is that most costs occur beforehand in a large chunk, while private cars cost relatively little in purchase, but much more in maintenance, fuel, insurance, .. not to mention the costs to society: breakup of communities, insecurity in traffic, erc.

  • Another problem is that there needs to be a minimum level of service and reliability to be competitive as a means of transport. And that adds another chunk to the up-front-costs. Though it does not necessarily needs to be financial, reserved bus lanes come to mind.

Given those factors, it is logical that a society that chooses to defer costs to the future by means of credit cards and ARM's, will also prefer cars over mass transit.
Note 1:  Repost.  I posted yesterday, it shows in my comments listing, but not on the public page.  If a duplicate, please delete this or original.

Note 2:  Having read some of the great commentary on this discussion, I have several reactions: (1) Many are using current behaviors (taxation, transportation preferences, etc) to predict future behaviors.  A valid method to attempt prediction of the future, but behaviors do change; (2) comments that state public transporation must meet all conveniences of private transportation miss the point:  in the future, choices will have to be made.

Stuart:  Great analysis.  That said, I've long believed that increasing energy costs will result in a networked transporation system.  Private transport takes the commuter from home to local transporation node.  If they live near the node, they walk.  The local node takes them to a node attached to a long distance trunk.
This may sound complicated, but it's little more than organizing bus lines properly.

I live near I5 in San Diego.  I'd walk to the trunk.  Those who live east of me, say five miles from I5, would either (a) drive to the trunk or (b) drive to a branch node, which takes them to the trunk.

I think the use of modern communication devices, in particular position location system combined with cell phones, will make it easier for individuals to tap into a transport network that will take care of some of the time inefficiencies.  The bus sytem, for example, may require that I used a particular communication device.  Then the bus won't leave the main trunk line unless it knows there is someone waiting to get on that line.  Registered wirelessly.  The system would allow a user to know where and when the next bus can be picked up.

In addition, I think there are many opportunities for companies to band together--and for private companies to provide a service--for work bus pools.  For example, in India, everyone I knew at Tata, or most, took the work bus.  It's a company bus that drives along a fixed route.

Aside from that, in the morning and evenings, in India, the streets are filled with people walking.  Walking to the bus lines.  Walking to the local transport nodes.

I think similar services can be provided here in the US.

I have no analysis to determine how this might be developed and what fuel savings would result.  But looking at present usage patterns, as you have done, and housing stock, does not tell me that we are stuck.  I'm not saying we haven't got problems.  But when I look at San Diego, for example, which is a very large geographic region, with people spread out all over, I see most commuting take place in several hops.  A hop from terminal route to intermediate route(side road to main road).  Then a hop from intermediate route to trunk route (I5 or I805 or I15).  And the reverse at the other end.

Consider shopping.  For example, all the people driving around with trucks because, maybe three times a year, they buy something enormous.  If fuel becomes expensive enough, the delivery of purchased items may slow down.  I purchase the billiars table, it shows up a week later when the service used by the company makes a drive to that area.  In other words, the argument that I will not use public transport because I can't carry all my stuff back.  Well, in the future, I might not be able to carry all my stuff back with me.  It's just not done.  I purchase items at UTC, south of me, or a diffent shopping center.  At the purchase, for larger items I can't carry, I carry them to a transport service. They show up later in the week.

We will have to slow down.  Mail service every day.  What is that about?  Seems pointless.  Having mail trucks drive to every home, ridiculous.  Put the mail in a central location within 5 minutes walking distance of homes.  Or ten minnutes.  New rule:  you walk to get your mail.  If gas is precious, people will.

There are options.  I don't know what slice or amount of reduction we'd see in fuel consumption by pulling most or a significant number of the cars plugging the I5 and I805 and other freeways around here each morning, but if people were lining up for buses here as in India, the freeways could be almost empty.

As always, it is easy to look at the services as currently structured and determine that it appears little can be done.  But we also have to look at exactly what services are provided.  What is it we are trying to achieve when driving, etc.  Add in the convenience, including time.  And then determine whether similar services, lower grade in many cases--in particular convenience--might result in savings not considered in your analysis.

Just a thought.  Still, great work.  I always like visiting the oil drum and reading your work in particular--no offense to anyone else.

Everything Stuart had to say was seriously boring, but I still can't fall asleep. Luckily I have Al Gore's 'An Inconvenient Truth' on DVD.

I'll just slip that baby in, and I should be out in no time. I've used it at least a dozen times, I don't think I'm past the first 4 minutes.