More Sustainlane: U.S. Cities' Preparedness for an Oil Crisis

Not just the top 10 best prepared as we discussed yesterday, but now from sustainlane, a measurement scheme ranking the 50 biggest US cities' preparedness for an oil crisis.  Here's some snippets:
This is a Tale of Two Types of Cities.  One type of city has a dense, walkable center with cultural attractions, jobs, farmers markets, and residential neighborhoods easily accessible by foot, bike, or public transit. The other type has lower density, a poorly or undefined center, separate centers of business and residential life, and is generally only accessible by car.

We compared these two fundamental types of cities' underlying infrastructure, food and mobility as part of an economic competitiveness analysis.  With gas prices on the rise and $3 or $4 a gallon gas on the horizon, took a close look at the 50 largest U.S. cities to see which are most prepared and which are most vulnerable to an extended gas price shock in the $3 to $8 dollar a gallon range. Those cities that can reduce or stabilize their spending on gasoline will keep substantially more money in their state's economy, rather than siphoning it overseas.

It bears pointing out the relative nature of the rankings. When I'm doing my (longer than I'll admit to on this website) morning commute out of Boston there is sometimes a 15 mile-deep traffic jam on the mass pike leading into the city. Sure, the city core and surrounding cities like Cambridge are set up as well as can be for peak oil and beyond, but the remainder of the metro area, probably 70% of the population, is as dependant on cars as any city in the US. Boston has a LOT of undeveloped land and low density development out to and beyond the I-495 belt. Good luck with that $10/gallon gas if you live in a suburb like Marlboro that doesn't even have a commuter rail station.

Lucky for New England, though, is the fact that most of these cities/suburbs have old city centers that could be converted to what they need to be post peak-oil pretty quickly and without massive investment.

The index has a slight smell of being biassed to look at sprawl/new-urbanism type issues, which while significant, are not the only thing going on.  Eg, Detroit (#34) is going to get extra screwed because it's main industry is building gas-guzzling vehicles and is already faring badly with high gas prices.  OTOH, San Jose, which is #33 on the index because it's very sprawling, is likely to do ok because the median income is so high - Porsche drivers will still be able to afford gas when it's $10/gallon - and demand for San Jose's core competence (technology products) is likely to hold up reasonably well in a post-peak economy.
Not sure technology products demand will hold up.  Even if they do, most are actually manufactured overseas now.  How much U.S. marketing will be required when most of the population can only afford Walmart?
There are still a large number of semiconductor fabs in the US. Semiconductor packaging operations, however, are indeed exclusively in southeast Asia today. Manufacturing is only part of it anyway - there are still very large numbers of the engineers in the US designing the parts even if they are being manufactured elsewhere.
How many pounds did a 70's era HiFi weigh?  How many ounces does an iPod weigh?

The Asian trade route has been pushing miniaturization for decades, just because cost has been determined in part by how many units you can stick in a shipping container.

... this is not the only story as transportation prices get higher, but it is certainly one of the stories ....

You're correct that product manufacturing is mostly Asian, but design is still mostly in Silicon Valley.  IMO (I work in this industry) that's likely to stay true.  
National Semiconductor is still one of (South)Portland, Maine's link to the Northeast's bid for Tech mfg.  Don't know what gets produced here.

I don't think tech demand will go down. Ability to MEET that demand might, though. (Don't forget credit.. cause the consumer won't, and demand for that will be WAY up..)  It will be tech solutions that will allow a consumer to find more Energy-Saving solutions to rising rates.  Microwave Ovens, (the most energy efficient way to heat food, next to Solar) Laptops and other low-power computing and entertainment solutions, like the above-mentioned Ipods.. phones, radios, LED and CF lighting.. Inverters and charge controllers, electric transp.

If we'e talking about conditions bad enough that local food production is an advantage then we're talking about a recession that will eliminate tech demand.  Nobody's going to be designing new chips or cell phones for multibillion fab shops that will never get built, because business investment will go to zero.  Consumer spending will consist of average people trying to keep up with 10-15% energy inflation costs every year.

I mean, in this case we're talking about remotely grown food being too expensive for the average person but computer sales are going to stay strong?

This isn't to confuse the latest dingle from Sharper Image with the useful technology that is more or less ubiquitous in our lives these days.  There are semiconductors involved in items all through our lives now, and we will continue to use and demand them, because they do work in ways that basically nothing else will.  The basic idea of a Transistor is simply an energy management tool.  It's a valve, a switch, a floodgate that can, with VERY little power applied to it, manage a much greater source of electrical power, making very smart and efficient use of a limited amount of electricity as required.  So I would argue that these will continue to be tools that we keep in our kits, keep manufacturing, keep finding new uses for, probably mostly BECAUSE our needs have become more stringent.  Depending on how 'Mad Max' things are to become here and there, the mass of circuit-boards that languish in landfills and basements might become the new 'Spanish Galleons' that treasure hunters will scrounge out for their precious components, but this range of tools, from electronics to materials sciences is what we have instead of claws and fangs for survival, and we won't let go of them lightly, just because we also have some sod under our fingernails.  

 Our Farming won't be some PBS special on "Colonial House", either.  We're not just jumping back to 1613 and tossing out Radios, Electric Motors and Generators, Fiberglass, Pneumatics, Chemistry, Flight, Calculators... or Literacy..

That's a good note, on the nature of some cities economies.

But even if they were to get those things right, they are of course generalizations across entire cities ;-).  There are walkable neighborhoods in each, I'm sure.  And there are some jobs that will be better to have than others, in each city.

Case in point ... in the 70's fuel crisis and aerospace crash there were lots of lay-offs in California.  My family was insulated from that because my dad worked for LA city schools.  Nothing like a steady government job in economic upheaval.


As somebody else posted, the study is very shallow. Oakland, Ca. prepared for Peak Oil? Oakland has BART, which I absolutely love but they also have MAJOR as in MAJOR gang problems that are spreading into the working class and middle class parts of town. There are big timeproblems with the police, just google "oakland riders trial, and now there areAK-47 attacks taking place in the "nice" areas of town. I could go on but you get the point: parts are already slipping into "Mad Max" and things haven't gotten bad yet.

Also, please note: I lived in the heart of one of the worst parts of San Francisoc (the Tenderloin) and worked a the Public Defenders office so it's not like I'm some wilting flower afraid of poor people or some closeted racist afraid of other races.




Just to be clear, yes I did say "AK-47" attacks:



Is it just my impression or we have mostly blue cities on top and mostly red cities below?
A clue to your question might be found in another ranking, found elsewhere on the site: SustainLane US City Rankings. San Francisco, Portland, Berkeley and Seattle top the 'sustainability' list. Make of that what you will.

But I didn't want my first post on OD to be a political one. As a resident of the city which is #45 on the list, Columbus Ohio (or really Dublin, a burb thereof), I wanted to throw a few words in. Sure, if there is a place where minivans, SUVs and Hummers go to die, central Ohio must be it. We have the most minimal of public transport, and sprawl is a polite way to describe our suburban 'planning'. A gasoline shortage would certainly cause problems here.

But to discount the value of other factors, like plentiful coal and nuke generated electric power (the area is served by AEP, 81% non-petro generation), and the assumption that big collective farm markets are somehow more valuable than small local farm and rural markets (of which we have dozens in the area), while other shortcomings are given a free pass (If Boston has no fuel oil for heating, they're ok?)... it all seems like more of a call to reurbanization than an honest evaluation of who suffers in an oil crisis. And what does public wireless networking have to do with telecommuting? Columbus is wired to the gills, and everyone I know has high-speed internet sufficient for working from home. (But then I'm in IT).

Maybe the item which irks me most is the "dearth of local produce" one. We don't have the long growing season that the Sun Belt locations do, so we'd be short of green veggies and tomatoes for 4 months of the year. Tough. Going on our local strengths, we'd still have grain, meat, cheese and beer, which would not only get us through the winter but make for one heck of a oil-shortage tailgate party.

I'm not to critical of this study. It may be useful for when dealing with a small perturbation in oil prices up from today's prices. As suggested above, it is probably very hard to predict how things will play out once we get significantly into depletion.

We could also look at climate and available wind, solar and water power to judge livability of different areas. Some areas of the country would come out ahead on that. The problem is that most of the country will not and the populace not in a favorable area will move to the favorable areas swamping the local resources there.

We've already seen similar migrations from the north and east to the south and west. However, due to the benefits of cheap oil the choice of destination has been skewed. People moved to FL and AZ and made those places livable with cheap air conditioning.

When prices go up a lot and are forecast to go higher there will be panic.

The description of the study methodology itself indicates just how shallow this sort of ranking is.

It clearly states that it did not take into consideration heating or electricity. So, we have here a study about urban survivability during an oil crisis, and it doesn't even take into consideration heating and electricity.  And we're supposed to take this study seriously?

How difficult would it have been to get data on per capita oil and gas and electricity consumption? And how difficult would it have been to get data on how much of a city's electricity is generated by coal, vs NG, vs nukes?

During an oil/gas crisis it would appear that cities in severe cold-weather regions,  such as Minneapolis, Chicago, or Denver, would earn some very bad marks for survivability. Ditto for cities in regions with severe hot/humid weather regions, such as Houston, Miami, or New Orleans, but with regard to electricity. (Though not as bad as the former, as one can usually survive without air conditioning in Houston but can literally freeze to death Minneapolis.)  In this regard, cities located in the most moderate climates such as San Francisco would get high marks.

In my view, any study that doesn't take such a basic and obvious factor into consideration is worthless. No, worse than worthless, because it gives the illusion of a scientific inquiry when it is just number wanking.

Well, compared to MInn. S.F. may be moderate, but I've near died of hypothermia in S.F. in the SUMMER.
Okay I looked at the list and can't figure out their rationale for ranking.

Las Vegas is ranked Higher than Omaha.


Omaha has multiple rail lines linking it to the rest of the country, freight and passenger.  It has the Missouri river running through it and the Platte river close.  Freight can come from the ocean to Omaha direct by water.  Within 20 miles of downtown in any direction there is some of the most fertile farmland in the country.  Meat animals can be maintained year round outside if needed.  Omaha gets plenty of rain to raise crops without irrigation.  Winters are cold but easily survivable for both humans and animals and summers are mild.  Omaha can be a manufacturing hub, food hub or business hub.  

Las Vegas is in the middle of the desert.  Almost nothing grows without irrigation and water is scarce.  All food must be brought in year round.  Summer conditions are life threatening without climate control and lots of water.

Ranking a desert city above Omaha makes no logical sense in an energy scarce world.  Just because a lot of people prefer Las Vegas over Omaha now, doesn't mean it is a better city to be in after peak oil, when food and survivability quality of life will be more important than entertainment quality of life.

Your comment alone trumps the numerous problems I was going to cite with this study. to rank Las Vegas ahead of virtually anywhere suggests a deep flaw in the systems approach to these rankings. But, if we do hold EVERYTHING else constant, and gas goes to $5/gallon, Vegas does have alot of money (only on the surface however - it is a dark, scary town underneath)
With 5-10$ a gallon how many of the tourists that fly for the weekend to LV will continue to do so? If tourism dies how long before this city disappears in the desert?
I'm hesitant to do this because thi outfit (Sustainlane0 is part of the "sustainable" tribe and that's a tribe I'm affliated with but anybody who thinks Las Vegas is prepped for an oil crisis has been infected with the "pandemic of dumbassery" in a bad way.



Just to be the Devil's Advocate,  would the access to the Massive Hydro-power of the Hoover Dam give Vegas an edge that most other cities wouldn't have?



Let's say we've two cities of equal size, both of which depend on people flying massive distances to partake in gambling, prositution, and organized crime in the middle of the desert. (I would say we could use Vegas and D.C. but D.C. ain't in the desert.) If one of those cities has access to the Hoover Dam and the other city doesn't, the first city has the advantage.

However, whatever benefit the Hoover dam confers upon Vegas ain't too much to get excited about when you look at what their economy is dependent on.



Ah, Loneliness is writing in an old Thread!  but to respond..

I would just have to add that at Least Vegas (Might be a good name for the Ghost Town.. or LostVegas)  and it's permanent residents at least have the power available to them to power the changeover to other industries, etc.. and ways of making a living.  I don't know what DC would do to Tighten its Beltway..

  Of course, the other elephant in the room for Nevada is precisely the water that runs that Dam and fills the Hottubs of Vegas, which has been to the detriment of anyone who wants to use it on their farms to FEED these people.


At a guess, I'd say their criteria isn't about surviving total societal collapse.  It's probably more about neverending economic contraction, with loss of jobs and business collapses.  A gambling town would do well in those times. There will still be rich people to be entertained.
A gambling section (eg, red light district) of a big city where people are concentrated might do well. But a gambling city in the middle of a desert that you have to exorbitant airfare fees to get too? Not as likely.

But you're general point about industries of ill repute such as gambling, drinking, drugs, etc. doing well in times of societal breakdown is one I generally agree with. It's also why I'm looking into opening a local brothel.



Omaha has multiple rail lines linking it to the rest of the country, freight and passenger.  It has the Missouri river running through it and the Platte river close.

I'm not sure what the Platte has to do with anything here.  It's certainly not navigable, has limited value to Omaha for drinking water (the Missouri is much more convenient), and its real value for irrigation is farther west in the state where there's less rain.  While the Missouri is navigable as far north as Sioux City, it requires constant Corps of Engineers maintenance.  If you've ever watched the channelized Missouri whip by Omaha, you understand why the energy costs for barge traffic on this stretch of the Missouri are much higher than for the upper Mississippi.  So much so, in fact, that river barges make up a very small fraction of the bulk cargo transported in and out.  If the Corps decides to hold back water at the big upstream dams for later-season irrigation, the Missouri is not always navigable that far upstream.

Given that almost all of the electricity in the state is coal-fired or nuclear, and that there's lots of potential for wind power, Omaha may be quite well off if some of the new technologies make all-electric personal transportation feasible.

No mention of Unst?  I'm shocked.  This remote Shetland island gets electricity and auto fuel from wind-derived hydrogen.  Shows what can happen when energy costs hit 20 percent of average income.  See  
The article is about U.S. cities.  I don't think anyone denies that many cities outside the U.S. are better suited for the post-carbon age than any American city is.
Yes, in fact most of them are better prepared. New York, Boston, Philly and SF are more like major European cities than the rest of America.
I'm glad this has stirred discussion, but I think the critical error here was doing the overall ranking instead of dealing with each issue a locality will face: transportation of goods and people, local food, heating, electrical power and even social issues like poverty rates, crime rates, etc. The other glaring omission is looking at dependence on air travel based tourism/business, which is something that NY and Las Vegas share as a major weakness IMHO...

But it does emphasize the importance of harbor cities vs. landlocked ones. There is a major difference between them that will have long lasting effects in an energy constrainted future IMHO. If I had to invest some money here in NYC, it would be building a network of port shipping facilities across the extensive NYC waterfront to allow the transfer from truck based delivery to water based delivery.

Good points. In addition I would like to mention the issue of how various localities will do economically from a severe recession induced by higher oil prices. NYC has a some serious handicaps here: Extremely high rents, which many people will no longer be able to pay, export-base industries of luxuries rather than food or machinery or energy, and the changing nature of technology that reduces enormously NYC's once-great comparative advantage in industries such as book publishing.

In the olden days, if you wanted to be a writer or an agent or a book publisher, living in NYC was a huge advantage; it still is somewhat of an advantage but much less so than only twenty years ago. Similarly, face-to-face contact used to be far more important in financial markets than it is today. Give the high rents and high taxes in NYC, I think it will fair poorly in any future recession or depression brought about by increasing oil costs. Just how poorly in comparison to other cities is hard to say, but my WAG is that Chicago, for example, will do better than NYC as energy prices in general and oil prices in particular increase.

Speaking of which...

As ice melts, debate over Northwest Passage heats

The good news is that the melting icecaps mean we'll be able to use the Northwest passage to ship Alaskan oil to the northeast.  The bad news is that there may be a wee bit of demand destruction if New York and Boston are underwater.  ;-)

The idea that Oklahoma City which is surrounded by oil and gas fields as well as farms and ranches was ranked #50 simply shows the ignorance of our nation's geography is absolute in the author's mind. The best places to be in an oil crisis is any where those on the coasts call "flyover country". The overwhelming majority of these flyover homes have wood/pellet/corn stoves or fireplaces. They have the biodiesel and ethanol facilities. Housing costs are miniscule compared to the coasts. They grow the food which must be transported to the coasts. How many folks on Manhattan Island have backyards big enough to grow a significant fraction of their food consumption?
My thoughts exactly.

Not all coast locations are bad but the mega cities have serious problems.  

It appears the authors of the report want to substitute money for energy.  It is assumed that if you are in an area that is currently a banking or financial powerhouse that money will solve all energy problems in the future.

I must be a bad Capitalist.  I just can't get my head around the concept that in an energy scarce world money will still be the solution to problems.  I forsee those that live most efficiently, with respect to energy, having the best lifestyle post peak.

I have researched the ability to use solar, wind, etc as grid tie systems for reducing my energy costs at home.  All alternative energy plans start with reducing energy and then substituting renewable energy capture after usage is low enough.  The point is that consuming less goes a long way to getting a renewable system that can meet your needs.  The problem is that most older structures and appliances are inneficient and consume too much energy and can't be fixed easily or at all.

I think people that list large cities as good havens, post peak, assume energy prices will be very high but energy still available.  I see energy supply not being reliable at any price post peak and that influences my priorities.  I still remember the gas shortages (artificial or not) of the 1970's.  I don't care how much money you had there was no gas for sale that day.  I see a return to those conditions.

Indeed, money of course is good to have, but it does have its limitations in time of severe crisis and social disintergration.

I have this little fantasy ..... sort of an allegory, if you will.  There is a major natural or man-made crisis, and Bill Gates, Sam Walton, and Warren Buffett find themselves trapped somewhere down in the bowels of the NYC subway system. Trains aren't running, there's chaos and mayhem up at ground level, the only light is provided by steadily weakening emergency batteries. It's been several days now, and people are getting desperate.

Well, Bill, Sam, and Warren are standing around a snack vending machine along with a whole bunch of other stranded subway riders.  Through the window of the vending machine they can plainly see that there is but one rather stale-looking bag of Cheez Doodles left.

 One of the subway riders inserts a coin and takes out the last bag. Immediately, Bill Gates goes up to him and says, "Sir, I will give you $100 for that bag of Cheez Doodles! " Then Sam Walton chimes in and says, "Don't take his offer, I will offer you $1,000 for your Cheez Doodles!"  Finally, Warren Buffet yells, "I'm getting real hungry, and I'll offer you $1 million for those Cheez Doodles!"  Well, the owner of the bag of Cheez Doodles, even though he hasn't eaten in three days, thinks this is an  offer he can't possibly refuse and is about to sell the Cheeze Doodles to Warren Buffet.  

Just then, some ghetto youth with a cheap gun appears, grabs the bag of Cheez Doodles, gobbles them down and says, "Excuse me, gentlemen, but under the circumstances your economic paradigm is not operative and the coin of the realm is worthless,  but this one IS!" as he grins and flashes his gun in their faces.

The study looked at the largest 50 US cities relative to one another. They did not look at small towns or say cities were better suited to peak oil than small towns. Nor did they say "best prepared" meant prepared--it's a statement of relativity.

Oil crisis does not necesarily mean an energy crisis (let's just say the main oil refinery is blown up in Suadi Arabia with 7% of world's supply, which it almost was a month ago), so electricity (which comes from coal, nuclear, natural gas, hydro) availability is not apples to apples with an oil shortage.

Someone said Oklahoma City was the most prepared. 85 percent of people drive to work alone (versus 24 percnt in NYC) in OK city. How will they pay for all this gas? What will they do in that region when all that money goes overseas? They will have little left for any other kind of spending, no matter how cheap housing is.

And for local food, is it really grown and accessible near OK City? Most is probably from trucks rolling in from California, Florida or Mexico.

So yes, NY, SF, Philly, etc. do look a lot better than most sprawled and landlocked cities in being prepared, not to say that they are prepared, just relatively speaking.

Some posters has commented on the situation with $5 gas. Here in Toronto, we had $5.50 US a gallon last fall and it barely caused a ripple. I would be surprised if you see major changes in driving habits below $7 a gallon (just a guess).
This is the gas taxes in OECD countries.

OECD unleaded gas taxes (2004)

USA                                20.9%
Canada                             39.4%
Mexico                             13.0%
Australia                          51.1%
New Zealand                        47.5%
Poland                             63.4%
Czech Republic                     64.8%
Greece                             53.3%
Japan                              56.0%
Spain                              62.6%
Slovak Republic                    62.4%
Switzerland                        63.4%
Luxembourg                         62.6%
Austria                            64.7%
Ireland                            66.7%
Hungary                            64.1%
Portugal                           69.9%
France                             74.7%
Sweden                             70.2%
Turkey                             71.3%
Italy                              69.2%
Finland                            72.3%
Germany                            74.2%
Belgium                            66.8%
Norway                             69.4%
Denmark                            69.0%
UK                                 76.4%
Netherlands                        70.6%

Gas tax in USA is the second smallest after in Mexico among OECD nations. This small gas tax has shaped the structure of cities in USA, especially the ones that have grown so fast in the last forty years. The impact of high oil price is the most severe among nations with low gas taxes. Since Mexico is an oil exporter, USA is probably the one who will be hit the hardest among OECD nations.

But the design of suburbia is like an implicit increase in taxes since it forces consumption up.

20% of 10000 is more than 70% of 100.

Oil crisis does not necesarily mean an energy crisis (let's just say the main oil refinery is blown up in Suadi Arabia with 7% of world's supply, which it almost was a month ago), so electricity (which comes from coal, nuclear, natural gas, hydro) availability is not apples to apples with an oil shortage.

Electricity is totally integrated.  Oil is by far the greatest
source of AC.  Don't have the figures at hand.

If one thing has been shown lately vis a vis the Russia Ukraine Europe NG Crunch, it's that the source will guarantee
it's supplies first, transit will get it's share second and what's left will be delivered.

Example OK transits oil via it's Cushing Hub.  Who to deliver to-well, whacha got in return?

Definitely more local less national.


Cities like OKC have a lot of low hanging fruit adjustment options that the east coast already uses. There is a rule of thumb that the first 90% carries 10% of the cost while the last 10% carries 90% of the cost. Its like the cost difference between eliminating 90% of tailpipe emissions and the cost of eliminating 99%. OKC could adjust to an oil crises by carpooling and more public transit use which the east coast has maxed out on.
Don't think so.  OKC "urban form" is quite bad.  One can't move the houses and shopping centers very easily.

One can often (case by case) extend an existing rail line another mile or two in a year or two.  All the rest (railyards, labor force) is in place.  Add extra cars, and capacity on rail jumps to accomadate extra riders.  Many in older cities could ride rail but chose not to.  But when the Islamic Republic of Arabia replaces Saudi Arabia, they can ride instead of drive.

OKC employment centers are "spread out" AFAIK.  Makes carpooling to work problematic.  Perhaps you can join with neighbors to carpool to grocery store (I can walk to 5 different grocery stores within 6 blocks) and WalMart.

Bus sytem is weak in OKC.  Higher oil will run their costs up.  They may need to cut back operations when diesel gets to $4.50/gallon.

Boston is flagged on the list for using heating oil. What are they thinking? Most places use natural gas for heating and that's going to be in way worse shape.