What if the oil runs out?

Gabe has dreams of running out of oil leading to his vision of reurbanization. Frankly, I never see it happening. Here’s why…

1. Oil won’t run out overnight. The world is already preparing for the reduced dependance on oil as a fuel for automobiles. We’ll be able to see the actual end of oil supply (if there is one) far enough into the future that, as a globe, there will be plenty of time to focus on other fuel sources, just as Brazil has focused on ethanol. They may not all be as energy efficient as gasoline, and they may cost a little more initially, but over time these things work themselves out. Cars will be built with lighter materials. Technology will improve. Mass markets drive prices down. Personal use vehicles will be around for a long, long time.

2. Sprawl is natural. Sprawl didn’t just occur because of “cheap gasoline”. Sprawl occurs because in general people want their space. I’m sure many will dispute me on this fact, and certainly there are people that prefer a more tightly packed dense urban lifestyle, but overall I think the tendency of people is to separate. There’s an experiment where you and a stranger stand, say, 10 feet apart. Then you each take a step closer. Then again. And you repeat until you’re right next to this stranger, all the while paying attention to how much your discomfort increases as your personal space is depleted. Urban living is simply uncomfortable for a lot of people. The higher the density, the greater the risk of any number of problems, from exposure to illness and disease, to increased risk of being a target for terrorist strikes.

3. People like their independence. People place a very high value on being able to go where they want, when they want, and not be a slave to the schedule of mass transit. The value of one’s time is increasing, with many studies reporting that employees would rather have more vacation time than raises. People want the convenience of point-to-point transportation, and even with gas prices in the $3-4/gallon range, we didn’t see any significant shift in transportation habits. That means it could take at least a 300-400% hike in fuel costs to overcome, at which point we’re back to utilizing alternative fuel sources, like ethanol, which may only cost 30% more. If there’s one thing that should be obvious to everyone, it’s that people are willing to pay for convenience.

4. Only the economics would shift. Even if you believe that the middle class is collapsing and the average person will no longer be able to afford a car, a large influx of poorer people into the cities will cause an outflow of wealthier people who can afford to live further away from the density. In cities like Buffalo, the reurbanization trend happens because with the extent of sprawl, to be different and trendy is to live in the city. With every new high priced loft apartment conversion means the wealth is flowing into that area. When everyone lived in cities, those with money moved out. It would happen again, just restarting the cycle all over. Another way of looking at the economics of the situation is to assume that fuel costs suddenly did become cost prohibitive. Is it more likely that the population would shift en masse, or that the existing sprawled environments would just each turn into micro-cities themselves? If people can’t drive 5 miles to the grocery store, smaller corner stores would pop up to fill the need. Towns may establish their own intra-boundary mini-mass transit. People would stop driving 20 miles to work because…

5. The internet eliminates geographic boundaries. Few will dispute that the internet has fundamentally changed our existence. One of the effects of it’s invention is that it’s no longer necessary for businesses or for individuals to be all physically located near each other. Businesses often find advantages to being located outside of densely populated areas, such as being able to attract employees with lower cost housing, or establishing outside of higher taxed areas. Telecommuting has greatly increased in the past ten years, and many businesses are able to operate with virtual offices. This trend is actually a good thing for smaller cities like Buffalo, as illustrated by this recent article on Buffalo Rising.

Now, with all that said, I’m not opposed to the reurbanization of our cities. I think it’s healthy for any area to have a strong urban core. While many people prefer not to live in them, it does allow for concentration of commercial and entertainment venues. Big cities are almost always a tourist draw for those reasons. I just don’t believe that America is suddenly going to find itself out of oil, forcing people to race back to the cities. There area easier ways to adapt to such changes, and we’ll always follow the path of least resistance.

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  1. Wow! Good points. Excellent points you make. Have that report on my desk first thing Monday morning.

  2. “Running out of oil,” thanks for laugh. Urbanists will go to any length necessary to inflict their vision of society on everyone. If all the urban planners would just quit meddling with their “smart codes” and social engineering plans (that’s what they really are) and start addressing the real cause of our urban decline, everyone would be much better off. To borrow a line from President Clinton, “It’s the economy, stupid!” We need to make Buffalo affordable to businesses and not strangle them with myriad regulations. Lower the costs of doing business and the development will happen . . .without government subsidies!!

  3. Derek, thanks for taking the time to spark this very interesting and intelligent debate.

    A lot of your points are based on pretty accurate observations within the context of our current economic reality. But a few things:

    1. “Oil won’t run out overnight,” is a spot on statement. It will be a very long time until we actually run dry. But in the meantime increasing demand will eventually outpace production capacity. The oil available to the world market will steadily decrease if demand keeps remaining strong (with more than 6 billion people on this stressed planet, this is all too likely). Since virtually our entire economy runs on oil, the price of it will most people’s personal wealth. If oil prices become too high, more and more people will cease to be able to afford keeping multiple cars. Three car families will become two cars families. Then one car families. Some will end up as no-car families. At that point our cities will have to adapt to this reality.

    On your Brazil comparison…Brazil and the US have very little in common when it comes to energy consumption habits. Alot of Brazil’s people are too poor to own and/or operate cars, so the ethanol derived from their native sugar cane crop is sufficient for their fuel needs, for now. Most of Brazil’s cities (Ironically with the exception of Brasilia, the modernist capital) are designed around walking and public transportation, unlike the sort of development that is today the norm in most American cities.

    Ethanol is not a viable replacement for fossil fuels. We’d have to blanket our entire landmass with cornfields to substitute that massive oil consumption it takes to maintain the mandatory-motoring lifestyle.

    2. Car-dependent sprawl cities aren’t natural, but low density habitation patterns have indeed been the way most humans have lived throughout civilized history–on farms or other rural settings where people could provide for themselves by growing or hunting their own food. Still in organized settlements people huddled together in dense village clusters. People had to stick together for defense against all sorts of nasty enemies.

    Your assertion that sprawl is natural isn’t very well explained though. People have always had to huddle close to one another for defense and exchange of goods and services, whether in towns, villages, or cities. It wasn’t until the advent of the horsecar, then streetcar, trolly, and railroad, that people could disperse and live considerable distances from where key economic activity (trade, manufacturing) took place. For once entire streets could be devoted to nothing but residential homes. Still, in these “streetcar suburbs” where people had plenty of personal space, all basic neighborhood stores are services were within reasonable walking distance.

    People got very green pleasant living environments, that was still navigable by multiple forms of travel. When autos finally became popularly available, the insidious auto-only sprawl development became possible. Houses were further spread apart and services decentralized away from neighborhoods thanks to restrictive zoning and the construction of wide roads which make the pedestrian experience very unpleasant.

    So, yes, many people do like detached houses with yards and plenty of greeney. But do they necessarily like the 8 lane traffic arteries? Do they necessarily enjoy the dreary stripmalls with massive seas of asphalt parking? Do people necessarily like the fact that walking or riding a bike to get anywhere is a perilous undertaking on roads strictly designed for speeding cars? Do they like the fact that their children can’t walk to school because the convoluted loop-n-lollypop street and cul-de-sac layouts prevent any sort of reasonable pedestrian connectivity between places?

    Nice suburbs that are still spread out but not 100% dependent on driving cars, are possible

    Europe has plenty of suburban sprawl, but much of it is mass-transit friendly (giving people CHOICE), and intensive economic functions (employment, shopping) still revolve around robust urban cores. This is the sort of urban-suburban relationship that can work well. It’s a model the US should begin to follow better. It would be a great way of offering alternatives to relying on only one form of transport based on a fuel with a shaky future.

    3. Yes, many people have been brainwashed (err…conditioned) into thinking that driving everywhere should be the only way of living.

    Quote—”People place a very high value on being able to go where they want, when they want, and not be a slave to the schedule of mass transit. The value of one’s time is increasing, with many studies reporting that employees would rather have more vacation time than raises. People want the convenience of point-to-point transportation, and even with gas prices in the $3-4/gallon range, we didn’t see any significant shift in transportation habits.”

    If people valued their time so dearly, i’m sure many would opt for a way of live that didn’t involve being stuck in traffic.

    Of course people want to go where they want, when they want, ect., but mother nature has the final say in this matter. If gas eventually becomes prohibitively expensive, she could care less what Joe Blow American “wants.”

    4. “When everyone lived in cities, those with money moved out.” Not necessarily. See all those old mansions on Delaware Ave. and the Olmsted Parkways? Sure, the rich all had their getaway villas and estates outside the city, but they needed homes, for the most part, right where the action was—in the middle of the city.

    Your point about certain suburban areas densifying into micro cities is a likely outcome if and when oil becomes prohibitiely costly. But I can see other suburban areas become more agricultural. With vastly increasing transport fuel costs, it will be nearly impossible to run the “3,000 mile Caesar salad” factory farming system. Food will need to once again be grown close to where people live. Just imagine how good beer will be again when most of it is brewed in the same town you live in.

    Despite what some may assume about my predictions, I see a majority of people in an oil-starved future dispersing out into the countryside (or turning their suburban habitats into fertile lands once again) rather than piling into cities. Those who have specialized occupations that require city life will be in cities. Though, much urbanism will take place in small towns and cities, perhaps no bigger than a few square miles a piece. Small, dense, towns surrounded by productive land. I think you have the right idea on this item…

    5. The telecommuting (or “virtual”) phenomena has changed the face of much employment, but there will always be jobs that require an on-premisis presence. Unless via virtual reality, a janitor can control a cleaning android, place will always mean something. Complete disconnect (despite the musings of over-optimistic cornucopians and technophiles) from geography will never happen.

    When transport costs escalate, shipping goods over long distances will become less and less feasable. Importing practically all of our everyday living goods from China won’t be realistic. We’ll actually (gasp!) have to start manufacturing our own goods once again. This might be a good thing. America could become a much more stable society if we went from being a bunch of glorified pencil pushers back to handling our own physical economy once again. When people once again have real livelihoods (ex. building furniture, instead of cranking seemingly pointless numbers into a computer) strong families, dignity, and pride of existence will become a mainstay of life.

    Our over-reliance on technology has become our own worst enemy.

    Finally, I think we may have similar goals. Even if you never want to live in the type of city I prefer, i’m sure you wouldn’t mind having an exciting urban core to visit from time to time 🙂

  4. You’re absolutely right – I’d love there to be an exciting urban core. Since we’re both predicting the future, it’s impossible to really say which future is more likely. Overall, I just feel that people will be much more resistant to change than you will. We will either see the fast rise of alternative energy vehicles which will mitigate the decline in oil, or we’ll see new advancements in things like point-to-point mass transit. It’s exciting to think about though. Thanks for the debate!

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