Monday, May 19, 2008

The End of Suburbia

Despite his recent episodes of Klinton Kool-aid drinking, NYT columnist Paul Krugman remains a fairly sane voice on economics. His latest column, about public transit and the difficulties in continuing our gas-guzzling lifestyles, is timely:

O.K., I know that these days you’re supposed to see the future in China or India, not in the heart of “old Europe.”

But we’re living in a world in which oil prices keep setting records, in which the idea that global oil production will soon peak is rapidly moving from fringe belief to mainstream assumption. And Europeans who have achieved a high standard of living in spite of very high energy prices — gas in Germany costs more than $8 a gallon — have a lot to teach us about how to deal with that world.

If Europe’s example is any guide, here are the two secrets of coping with expensive oil: own fuel-efficient cars, and don’t drive them too much.

Why does gas in Germany cost $8 a gallon? It isn't because Germans really like gas and are willing to pay much more for it, it's because the government has imposed exhorbitant taxes on its consumption. While US presidential candidates wrangle over how to lower the price of gas, the German government has intentionally increased the price to more than double what it is in North America. But Germans do just fine, because they have excellent public transportation, from buses to trains to subways. Gas prices aren't the hot button political issue in Europe that they are here, because European countries heavily invested in alternate modes of transportation.

The problem is the lack of effective public transit infrastructure in much of the US and Canada, and thus, the lack of an alternative to automobiles. Unlike major European cities, the nexus of population in most North American cities is usually the suburbs. Not only are suburbs usually far from the centers of industry and commerce (and thus, the jobs), but they also have low population density. Obviously, you can fit many people in rows of apartment buildings and condos, but relatively few in the same area full of houses; hence, the phenomena known as suburban sprawl arises, with people very widely dispersed, far from their place of work, and all driving cars for whom fuel is getting ever more expensive. So why not improve public transit networks to better serve these suburbs?

Public transit, in particular, faces a chicken-and-egg problem: it’s hard to justify transit systems unless there’s sufficient population density, yet it’s hard to persuade people to live in denser neighborhoods unless they come with the advantage of transit access.

It's amazing how no one in power ever saw this crisis coming. Or rather, that they saw it coming, but did nothing. Instead, they clung to the fantasies of cheap gas, McMansions in suburbia, and hour-long commutes.

No one likes to hear how they have to fundamentally change their lifestyles, but neither do politicians like to say such things. And George W. Bush sure as hell wasn't going to.

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