Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Death of the Car

I'm not sure why the Peak Oil community isn't making a bigger deal of this - Americans are abandoning cars, both by choice and by necessity due to high costs and declining incomes. Of course, I don't think this means Americans are abandoning suburbia yet; rather, I think Americans are doing less "discretionary driving" - vacations, pointless errands, etc.

In fact, what we're seeing is counterintuitive from what some Peak Oil commentators have said in the past. Rather than moving back to big cities and walkable communities because they can't afford gasoline and insurance, downwardly-mobile people are being pushed ever farther out into the sprawling suburbs because this is the only place where rents and housing prices are low enough for them to live with their minimal incomes!  Books like Average is Over have predicted Mexican-style shantytowns with nonexistent municipal services developing along the fringes of America's sun-belt cities for the teeming masses of Americans who will end up impoverished by automation and outsourcing.

So even though the price of gas has gone up, the price of housing has gone up even more, making it economically impossible to live in walkable communities, so people are forced to live far from their job and commute in, even with the high gas prices. That is, if they even have a job - a lot of young people are probably trapped in their parents suburban chalets bought in the fifties and sixties at the margins.

Meanwhile, walkable vibrant urban communities have essentially become winner's circles for elite  Americans because, as Kunstler and others point out, they're just better to live in! As cities become gentrified, the suburbs become soulless ghettos for America's new poor, especially the white poor ("slumburbia"). So, perversely, the very people who can easily afford higher gas prices don't need to because they have shorter commutes and can walk everywhere. This is reinforced by America's extreme spatial balkanization along income lines - the rich live by the rich, and the poor have to live with the poor, and more and more that seems to be the suburbs. It's yet another way everything in America is geared to comfort the comfortable and afflict the afflicted.

Related: These 2 Cities Are Now Exclusively For Rich People (Huffington Post)

Nevertheless, the trend is clear - driving in the developed world is going down, and fracking doesn't seem to be saving it. I've noted before that in Europe, bicycle sales have surpassed car sales for the past couple of years.

Vehicle Miles Driven (Business Insider)

Has the Developed World Hit “Peak Car Use”? (Naked Capitalism)

It's not the economy, stupid; young people really are turning their backs on cars (Treehugger)
Young people have turned to transit because they can’t afford vehicle ownership. Yes, the proportion of young drivers has dropped in the last decade. But HLDI [Highway Loss Data Institute] data suggests that drop has coincided with the economic downturn – which has not only hammered youth employment, but also has had an impact on parents who might otherwise help their kids take the wheel. As HLDI points out, “There was an inverse relationship between the growing unemployment spread and the falling ratio of teen drivers to prime-age drivers.” As unemployment rises, youth driving sinks.

Meanwhile, in the "developing" world:

Beijing 'plans congestion charge' to ease traffic woes (BBC) and Sao Paulo: A city with 180km traffic jams (BBC) and 10 monster traffic jams from around the world (BBC)


  1. Making choices to drive less has been gratifying for me, especially riding a bicycle or walking. Sadly most North Americain cities were built around the needs of the car and not for people or community. It will be fascinating to see how cities and suburbs are repurposed. Of course this will not happen until we give up the beleif growth can return.

  2. It seem like no one can win. Vancouver has one of the better transit systems, yet it has funding issues. Ironically, one source of it's funding comes from a gas tax. Less driving leads to less gas tax, but more riders. People there are demanding more and better service.


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