Suburbia, Cities, and the Future
- NYT editorial by Paul Krugman:
Stranded in Suburbia
By PAUL KRUGMAN
I have seen the future, and it works.
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
Notice that I said that cars should be fuel-efficient — not that
people should do without cars altogether. In Germany, as in the
United States, the vast majority of families own cars (although
German households are less likely than their U.S. counterparts to be
But the average German car uses about a quarter less gas per mile
than the average American car. By and large, the Germans don’t drive
itsy-bitsy toy cars, but they do drive modest-sized passenger
vehicles rather than S.U.V.’s and pickup trucks.
In the near future I expect we’ll see Americans moving down the same
path. We’ve already done it once: over the course of the 1970s and
1980s, the average mileage of U.S. passenger vehicles rose about 50
percent, as Americans switched to smaller, lighter cars.
This improvement stalled with the rise of S.U.V.’s during the cheap-
gas 1990s. But now that gas costs more than ever before, even after
adjusting for inflation, we can expect to see mileage rise again.
Admittedly, the next few years will be rough for families who bought
big vehicles when gas was cheap, and now find themselves the owners
of white elephants with little trade-in value. But raising fuel
efficiency is something we can and will do.
Can we also drive less? Yes — but getting there will be a lot harder.
There have been many news stories in recent weeks about Americans who
are changing their behavior in response to expensive gasoline —
they’re trying to shop locally, they’re canceling vacations that
involve a lot of driving, and they’re switching to public transit.
But none of it amounts to much. For example, some major public
transit systems are excited about ridership gains of 5 or 10 percent.
But fewer than 5 percent of Americans take public transit to work, so
this surge of riders takes only a relative handful of drivers off the
Any serious reduction in American driving will require more than this
— it will mean changing how and where many of us live.
To see what I’m talking about, consider where I am at the moment: in
a pleasant, middle-class neighborhood consisting mainly of four- or
five-story apartment buildings, with easy access to public transit
and plenty of local shopping.
It’s the kind of neighborhood in which people don’t have to drive a
lot, but it’s also a kind of neighborhood that barely exists in
America, even in big metropolitan areas. Greater Atlanta has roughly
the same population as Greater Berlin — but Berlin is a city of
trains, buses and bikes, while Atlanta is a city of cars, cars and cars.
And in the face of rising oil prices, which have left many Americans
stranded in suburbia — utterly dependent on their cars, yet having a
hard time affording gas — it’s starting to look as if Berlin had the
Changing the geography of American metropolitan areas will be hard.
For one thing, houses last a lot longer than cars. Long after today’s
S.U.V.’s have become antique collectors’ items, millions of people
will still be living in subdivisions built when gas was $1.50 or less
Infrastructure is another problem. 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.
And there are, as always in America, the issues of race and class.
Despite the gentrification that has taken place in some inner cities,
and the plunge in national crime rates to levels not seen in decades,
it will be hard to shake the longstanding American association of
higher-density living with poverty and personal danger.
Still, if we’re heading for a prolonged era of scarce, expensive oil,
Americans will face increasingly strong incentives to start living
like Europeans — maybe not today, and maybe not tomorrow, but soon,
and for the rest of our lives.