Friday, July 15, 2011

The Slow Death of Suburbia, 2: The Seven Stages of Decline


Thanks to the peaking in the world’s supply of oil and the growth of the middle class elsewhere on our planet, the cost of discovering, extracting and refining the world’s diminishing supply of oil will inevitably rise.
Life in Suburbia, as we know it will change in a series of seven wrenching stages.

At some point in the inescapable rise in the price of gasoline, the government will realize that the present policy of charging a flat tax of 18.4 cents a gallon on gasoline regardless of the selling price makes no economic sense. Gasoline taxes will perforce be changed to a percentage of the selling price. In Italy, taxes make up 75 percent of the price of gasoline. In Canada, Australia and New Zealand, they make up 50 percent of the price. In the U.S., taxes (federal + state) make up less than 20 percent of the cost of gasoline to motorists. It is an established fact that as the price of gasoline rises, drivers do less driving.

Stage 1: When gasoline climbed to slightly more than four dollars a gallon in the summer of 2008, we had a portent of things to come. The U.S. economy stalled. We Americans reduced our driving by billions of miles. Families cut back on vacations involving travel to distant places. SUV assembly plants shut down. Hybrid cars commanded premium prices at dealerships. Interestingly, even at $4 a gallon, gasoline was actually comparatively inexpensive. Budweiser beer costs $8.88 a gallon, Coca Cola syrup $8.20 a gallon, and Evian water $6.30 a gallon.

Because America had a taste of the effect of gasoline at $4 a gallon, we can make some projections about what life, especially suburban life, will be like at that price and even higher prices. One positive consequence of a return to $4 a gallon gasoline will be 10 million less vehicles on the roads in these United States, mostly SUVs, pickup trucks, and gas guzzlers of every type.

It is fashionable to belittle automakers for greedily building behemoth sedans and SUVs and foisting them on the public. The truth is that they were only meeting the driving public’s desire for large and powerful cars, born of widely available cheap gasoline. In 1946, a barrel of oil cost $17.26 in today’s dollars. In 1998, at $15.35 a barrel, it was even cheaper. At $4 a gallon, we can expect an initial surge in the popularity of hybrids, and more economical, environmentally friendly diesel-fueled automobiles.

Higher gasoline prices will not be without certain unexpected benefits. In 2008, $4-a-gallon gasoline caused Americans to drive 100 billion fewer miles. Fewer miles driven translate into fewer highway fatalities. A sustained price of $4 a gallon could save as many as 12,000 lives a year--almost one third of the current U.S. annual highway death toll. Pushing the price up from $4 to $6 a gallon would save even more highway deaths. Permanently higher gasoline prices will force people to do more walking and bicycling, with a resulting lowering of obesity and early death. Fewer automobiles and trucks on roads and streets will mean reduced air pollution

Asphalt, once extracted from naturally occurring deposits, is now a refinery byproduct. Any rise in the price of oil and gasoline will also cause the price of asphalt to go up. Today, asphalt covers 94 percent of the streets and roads in the U.S. Higher asphalt prices will result in less road paving and road patching projects. Poor roads will cause inevitably drivers to drive more carefully and slower.

Each year we send some 20 billion pounds of deteriorating asphalt roofing to landfills in the U.S. Another benefit from exorbitant costs of asphalt roofing will be longer-lasting, lighter-weight metal roofing made of galvanized steel, aluminum or copper. A metal roof weighs about one-fifth of what a bulky asphalt roof weighs and may last as long as 75 years with occasional painting.

Stage 2: Gasoline at the next increment above $4 a gallon will deal a mortal blow to such activities as the bussing of school children in suburbia. Communities’ school budgets simply will no longer be able to afford the expensive part-time use of huge fleets of vehicles during a brief period in the morning and afternoon of each weekday for nine months of the year.
Today’s omnipresent yellow school busses will be drastically reduced in numbers and used only in outlying rural areas.

The exercise resulting from longer walks to school will increase our children’s life expectancy and overcome the growing tendency to obesity in many young people. Police departments will be forced to return officers to foot patrol, resulting in more effective prevention of street crimes like assault and robbery or burglaries.

More than half of the U.S. population lives in suburbias like Westchester, and spends an average of 25 percent of family income on buying, maintaining and insuring the family’s motorcars. As the price of gasoline rises, living in single-family McMansions on quarter- and half-acre lots with a car for every member of the family will prove too daunting for many younger suburbanites.

This will prompt an exodus from suburbia and a return to cities large and small, with their many amenities and conveniences. Returnees will live in neighborhoods reclaimed from former slums and replete with small shops, instead of shopping centers and malls. Reliable urban mass transit will free them from the financial drain of ownership of numbers of automobiles

Stage 3: When gasoline reaches the next stage, the internal combustion engine will give up the ghost in favor of the electric automobile. Improved battery technology will yield smaller, lighter-weight batteries that will enable cars to go longer distances. Gasoline stations will add electrical quick-boost charging outlets. Gasoline-powered motorboats, jet skis, all-terrain vehicles, snowmobiles, lawnmowers, and snow blowers will also vanish. Few will mourn their absence.

Stage 4: As gasoline makes the next incremental jump, it will bring about the demise of much of an industry whose continued existence at lower fuel price points has surprised many economists--the debt-ridden airline industry. Jet fuel is essentially kerosene--a product of the same refineries that refine gasoline--and. jet fuel prices march in step with those of gasoline.

Airlines that survive will be bare-boned examples of their former selves. The number of routes and hubs will be cut back. Short-distance flights will be discontinued, and many smaller cities will find themselves with no commercial plane service of any kind. Americans will look upon the fast rail service available in Europe and Japan with envy and make plans to emulate them.

The long neglect and skimping on repairs of the country’s once-impressive network of rail lines will be reversed. A diesel-powered train can carry 436 tons of cargo one mile on one gallon of fuel. This is four times the 105 tons that trucks can carry over the same distance on the same gallon of fuel. First, the existing rail network will be improved and extended. Later, high-speed passenger trains rivaling those of European railroads will be added on separate trackage.

Stage 5: As the price of gasoline and diesel fuel continues to mount, the advantages of growing crops year around in California, Florida and Mexico and shipping produce great distances will disappear. Farms will return to the areas around cities. With fertilizer made from natural gas now too expensive, small town dwellers will compost household garbage, and plow up lawns and backyards to plant and harvest organically grown seasonal vegetables plus potatoes and other nutritious root crops that will keep all winter.

Stage 6: “Big box stores” (so called because of their size and shape, not the products they sell), strip malls and shopping centers will vanish from the periphery of small towns. Without cheap transportation, their customers will simply be unable to reach these beneficiaries of China’s emphasis on foreign trade to achieve prosperity.

Moreover, the big box chains will find it economically impossible to maintain the scattered warehouses, distribution centers and fleets of giant tractor-trailer trucks that keep their stores supplied with cheap imported goods. Instead, domestic manufacturing enterprises will spring up. The concept of living in the suburbs and working in the city will no longer make any sense. Resurgence of small towns will enable people who live in them to work and shop close to home.

Stage 7: We can expect new developments in clean and reliable sources of electric power generation from hydroelectric, tidal, solar, wind, geothermal, and updated, smaller nuclear sources, as well as widespread improvement in this nation’s ridiculously antiquated and vulnerable electric grid. America will become an electric-powered nation/

A century ago, the U.S. electric grid operated at 65 percent efficiency. Today its efficiency stands at half that percentage. Clean electric power from inexpensive and renewable sources may yet be our planet’s salvation. At this point, life in Suburbia, as we know it today, will only be a pleasant memory.

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