May 23, 2010

We can keep living standards high while cutting energy use

"I know that these days you’re supposed to see the future in China or India, not in the heart of 'old Europe,' " writes Paul Krugman in a column called Stranded in Suburbia.  But "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."

Many Americans found gasoline prices of just half that untenable. But that's because so many people drive enormous gas-guzzling cars while living in exurbs designed to require you to drive to get pretty much anywhere or do anything. "Any serious reduction in American driving," Krugman notes correctly, will mean "changing how and where many of us live."

When I'm able to visit Europe, it's always both startling and refreshing to be able to spend most of that time getting around just fine without a private car. Communities are designed so you can walk to get groceries or take dependable public transit where you need - or want - to go. Train stations tend to be surrounded by pedestrian-friendly areas, so it's expected you can take a train from one city to another and then walk to where you need to go.

In Berlin, Krugman visited "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 better idea."

The irony is that some people moved out to the exurbs in order to find more affordable housing -- without factoring in the added costs of a lengthy commute. For those who, say, move beyond Rte. 495 but still work in the Boston area, the annual costs of driving can more than offset lower mortgages.

"When driving costs are added to housing costs, the institute found that, for example, the average household spends more each year in Dracut ($35,643) than in Cambridge ($28,671), and more in Stoughton ($37,513) than in Brookline ($36,846)," the Boston Globe noted in a story about a report by the Urban Land Institute released last month. And that doesn't include the "cost" of time spent commuting.

Says Krugman: "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."