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."


  1. Except when my husband's European colleagues come to our house for dinner, they all wish they could have a house that didn't share walls with another house, that they could have land, that they could have more square footage - and at less than 300 sq feet per person, my family does not live in a McMansion.

    I lived for a year where everything was within walking distance, where there was convenient public transportation, in a nice apartment over looking park (married student housing at a very large midwestern university). It was fine for our no-kids stage and it might be fine for retirement but wouldn't work at all for our current stage of life - take an infant, toddler, and preschooler on a bus to the grocery store?!

    We carefully picked the town we house-hunted in to minimize driving and discussed the trade-offs we were making in terms of how we were living then and what we thought our life would be like in 20 and 40 years. Don't assume that everyone who lives in a suburb or exurb would prefer to live in a city like Berlin. We are a diverse nation whose people have different values and dreams - not everyone wants to live in a place like Manhattan or Cambridge Massachusetts and they shouldn't be forced into it for their own good.

  2. No one's forcing anyone to live in more densely populated communities. However, current zoning laws in most communities PREVENT construction of pedestrian-friendly communities. So most people who want relatively new affordable construction outside of an urban center are the ones being forced to live in auto-centric communities.

    Not to mention that those who live in more densely populated areas are often forced to subsidize those in sparsely populated neighborhoods when paying for mail, electricity and other utilities, since it is much more cost-effective to deliver such services where homes are closer together.

    I grew up in a suburb where you could walk to school, walk to the grocery store. My mom sent us out for bread and milk at a young age. Why not? It was a couple of blocks away. No need to take a bus. There are young couples moving into that neighborhood now, with toddlers and newborns. It's possible.

  3. I wanted to invite you to consider contributing some of these great resources and ideas to the railLA Call for Ideas.

    railLA, a joint effort between the Los Angeles Chapters of the American Institute of Architects (AIA) and American Planning Association (APA), has launched a Call for Ideas/Venues about High-Speed Rail and its transformative impact on society and the built environment.

    Entrants are encouraged to submit new and existing ideas, concepts, designs, plans, papers, videos, models, and other studies. The Call is intended to create a wealth of information about High-Speed Rail from around the world to be exhibited at selected venues through a separate Call for Venues.

    A select group of submissions will be showcased at an opening exhibit in Downtown Los Angeles, the railLA website, and in various publications. A $2500 prize purse for the top five submissions will be announced at the opening exhibit. For more information and to submit your ideas please visit

  4. I was in Europe on vacation last month for my fifth visit to Italy and the contrast with the US could not be more stark. We spent time in Rome, Naples, Sorrento, and the Amalfi coast and not only was a car not necessary, in most cases it would have been a liability due to urban traffic, scarcity of parking, and the stress of sharing the road with Italian drivers (trust me, I've done it before).

    The train system is excellent, and places not served by train usually have a good bus network. And of course the urban and town areas are in general eminently walkable. On the Sorrento peninsula there is even a network of walking paths that allow you to walk from town to town. One of the most tranquil mornings was one I spent walking down a paved path from the mountain town we were staying in to the beautiful port city of Sorrento. The views were unbelievable, I was passing people's homes and gardens, mingling with the locals, and getting exercise and fresh air. It doesn't get any better for me!

  5. [...] Planning Livable Communities Smart growth: How to fight sprawl, reshape our cities and towns and take back our streets « We can keep living standards high while cutting energy use [...]

  6. it is quite sad that most train stations these days are horrendously overloaded .