The good life on less energy--even in the US

by Philip Brewer on 10 July 2008 25 comments
Photo: Philip Brewer

Whenever I write a post about energy, I point out that we know it's possible to have a high standard of living while using less energy--people in European countries do, so it must be possible.  That always draws comments from people who say that things are different here.  When it comes to opportunities for saving energy, that's simply not true.

Oh, sure, the Europeans have a much better train system.  In the US we've spent that money on airports and highways.  But we do have passenger rail, and it's actually a pleasure to ride.

Many European cities are also more compact than many US cities, making it easier to get around on foot or by bicycle.  But there are plenty of nice, compact US cities.

Mass transit is spotty in the US compared to Europe, but there's good mass transit in many US cities.

Many European cities are more friendly to bicycles than many US cities, but there are plenty of cyclists in the US, and many US cities are bicycle-friendly.

So, all these things exist in the US; they're just not widely distributed.

I'd like to make two points in relation to that observation.

First, as fuel prices continue to rise, all these energy-saving advantages that the Europeans have will become more widely distributed in the US as well.  As long as you live in a town or city (as opposed to a rural area), these advantages will come to you eventually.

Second, you can choose where to live:  In a compact, bicycle-friendly city that's on an Amtrak line and has good mass transit, or someplace else. 

Making a drastic change like where you live is not something to be done lightly.  Doing it smoothly may require a long lead time.  There may be jobs to find--even careers to change.  There may be houses to sell.  There may be elderly relatives that you'd rather keep in their long-time home than move to another city.  There may be children who'd much rather graduate from school with their friends then at some new school where they don't know anybody.  But, even taking all that into account, you still choose where to live--now and in the future.

I'd like to gently suggest that waiting for these advantages to come to you is probably the wrong choice, for three reasons.

First, you miss out on the advantages in the meantime.  You'll be having to buy more fuel than people who live in communities that support efficiency.

Second, as those advantages come to more and more places, you'll be stuck paying for them.  If you move someplace where these advantages already exist, you'll be taking advantage of ones that have already been paid for.  If you stay where you are, you can expect taxes to go up to pay for bringing rail and mass transit to you.  No doubt the costs will end up being spread around--but that just means that the people who get these advantages last will have been paying longest for everyone else.

Third, these advantages will increasingly be reflected in property values.  It's already started.  A couple decades ago, being on a bus route was a negative.  (It brought undesirables--i.e. poor people--to the area.)  More recently, it's been pretty much a neutral.  (Even poor people have cars, so who cares?)  Just very recently, though, it's begun to boost property values.  (Quick test:  look in real estate ads and see if they've started mentioning being on a bus line as a positive.  They've always done it for apartments.  Now they're doing it for houses too.)  Property values in communities without these advantages haven't suffered much yet, because communities that provide no services can have low taxes.  But as the taxes go up anyway, the lack of services will drive property prices down.

As fuel prices continue to rise, these "European" advantages will spread.  But they'll spread pretty slowly.  The US has spent trillions of dollars on infrastructure that really only useful for cars and planes.  Things like nationwide passenger rail and citywide mass transit systems don't just pop up overnight--they'll cost trillions of dollars as well (although a just a few billion will bring us much closer to the Europeans).

Some of you--probably many of you, given the sort of people who read Wise Bread--already live someplace that has some or all the advantages that Europeans have enjoyed for decades.  As I see it, the rest of you can move to where you have these advantages as well, or you can stay where you are.  But, if you make the latter choice, you'll not only lose out on the advantages, you'll do so while still having to pay taxes to provide them for everyone else, and then you'll have to sit back and watch as your property values decline and the values of the properties in places that have them go up, making it more and more expensive to move in the future.

Is your local area on the leading edge for any of these things?  Are you on an Amtrak line?  Do you have a good bus system?  Are there places to live that are within walking distance of shopping and jobs?  Are the roads safe for bicycles?  If you've got some of these things, and the rest are coming, then you may be set already.  If not, be sure your plan for the future includes not just higher prices for fuel, but also higher taxes to pay for the infrastructure improvements your area needs.  If that doesn't appeal, be sure your plan includes moving to someplace that supports a lower-energy lifestyle.

We know there are ways to have a high standard of living while using less fuel.  The Europeans have demonstrated one for us.  We're heading that direction as well--our present course simply isn't going to be affordable much longer.

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Guest's picture

I agree with some points in this article, but i think that the government should do more to improve the transportation of its citizens and their quality of life.
I think that moving to places with better transportation is not something all of us can afford., If you live in a good community that your children love living in, it's hard to displace them in the middle of their lives.

Philip Brewer's picture

The fact that your family is happy somewhere is a good reason to stay there.  The idea that it's too expensive to move, though, I think is a bad one.

First, because I think in the medium term it's going to get too expensive to stay--fuel costs will eat people alive in the outer suburbs (and not too much after that, in the inner suburbs as well).

Second, because I think it's as cheap to move as it's ever going to be again. 

As more and more people choose to move to places that are wel-served by mass transit, property values and rents in those areas will go up.  And as communities that lack mass transit raise taxes so that they can provide it, property values in those areas will go down.  (Rents will probably go down too, but I don't think that will turn the areas into cheap places to live; it'll just bankrupt a lot of property management companies.)

If you're determined to stay, I suggest you become politically active:  Work to bring in mass transit.  Work to change zoning laws to bring jobs and shopping closer to where people live.   The sooner these things happen, the less your community will suffer.

Andrea Karim's picture

Philip, sometimes it's like you read my mind. I've had these issues on my brain for a while now, but I'm actually finding it more likely that I will be moving away from the city, rather than towards it, simply because I want to be able to grow my own food during the summer months. I'm concerned about how to get around in an efficient manner, and trying to map out smart routes to work that I can take on a scooter (sometimes, I don't feel like navigating the freeway on my motorcycle).

On my way to work today, I was thinking about the possible expansion of our rail system. Rail is an amazingly efficient way to travel, but remains expensive because so few people use it. But as airfares start to skyrocket, it might make more sense to travel on a train. We're going to need a much more expansive system, though.

Guest's picture

Philip:

Thank you for focusing on choice - something most people don't think about. We don't realize that everything in our life is a choice and with every choice comes consequences. I like very much how you outlined some of the consequences for the choice of moving or staying put.

When more people start making conscious choices instead of living in blind comfort then we'll start making progress on creating a sustainable word.

Cheers,
Alex

Guest's picture
Looby

I think a lot of Americans view public transport in Europe through rose tinted glasses. It isn't universally accessible and useful, in some areas it is cheaper to drive than use the public transport.
Many European cities have barely any provisions for cyclists.
That being said I absolutely agree with the premise of this article, if you want things to improve you are going to have to do something yourself, whether that is campaigning for better transport links or moving.
I currently live in Vancouver BC and the public transport here is better than in any of the British cities I have previously lived in. There is also an excellent system of cycle routes.
There is still room for improvement obviously but there seems to be an active group of cyclists campaigning for extensions to the cycle network and the council does seem to respond to this.

Guest's picture

I'm sure some North Americans view our British transport system through rose tinted glasses, just as some will be blind to its successes. Of course it isn't perfect. I'm bi-located in London and Brighton. London's public transport is a mix of good intention and foundering infrastructure. It takes me an hour to get to work by bus, it would take half that by tube but be less comfortable. The buses are clean and usually bearably crowded and frequent. There are bike lanes and provision is increasing but of course there's never enough. The clincher for me is cost. My monthly bus ticket costs £50 for no limits bus travel and a single journey ticket costs just 90p. Brighton has a good bus service but more expensive. There are bike lanes but again not enough. Still the town is relatively cycle friendly.

What people need to consider though is not just urban transport but national transport. Like most Britons I complain constantly about our train system but it gets me where I'm going at a reasonable price most of the time. Frankly almost any honest person will admit that many of the severe problems began with deregulation (quasi-privatisation). My experience in Europe convinces me that a national rail service needs to be nationalised.

Philip Brewer's picture

@Jim:

I've never lived in Europe, so my experience with European mass transit systems is that of a visitor.  Having said that, I've actually spent a good bit of time in a good number of European cities, and have largely either walked or made use of the local mass transit wherever I've gone.  To name a few cities, I've had excellent experiences in London, Berlin, Frankfurt, Copenhagen, Toulouse, and Glasgow.

Your point is well-taken, though.  On a couple of business trips to the UK (one to Reading and one to Basingstoke), I ended up making a lot of car trips to get to the various facilities that I needed to visit.

For several decades now, the pressure has been on companies to move to the outskirts of towns in search of land that was cheap enough that they could provide free parking to their employees.  I think that's going change. 

As fuel prices go up, employees will come to view free parking as less valuable than being easily accessible by mass transit.  Where up to now employers in downtown have had to pay a premium, so that their employees could afford to rent expensive downtown parking, in the near future employers out on the edge of town will have to pay a premium, so that their employees can afford to buy fuel to get there.

It's the flip side of the housing issues I was talking about.

Andrea Karim's picture

Bike lanes - there is SUCH a resistance to bike lanes in Washington State, I've noticed. Seattle, a little less so. But I recall everyone freaking out over a proposed bike lane down a main road in my home town a few years ago. I'll bet that, twenty years from now, they'll all be using it a lot more.

Guest's picture
Guest

That's why once the temperatures got past 85 degrees and the humidity stays above 50% I do not bike to work. I'll walk or bus if I have no imperative places to go ontime. I save up worse than ever all of my driving trips for an afternoon and route planned. Not many cars are being made with clutches but I coast alot by engaging my clutch like the way I bike, especially on hills and the traffic is light around me.

Guest's picture
Jerry

We passed a monorail system in Kansas City. We were supposed to get money from the gov. Unfortunately we now don't have the money because they are putting it elsewhere and taxes are going to have to be raised in order to put the rail system in. The whole thing is a big mess, but it should help with transportation costs in the long run.

Guest's picture

Can anyone suggest some US cities that are compact, cycle-friendly, have good public transit, and an Amtrak station? For those considering relocation, a few ideas about where to go would be very helpful.

Philip Brewer's picture

The one I have first-hand experience with is Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. 

We've got an Amtrak station and an excellent bus system. In just the last few years, CU has made some amazing strides in becoming more bicycle-friendly, thanks to a group of dedicated activists that includes people at the University, people in government, people in law enforcement, and lots of bicyclists.  The town is also small enough that it's often possible to get around on foot.  (I just today walked from where I live to campus for lunch--about three miles.  I usually take the bus or bicycle, but today I was planning to get a large order of fries and figured that I needed the extra exercise.)

I hope other readers can praise their own cities, or places that they've visited.  (I've heard that Davis, California is good....)

Guest's picture
Looby

Portland, Oregon. It's compact, has free public transport within the downtown area, and it's been voted one of the most bike friendly cities in the world (by the league of American Bicyclists!). It also has an Amtrak station.
Plus it's a really nice city. Bonus points for being so close to all those lovely Canadians. ;)

Guest's picture
Croila

I live in Edinburgh, Scotland, and I think the public transport (or "mass transit" as you call it) is pretty rubbish compared to other European countries. I've travelled extensively around Germany, Holland, Austria, Switzerland and Italy on trains and they're way, way better than the system we have here. Even the tram systems in the likes of Prague and Amsterdam seem to be more efficient. In Scotland, the bus system is useless if you live in a rural area, and the trains are horrendously expensive and usually late - it's generally cheaper to travel between Edinburgh and London by plane than by rail.

Cycling in Edinburgh is okay in the summer, but with our climate in the winter, no thanks. Holland is probably your best bet for cycling as cyclists seem to have priority over car drivers a lot more than here.

I'm just pointing out, really, that public transport isn't that great everywhere in Europe! We're a very diverse continent remember ;-)

Guest's picture
wildgift

While I basically agree with you that people should use public transportation, and that doing so is an economic benefit to the individual as well as society, I have reservations about the increasing trend of middle class and affluent people moving into cities. There are a lot of people being displaced to the exurbs, where life is less sustainable than ever. In L.A., there are people from the working-class neighborhoods near downtown moving out to areas like Rialto and Lancaster due to recent rent increases, rebuilding of public housing (and increased police harrassment of section 8 and public housing). While they may get more apartment for their money, they're also 60 miles from their old home.

So, you have a reverse "white flight" (though, this time, it's not necessarily white) where people move into denser residential cities. Though these renovated cities are more dense than suburbs, the tendency is to put fewer people into each household. You'll have more DINKs and singles, and with their higher incomes, they can buy or rent more space than they use.

Back when I was young, people put two kids into a bedroom, and there was no "home office". Nowadays, an affluent single might rent (or buy) a two bedroom apartment and use one bedroom as an office. Though it's not the typical change, you can see that is a 4-to-1 decrease in population density.

This also happens when apartments are torn down and replaced with a mix of condos and apartments. When SROs go "loft", they combine apartments into a larger apartment. If this happens enough, the density in the city might decrease, easing traffic problems... making it cheaper to drive.

At the same time, density in the suburbs increases dramatically. Out in L.A.'s suburbs, poor, undocumented immigrants live together in houses, with 2-3 people per room. Not bedroom, but room. You might have 10 people in a house meant for 5. As poverty among the suburbanites increases, expect more doubling and tripling up in bedrooms.

This will increase density, parking problems, and traffic. It could urbanize the suburbs - except that people who lack political power will have a hard time marshalling or fighting for state and federal money to improve public transit.

Because these new suburbanites are far from the city center and the city council, they will become invisible people.

Guest's picture
Leslie

Minneapolis/St. Paul has become a sprawling metropolis. If you're in the far-flung 'burbs, mass transit is not so great, but we do have lots of dedicated bike paths even there. In the city we've got bike lanes and a dedicated bike "greenway" for unimpeded east-west transit. It's not at all unusual to meet bikers who bike to work year round.

In the city we've now got reasonable bus coverage (with bike racks on them) and consistent light rail (bike racks on the light rail train, too) from the mall and airport at the south end into the center of the city - with the promise of another coming soon between the two cities. We also have an Amtrak station.

Guest's picture
roger

Good roads, higher than national averarge petrol means i burn 700 calories a day biking to work. definately visit mapride for your routes and fitness stats.

Guest's picture
John Krumm

I live in Juneau, in Alaska, and this summer our main hydropower source was out for a month when a huge avalanche knocked down several transmission lines. The power company immediately cranked up its back-up diesel generators, and prices quintupled to 55 cents a kilowatt hour. The next day you saw people stringing out clothes to dry (in a rain forest!), and electricity use was down 30 percent city wide. All the store ran out of clothespins. Some people turned off their main power at night. It was pretty amazing. Now things are back to normal price wise, and so is usage.

Now it's the price of heating oil driving change. At over five dollars a gallon even in the larger cities, people are more than a bit worried about the coming winter. The state has a good energy rebate program for home improvements, but they don't have nearly enough energy raters to inspect houses prior to improvements. The state is also swimming in oil profits, so it looks like we might just have a plain cash bailout for all residents this year.

Guest's picture
Guest

It remains a fantasy that those of us in the suburbs or exurbs will be moving downtown.

It's just too expensive for the majority of us who have families (at least one another adult & 1 or more children) for a significant part of our lives (can't replace current living space for any comparable cost)

Households that commute in a SUV getting 10-15 mpg can switch to a high-mileage gasoline-electric hybrid or diesel for $20-$25K, cutting fuel costs by at least 1/2, if not 2/3.

That's much cheaper than selling & buying a new home, since the transaction costs of real estate approach 10%.

Employers are already accomodating workers by switching to 4 day work-weeks, moving out of downtown themselves (office space is cheaper in the suburbs), or adding satellite work spaces closer to where their people live (federal government)

In 5 years, we will see more econoboxes of all kinds, including the first pure EVs like the Volt, but no huge move back to the city (still the domain of high-income DINKS)

Philip Brewer's picture

All you say is true:  Cars will get more efficient.  Employers will go with 4-day work weeks, telecommuting, workplaces nearer workers.

The cost differentials that you describe are just as you say they are.  Despite that, some people will move to the cities (and, as mass transit expands, to points in the suburbs and exurbs that happen to get mass transit service first).

My point--the thing I'm trying to warn people about--is that the result of these shifts will be to trap people.  As the expensive apartment in the city becomes even more expensive, and as the reasonably priced house at the edge of town becomes even more reasonably priced, it's going to get harder and harder to move.

Now is the time to make a plan.  Maybe gasoline prices will stablize at current levels.  Maybe mass transit--and the associated higher taxes--will roll out efficiently to the suburbs and exurbs.  But your plan should allow for the possibility that these things won't happen.  Maybe gasoline prices will keep going up.  Maybe the expanded mass transit will go not to your neighborhood but to one a few miles away--but maybe you'll get stuck with the higher taxes anyway. 

Make a plan.  Allow for the full range of possibilities.  Your family is depending on you.

Guest's picture
Guest

Personally, I cannot fathom living inside a big city. If I moved to the big city I'd have to spend thousands on a big security system, live with sprawl and sit on a cramped subway to go to work. No thank you! There is no reason, absolutely no reason why I should be forced back into the city by some well meaning but misinformed liberals.

My car gets 30+ mpg and I can afford gas easily. When it comes time to buy a new car they will probably be even better than that. Let them live in city squalor and be damned.

Guest's picture
Pipawik

I live in the biggest city in the US, and I do not have a big security system - never have had to undergo that expense that you seem to think is a requisite for city living. Nor do I sit on a cramped subway these days; in fact, I skate to work. It takes me twenty minutes rather than the 30-40 with mass transit, and I get some exercise to boot. It's sad that some people seem to be so closed-minded that they think there's a liberal conspiracy when it comes to recognizing the value of living in denser communities, that only "liberals" could suggest such an idea (I won't even go into the whole misguided notion that to have a liberal point of view, as Jesus himself did according to the Christian Bible, is somehow a bad thing). I grew up in a very small, rural town and I still spend most weekends away from the city, but I'm also smart enough to recognize that spending $60 or more to fill up my tank should be inspiring me to think about ways to consume less energy, as well as less of my paycheck each week.

Philip Brewer's picture

City life isn't for everybody.  Neither is rural, exurban, or suburban life, or living in a town or a village.  All these choices have their own costs and benefits.  I'm just suggesting that people look ahead at how those costs and benefits are likely to shift in the near future.

Guest's picture
Rosa

I live in Minneapolis, and it's great for biking if you're winter-hardy. It's not a "big city" like Chicago or New York - we live in an inner-city neighborhood that is like someone set my 20,000 person Iowa hometown within biking distance of a bunch of downtown theaters and gave it decent bus service. I love it here (though that's easier to say in August than in February.)

But Amtrak from here (St Paul, actually, and the train station isn't integrated with the bus system) is only useful if you're going east or west. To go north or south you have to go to Chicago one day, stay overnight, and take another train. For instance, for us to visit my son's grandparents in Kansas City, there is no direct train. We can get to Milwaukee or Chicago no problem (or Boston or Seattle, for that matter - I've done both Amtrak trips from here.) No luck going to Des Moines, Duluth, or KC, even though they're better.