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