It would be bad form to start a writeup as long as this one without a quick explanation of the topics within. This is a writeup that is mostly going to discuss American cities, but the precedents in it apply pretty well to the social patterns of most developed countries.

Peak oil is a thing that is going to happen. People are going to be arguing for a long time about just how significant its impact is going to be; a lot of people think it's the end of the world, and others (me included) think that it's just a force for strong change. The idea is that demand for gas is increasing parabolically, but the rate at which it can be produced is not increasing accordingly. Neither is the rate of discovery. "Peak oil" refers to the point at which demand begins to overtake supply. It's pretty simple. In the US, even the Bush administration is starting to get concerned about this; gas prices have been steadily climbing for months and are starting to accelerate at worrisome rates. offers some good facts and sources on this, albeit with an extremely catastrophe-minded attitude.

On to the thesis.

When the supply of gas becomes and remains scarce, American cities will visibly compress, and many suburbs will experience rapid depopulation.

Not everyone is going to agree with this idea. For one thing, it has become pretty clear that the price of gas does not matter to most American drivers. People are going to pay whatever gas costs, until it becomes truly backbreaking. Even if gas were to rise to US$5 or $10/gallon, people would still pay it. Most people's driving habits would start to become conservative, but very few Americans would give up their cars at this point. What needs to be considered is the point of restriction where, as in the 1970s, the public cannot be supplied with an adequate amount of gas and becomes unable to purchase it.

Immediate effects

Public transit will obviously see some major gains at this point. An excellent opportunity to observe the consequences of the disabling of automotive traffic occured March 26, 2004, in Southern New England, when an oil tanker crashed and caught fire on Interstate 95 crossing the city of Bridgeport, Connecticut1 and caused such severe structural damage to the highway that a long segment of the freeway had to be closed entirely. The public response was poor in what was already an extremely car-dependent area, but services quickly became available. The lack of adequate alternate corridors (notably the already-congested Merritt Parkway some distance to the north, which could not accomodate large vehicles) led to an expansion of local rail service. Shore Line East already operated along Long Island Sound, but Amtrak also redirected several of its Northeast Corridor trains to make commuter stops in order to increase mobility.

The Bridgeport disaster only lasted for a little more than a week. If such an event occured on the long term, the development of transit would be more rapidly spurred. A decline in passenger vehicle traffic would allow better usage of existing road corridors by buses and vans, but a growth in rail transit could also be expected. As gas prices continued to rise (even with reduced automotive traffic, oil demand is well spoken-for in agriculture and industry), the residential areas near transit stations and corridors would quickly become the most desirable housing in suburban areas.

Long-term effects

The central city would remain largely unaffected by a spike in gas prices. Transit utilization would improve, but the general proximity of essential services and employment to residential areas in a dense city allows car-free existence. In New York City, 63.2%2 of the population uses transit or walks to work. In Boston, the equivalent number is 45.3%. Even in less dense cities, the potential for infill exists -- by contrast, 18.5% of Atlanta's population uses transit or walks to work. In Los Angeles, it's only 13.8%, due to the lack of transit infrastructure. Los Angeles would get hurt.

Essentially, what can be expected to occur is the gradual urbanization of formerly suburban areas. Transit lines connecting these suburbs essentially evolve into an intercity rail network. These smaller "transit villages" are often compact enough to allow pedestrian traffic to suffice for the vast majority of commuters.

Dependent towns

Essentially all American cities are surrounded by a web of suburbs and freeways or high-traffic arterial roads. The Boston metropolitan area provides a useful case study due to the fairly effective transit network and the dense urban core. Although only 50.7% of the city's residents drive to work, in the urban area3 78.7% drive, either alone or in a carpool. In fact, nearly every town within 10 miles of the city center (the exceptions being the beltway cities of Woburn and Waltham, and the city of Cambridge, arguably part of the same core economy) sends more workers to Boston than to destinations within the town. (One suburb, Belmont, sends more workers to Boston AND Cambridge, individually, than it keeps.)

These dependent towns are the best way to measure the suburban landscape created by a city, and, conversely, are the towns most likely to contract or be eliminated entirely by a long-term gasoline shortage. The inner core of suburbs is more likely to see positive development (as it has already begun to do, in most American cities).

Lifestyle benefits and New Urbanism

New Urbanism has been a rising philosophy in the United States and in Europe, essentially by extolling the benefits of urban living in terms of increased social interaction, cultural development, and the available of both essential services (food, utilities) and nonessentials (entertainment, etc.). There is a growing trend among Americans under thirty years old of all social classes to migrate to the city, one that would almost certainly encourage the development discussed here.

Urbanization provides the simplest solution to a gas crisis, and also creates the potential for agricultural and industrial production in vacated suburban tracts. Improved land use patterns are one pleasant consequence of this development, as is the infusion of commercial development into areas that are now strictly residential.


It's tough to accept a doomsday theory, even with a crisis as disturbing as peak oil. Alternative energy could be capable of saving the day, as well; however, it would be in the nation's best interests to develop contingency plans should the growing voices in the scientific and economic communities be correct.

The question of suburban disinvestment is a difficult one -- as the demand for houses at long distances from employment centers decreases, the ability to sell those same properties diminishes as well. Pre-emptive government intervention offers one solution; subsidizing both new landlords and the construction of new, multiple-unit housing in less densely-populated areas of American cities would both ease this transition and improve the current lifestyles in these cities, as would keeping rights-of-way available for future transit development.

American cities have many, many issues left to deal with that would not be mitigated by sudden population growth. These include crime, poverty, and declining school systems, all problems that the nation has not addressed well in fifty years. Do some research. Get the information that might matter if changes start to happen.

1 Sources: 2 Source: 2000 US Decennial Census,
3 As defined by the Census definition of Metropolitan Statistical Area.

While I agree with many of the points that magicmanzach makes in his writeup, I believe his prediction of the imminent death of Suburbia is premature. It's my opinion that many people will continue to want to live away from the congestion, crime, pollution, and hassles of urban life. Increasing energy prices are only one force at work that I believe will eventually force changes in development patterns, and this may ultimately make suburban areas better places to live as well, Traffic congestion will force changes in suburban life in much the same way that rising energy will by making the daily commute and shopping expedition more of an expensive time consuming hassle than they already are, and out of self-interest people will begin to support ways to mitigate the mess we've created beyond the beltway.

Whatever Happened to the Land of Pleasant Living?

Urban areas never were, and probably will never be the utopia that Magicmanzach envisions. Cities are expensive to live in, to build in, and to run a business in, especially if you want to do something that needs more than a desk and a computer. On the other hand, the Suburbs haven't exactly developed into the utopia that William Levitt and others envisioned. Many suburban communities are not true communities. In many cases, they have become a dystopia of highly regulated and geographically separated enclaves where life's necessary activities are sited miles from each other, and linked by increasingly congested roads. This is particularly true here in The Land of Pleasant Living. Entire towns carved themselves out to be bedroom communities, such as Reisterstown, Maryland or Annandale, Virginia, but with the exception of shopping centers, they almost completely lack major employers where their local residents can work, with the exception of retailing or food service. Because most jobs in retailing and food service tend to pretty low paying, these employers often have to draw workers from the inner cities or depressed inner ring of suburbs, rather than the local community. There are plenty of good jobs in the Baltimore-Washington metropolitan area as a whole, but most of the jobs are in areas like Tysons Corner, Reston, Cockeysville or around BWI, where jobs are more plentiful than residents. People living in the upscale suburbs tend to be the ones working in the office parks and downtown areas 25 miles distant from their enclaves of upscale manicured yards. The last thing that the new suburbanites wanted was to look across the street at another railyard, smoke belching factory, rundown apartment block, or a 24 hour truck terminal, so they located their houses far away from these ugly, yet necessary things. To ensure that they would never have to look across the street at them in the future, they passed zoning ordinances that placed employment centers and affordable housing for the working class far from the new residential areas.

Why the Heck am I driving 30,000 miles a year?

Because the company closed their shop in Glen Burnie and moved to Aberdeen!

This in a nutshell, is a major reason many people are driving 30,000 miles a year. As businesses die or move, and new ones spring up, the workers have to adapt. Being out of work is a lousy time to have to move. The costs of moving expenses, real estate commissions and closing costs can quickly drain the pocketbook of even the gainfully employed, and the departure or hard times of a major employer usually does not do good things for the local real estate market. For the guy who used to work at Bethlehem Steel, and lives in nearby Dundalk, he will probably have much better luck finding work in Cockeysville or Columbia, than he will in Dundalk or Middle River. Houses and apartments in Columbia tend to be very pricey, while the continuing decline of employment at the Port of Baltimore and Bethlehem Steel keeps housing prices depressed in Dundalk. A new job for him often comes with the price of a 45 minute commute each way. Employers also move as well, and workers who live within walking or easy driving distance are confronted with the choice of increasing their commute, or finding another job. It is not an easy choice for someone established in their job and tied to a community. Because of the instability of businesses in the new economy, workers are hesitant about even eventually making the move closer, lest the business folds up shop or moves again right after they take the plunge and move. Long commutes then become a semipermanent fixture of many people's lives in Maryland.

In Suburbia, you are dead in the water without wheels

As a resident of a semi-rural area, I'm a mile and a half from the nearest retail businesses, a corner with a convenience store, gas station, a bank, an auto repair garage, and a diner. Another mile or so will put me within reach of a tavern, a liquor store, and a seasonal green grocer. If I want to go grocery shopping in a supermarket, it's about 5 miles to a Food Lion, about 6 miles to a Weis Market, and about 12 miles or so to the Big Box Retailers, such as Wal-Mart, Home Depot or Circuit City. If I want to even try to use Public Transportation, the nearest MTA stop is about 4 miles away, where there is no parking available. My primary worksite is about 32 miles away, near BWI. I'm not the most isolated person in the world, but this is a typical landscape in outer suburbia. As long as I have a drivers license and a car that I can afford to put gas in and keep repaired, it's no big deal, but without wheels I'm dead in the water.

The Unintended Consequences of Shopping at Home Depot

There used to be a good Ace Hardware store in Hampstead. It closed a couple of years ago, now I have to drive all the way to Westminster to buy a decent screwdriver. Well, it is partly my fault as I guess, since I probably spent more money at Home Depot than my local Ace Hardware when it was there. Like industries, commercial areas have concentrated into their own enclaves as well. For the big projects and major shopping excursions, the likes of Home Depot, Wal-Mart, and Sam's Club are worth the half-hour drive and mile long trek through the parking lot and interior of the store. They are a royal pain in the butt if all you need is a roll of masking tape and a spray can of Krylon. In most newer subdivisions there is a noticeable lack of any commercial enterprise in the residential areas. Older suburbs grew outward from the shopping hubs, and as time has gone on, the shopping hubs have consolidated and malls built, but residents in the outlying subdivisions, as well as the locals crowd the roads and make shopping a big pain for everyone.

What about Small Towns?

Small towns have often been romanticized as the ideal urban unit. A true small town is more or less self-contained, with locals staying within the community for most of their employment, schools, shopping, and homes. In reality it is never that simple, but a good small town should have adequate employment opportunities for the locals, and be able to provide markets for needed goods and services without the residents frequently having to travel to other towns or cities to find them. A good small town should also have some type of cultural, educational, institutional, or historic anchor to distinguish it from other towns. This helps keep the town a good place to live even when things aren't going so great for local industries. Very small towns, having less than 3,000 to 5,000 residents often lack essentials such as more than very basic medical care, local schools, fire protection, and a decent variety of goods and services to buy in local stores, let alone entertainment and culture. Often they only have one or at most a couple of major employers, who can wield an unhealthy amount of power over the locals, or could leave the town dead if they fail as businesses. Rural America is littered with dead or dying small towns, or towns that are a shadow of their former selves.

Success can be a problem for a town too, particularly if it comes too quickly. Often this growth is fueled by the town's proximity to a major city once improved roads put it within easy commuting distance of the city. Hordes of new residents clog streets, stores, and schools. Unless growth was planned for well in advance, traffic problems can quickly overwhelm a typical small town's street network. A breaking point often comes at a size of about 20,000 to 40,000 residents, when a 50 foot wide main street, typical of many small towns can no longer handle the local and through traffic. Once a town reaches this point, the town can either build a bypass, or gut the downtown to widen the streets and become more like a city. Either path has perils, a vibrant Main Street is one of a town's major draws and often its soul. Bypassing the town will reduce congestion, but often the result is an abandonment of the downtown by many businesses as they either die from lack of traffic or they move to the new shopping center that is sure to spring up out on the bypass. Gutting the downtown is disruptive, and the quirky diner that was torn down to widen the road often becomes yet another McDonalds once the dust clears.

Things are Starting to Change

Twenty years ago, the State of Maryland brought up or reimbursed the owners of hundreds of houses in the BWI airport noise zone. Today, much of that land is undergoing intense commercial and industrial development, but nearby, hundreds of houses are being built and sold for astronomical prices. Although they are not within easy walking distance of these businesses, they are certainly within a 10 or 15 minute drive of them on land that has was spurned by developers for decades, despite its convenient location. In some bedroom communities, such as Westminster, development of industry is catching up to residential development, as increasing congestion on the roads to the city has made the commute unbearable for many. These businesses provide an alternative for those who want to live in a small town, but still need to work for a living. I hope to see more of this kind of development in the future

The Future of Suburbia

As traffic congestion worsens and the increasing cost of driving long distances work or shop continues to wear on the belegured commuters who make their daily treks from Westminster to BWI, market forces will start to restore balance to the outlying communities. Urban and older suburban neighborhoods surrounding dying smokestack industries will continue to languish until new businesses replace the fading hubs of their communities. The key is to make locating new business to the older brownfields more attractive than breaking vigin ground further and further out from centers of housing and infrastructure.

In order to continue to thrive, bedroom communities will have to rethink many of the zoning policies they currently hold dear, but as long as their residents can afford to commute to their jobs, both time-wise and cost-wise, these residential areas will sadly do little to attract new business, until people give up their 3 hour, 100 mile daily commutes, or grow weary of an hour round trip burning 10 bucks worth of gas to buy 20 dollars worth of stuff at the mall. Some of the outliers will do as Magicmanzach predicts, they will grit their teeth and move into the new, cramped, and expensive apartments shoehorned into odd corners close to their jobs, some will be able to at least partially telecommute, and some will run small businesses from their homes, at least until they get caught by the Zoning Police. When property values start falling, not as a result of someone building kitchen cabinets in their garage, but as a result of people getting tired of the expensive daily schlep to their faraway jobs, official resistance to local entepreneurs will fade. From the point of view of larger businesses, outlying suburban areas represent a large potential pool of skilled labor, if only the residents would let them set up shop nearby. Again, resistance to allowing the development of new industries will tend to reverse itself, and the suburbs will become the true small towns that the residents left the city for to begin with. ill force the rethinking of development patterns in the United States. Suburban areas around major cities will continue to be viable and even desirable places to live, but traffic congestion may prove to be an even bigger factor which helps to reshape the landscape in and around the major cities. Many people will continue to want to live away from the congestion, crime, pollution, and hassles of urban life, which is why people moved out to suburbia to begin with. Increasing energy prices will not kill the suburbs, but will force changes in development patterns that may ultimately make suburban areas better places to live as well.

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