Sprawling on Fumes: Book by Forbes writer explores life at $20 per gallon — and sees upside to end of cheap motoring

Kai Ryssdal had an ear-opening interview on public radio's Marketplace this week with Chris Steiner, Forbes writer and author of the new book $20 Per Gallon. Bringing a business writer's perspective to a topic explored by James Howard Kunstler and other peak-oil adherents familiar to new urbanists, Steiner says world oil production is hitting a plateau at the same time 2 billion people in China, India and elsewhere are lining up to start living the oil-intensive American lifestyle. Over the next 30 years, those 2 billion folks (plus hundreds of millions more elsewhere around the world) are expected to acquire the means to live like Americans. Something's gotta give ... and something will — namely the gasoline prices we pay at the pump along with many aspects of our gas-fueled society.

As Ryssdal notes, Steiner has cleverly divided his book into chapters corresponding to projected future gasoline price points, giving the reader detailed glimpses of life and the business world at, say, $6 per gallon or $15 per gallon. By taking out his calculator and determining what rising costs mean to household budgets and corporate profitability, Steiner calmly describes defining aspects of 20th Century life — McMansions, Wal-Mart and Target, highways, omnipresent sushi — melting away by 2040.

Here are excerpts from their discussion about a few key milestones:

$6 per gallon
STEINER: I kinda think $6 per gallon is going to be a light switch for the American people. I think most people walk away from SUVs forever. I think people will think twice about flying places. Most people are going to understand that life won't be the same, and we have to change the way we do things.

$12 a gallon
STEINER: That's where we forecast that people will finally come to the grips with the fact that the freestanding house with a quarter acre of land, or half an acre of land, 50 miles outside the city, isn't a sustainable way to live. And they're going to get into places that are more walkable and denser.

RYSSDAL: All right, so let's play that out a little bit. If we all move into inner cities, you point out that some of those big box retail stores that are sort of set apart from society that you have to drive to in large measure, we're going to be left with carcasses of Wal-Marts, and Targets, and Best Buys out there.

STEINER: Yeah, they call those ghost boxes. When Wal-Mart leaves a store they call it ghost box. There's actually 300 ghost boxes around the country right now, but by the time gas gets to $14 the Wal-Mart model won't be very tenable. They're going to shut down...Wal-Mart is a company with 6,000 suppliers, 80 percent of whom are in China. And so they ship the stuff over on cargo ships very cheaply. It gets to the ports, and then Wal-Mart has 7,000 trucks they use to disseminate it to 4,000 different stores in America. It's a network built on gasoline. And the only reason it works is cheap oil. Now Wal-Mart could morph. They're a smart company, they could turn into something else, but in the current form we know Wal-Mart, it won't survive.

When gas hits $12 gallon and driving by Americans drops to an expected 1/10th of current levels, Ryssdal asks, will the viability of intererstates and other major grade-separted highways also fall apart? "I think some roads will close down. And I think a lot of the roads are going to go to tolls," says Steiner. "We certainly don't need the giant infrastructure of roads we have in places like Chicago and Los Angeles right now. There's a highway every two miles. The nice thing is that it gives us thoroughfares that we can use for trains and other modes of transportation that would be impossible to put in because people live in these places without those roads being there. So they'll actually come in quite in handy."

The conversation made for a riveting few minutes on radio and suggests the book is worth exploring. (Forbes has a number of excerpts.) Since urbanists get falsely accused of inventing such future scenarios to fulfill fantasies involving people forced from their cars (only sometimes at gun point!), it's news when a writer associated from a publication marketed as the ultimate "Capitalist Tool" does his analysis and determines that the American way of sprawl is running on fumes. And that he sees some major silver linings in what will admittedly be a painful transition, including a shift to walkable communities where people will get more daily activity and be healthier and thinner for it.

In another good posting this week, Matt Yglesias cites another credible source, University of North Carolina-Greensboro econonomist Charles Courtemanche (also cited in Steiner's book), who pinpoints the relationship between rising gas prices and declining obesity. "A sustained $1 increase in the price of a gallon of gasoline equals a 10% dip in the nation’s obesity rate," reports Courtemanche. "That’s about 9 million fewer obese people clogging up health care systems and costing society (and themselves) money. The price of gas is a powerful lever when it comes to medical expenses and mortality rates. There’s a savings in this for all of us.” The next CNU Congress in Atlanta with its theme "New Urbanism: Rx for Healthy Communities" will be produced in cooperation with the Centers for Disease Control and will explore the health-community connection in much greater detail. Watch this CNU 18 preview video in which Dr. Howard Frumkin, Director of the National Center for Environmental Health at the CDC, compares our current built environment "to somebody with high blood pressure who isn't taking a medication."


Will this be the highway of our $20-per-gallon future? The Autopista between the Cuban cities of Havana and Santiago was built to superhighway standards with Soviet assistance but now serves a society where bicycles, pedestrians, scooters, hitch-hikers and even horse carts are prevalent and auto traffic is light.
Photo by Haemmboerger via Flickr.

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