End of Oil Won’t End Car Culture or Shape Cities

Commentary, Transportation, David Seymour

Thursday’s Star Phoenix editorial, End of car culture will shape cities, was an overly dramatic interpretation of the significance of rising oil prices. It observed that Canadian cities were built on the premise of affordable energy and that government tax and planning policies have quietly subsidized the cities’ far-flung suburbs. It also claimed we have reached a “tipping point” where oil will be permanently more expensive than it has been and that we will be forced to re-create cities without the car as we know it.

However, by changing a few assumptions, the continuation of our lifestyle with private transport (cars of some kind) looks more probable than impossible. While permanent $4 or $5 per gallon gas prices are new territory in North America, they are not a “tipping point.” New Zealand and Australia, for example, have been dealing with the equivalent of these prices for years and more recently with the equivalent of $8 or $9 per gallon gas prices. Suburbia still looks much the same there as it does here.

Even if the price of oil were cataclysmically stretching our household budgets, re-forming our cities into models of nineteenth-century London, or even moving in that direction, would not be the most economical answer. Cities such as Saskatoon and Regina were built over a century, and to remodel them painlessly would take as long as the lifecycle of the average building.

It is not clear that compact cities are more energy efficient. It seems obvious that smaller cities mean shorter travel distances, but the mere existence of faraway places in a city does not mean everyone goes to them all the time. As a resident of south Regina, I am more likely to visit another country than to go to Northgate or the East End mall. Satellite areas can be self-sustaining and can actually minimize travel.

If something must change, it will be technological innovation. China and India may boast a burgeoning middle class that makes its Western counterpart look like an endangered species. As well, they may have shifted the demand for oil so that prices will be permanently ‘high.’ However, they have also raised the reward for the innovators who liberate the car (and us) from dependence on oil.

Well-known urban planning polemicist James Howard Kunstler recently gave a video speech on the prestigious Technology, Entertainment and Design Web site (www.ted.com). “We are not going to have a hydrogen economy. Forget it!” he bellowed. Unluckily for him, BMW had bought all of the Web site’s advertising, including the trailer to his speech, to showcase its new generation of hydrogen cars.

Kunstler was unfortunate, but his predicament should not be surprising because innovation is unpredictable by its very nature. If I knew what the Next Big Thing in transport technology was going to be, I would not be working for a non-profit. Humankind’s position is awkward. We cannot have a concrete vision of technology’s future, but its past makes betting against transformational innovation seem foolhardy. Indeed, GM is planning to release a Prius-eating, mass production, wall-socket rechargeable, electric commuter by 2010.

Every generation holds the vain belief that its challenges are uniquely apocalyptic and that drastic measures are necessary, but even our challenges are not extraordinary in the whole of history. If planning and taxation policies exacerbated the current price squeeze by expanding the cities, we should be mindful of the unintended consequences we might reap from policies designed to reverse the trend.

For one thing, the province with Canada’s fastest-rising house prices should remember the international evidence regarding house prices: Restricting what people can build pushes the price of housing further from the reach of those who most need it.

We should not panic. Society will respond to changes in the world market just as it has since Marco Polo first crossed the Silk Road: Prices will change, behaviour will adapt and technology will develop. Prescriptive policies that restrict society’s options will only slow down the adaptation process.

Adapted from McShane, O “What Does the End of Cheap Oil Mean for our Urban Future?” Frontier Centre for Public Policy, 2008