Welcome. I am the author of Universal Time, a sci-fi urban comedy;
Beaufort 1849, an historical novel set in antebellum South Carolina;
and Pearl City Control Theory, a comedy of manners set in present-day San Francisco.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The Disappearing Urban Car (Why Successful Cities Will Be Largely Car-free by the End of 2015)

In Part One of this series, It’s the Energy!, we examined how US per capita total energy consumption has been dropping and will drop further over the next three years. In addition, I proposed that US oil energy use will somehow drop 32% by the end of 2015 without car mileage improving or gas prices rising much above $5 a gallon.

How could this possibly happen?

Reduction of per capita oil consumption will occur through extensions of trends that are already in progress, if we have the eyes to see them. Below is the pertinent list. I will * the trends already happening in the US, and I will # the ones I currently see happening all around me, especially in San Francisco, but also in the greater Bay Area.

1. Gas consumption will decline because vehicle miles traveled (VMT) per person will drop. *
  2. Vehicle miles traveled will drop somewhat due to lower VMT/vehicle, but more due to fewer vehicles per person. *

3.     Improved fuel economy of the US vehicle fleet will not factor into reduced oil use much at all. Though it may seem extraordinary, per the EIA, average fuel economy of all classes of vehicles in the US (cars, SUVs, heavy trucks—you name it!) has gone down the last three years, not up, even with gas prices doubling. As a nation we appear utterly incapable of driving fuel-efficient cars. *

4.    Average age of cars will continue to increase. (It's currently close to 11.3 years for cars and light trucks. That's up from 11.1 in 2012.) As real incomes decline for the bottom 80%, and car-related expenses increase as a percentage of household expenditures, few will be able to afford an electric or any other kind of new car. The price of used cars will rise and become prohibitive for many. (Between 2007 and 2012, the average price of a used car rose 33% to $8,495. The average price of a new car the same period rose 9%, to 30,545.) *
5.    Even if multitudes could afford electric cars, no more than 10% of the US vehicle fleet will be electric by 2015 because not enough additional electricity will be available nor will the US electrical grid be capable of delivering it if it were. Electric cars make up less than ½ of a percent of vehicles in the US right now. * (See note about electric cars at end of post.)
6.  Vehicle miles traveled will decline and vehicles per person will decline because people, especially those under 35 (a generation that has declining realhousehold income and heavy student loan debt), will move to cities where they can live well without a car or with limited car use.  *
7.     Millenials, the generation born between 1978 and 1995, are already the generation least likely to own cars or even be licensed to drive. (This trend will accelerate.) This generation is also the one most concerned about climate change, possibly because they are certain to suffer its impacts. By the end of 2015, Millennials will constitute 36% of eligible voters and one third of actual voters. Their values, needs and desires will take precedence. *
8.   Cities that currently have at least a core area with population density over 10,000/sq mile and some sort of light rail and bicycle infrastructure will attract most of those who wish to live well without a car. Sprawling cities and cities where the only form of transit is buses will attract comparatively fewer. Cities where car-driving is mandatory will likely lose population. *
9.     Housing values will hold up better in cities and towns with access to light rail than those without. *
10. People moving to cities where they can live well without a car will cause the population density in those cities to rise by 20 – 30% in a very short span of time. This will happen through creation of new housing, more people living per household, and current housing creatively offering more housing. (Garages and in-law units turned into apartments, etc.) *

11. Car-enthusiast baby boomers will die off and will be replaced each year in the adult ranks by Millennials who would rather go without a car than without their cell phone or computer. * (There are already 6.5 million more 20 – 35 year olds than there are 60+ year olds.)
12. Owning a car will increase poverty in households with incomes under $20K and cause severe financial stress in households with incomes between 20-30K. # (There will actually be a term for this, “Car-Induced Poverty.”)
13. More people each year will choose smaller living space, a walkable community and the ability to be car-free over larger living quarters in a car-dependent, long-commute suburb. #
14. Car-free individuals and households will have more disposable income to spend in their local economy. (84% of car-related expenditures leave the local economy. One-to-five-year-old cars cost $9100/year to own and operate. Even a ten-year-old car costs $4-6000/year, depending on location.) *
15. Car-free people are more inclined than car drivers to shop locally, improving local economies of car-light cities and neighborhoods. #
16. Car-light city neighborhoods will have a more vibrant local economy than car intensive neighborhoods, with more foot traffic, less crime, and busier stores, cafes, and restaurants. #
17. Malls and strip malls accessible only by car will continue to fare poorly due to the dropping disposable income of their customer base as well as from losing market share to on-line shopping. Vacancy rates at strip malls and shopping malls only accessible by car will continue to rise. Many will close altogether. *
18. In suburbs and cities that are car-based and far removed from dense population centers housing values will drop, crime rates will rise, and city governments will be hard-pressed to provide basic community services such as police and fire. #
19. As car ownership levels decline, taxis, car-sharing, transit, and trains will replace many urban car trips. In addition many novel forms of ride-sharing will spring up. #
San Francisco Corporate shuttle map (Stamen.com)
20. As car ownership levels decline and city densities increase, large employers not located in dense cities will offer free corporate buses to shuttle city-living employees to and from work. #  (Quite a few of these roll past my front door each day.)
21. As city densities increase, bike and walking will replace many car trips. #  (Though public transit is more energy efficient than private cars, the greatest drop in transportation energy consumption occurs when people live close enough to goods and services to make these trips by foot or bike.) #
22. As cities grow in density, they will offer convenient bikeshare stations to increase trips by bicycle. In addition many small and medium-sized deliveries will be made by electric-assist bicycle. * (Because each transit trip is subsidized 20 – 75%, cities will have huge incentives to encourage biking and walking. Both lower health care costs, take little space, and cost governments almost almost nothing.)
23. People who strongly value a car-dependent lifestyle will move to the suburbs where housing is cheaper and driving is less difficult. (The money they save on housing they will spend on their car.) #
24. People who are happy to live without cars will move to cities and take their place. # (Right now it is already often cheaper for moderate income renters to live in expensive cities without a car than in cheaper places with one.)
25. People living in cities will live in less square footage that they have to heat and light, so their non-transportation energy consumption will also be lower. *
26. As cities grow in density, there will be even less space available for cars and car-related infrastructure. #
Used to sell autos here.  (sf.curbed.com)
27. As demand for city living increases, space-consuming car infrastructure (such as parking lots, gas stations, auto dealerships, auto repair shops, even freeways and parking garages) will be replaced with multi-story housing over ground floor retail. #
28. As cities grow in density, initially there will be increased car congestion, increased pedestrian and bicyclist fatalities from cars, increased difficulty parking, and increased driver resentment of other modes of transportation. Increased road congestion will slow surface-level transit down, increasing frustration of transit riders and increasing transit costs. Increased use of transit will make transit more crowded and unpleasant. This will be temporary. #
29. As cities grow in density, there will be a period of intense conflict between car-driving baby boomers and non-car driving millennials over use of roads and other public space.  # # #
30. As cities grow in density, eventually demand for wider sidewalks, bike lanes and transit-only lanes will force cities to convert car parking and car travel lanes to other transportation uses. Cities (and regions with transit) will also inevitably respond to increased transit demand by expanding transit both in terms of hours (running later at night), frequency, and capacity. #
Car space into human space (SF Planning Dept.)
31. As cities grow in density, demand for public open space will force cities to convert car parking and street space into pedestrian plazas and parklets. #
32. As cities grow in density, eventually they will severely discourage (through reduced parking, high parking prices and general PR campaigns) people from suburbs bringing cars to the city.  (At first this will just be apparent during “special” events.) #
33. As cities grow in density, it will make less sense to facilitate cars cutting through the city center on their way to some place else. #
34. As cities grow in density, eventually they will regulate parking stringently in high congestion areas so as to discourage car use in and to those destinations. #
35. Not only car-light cities will prosper, but also towns that have still have some sort of main street with shops and a fair amount of housing within walking distance may also regain prominence, especially if they are on some kind of rail line. Towns with no demographic center (but consist of sprawl laced with car-dependent shopping malls and strip malls) and are connected to other towns/cities only by freeway, will whither. #

This is not to say all people will move to cities. By no means. The vast majority will stay where they are. Some people will perhaps sell their little-used third car, some might cancel the annual road trip. Some may start commuting by transit to work but that option is unavailable right now to many.  By far most Americans will continue to lead the car-based lifestyle that's been integral to US culture for the past 50 years. However, if even 2% of our population wants to live a car-free lifestyle, it will send density in the cities where this is possible shooting skywards. The cities in the US likely to enjoy this kind of success are few. They are ones that already have a population density of at least 10,000 – 15,000/sq mile in some part of their urban core, and also already have some kind of rail/light rail infrastructure. (Bike infrastructure is quick to build, rail less so.) In Europe this would describe almost every city over 200K in population, but in the US I would guess it includes maybe only a dozen. These are the ones that will blossom impressively by the end of 2015. Their scarcity is why it will happen so quickly.

Convenient car-free living takes a population density of roughly 20,000/sq mile. But this kind of density doesn’t have to mean towering apartment buildings! In my experience it means neighborhoods that are comprised of 2/3rds two and three story single-family row houses with small gardens in back, and 1/3rd 3-4 story apartment buildings and three-unit condo buildings. This housing generally surrounds a denser four or five block shopping street that is the neighborhood center. Most of the population in neighborhoods of this density is within a fifteen minute walk of the essential goods and services they need for everyday life. This seems to be a necessary (though perhaps not sufficient) condition for people to be car-free with ease.

So let’s get back to my rather astonishing claim, that by the end of 2015 successful cities will be largely car-free. What do I mean by a successful city?  I mean one with a vibrant economy filled with energetic, creative, healthy, employed people. Granted, if the US economy goes entirely down the tubes, not even car-free cities will be protected, but they have a much better chance than energy-slurping suburbs.

What do I mean by largely car-free? This gets trickier.  I define it as 90% of streets will have less than one car pass per minute. More than 50% of residents will not own a car, and less than 20% of households will own more than one car. (These numbers will vary by neighborhood given its proximity to the city’s density center. There will be more car ownership in the periphery than at the core.) There will be half the cars parked on the street that there are now. Most neighborhood shopping districts will have sidewalks wide enough to accommodate double the pedestrians they do now, and little space for cars beyond a few spots for the elderly and disabled. Neighborhood streets will have speed limits 20 mph or lower and so little traffic that parents won’t worry about children walking and biking to school. Few cars will travel to the downtown core because parking will be so expensive and transit more convenient. People commuting from outside the city will primarily take transit due to convenience, lower cost and lack of parking in the city. The people that have cars in the city will use them primarily for trips outside the city. 

You may think this is a quite stretch for these dozen cities by the end of 2015. You may doubt a prediction so fantastical could materialize anytime soon. I guess it depends on whether you think the host of trends I've delineated will more likely intensify or suddenly reverse themselves. We’ll see.

Even past 2015 not everyone is destined to live in a city. Some self-reliant types will be quite happy to hunker down in their rural outpost, perhaps only travelling to town once a week. These folks will no doubt rig up solar panels, convert their truck to run on biodiesel and do quite well. Others will be gainfully employed farming and will eventually come up with an electric truck to bring their goods to market. And market towns on rail lines should enjoy quite a renaissance. (As a general rule, if a town existed a hundred years ago, it probably has a reason to exist the next hundred.) Again, not even car-dependent suburbs will go away or transform by 2015. That will take at least a decade longer. But current trends already in place suggest that by 2015, many Americans, mostly the younger ones, will indeed learn to live more densely, to move long distances by rail, and to make short trips by bike and foot. And they will be happier, healthier and wealthier as a result.

Note about electric cars:
If all US vehicle miles traveled (VMT) in 2012 were magically converted into small electric car miles (no electric SUVs, trucks, or sedans!) these small electric cars would require roughly 1200 BTUs per mile. Multiplying this by 2012 US VMT gives us 3.53 quads of BTUs. But because there are so many BTU losses in electrical production and transmission, 11 or so quads of energy would have to be inputted into our electrical system to get those 3.53 out. If we want to mix larger electric cars/vans/trucks into the mix, we’ll have to add at least another 30%, putting us at 14 quads of BTUs. Given total US electricity production is currently around 40 quads of BTUs, this might not seem difficult. But our old, rickety, poorly maintained electrical grid cannot transmit 35% more electricity without serious upgrades which have not yet been speced out or funded, and so are unlikely to happen by 2015. In addition, as discussed in part 1, our use of natural gas and coal (combustion of both currently the main source of our electricity) will likely decline by 20% by 2015. This will put substantial pressure on electricity consumption even before we add in extra demand by electric cars. In addition, as diesel gets scarce there will be increased demand for electricity to power public transportation. Where is the electricity for personal cars to come from? We may well get to the point that anyone purchasing an electric car will need to verify that they’ve installed home solar panels capable of powering said car.


  1. well i think that your claim
    "that by the end of 2015 successful cities will be largely car-free."
    is really quite astonishing.
    the graphs you made are very interesting (a good graph says more than a thousand words).
    in europe also the sales of cars are down quite a lot, and hence also the consumption of energy.
    however, i'm not sure how much this drop of consumption can go on relatively smoothly?
    when does it start disturbing the basic
    mechanisms of the (consumer) society?

    "at least 10,000 – 15,000/sq mile in some part of their urban core... In Europe this would describe almost every city over 200K in population"
    "Convenient car-free living takes a population density of roughly 20,000/sq mile."

    where do these numbers come from? i think they are really funny, even hongkong has less than 20000...


    perhaps the solution is to increase the population so that it becomes more dense...

    here in finland the capital helsinki
    is really very far from this: only about


    about half of the people should live in the capital to meet these requirements.

    so these kind of densities would need massive displacement of people, and also massive construction of new infrastructure.
    so it's hard to believe that the situation would change that much by 2015.

    1. If you're familiar with Hong Kong, you'll know that it is comprised of 18 districts, many of which are islands reachable only by a lengthy ferry trip from the the downtown core and hence relatively lightly populated. The six or so main districts are *really* populated--parts have population densities of over 145,000 people per square mile. It truly is one of the most densely populated places in the world.


      Paris has a population density of 55,000 per square mile. Manhattan has a population density of 70,000 per square mile; Brooklyn has a density of 36,000; Chicago has 12,000. San Francisco has a population density of 17,000 per square mile, but it varies considerably by neighborhood. (Parts of Chinatown in San Francisco have densities over 90,000 per square mile.)

      Most of the cities likely to benefit from Millenials going car-free are not that large and are already fairly dense and compact. Boston, for example, would only have to gain 300,000 people to reach a population density of 20,000 per sq mi (Parts of Boston are already at this density.) Cambridge, next door to Boston, would only have to add 26,000 people. Miami would have to add 334,000; San Francisco would only need to gain 140,000 more people. So reaching the density I'm talking about would require less population movement in the US than you might expect. If only 2% of the US population wanted to move from the suburbs to car-free cities, that would be 6.3 million. This 6.3 million would easily fill up the twelve likely car-free city candidates.

  2. So that you know, all cities have bicycle infraestructure, they are called roads.

  3. Bicycle paths have been constructed in cities because roads aren't safe to ride. However, if traffic diminishes, bikes might come to dominate roads.