A common refrain about electric cars is that they don’t solve the real problems, but that cars are the problem. This typically comes with a large dose of prescriptions for urban densification, transit, walkability, and a lot more biking.
To be clear, I am strongly supportive of urban densification, transit, walkability, and a lot more biking. But I’m much less concerned about the continuation of car culture and urban sprawl. This isn’t actually a big issue globally, as the worst offending cities are going to be hardest hit by peak oil demand and climate change, and the remaining Detroit-esque patchworks will be electrified.
The worst cities for sprawl are in the US and Australia, along with an honorable mention of Calgary in Canada and a few other outliers.
Let’s pick apart some threads that many have in common, and project what they will become in the future.
Phoenix, #1 in sprawl in the US, will have deeply expensive water as the western, climate-change fueled drought, radical water overconsumption, lethal heat waves, and lack of ability to get more water decimates the economy and sees migration of a substantial portions of its populace, leaving it a fragmented shell of a city like Detroit. The current roughly 5 million inhabitants of the metro area represent 0.006% of the global population. This is a self-correcting problem, and a rounding error on a gnat’s thorax.
Las Vegas, #2, will remain a mirage, but with more and more Asian gamblers ignoring it in favor of Asian destinations and 80% of Americans seeing stagnant or declining incomes, megadroughts, and energy problems, it will wither as well. A self-correcting problem, and at 0.008% of the world’s population, a rounding error on a dehydrated gnat’s thorax.
Dallas-Fort Worth, #3, is more diverse economically than Houston, but it’s in a state that’s 35% dependent on the oil and gas industry. It is defense industry central for the US, but the US won’t be able to afford the 3.8% of GDP it spends on its military as the world moves off of the US dollar as a reserve and trading currency, and domestic spending becomes increasingly constrained by overlapping crises in extreme weather, declining life expectancy, declining educational outcomes, crumbling infrastructure, and the like. It’s not going to be growing much longer as peak oil demand and peak defense spending arrives. Its population is only a few multiples of Vegas, which means it’s still a rounding error globally too. Expect diminishing population.
San Diego, #4, is more of a long-term problem. Defense dominates there as well, but it’s also a tourist destination and commercial port. It can desalinate water, which will be a lot more expensive, but much less costly than trucking it to Phoenix. It will likely persist and possibly thrive, but it’s already working to make itself more walkable and livable. The metro area is only half the population of Dallas-Fort Worth, so once again a rounding error globally.
Houston, #5 (remarkably not higher on the list), is going to be so hard hit by the collapse of fossil fuel demand globally in the coming decades that, as well as serial climate change exacerbated hurricanes and flooding, that it’s going to be another Detroit, a faded patchwork of its former glory. It was already at 23.5% office space vacancy in 2021, and that’s going to increase rapidly. Also only 6.6 million, so a rounding error globally.
As a shout-out to Calgary, with its residential real estate which has seen declining sales value since 2015, 19 completely empty office buildings including 5 in the downtown core, and a hilariously inept advertising campaign in the transit systems of Toronto and Vancouver begging people to relocate there, it’s going to wither as well, as peak oil demand leads to Alberta’s heavy, sour, far from water product being first off the market.
Australia’s sprawl has different dynamics, but suffice it to say that the fossil fuel heavy parts of it like Queensland are going to be suffering economically during the transition to a low-carbon economy, and the entire country’s population is smaller than that of Texas, so again a rounding error.
For all the gas-guzzling sprawl heads who think this lets you off the hook for your bad choices, it doesn’t by the way.
The point is that we should not overestimate urban sprawl based on North America, Canada, and Australia’s worst cities. That’s an availability bias. Instead we should look at actually populous Asian countries where 90% of the populace lives in multi-unit residential buildings and where density and transit are the norm.
America’s love affair with sprawl and the car is mostly irrelevant as we shift to battery-electric vehicles. The rest of the world mostly avoided those errors, with urbanization either pre-dating cars as in most of Europe and significant parts of Asia, or coming later when it was clear that density and transit were highly desirable characteristics. As the countries with the worst sprawl transform to decarbonized economies, many of the worst offenders of cities will see declining populations.
And there’s the last bit, of course. All of those sprawling cities which persist in that suburban tedium will have electric cars running on their absurdly wide suburban boulevards. Their houses will be heated and cooled by low-GWP refrigerant heat pumps. The trucks that deliver groceries and goods to their malls will be electric. The postal service vehicles will be electric. Their road maintenance vehicles will be electric. They will be paying either increasing taxes to maintain their sprawl or see diminishing services, or both, but most of the people living in them will not have high-carbon lifestyles in a couple of decades, as much as they might yearn nostalgically for the days of muscle cars and free-flowing gas.
The world is not going to turn its back on automobiles. But a much smaller percentage of the world will ever demand them than most North Americans’ availability bias presumes, and when they get them they will be electric. This is similar to the challenge of North American suburbanites favoring rooftop solar and home storage in their detached ranch homes on individual lots, a tiny minority globally, presuming that their conditions are much more common than they think. Not that it is a diss on Australian and American rooftop residential solar, it’s just not nearly as much of a thing anywhere else, nor does it need to be.
And so, don’t get fussed about electric cars not being a solution. They are part of the kit bag. If you sensibly want urban densification, transit, walkability, and a lot more biking, move to a city that has them and enjoy it, or if you suffer excessive place attachment, work to make your city better. If you don’t, and live in the suburbs in one of the cities I’ve listed above and your house’s value is a big part of your fiscal wealth, seriously consider when it’s time to sell it and move to a place where you won’t end up losing money and opportunities as the climate and economy transform.
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