Why Our Suburban Oil Addiction Is Getting Worse

The oil  still spreading through the Gulf of Mexico has reinvigorated national debate about how we get our oil. Many are calling for fewer offshore drilling platforms, while others point out that a moratorium could be even more damaging. Some lawmakers are pursuing legislation to curb oil consumption, with administration officials hoping a criminal inquiry into BP will incentivize safer drilling practices. There's a terrifying statistic at the heart of this problem: The total oil spilled so far, 36.8 million gallons based on the common estimate of 800,000 gallons per day, is about 10 percent of the total oil consumed by the U.S. in a single day: 377 million gallons. It's a reminder of the severity of our addiction to oil, which like any addiction carries serious risks. It's no secret that America's heavily suburban demographics are behind much of our disproportionately high demand for oil, chiefly because it causes residents to drive, often commuting long distances, rather than use public transportation or walk. But even as the oil spill makes us more aware of the dangers of addiction to oil, American life has become more suburban, and thus dependent on oil, than ever. Unlike the easily changed offshore drilling leases and malleable regulation policies, the suburban problem is fast becoming intractable.

The U.S. has struggled to follow the examples of Western Europe and East Asia, where cheap and efficient mass transportation gets people to work while consuming as little energy as possible. But European and Asian population centers are centralized and densely populated. After all, many have had the same pedestrian-friendly layouts since before the popularization of cars. But America's much younger population centers, especially suburbs, were largely designed to be navigated by car. As a result, American cities are now struggling to install energy-saving mass transportation in their dispersed, suburban layouts. In one disastrous example, the city of Charlotte, North Carolina, spent $462.7 million to build the LYNX light rail system meant to curb the city's infamous traffic and reduce the number of drivers among the city's 1.7 million metro residents. But LYNX attracts only 20,000 daily riders, about 4% the ridership rate of New York City's subway system. Because Charlotte's heavily suburban population is so decentralized and widely dispersed, there are no obvious places to put train stations. The LYNX debacle has been repeated in many suburb-heavy U.S. cities and has deterred others from even attempting to build robust public transportation. But why is it so difficult to make suburbs more efficient?

The story of the American suburb began, famously, with thousands of troops returning home after World War II and moving into the nascent suburban developments. Their explosive growth, spurred on by Veterans Administration and Federal Housing Administration loan programs and by the "white flight" from cities, meant that vast stretches of previously undeveloped land were filled by sub-developments and by the largest road system on Earth: the Eisenhower Highway System. That suburban infrastructure, which by design decentralizes and disperses the population, has only grown over time. One factor is the cycle of induced demand, whereby building more roads caused more exurban growth, which put more drivers on the road, which meant more roads had to be built, and so on. Building restrictions have caused growing populations to simply expand the suburbs ever outward, rather than making suburbs denser and more city-like. The result is that our suburban system has become deeply entrenched, making it difficult to draw the population back into centralized urban areas or to transform the suburbs, engineered to be dispersed, into more central and city-like areas. The longer this trend continues, the more difficult it is to reverse.

Since the financial crisis began, however, more Americans have been returning to cities. But there is only so much urban infrastructure for them to return to. New York City real estate prices have risen even through the financial crisis because demand simply outpaces capacity; there is only so much land in New York's urban areas and the buildings can only stretch so high. The suburbs, which stand in the way of expanding urban areas, aren't going away. Christopher Leinberger predicted in March 2008, "many low-density suburbs and McMansion subdivisions, including some that are lovely and affluent today, may become what inner cities became in the 1960s and '70s--slums characterized by poverty, crime, and decay." Even if half of today's suburbanites move to urban centers, they will still leave in place the vast physical infrastructure of the suburbs. Those untold acres of roadways and housing tracts are painstakingly designed to be decentralized, and short of a total physical overhaul that's how they'll remain. With high-earning suburbanites fleeing for cities, suburban municipalities will have less tax revenue to spend toward urbanization. It's no wonder that, over the last decade, even in a time of renewed interest in urban centers, low-density suburbs grew at three times the rate of the cities they surround.

There are no easy solutions for America's suburban landscape or for the addiction to oil it feeds. But as pundits, politicians, and policy experts butt heads over everything from federal oversight of offshore oil rigs to the development of hybrid cars, it is worth acknowledging the suburban system driving demand in the world's greatest consumer of oil.