What Will it Take to Halt Sprawl?

Oil Dependence, Urban Vulnerability, and Wealth: A View from Australia

Cities across the world felt the collapse of the World Trade Center in New York. We all felt immediately vulnerable, fragile, exposed. New York has been not just a city of pre-eminent financial power, but also a city of refuge for the past century. But what now? Can we learn something about urban sustainability from this new sense of vulnerability?

The September 11 attacks raised a wide range of issues-the politics of global wealth disparities, cultural and religious differences, the globalization agenda, the history of grievances. Beneath them all lies the competition for the Earth's resources. The geological foundation of the vulnerability of our cities is that the last known major oil reserves are in the Middle East. All cities face the prospect of having to import more of their oil from that region if they are to continue using oil.

U.S. cities are particularly vulnerable, as the country imports 2.5 million barrels of oil each day from the Middle East. Despite frantic efforts to find more oil, the United States has been essentially on the downward slope of its production curve for 30 years. Yet, the reaction of many to the terrorist attacks has been to disperse from city centers and find even more remote suburban or exurban locations, which unfortunately are even more car dependent and require even more oil.

Every city in the world uses oil for transport, but some use much more than others. U.S. cities consume 431 gallons per person per year; Australian cities 295 gallons; European cities 133 gallons; and Asian cities 49 gallons. Within the United States, there is large variation: residents of the sprawling city of Houston, Texas burn 493 gallons per person, whereas residents of Manhattan, the site of the terrorist attack, use only 90 gallons per person. The compact transit-oriented city of New York is actually a fairly good example of how cities can work with relatively low levels of oil dependence.

Contrary to conventional thinking about development, there is almost no correlation between gasoline use and the wealth of a city. Wealthy European cities burn one-third of the gasoline used in U.S. cities. Residents of Singapore, Tokyo, and Hong Kong drive cars 24 percent less, on average, than people living in Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok, Seoul, Jakarta, Manila, and Surabaya-yet they are eight times as wealthy on a per-capita basis.

Often, what accounts for the differences of wealth among cities is that the more affluent cities have invested in good public transportation that provides a better option than private cars for most trips. European, Canadian, and wealthy Asian cities spend 5 to 9 percent of their municipal wealth on transport, whereas U.S. and Australian cities spend 12 to 13 percent. A community that spends a large share of its revenue on building and maintaining the infrastructure needed for motor vehicles has less of its money available for other public services-such as economic development, education, and public health.

Peter Newman is Professor of City Policy at Murdoch University in Perth, Australia. He is the co-author of Sustainability and Cities: Overcoming Automobile Dependence (Washington, DC: Island Press, 1999).

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