Stranded: Why don't we have better alternatives?

I’m back from a weeklong vacation, so you probably already saw Paul Krugman’s wonderful column in the New York Times last week that was subsequently posted and emailed all over the place, but it’s worth posting for posterity.

In “Stranded in Suburbia,” Krugman muses on the differences in how high gas prices are devastating our economy and/or quality of life in America, while at the same time cities in Europe are experiencing (and have been for some time) higher gas prices while the standard of living improves, concluding that “If Europe’s example is any guide, here are the two secrets of coping with expensive oil: own fuel-efficient cars, and don’t drive them too much.”

But how do we transform from a country where we have invested our national wealth of the last 60 years into highways, interstates, and car-based suburbanization heavily reliant on cheap gas into a New America where gas prices can rise without hamstringing our economy, competitiveness, or security? Build and invest in more communities that allow for mobility, access to jobs, retail, schools, and the like without a 30-mile drive.

Any serious reduction in American driving will require more than this — it will mean changing how and where many of us live.

To see what I’m talking about, consider where I am at the moment: in a pleasant, middle-class neighborhood consisting mainly of four- or five-story apartment buildings, with easy access to public transit and plenty of local shopping.

It’s the kind of neighborhood in which people don’t have to drive a lot, but it’s also a kind of neighborhood that barely exists in America, even in big metropolitan areas. Greater Atlanta has roughly the same population as Greater Berlin — but Berlin is a city of trains, buses and bikes, while Atlanta is a city of cars, cars and cars.

And in the face of rising oil prices, which have left many Americans stranded in suburbia — utterly dependent on their cars, yet having a hard time affording gas — it’s starting to look as if Berlin had the better idea.

As James Kunstler wrote over the weekend in the Washington Post, the country is likely in for some shocking realizations as our lifestyles change drastically in the face of a carbon-constrained and energy-scarce environment. He points towards one ready (and so essentially American) solution for reducing emissions and keeping the country moving:

Fixing the U.S. passenger railroad system is probably the one project we could undertake right away that would have the greatest impact on the country’s oil consumption. The fact that we’re not talking about it — especially in the presidential campaign — shows how confused we are. The airline industry is disintegrating under the enormous pressure of fuel costs. Airlines cannot fire any more employees and have already offloaded their pension obligations and outsourced their repairs. At least five small airlines have filed for bankruptcy protection in the past two months. If we don’t get the passenger trains running again, Americans will be going nowhere five years from now.