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Oil Crisis-Ready
Jamais Cascio, 24 Mar 06

lightrail.jpgWorldChanging friends SustainLane today announced the initial results of a study of the fifty largest cities in the United States, ranked on the basis of readiness to respond to an extended oil crisis. SustainLane revealed the top ten cities today, and will provide the full ranking next month. In June, they will present a longer study of overall sustainability rankings of the same set of cities (we covered their list of most sustainable cities last year).

The top ten cities are: New York; Boston; San Francisco; Chicago; Philadelphia; Portland; Honolulu; Seattle; Baltimore; and Oakland. SustainLane relied on a mix of criteria, including some less-than-obvious elements:

Ranking Criteria
Greatest Weighting
  • City commute-to-work data
  • Standard Weighting
  • Regional public transportation ridership
  • Sprawl
  • Reduced Weighting
  • City freeway/surface street congestion
  • Local food (farmers markets and community gardens per capita)
  • Least Weighting
  • Wireless network availability
  • Some commonalities are immediately apparent. All of the cities in the top ten are relatively dense port cities, and are among the oldest cities in their respective states. Most have strong, centralized downtown areas. Not noted by SustainLane is the "Blue State" location of all of the top ten cities; this doesn't necessarily mean any cause-and-effect correlation, but is worth noting.

    It's interesting to compare this list to the set of rankings assembled in the "Greening of the Creative Class?" post last year. Of the ten cities best prepared for an oil crisis, three are also among the top fifteen cities on the "creative index," "most hybrids" and "most LEED Certified buildings" lists; four more appear on two of the three lists; one -- Philadelphia -- appears only on the top hybrid car cities list. Honolulu and Oakland are absent from the other three lists.

    This is the first time anyone has assembled this data, and undoubtedly SustainLane will refine their analysis in the years to come. What would you add to the list of criteria?

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    Comments

    living in and studying sustainability in chicago, it seems somewhat surprising to me that we are so high on this list. i guess the heavy weighting toward transit makes us rank high, but when it really comes down to it if the CTA had to cope with increased ridership from an oil crisis they would be in serious doo-doo!


    Posted by: greg ehrendreich on 24 Mar 06

    I have to say, I'm fairly surprised by the study myself. Particularly Honolulu. It seems, with what they've done to practically ruin their island over the last few years with overdevelopment, that in an oil crisis they'd have to return to a primitive lifestyle...however, I suppose their farmers markets must be more superior to what I imagined...but how many of their people could they really supply? Is shipping via boat that much more oil efficient than by freight?


    Posted by: Ben Peter on 24 Mar 06

    I wonder how all of these cities would fare if an extended oil crisis increased the brittleness of the power grid and, as a consequence of unreliable or a complete breakdown in the delivery of electricity, they began to experience water problems, both with supply and with secondary and tertiary treatment.

    -- Philip B. / Washington, DC


    Posted by: Philip Bogdonoff on 24 Mar 06

    I'm suprised that San Diego (which has that great looking trolley terminal shown in the article) isn't on the list. Any S.D. readers have a hard time getting around?


    Posted by: Brandon on 24 Mar 06

    Very cool study.

    Bets on which cities are going to turn into Mad Max style hell-holes?


    Posted by: Stefan Jones on 24 Mar 06

    "I wonder how all of these cities would fare if an extended oil crisis [caused] a complete breakdown in the delivery of electricity, they began to experience water problems, both with supply and with secondary and tertiary treatment."

    Cascadia has lots of water, and it supplies our electricity. I wonder how easy it would be to disconnect the Pacific Northwest from the rest of the nation's grid? That's what I think Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland would do if they had to.

    Also, Portland's water system is largely gravity-fed. It has the largest untreated municipal water system in the world. They used to put water right out of the municipal system into little bottles and ship it to California, where it would appear on supermarket shelves next to Evian and Perrier.


    Posted by: Jan Steinman on 24 Mar 06

    Portland is also close by some incredibly fertile farmland, and there are still a fair amount of railroads running around here.


    Posted by: Stefan Jones on 24 Mar 06

    Question to Americans: is the health care system in the U.S. organised at state level or at the federal level?

    I wonder what would happen to the health care system during a persistent oil crisis. Inflation would skyrocket and the system's social sustainability would be put to the test. Are there any free basic health care services in the U.S. accessible and available to all people?


    Posted by: Lorenzo on 25 Mar 06

    I do think including the sustianability of the grid that runs the public transport would be a good idea. I also think the survery by weighing public transport has to favor major big cities, it would be cool to see a national survery or an overlay on google maps breaking down city by city what's going on, although seeing as how the last u.s. city I lived in was Birmingham, AL (I love how sustianalane asks for my zipcode to further inflate regionalism) I'd imagine any map of sustianable practices would probably make me cringe. As for Lorzeno there are federal projects like medicare and state based welfare and other healthcare programs, but taken the decntralized nature of America's pharm industry (North Carolina is the largest R&D area for pharm in the u.s., but I'm not sure on where they actually make the drugs) I'd imagine the bigger problem with peak oil and health care would be socialized system in which the government would have few domestic drugs and would have to foot the incredible cost of shipping them. But I'm not an economist. What are the chances though that frate ships would switch to nuclear like submarines and aircraft carriers if a substitute and cheap energy source isn't available for international trade is also a big question.


    Posted by: andrew jones on 25 Mar 06

    i might add that sustianalane did do a survey of investments in sustianable power in their city rankings:

    http://www.sustainlane.com/cityindex/citypage/ranking/

    -
    A


    Posted by: andrew jones on 25 Mar 06

    A good study, and important, but I wonder if it only measured the easy-to-measure. I'm thinking, as Lorenzo has, of "social capital". It's hard to measure how people will behave in difficult times, but surely it matters. Is there a way to determine a city's or region's capacity for communication and cooperation?

    Here in Maine, we had a severe ice storm in 1998 - it took down the grid for about 2 weeks. Physical infrastructure mattered, but our real salvation was pulling together as neighbors and communities.


    Posted by: David Foley on 25 Mar 06

    that is a cool idea:

    "Is there a way to determine a city's or region's capacity for communication and cooperation?"

    Whenever hurricanes hit in Florida I always felt the same way. There might be some way of studying it.

    -
    A


    Posted by: andrew jones on 25 Mar 06

    "I wonder how all of these cities would fare if an extended oil crisis [caused] a complete breakdown in the delivery of electricity, they began to experience water problems, both with supply and with secondary and tertiary treatment."

    "Cascadia has lots of water, and it supplies our electricity. I wonder how easy it would be to disconnect the Pacific Northwest from the rest of the nation's grid? That's what I think Vancouver, Seattle, and Portland would do if they had to.

    Also, Portland's water system is largely gravity-fed. It has the largest untreated municipal water system in the world. They used to put water right out of the municipal system into little bottles and ship it to California, where it would appear on supermarket shelves next to Evian and Perrier."

    Jan beat me to the punch... Hydropower meets 50% of demand in the Pacific NW and we aren't lacking for fresh water. I think most Eastern cities in a more sophisticated study might suffer because of the reliance on coal and it's inevitable carbon liability re global warming. Eventually we're going to have to do something and 'clean coal' is a bit of a farce if you ask me. Also, access to the ocean and the 'wave power' plants of the future will be significant. I work for a utility in Portland and we are about to invest in a wave power operation (it's still expensive though!).


    Posted by: Ron on 25 Mar 06

    "Bets on which cities are going to turn into Mad Max style hell-holes?"

    Phoenix, AZ

    We're right in the middle of the desert, and we rely SOOO heavily on cars and trucks for transportation around the city. You can't go anywhere without a car because of the sprawl. Definite Mad Max potential here :).


    Posted by: Bolo on 26 Mar 06

    Sustainlane.com will publish results on all 50 cities for its city oil crisis readiness index April 2. But to give you an idea of two discussed cities' readiness, in Phoenix 74.1 percent of people drove to work alone in 2004. In San Diego 80.9 percent drove alone, one of the highest rates in the U.S. In Oklahoma City 85 percent of commuters drove to work alone, which was the highest rate for the largest 50 U.S. cities.

    For the index of city readiness to an oil crisis, SustainLane did not look at renewable energy, as that's applicable to energy for lighting and heating, not mobility (except heating oil used in Northeast). As someone commented, SustainLane.com will release its US City Rankings on more complete sustainability measures, including renewable energy use and industry/project development, in its annual June study.


    Posted by: Warren on 26 Mar 06

    To answer Lorenzo: the health care system in the U.S. is not organized at any level above the country level. Licensing of medical professionals is a state matter, and the financing of the health care system is something in which every level of government is involved, from the federal on down. But the hospitals and clinics are owned privately or by cities, and counties, with federal run facilities to address special cases (the military, the Indian tribes..)

    It works better than you might think, because it allows hospitals to air their concerns to every level of government.


    Posted by: Omri on 26 Mar 06

    While NYC is better positioned from a people transportation perspective, it severely lacks a good freight rail or a Manhattan freight port. Because of this, 90% of goods for purchase in Manhattan must come over the GW or East River Bridges by truck. And lack of local food a sort of a major weak link in the chain.

    The other problem is that NYC's tax base is heavily dependent on the stock/real estate markets, which would suffer in a sustained $100 oil market.

    Can we survive $100 oil? Yes. Will we fare better than the rest of the country? Yes. Will it be pretty? No Way.


    Posted by: peakguy on 27 Mar 06



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