Best American cities to cope with an oil crisis

The American mainstream media can’t get enough news stories out of the rising cost of oil. The topic has three great storylines to highlight: the personal struggle of average families trying to make ends meet, a downturn in the economy, and political plans by presidential candidates on how to deal with rising costs at the gas pump.

But one of the other emerging storylines is an examination of how Americans travel and whether their cities or towns will be able to cope with new forms of mobility. A study published by the economic development group Common Current recently ranked 50 American cities that are best/least able to weather an oil crisis. It shouldn’t surprise our readers that the cities with high density and a sophisticated transit system came out on top. (In addition to mass transit, the survey weighed factors like telecommuting and whether people ride a bike or walk to work; lesser factors included urban sprawl, the use of heating oil, and the carpool rat rate.)

1. San Francisco
2. New York
3. Chicago
4. Wahsington DC
5. Seattle
6. Portland
7. Boston
8. Oakland
9. Philadelphia
10. Denver

Probably more interesting is finding which cities are in poor shape to weather an oil crisis:

50. Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
49. Tulsa, Oklahoma
48. Louisville, Kentucky
47. Memphis, Tennessee
46. Indianapolis
45. Jacksonville, Florida
44. Arlington, Texas
43. Nashville, Tennessee
42. Forth Worth, Texas
41. Virginia Beach, Virginia
Oklahoma City has the third largest land mass of any city in the US, which is astonishing for a city of 537,734 people. This CCN-Money article, where I first heard about the survey, highlights the reasons why one Oklahoma City resident is making the change from driving to carpooling.

Political cartoon by Ed Stein, Rocky Mountain News


  1. I have relatives in Oklahoma City, and I agree with this survey 100%. You’ve never seen such car dependency in a major metro area until you visit OKC. Roads in major districts like Northwest Expressway make Toronto’s major car-focused arteries (like Eglinton East or Steeles or Jane) look like tight urban alleys. Quite often we drove from store to store through the connected parking lots, which form a sort of service street. Until recently, there was no downtown at all to speak of, so all entertainment or dining involved long car trips and the only walking was from the car to the door. It may not be a coincidence that OKC is also home to Sonic headquarters (America’s last big drive-in fast food chain) and is the most Wal-Mart’ed city in America, with all four kinds of Wal-Mart and over 90% of the population shopping at them regularly.

  2. San Francisco? Uh-uh. I assume the authors have never actually taken Muni to get anywhere. And Oakland? Please.

    Yes, there is BART, but the only thing BART’s good for is getting you *to* SF or Oakland, not around them.

    Plus the hills make biking nearly impossible. Maybe the telecommuting was weighted a bit too heavily or something.

    I also take issue with Philly being up there. Seriously, ask anybody in Philadelphia, no “average people” actually uses transit there because it really doesn’t go anywhere.

    “The population of New York City is larger than that of 39 states. But because dense apartment housing is more energy efficient, New York City uses less energy than any state.” -Seattle Stranger

    That’s right, NYC uses less energy than the state of Wyoming.

  3. I seem to remember a scene in an movie, I think it was a Cheech & Chong, where a group of people fill a car, back out of the driveway, and then drive into the driveway of a house across the same road to visit someone.

    United State’s and suburbia’s car culture requires using a car to buy a last minute item like a single screw (sorry, a box of screws even though you need only one) or milk, ending up using more gasoline than the cost of the item you need.

  4. “…lesser factors included urban sprawl, the use of heating oil, and the carpool rat).”

    What is this carpool rat you speak of?

  5. Not surprised to see two Texas cities there either. Dallas cant be far behind. When visiting those cities I always have that the thought “doesn’t anybody walk here?”. The answer/excuse often given is the heat which is why some stores have covered air conditioned walkways that go right to the curb or to the edge of the parking lot.

    I also would not have picked Denver except that I was working there a few years ago and was pleasantly surprised with things including the higher density housing (as opposed to McMansion) on the old airforce base in the city and oddities such as knowledge of Canada (because of hockey).

  6. I’ve visted several cities in Michigan when I used to date a girl who lived there and the car culture really gave me a shock. Anybody who took the bus was assumed to have lost their license somehow. There were drive thrus for everything. Food, Banks, Pharmacies. Several drive throughs didn’t even have interior seating or cash counter. Being in a car was -required- to order food at these places.

    Other things I noticed:
    -Cities with -zero- public transportation. Literally no bus service.
    -The casual attitude towards drinking and driving and not wearing seatbelts.
    -One story buildings. Motels outnumbered Hotels. I think the tallest Hotel in one city was 6 whole floors. One story mega-malls with massive land footprints (Vaughn-Mills style)
    -No sidewalks in many areas
    -Cities, similiar in population to Ontario cities spread out a good 5 times. I’m not talking major cities either. Places similiar size to Kingston and Belleville (50-100,000) have footprints similiar to Oshawa and Mississauga.

    When I invited a few of them up to Toronto for a weekend (They had left their car at home, shockingly), I took them to a few places around the city. The plan was to walk from the Eaton Centre to Kensington Market. Starting at Yonge, we didn’t get to Spadina before they started to complain that their feet were hurting. (I’m not joking) I convinced them to trek on and by the time we got there all 3 of them were complaining as if I had taken them up Mount Everest. We only went down one street in the market before they insisted on taking a cab back to the starting point.

  7. “What is this carpool rat you speak of?”

    It is either:

    a) one of those people who accepts rides in a carpool, but whose car is always “in the shop” when their turn comes around; or

    b) a typo, now corrected.

  8. It would be interesting to see a ranking like this within the GTA.

    I suppose it wouldn’t be all that suprising – Woodbridge would fare a lot worse than High Park – but it would be useful to flesh out just how well different areas are able to cope with restricted car traffic. For suburban areas, the economic impact could be pretty substantial, particularly if prices reach 200 a barrel like some have predicted.

    I’d also like to see a ranking within Canada.

  9. Markham is supposedly the leader for the percentage of people driving. While I was shocked to see a lack of sidewalks in American cities. I was shocked even more this year to discover a lack of sidewalks on many Markham streets.

  10. My 26-year old son had quit his old job in Mississauga (Mississauga Road and 401) because of the price of gasoline (and tickets). He took a job at Eglinton and Don Mills. He lives near Jane and Bloor, and takes the subway and bus to work and back. Now, he says he has time to read a book during his trip.

  11. What is this carpool rat you speak of?

    He’s the guy who never chips in for gas, or buys coffee…

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