Book review: $20 Per Gallon

$20 per gallon - © Kelly Nelson

$20 per gallon - © Kelly Nelson

A Look into the Future

In 2008, gas prices across America topped four dollars a gallon, the highest price ever paid to fuel cars in the U.S. In response, Americans drove 100 billion fewer miles than the previous year and took 300 million more trips on public transit. This inspired Christopher Steiner, a civil engineer and writer for Forbes, to wonder: how will our lives change when gas hits eight or twelve or twenty dollars a gallon? His book presents a vision of what might lie ahead.

“At $6, the SUV will die.”

Traffic will start to look different: more smaller, gas-efficient cars, more diesel cars, fewer SUVs and pick-up trucks. The number of people who die in auto accidents will start dropping. As more commuters walk, bike and take transit, Americans will collectively lose weight.

“When gas inevitably climbs to $8, the airline carnage will be vast.”

There will be fewer airlines, fewer flights and many pilots out of work. Fares will increase and fewer people will be able to afford to fly.

“Car ownership rates, at $10 gas, will plummet.”

Gas-powered cars will become too costly for some and electric cars will still be pricey and limited in supply, squeezing many people out of the car market. “We will change how we drive, how much we drive, and where we drive.” Motorboats, snowmobiles, jet skis and all-terrain vehicles will go extinct.

“There will be a shortage of desirable, walkable, and dense developments near city cores when gas reaches $12.”

People will flee the large houses and long commutes of the suburbs for urban areas. Many American cities won’t be ready for this influx but cityscapes will start changing with higher density neighborhoods and more public transportation.

“At $14, the framework upon which Wal-Mart has spread cheap Chinese junk around the country will fall apart.”

Big box stores will close or morph into smaller, regional stores. Downtown shops will offer basic goods and services.

“When gas tops $16 per gallon, the availability of air freight will be a fraction of what we have now.”

We’ll eat more foods grown locally and regionally. The big loser: sushi restaurants in non-coastal cities.

“It will take gas prices of the most compelling magnitude to make widespread American high-speed rail a reality: $18 per gallon.”

The U.S. will finally catch up with Europe and Asia by having a national network of high-speed trains.

The book ends with Steiner imagining the life of a 27-year-old man living in Brooklyn, New York in the twenty-dollar-a-gallon future. This average guy takes the subway to work and takes high-speed trains to Pittsburgh (a two-hour trip) to visit his parents who own a small, electric car and to Boston (a one-hour trip) where his sister lives carfree. He hasn’t been on an airplane in fifteen years and has never owned a car and doesn’t expect to ever own one.

Kelly Nelson

Tempe, Arizona, USA

$20 Per Gallon: How the Inevitable Rise in the Price of Gasoline Will Change Our Lives for the Better

Christopher Steiner

Grand Central Publishing, 2009

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3 Responses

  1. Well, what fuels these high-speed trains? These kinds of trains have similar energy consumption to jet aircraft. I think they have no future.

    What is “work” for the 27-year-old man in New York? Most jobs that exist there at present rely on cheap fuel. Is this addressed in the book?

    In the flight from the suburbs does it not occur to the author that the wealthy will price the poor out of the cities? Will the suburbs not become deprived slums?

    All of the stages above indicated job losses that America is not prepared for. And yet the author claims that the Inevitable Rise in the Price of Gasoline Will Change Our Lives for the Better?

  2. Hi Ian,
    Good questions. Steiner imagines high-speed electric trains as the train of the future. Also, the 27-year-old in his imagined future works for a company that designs tidal energy devices that harness energy from the ocean.
    The book does lean toward the upbeat and the benefits, tending to look away from income disparities and wide spread job losses. The publishers likely played a big part in the title of the book emphasizing the changes for the better.
    The book does not offer a complete picture (it was written quickly) but it does get you thinking about what might lie ahead.

  3. Perhaps. If inflation accelerates to 6 percent per yr. but of course it will not be counted in “core inflation” by Ben Bernanke. I know of vast fields of oil which will come on line in Canada and alaska at 6 dollars per gallon, and the reliable number is 30 yrs of supply at present rates of consumption. I will be driving my fishing boat for a few decades to come. I hope he enjoyed fear mongering as much as the illusionists who predicted Dow 36k.

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