Forget the classic road trip. Americans are abandoning afternoon drives and summer getaways, thanks to the recession and an unemployment rate that's hovering dangerously close to double digits. The American Automobile Association estimates that the number of drivers traveling over the Fourth of July weekend—that penultimate holiday weekend of the summer—dropped by 10.5 percent over the last two years. And, while gas prices have fallen since the record high of more than $4 a gallon in the summer of 2008, filling up the tank can still set people back considerably.
In his new book, $20 Per Gallon: How the Inevitable Rise in the Price of Gasoline Will Change Our Lives for the Better,Forbes writer Christopher Steiner argues that the increasing cost of fuel will radically change the way we live, from the cities we choose to call home to the way we grow food. NEWSWEEK'S Nancy Cook spoke to Steiner about why he thinks Americans will be forced to restrict plane travel to once a year at most, why solar panels will line the rooftops of apartments, and how gas prices will force suburbanites back into cities. Excerpts:
Cook: What prompted you to write a book that looks so far into the future?
Steiner: The genesis came about a year ago when gas was $4.50 and $5 a gallon. It just got to a point when people who drive a lot were approaching the $1,000 mark a month for their gas. You couldn't get rid of an SUV. I said to myself, "This price of gas is clearly a psychological trigger that totally got people to change their minds. What other trigger points lie ahead?"
Americans seem to be driving less and less this summer. If this continues, how's everyone going to get around?
When it comes to those who live in the farther reaches of the suburbs and who have to drive to work, the path of least resistance isn't going to be getting an electric car when gas prices rise to $6 or $7 per gallon. People will just move to places where things are closer, where the neighborhoods are walkable.
That's pretty radical, to suggest that people will sell their homes, possibly yank kids out of school, and move to a different place because the price of gas goes up.
I don't think all of Naperville, Ill., will move when the price of gas hits $8. It may take a generation for there to be a whole shift toward denser places. But when people hit transitional places in their lives, they will look to live in places where there is more density.
And what about the idea that people won't travel by plane?
I like going to the West Coast [in] four hours. I like going to Europe. I don't think those experiences will go away. We're not going to wake up tomorrow with gas prices of $12 a gallon. These things will filter in over time, and they will happen at a rate at which it won't be a revolution. It will be gradual and natural.
So, where does your vision leave the auto industry?
Clearly, $4 gas was the stick that brought down the American carmakers. They had staked all of their profit-making abilities on giant cars, and not without reason. That's what we wanted. That's what they made. It would almost work to their advantage if the price of gas went up and if we stayed in this economic rut for a year. Otherwise, in the back of their minds, the SUV will be there.
The book also seems really focused on the benefits of living in New York City, but not everyone likes living in cities. You don't live in New York, do you?
I live in Chicago. Other cities in the country will start to act more like New York. The mass transportation system that underlies New York City doesn't exist in any other place in the country. You'll see cities move toward that model. But will everyone who remembers having a giant house in Scottsdale be happy? No. But small towns will not go away, especially ones around rail lines with good infrastructure. People will still live around Main Street.