Christopher Steiner’s new book $20 Per Gallon is an interesting read. The book’s thesis is that oil and gasoline prices will appreciate over time. Not just to $4 per gallon like we saw last summer, but significantly higher as supply dwindles and demand continues to pick up steam. It’s not all bad news, though. One potential revival that Steiner points to is the resurgence of Rust Belt cities; some of the same cities that have been badly struggling over the past few years.
Admittedly, it’s a plausible theory. Rust Belt cities developed infrastructure long before car culture dominated our society and sprawl was how “normal” people lived. These cities were densely populated and designed to support a lifestyle around walkability and community. They thrived before sprawl was an option, and they can thrive again when sprawl is no longer an option.
Once oil prices pass a certain threshold, it will no longer be about preference. Whether or not people prefer to live in exurban subdivisions or downtown lofts won’t matter. How affordable those places will become will drive decision making. In such an environment, no metro areas have better opportunities for urban growth than those in the Rust Belt.
Consider that the city of Cleveland has lost over 50% of its population since its peak. The city could essentially double in size and still not be any larger than it historically has been. A similar story holds for Saint Louis (60% loss), Buffalo (52% loss), Cincinnati (34% loss) and Baltimore (33% loss). Contrast this with Atlanta, Dallas, and Phoenix, which currently face population at their all-time highs. Not only that, but new Sun Belt cities were planned, designed, and built like pseudo-suburbs, so converting them to the same level of density as older cities will prove challenging.
Cheering for rapidly appreciating oil prices isn’t a very popular thing to do. I’m not sure it’s an economically responsible thing to do either. But my faith in the revitalization of Rust Belt cities on their own merits is fragile. Maybe some of them will prove able to successfully turn around regardless of oil prices. Others might not. No doubt, Rust Belt cities are well positioned for an oil crisis. The question is how soon it will come, how rapidly it will occur, and how smart Rust Belt leaders will be about it.