Gas Prices, Social Media, and Resilient Cities

2.4.13 | Two seemingly disparate items crossed the transom of post-Superbowl thought on Monday.

First, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Energy Information Administration (EIA) released a report noting that gasoline prices in 2012 took the biggest chunk of pretax income from U.S. household budgets during the last 30 years — an average of $2,912, or 4 percent of household pretax income.

And then there is this post at Placemakers.com (hat tip to Hazel Borys for putting it on the URBANISTS listserv), discussing the evolving impact of social media and smartphones on how we interact with each other and our surroundings, both natural and human-made.

“As regular Shakers know, connection — and its more intense cousin, interdependence — are, to me, the cornerstone of resilience. In times of challenge or tragedy, all the contingency plans in the world — be they environmental, economic or social — offer little promise without committed, flexible networks of shared interest available to rise up, organize quickly, and implement.

In short, communities with strong social ties fare better in times of adversity.

So today, thanks in large part to the social web, we’re more connected than ever. But has the often superficial nature of those connections made us any stronger?”

These two trains of thought suggest to me that cities equipped with strong public infrastructure — transportation options beyond driving, along with modern telecommunications systems — that enable connection of people, places, and ideas will be far more resilient than car-flung regions that don’t (or won’t).

According to the EIA’s analysis, posted Monday at its Today in Energy blog (emphasis mine):

Although overall gasoline consumption has decreased in recent years, a rise in average gasoline prices has led to higher overall household gasoline expenditures. However, these expenditures as a percentage of overall household income are still low when compared to the early 1980s, when the estimated portion of household income spent on gasoline surpassed 5%. Although travel per household has increased significantly since the early 1980s, vehicle efficiency has also risen significantly, reducing the amount of gasoline used per mile.

Making a link between transportation costs and household budgets is not new. For years, the Chicago-based Center for Neighborhood Technology’s Housing + Transportation Index has been charting the true costs of living and demolishing the “drive until you qualify” shibboleth. Moreover, myriad studies and news articles have tracked the evolving attitudes of younger people toward, or rather, away from driving. You can’t futz around on your phone or tablet while driving, but you surely can while riding the streetcar, bus, or “L” train.

Truly resilient regions strengthen transportation networks within and between municipalities by providing options that allow people to get out of their cars if they so choose.

Which leads to Scott Doyon’s concerns about personal connection and interdependence in our digital age. Using digital tools in and of themselves won’t help interpersonal resilience, he writes at Placemakers.

But if we start with our passions and ambitions, our sorrows and joys, our fundamental need for one another, and reach out from there, using whatever tools we find to source and connect with others along the way then, just maybe, all this connecting will actually add up to something meaningful.

The jury’s still out.

I agree with him, although I think the jury is always still out. Telegraphs led to telephones, which led to computers, which led to the Internet, which led to smartphones, which are leading to … who knows what? That’s a double-edged evolutionary sword: our technology and how we use it keep influencing each other and changing as they do.

In that notion and its applicability to the resilience of regions, I’m in John Norquist’s corner.

In his 1998 book, The Wealth of Cities: Revitalizing the Centers of American Life, Norquist, president and CEO of the Congress for the New Urbanism (disclosure: I worked for CNU for two years on the organization’s Emergency Response & Street Design Initiative) and the former mayor of Milwaukee, WI, argued that the Internet — and by extension since then, everything from wireless to social networking to smartphone apps —  won’t hurt cities’ resilience. Rather, it (and again, by extension, they) will strengthen the resilience of cities: “Creative people need to see each other. The prosperity of the Silicon Valley spread north to San Francisco because young software builders wanted to see something more than a parking lot after work. For such reasons, the Internet won’t hurt cities anymore than the telephone did.”

Photo/ scottgunn

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