free html hit counter Peak Oil Debunked: 318. MOPEDS SAVE SUBURBIA

Wednesday, December 05, 2007


We're all familiar with The Long Emergency and Jim Kunstler's rants against suburbia. Apparently peak oil is going to drive gasoline prices through the roof, causing a Katrina-style evacuation to the cities, and making the American suburbs into the slums of the future.

I don't buy this, first of all because the source is so obviously biased. I think Kunstler is having a lurid fantasy more than making a sober forecast of the likely future.

Second of all, I will prove to you that suburbia can be saved. I could do it with an electric bicycle (my favorite solution), but today I think I'll use a moped because mopeds are cool, and I like the idea of Kunstler tossing and turning in his sleep at the very idea that mopeds -- do you hear me?!! f*cking MOPEDs!! arggghhhh!! -- saved suburbia.

So... first we need some stats on commuting. According to an ABC News poll:
[American commuters] report an average one-way commute time of 26 minutes (over an average distance of 16 miles). But the variance is huge: On the best days, the average commute is 19 minutes; on the worst days, 46 minutes.
Recklessly calculating, it appears that Joe Sixpack commutes at a speed of about 37mph, dropping to 21mph in congestion, and rising to 50mph in smooth periods. YMMV.

Now, let's look at the moped Joe is going to be driving. I picked it at random after about a minute of searching:
50cc Ninja Moped

Black... looks cool. Not too dorky. That's important. Don't want to turn off the ladies.

The relevant specs:
£649 = $1323

Now, I don't see any good reason why Joe Sixpack can't, under pressure, commute using this type of vehicle. Price isn't an issue. He already owns 1 or 2 cars which cost 10-20 times as much. If necessary, he can sell the car(s), to raise money for the moped. He'll have a bunch of money left over, and also save money on each commute. (Average fuel economy in the U.S. was 24.7mpg in 2004, and the moped gets 100mpg, for savings of about $.10/mile. At 45mph, the pay-off for driving the moped is $4.50/hr tax-free, almost like a second job.)

Schedules won't change much. Even in smooth traffic, the car only edges the moped by about 2 minutes over the average commute of 16 miles. In congestion the moped will be far superior.

Now, here is my argument: Since suburbia is so popular, and is such a massive sunk cost, it will only "die" if there is absolutely no way at all to save it in the face of peak oil -- i.e. if it is physically/financially impossible for people to remain in suburbia in the face of peak oil. I believe this moped solution shows that not to be the case. In fact, it is very feasible -- even easy -- for commuters to economically get to work, even with gasoline prices 4 times higher than they are today. No exotic solutions necessary. Therefore, suburbia will survive.
by JD


At Wednesday, December 5, 2007 at 7:02:00 AM PST, Blogger El Gato con Bolas said...

Hi JD,

When I read your post a question came to my mind, do you have children?

At Wednesday, December 5, 2007 at 9:40:00 AM PST, Blogger Mr. Sprang said...



It's a great idea for some, but by no means all.

At Wednesday, December 5, 2007 at 9:47:00 AM PST, Blogger Unknown said...

But we don't need to solve every transport problem with a single solution. Mopeds solve the problem of the single occupancy vehicle going to work.

Most people only carry a briefcase to work, if they work in an office. You don't need transport kids, cargo, or passengers if you're going to your office job.

Cars are fine (and quite efficient) if you're carrying 2, 3, 4 people. or cargo. They are, however, a horribly inefficient way to transport a single person.

Drive the car when it rains or snows. Drive the car when you need to drop off the kids. Drive the car when you need to stop at Home Depot on the way home. Even if you can only use your moped 50% of the time, isn't it a pretty good way to reduce personal fuel consumption?

Re freeways: stay off them.

At Wednesday, December 5, 2007 at 10:13:00 AM PST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's great to see you back.Your blogs are the greatest.I live in a small town in the Northeast, USA. Among many, we have one very ambitious bottle collecter. Up until about a year ago he had an ancient bicycle with a home made trailer attatched. Eurecka! It must be profitable. He is now sporting a real cool Moped, attached trailer and all. When I ask him about it with a big smile he explains. No registration, no license, and twice the area covered. I guess gas is no problem.

At Wednesday, December 5, 2007 at 2:18:00 PM PST, Blogger popmonkey said...

i have 2 children, a vespa scooter, 2 motorcycles ('cause i'm an idiot), 3 bicycles, one wife, and one car.

the car goes to the gas station no more than once a month.

kids != need for 15mpg SUV like many contend.

* kids? we walk, bike, ride the scooter, occasionally drive.
* cargo? how often do i need a lot of cargo space? two, three times a year? in those cases i drive the car or i rent a u-haul for the really big jobs. otherwise, a crate strapped to the back of the vespa is plenty for grocery shopping for a household of 4. or you can get more serious
* disabilities? not statistically relevant
* weather? yes, can be a problem. if you're a wuss and don't have an Aerostitch suit (i ride year round and did even when i lived in a cold climate)
* Safety? the primary safety issue for 2 wheeled vehicles are gas guzzling SUV's with drivers working the phone inside their safe little cage. wont be many of those once gas hits $10/gallon.
* freeways? my vespa is highway legal although not all LEOs are aware of that. lots of scooters fall into the 75+mpg highway legal category. my motorcycles do 50+mpg when i'm not acting like an idiot.

and remember, the primary use of the automobile is a single driver commute. with possibly a briefcase+laptop. i use one of these (they look wicked cool too!)

besides, it's not just mopeds/scooters/motorcycles

when i was growing up in poland we had a 2 cylinder fiat 126p. we often drove with 3 adults and 2 kids in it.

that was 30 years ago. the 126bis, which came later has much more power, a top speed of 120mph (!!!) and did 50-60mpg. i'm pretty sure our 126p did better than that (i'll have to ask my mother)

the point is, demand destruction doesn't have to equal sudden immobility. drivers will naturally seek better commuting options when the gas prices go up. it's not like we're going to starve while driving hummers around.

At Wednesday, December 5, 2007 at 2:26:00 PM PST, Blogger popmonkey said...

also forgot to mention: in california and several other states (and certainly in europe and asia), 2 wheel vehicles can "split" traffic, i.e. go between cars. the cut in commute time is incredible.

add no parking issues and it's hard to believe average people still drive big cars to work. i commute around 14 miles each way to my job and can go from door to door in less time than it takes one of my co-workers to drive 5 miles, he often spends 20 minutes looking for a parking spot (granted he's recently seen the ridiculousness of it and bought a bicycle)

At Wednesday, December 5, 2007 at 6:09:00 PM PST, Blogger ReserveGrowthRulz said...

Count me in for 3 motorcycles ( scooters have a tough time getting out of a silly cagers way, so I stick with 50mpg+ fullsized motorcycles ).

I would venture this, during a recent trip to downtown Denver during working hours ( haven't been down there in a few years ) I was amazed by the current lack of traffic, it was WAY better than I remembered, and what were there more of? Scooters. They are allowed to tie up with bicycles on steel hoops planted in the concrete, so you whip downtown with your backpack full of whatever, chain it to a steel post which costs nothing, and head home at the end of the day.

I don't know where the REST of the commuters have been going lately ( new lightrail coming up I25 perhaps? ) but those little scooters were EVERYWHERE.

At Thursday, December 6, 2007 at 2:35:00 AM PST, Blogger Big Gav said...

Thanks for the link - I didn't realise you made positive references to TOD sometimes :-)

I agree about suburbia - scooters are just one easy solution to keeping them viable.

I think the doomers who equate unaffordable car commuting with the collapse of industrial civilisation should all be sent somewhere like Nairobi for a month to see how a large city moves people around with hardly any private cars.

Maybe you should do a post on the capacity of privately owned ad-hoc minibus services...

At Thursday, December 6, 2007 at 8:18:00 AM PST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Maybe you should do a post on the capacity of privately owned ad-hoc minibus services.."

One version of such would be to convert our huge fleet of SUVs into minibuses or jitneys. The only capital costs there would in building the passenger trailers. Many could have the capacity of 20 people per vehicle.

At Thursday, December 6, 2007 at 11:46:00 PM PST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

JD - I largely agree also. I think there'll be some kicking and screaming, and there's already signs of more real estate price drops in the outer asteroid belts of suburbia than in urban cores, but I also believe people will adapt when they have no choice. I think JHK is motivated by his strong aesthetic bias against suburbia as much as by an actual analysis of what people will do.

At Friday, December 7, 2007 at 1:29:00 AM PST, Blogger gsanford said...

The problems of suburbia and peak oil go beyond commuting. You also have to truck goods to suburbia. I'm not saying that these problems can't be solved through a combination of measures, but it's not as simple as people just picking up scooters.

At Friday, December 7, 2007 at 5:18:00 AM PST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Right Blogger, but shipping is efficient, and getting more efficient all the time. I put this down to businessmen having no interest in conspicuous consumption. They have been steadily shaving costs as fuel prices rise.

Consumers are stuck, as they always have been, by their need to demonstrate wealth. Now that impulse predates cars, and will no doubt exist long after. I was just reading P.T. Barnum's 1859 edition "The art of getting money." He talks about people renting carriages rather than living within their means ... now we lease cars. Same, same.

Anyway, to quote the Stand-up Economist, people are dumb, but they aren't that dumb. They won't stand in the face of higher prices forever. They'll find some new (and slightly more efficient) way to demonstrate wealth.

Heck, choosing a stylish Vespa over an Asian Asian is one way to do that.

(on efficiency, my new eee pc has used ... 0.18 kWh in its first 36 hours. amazing.)

At Saturday, December 8, 2007 at 4:45:00 AM PST, Blogger dc said...

I have an idea for solving the child "storage" problem on mopeds: Don't have children! Whattayaknow, the neo-Malthusians had it kinda right all along; they just failed to realize that population reduction was the natural outcome from industrialization and urbanization, rather than some epic die-off.

Bring on the mopeds and the state-sponsored orgies will follow to encourage a sustainable rate of procreation (e.g. Russia this past Summer). I'm a fan.

At Monday, December 10, 2007 at 2:35:00 PM PST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, JD!

Mopeds sound great unless you're in the Dallas metroplex. 100 degree summer days... at age 64, and my wife at 55, I doubt we would survive a 25 mile trip (one way).

Suburbia will have to be phased out, or real mass transit phased in for a start.

I am not sure the impact will be as sudden or dire as the PO advocates contend... having said that it will not be a picnic. Now is the time to start preparing... which candidates have even mentioned this? I think it is a larger problem than global warming.

At Monday, December 10, 2007 at 4:06:00 PM PST, Blogger popmonkey said...

Anonymous 65 year old:

This isn't "THE SOLUTION" it's a very simple example of one of the many ways people can deal with expensive gas.

Here's one that might work for you.

There's a few of these around my neighborhood already.

Again, not "THE SOLUTION" because there's no such thing (and there doesn't need to be).

At Wednesday, December 19, 2007 at 8:48:00 AM PST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Mopeds Save Suburbia" ? You would get about the same results from that as one would from putting a band-aid on a spewing femoral artery.

I know these are just suggestions and may actually work for some people in some areas but as a whole it's a pretty pathetic suggestion. Weather and most of all safety would be my primary concern. Seems that carpooling is probably most peoples best bet.

And to "dc". The person with the solution to the child "storage" problem. It's too bad your parents didn't keep that in mind.

At Wednesday, December 26, 2007 at 12:46:00 PM PST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Geee - what's the moped made of?

Plastic and aluminum and steel. All of which are rather energy and / or oil intensive.

What are you going to build the moped out of when oil is $2500 a barrel? Wood? I don't think so.

At Thursday, December 27, 2007 at 9:37:00 AM PST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I commute daily on my motorcycle (average 48mpg) and I can pretty much guarantee that mopeds won't help a whole lot. They will help, but not a whole lot.

Around here it can easily get to 100 degrees in the summer and in the teens in the winter. Unless you are truly hardcore (like me) you don't want to be riding in that kind of weather.

Safety is a real concern. If you get in an accident at 35mph or faster you had better be wearing serious motorcycle gear with built-in armor or you will likely sustain severe injuries (road rash, broken bones, etc.).

Public transportation will be problematic in spread-out suburbia. Carpooling to public transportation epicenters (current "commuter lots") will be much better.

I like the looks of that scoot. Maybe I need to get me one. :)

At Tuesday, January 1, 2008 at 12:36:00 AM PST, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Again, same problem here. Another encouraging post. However, "if" the doomers are right, and there is not enough coal, oil, natural gas, or nuclear power (ore mining etc.) to produce armies of mopeds, then all the power to make them move, it again puts everyone in the same spot, right or wrong.


At Tuesday, January 1, 2008 at 9:13:00 AM PST, Blogger popmonkey said...

i don't understand this savinar like nitpicking at a particular solution without a larger context. all these intelligent, seemingly, people and you're all nitpicking.

if you've been reading POD for a long time you should know the style of JD's posts. this isn't a post saying what the title says. mopeds are not going to save suburbia... alone... it's just a post that says : "don't be closed minded" and "technologies already exist today that can help conserve and alleviate a shortage of gasoline" and "humans adapt".

The Peel P50 is another example similar to the moped in this post. it's not in any way an ideal solution. but it shows that there are and are going to be lots of solutions that people will adopt.

At Tuesday, January 8, 2008 at 3:24:00 AM PST, Blogger clif said...

OK JD now just go and convince the vast majority of the USA this is the best way to go, please.

Try the bible belt, and places like Arkansas and Tennessee and where I live Kentucky. Please convince all the people around me mopeds are better then pick-ups. Forget the western states where people travel many miles to just get to town quite a lot of the time. California and the north west might be more open to your ideas, but not a lot of them even Southern California has not adopted this idea very much with all their transportation problems, but they have built a hell of a lot of freeways.

While you are at it, convince China and India to by pass their attempts to recreate the US style of transportation and remain with the scooters they already have. Convince all those newly arrived middle class people to forget their dreams of owning a car and stick with the moped. BTW also go to Russia and convince them to give up all the cars they are buying at the moment, and stick to scooters.

I am not saying this is a bad idea, but try to convince people this is the way to go, and get politicians to recreate the transportation bills they write. Try to convince them this is better then what their campaign contributors said they want. Don't expect to get much face time or any of your calls to be returned, unless you have loads of money to hand them.

It is a good idea, but I don't see people accepting it this time, any more then when Jimmy Carter proposed throttling down from the car based society we had back then. But that attempt did help elect Ronnie Reagan, who got the American people to forget all about ideas like this, which lead through the mini-van craze to the SUV-monster pick-up craze we are recovering from. Hopefully for your plan there is not another Reagan waiting in the wings to down play the message you propose, and deride you as anti-american for doing it.

However given the sad state of modern politics some person will see telling the people what they wanna hear, NOT what is actually happening, as the best route to getting elected, which will probably cause your message to fall on deaf ears for the foreseeable future.

Like you claim in many places on the blog this might happen in the future, just not now, when the change will do the most good for all and the future. Hopefully the future is like you propose, I am not as optimistic as you are.

BTW just for total transparency, I own a large motorcycle (45MPG), ride it as much as possible, have for years. I also used gas mileage as a major factor in purchasing the last two vehicles I bought.

At Wednesday, May 14, 2008 at 4:39:00 PM PDT, Blogger Desteptu said...

I'm really impressed by your concern, y-all, for the best of humanity. But my humble opinion is that, as long as oil magnats are hungry of our money, no matter what bright ideas come along, they will be repressed through politics and stuff. Electric cars should've been buzzing around since the 60s or so, otherwise.
And by the way, brainwashing is well and alive; most of the dallas big-truck lovers will go over any idea of moped/mopeders and other unconvenient means of transport/cheesy half-bike riders because they deserve bigger and better. No wonder so many crashes happen in the area where the victims are guys like you and me; the ones that think seriously about conservation and future. Or just saving money... Hm. Interesting...

At Monday, June 23, 2008 at 3:23:00 AM PDT, Blogger craftycorner said...

I don't see an end to cars/trucks, (possibly SUV's if gas climbs to $6) and a complete conversion to scooters. What I see is a combination of JD's scooters and everyone else's' beloved cars becoming something in between as oil prices inch up higher.

We have for example mini-cars buzzing around India and Europe that have hella gas mileage. Some are so little they are shorter than bikes from front to back tire. At 90 miles to the gallon, the mileage is sweet, and they cover you from the rain.

Then there's the car prototype in Japan that runs on water. Any water, even dirty tea.

At Monday, September 1, 2008 at 10:23:00 AM PDT, Blogger steve said...

not sure we need to resort to the Peel P50 in this case.

Personally I am still holding out for a CLEVER car from the guys at Bath university. Frankly, I am getting a little impatient, as it's been 6 years now, and I need to go to the supermarket and do some shopping...

At Thursday, September 4, 2008 at 3:48:00 AM PDT, Blogger DB said...

"When I read your post a question came to my mind, do you have children?"

I don't take my children to work.
Neither do I take cargo to work, other than a laptop and a sandwich box.

Next bullshit doomer strawman.

At Wednesday, December 30, 2009 at 12:32:00 PM PST, Anonymous greenJamie said...

I don't take my children to work.
Neither do I take cargo to work, other than a laptop and a sandwich box.

Next bullshit doomer strawman."

DB you total dickhead you are not everyone. It is conceivable that there are people who could not use scooters for their day-to-day business. If scooters etc are such a wonder solution then why are cars still being used so much today?

Next bullshit 'debunker' wank-fantasy...

At Monday, May 3, 2010 at 7:01:00 PM PDT, Blogger Jeremy said...

Visit Vietnam, you'll see 1 million motorcycles in Saigon, a city of 4 million people. Has nothing to do with gas prices. Motorcycles, scooters and mopeds were essentially unavailable a few years ago when oil prices shot through the roof - at least all the lower CC ones. Hence, two wheeled transportation will surely make a huge comeback for many when gas prices start climbing again.


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