Blackout Lesson: Keep the Gas Tank Full

The recent blackout highlights the vulnerability of dense cities, as unplugged urban rail systems and elevators left thousands of urbanites stranded.

 Wendell CoxThere was a transport dimension to Blackout 2003.

Two nations, at the those parts still with electricity, were riveted to the television showing images of stranded commuters in the streets of the Manhattan central business district and downtown Toronto on August 15. But there were no scenes of stranded commuters in the streets of Detroit, Cleveland or Ottawa, which suffered the same 100 percent loss of power. It might be thought that this a mere oversight on the part of national media outlets focused on where they live, New York and Toronto.

But it was more than that. The networks reported water problems in Cleveland. One network even reported that Detroit's meager one-way loop people mover had come to a stop. Then there was the scattered looting in Ottawa, perhaps overzealously reported by a US media in retaliation for Prime Minister Chretien's early and incorrect pronouncement tracing the start of the problem to a plant in Niagara Falls, New York.

But unlike the New York and Toronto downtowns, thousands of commuters were not stranded in Cleveland, Detroit or Ottawa. Commuters to those downtowns rely little or not at all on urban rail systems that run on electricity.

Nor were there shots of people milling aimlessly around the suburban office parks just a few miles from downtown Toronto and Manhattan. Why not? Because those commuters drove home, with their very own vehicles on a roadway system generally not susceptible to catastrophic failure. Of course, it was not a pleasant commute, as drivers faced an congestion of first-world Asian proportions. And then there were the unfortunate few who didn't have enough gasoline to get home and had to abandon their cars. For the 90 percent or more of commuters in the two countries who use cars to get to work, this was the lesson -- make sure there is always enough gasoline in the tank to get home.

The blackout demonstrated the vulnerability of downtown areas that rely on electric urban rail. But it goes further. Toronto's extensive GO Transit commuter rail system, though dieselized, had to suspend service because of computer failures.

Not so with the automobile, however, which demonstrated its value as a supremely resilient and flexible mode of transport from Cleveland, Detroit and Ottawa to the suburbs of Toronto and New York. Even the computer failures that rendered traffic lights inoperative did not stop the cars. And the transit buses performed admirably, even in Manhattan and Toronto, as the television images indicated.

And then there is land use. People who live in suburban one and two story houses ("ticky-tack" or not) do not have to depend on elevators, which of course don't operate during blackouts. Nor are they forced to abandon their lofty living quarters out of fear that there would be no way to warn or rescue them in the event of fire.

The land use lesson is simply this. Higher density urban areas are more vulnerable to all manner of malady. This is most recently illustrated by the SARS epidemic, which got its start in the high-income world's most dense urban area, Hong Kong, took the highest toll in densely populated Beijing and reached its North American peak in densely populated Toronto.

The blackout is just one more reason to reject the current fashion in planning dogma that would force us out of cars and force us, on the flimsiest of fabrications, to live closer together.

Wendell Cox is principal of Wendell Cox Consultancy in metropolitan St. Louis and a Visiting professor at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers in Paris.



The Reliable Mr. Cox

In this age of uncertainty when even basic elements of our infrastructure, like electricity, grow less reliable, I'm thankful that we can always count on a steady stream of absurdity from Mr. Cox. His latest attack on public transportation, walkable density, etc. has already been torn to shreds by the facts and sound "connecting the dots" reasoning in previous comments. So I won't repeat them. Instead, I'd like to see us go to the next level and really have some fun with this. Is there a cartoonist out there who can take on....("da...da...")...The adventures of...(more trumpets)..."Captain Paveman!!!...Today, our hero has just learned of a meeting of evil light rail advocates tonight in Metropolis...can he get there in time to save us? He peels out of the 'sprawl-cave' (disguised as a quick-lube joint on the arterial) and onto the freeway...but wait! Traffic is backed up! Can he make it? Tune in next time...

By the way, I'll take New York City in a black-out over sprawlville, USA with electricity any day.

flip flop

Normally, Mr. Cox defends spending billions on road building as necessary to defeat congestion.

But in this op-ed he implies that congestion is no big deal. He writes that while subway users suffered horribly, drivers merely suffered a little "congestion" and then got home without incident. So where's the congestion crisis?

Devil's advocate

Devil being the car, of course. I'm not even sure why PlaNetizen features Cox's articles so frequently, other than to play devil's advocate. Maybe he's actually a staffer (he looks like a shoe salesman!) just egging on intelligent planners! he's so obviously living in Never Never Land. what about all those stories from NY about neighbors helping each other out, grilling out tons of meat and giving it away before it went bad, etc? I doubt that would happen much out in the burbs. My experience is that people may know their neighbors on either side, but otherwise it's every hetero-nuclear-family-vehicle for itself, and that's not how I'D want to spend a blackout. If it happened to me in Chicago, the trains might not work, but I'd get a bus, walk or ride my bike home pretty easily, where I'd meet up with many neighbors who would eat whatever, play games by candlelight, smoke and support each other.

Durrr, wendell. really.

Mr. Cox teaches....

.....and that thought is frightening!

For, if these are the lessons in urban planning and energy sustainability that he propagates and practises as a professional, they are completely senseless.

I'm surprised that respectable web sites like and feature his articles and biography. This first essay of his that I just read, turns me off completely from anything else he would write.

A story from Buffalo

I agree with everyone who has responded to this illogical essay and won't repeat that which has been said so elequently said by others.

I live in Buffalo, which was affected by the power outage but in a different way. Only the suburbs lost power while the city continued on as usual.

When a city-paralyzing snowstorm hits Buffalo (which doesn't happen as often as many of you may think,) the best and only place I like to be "stranded" is my home in the heart of the city. All of life's conveniences are located within a short walk of my address.

So whether it is to get milk, a video, a hot meal, meet with friends, or a drink at the local tavern, there is no place I'd rather be than a walkable community - any season.


Shortsighted logic is a danger to all Planners

I am not sure why this article even made it to an opinion page that is shared by a multitude of planners and planning officials. Haven't we all been trained to think beyond short sighted measures and rather, think holistically and long-term? This opinion piece seems to reek of the same fear-tactics that have been driving federal policies and programs of late. I would hope that as professionals we would offer more balanced perspective on issues. The article seems to suggest that we should spread out our development over miles of suburbia. That way we can all drive miles over lost natural environments, to avoid the possibility of blackouts once every 25 years. Instead why don't we planners start thinking about localized energy production and distribution. This is more efficient and less threatened by massive failure.

keep gas tank full??

so you can get home, then what? I can walk home (single family townhouse), and walk to the store. those in the suburbs, once home aithout electricity are stuch there without a chance of getting anywhere else. Gas pumps are operated by electricty.

Wendell, Wendell, Wendell...

Again, I am not even sure why I am writing a response to this inane essay. Let us assume that we are going to have these "Black-outs" even once a year (unreasonable assumption, but stick with me). We should re-evaluate every aspect of our society to ensure that we do not get "stranded" for a day by being dependent upon electricity for our commute.

This is another interesting knee-jerk idea not unlike all the ridiculous post 9-11 nonsense that is pushing our nation to focus on preparation for the next big terrorist episode. To even suggest that the events of the power outage justify the benefits of absolute auto dependency is absurd, even for Wendell.

Has Wendell been so busy formulating his clever essay that he is unable to receive any news of the situation in Arizona and the failure of their hi-tech fossil fuel delivery system? I think that this commuter utopia in AZ has been a great example of the "real" benefits of Mr. Cox's ideas and assertions. I do find it more reasonable to expect more interruptions in petroleum delivery as opposed to more failures with the power grid. Yes these cars are great when you can put some gas in them, but short of continued supply they have about a 300 mile life span, and if we design our world in such way that we cannot get basic needs without the motor car we really are short-sighted fools.

The commuters of Toronto and New York seemed to fair pretty good in this unusual circumstance, considering the unexpected nature of the event. I haven’t heard of any of them rushing out to buy cars and move to the Midwest as of yet, but I’ll keep looking!

I have to go, I need to walk to my house so I can drive my truck to the filling station, in case there’s a black out later today and the sidewalks get closed (chance of thunderstorms in the afternoon here, you know!).

Tony Hull

Columbus, OH

- "Plan for the worst case scenario and you will succeed only in catastrophe!" – me, 2003

Traffic lights

Geez Wendell,

Have you ever tried to turn left onto one of those horrific eight-lane arterial strip-mall roads that you love so much during a blackout when the traffic lights are not working.

Face it, all the transportation systems don't do well in a blackout. That's why we need a more reliable power system. This all says nothing in regards to your little anti-rail rant.

Give me a break.

- George Proakis

Boston, Massachusetts

Suburbs Blackout

I live in Brooklyn, my mother lives in suburban Detroit. I WALKED home from work after the blackout. I visited the store on the way, buying food and supplies. My greatest inconvenience was a couple of blisters on my feet and a sweaty night's sleep. My mother, who doesn't have a job, was stuck in her house with an electric garage door she couldn't open, no water from the faucet, a freezer full of rotting food, and her closest outpost of civilization (the strip mall) about 3 miles away. I was home partying on the roof, listening to the "sweet symphony" of your precious cars all night as they moved 1/2 mile per hour to their suburban chateaus (an automobile isn't very "flexible" when it's surrounded on all sides by friends)while my mother worried when she would next experience civilization, quietly contemplating starving in the land of plenty. All in all, my dense urban surroundings were considerably more convenient than the pre-industrial ghost town my mother had to face last Thursday.

Walking Triumphed

What thrilled me upon watching the media coverage of New York City residents responding to the blackout was that an enormous number of people were rediscovering walking. I bet thousands of New Yorkers will be doing more walking as a result of their blackout experience. As for Mr. Cox, the French deserve to follow all of his advice and the other Un-Reason apologists for sprawl.

Cox editorial

Where was Mr. Cox last winter when the east coast was being hit by snow storm after snow storm, during each of which, the metroplitan areas commuter rail systems brought people home much quicker than the "flexible" automobiles. If time has shown anything, it is that each mode has its role. "Consutancies" funded by interest groups contribute little to a healthy discussion regarding transportation policy.

Michigan experience

That's strange; when I talked to my friends and family in southeastern Michigan, they said things were pretty paralyzed.

Ann Arbor's streets were a parking lot, due to the traffic control failures, say my friends who chose to walk home from work--which they could only do because they work and live in an urbanized area; otherwise, they too would have been stuck in traffic.

Chelsea happened to be the closest town to Detroit with working gas stations, and cars were lined up in double rows down the exit ramps to the freeway, which had a mile-long queue waiting to get off. People were waiting for hours, and many didn't get any gas because Chelsea's four gas stations ran dry, say my family in Chelsea. If the area's land use patterns allowed people to do *anything* without getting in a car, many of those people could have chosen to leave their cars home for a day or two; the blackout proved that people are so dependant on their automobiles in a primarily suburban area that they are crippled in only 24 hours of no gasoline. A denser, mixed-use built form would allow them to walk or bike those places they really needed to go--or use buses, probably refueled at municipal facilities with backup generators--while they waited for the power to come back on; Mr. Cox's favored development pattern takes away such modal choice.

Friends of mine who were supposed to meet me in Pennsylvania for a weekend camping trip--driving from Michigan--cancelled those plans because they didn't know if they'd be able to find gas or even working bathrooms along their route. Not that this is a fault of suburban land use patterns; this would have been a pretty unavoidable casualty of the blackout.

Another carload coming to PA had to postpone their departure from Michigan for 18 hours because they needed to round up camping supplies from various houses, and Detroit's freeway network was a shambles. A refinery explosion shut down portions of one east-west freeway, and heavy rains flooded below-grade portions of the other, as the pumps that normally keep the freeway clear weren't working. Combined with the lack of traffic signals, getting between the suburbs was almost impossible.

My NJ TRANSIT train home from work wasn't running, but since I work in a dense enough area, there were buses that I could catch--only to crawl home at 10 miles/hour in the bumper-to-bumper traffic. If I worked in some office park in the middle of nowhere and was trying to get home to a random subdivision in some other nowhere, I would have been completely out of luck. Only because office and home are both in downtown areas was I able to get back.

Right there are four anecdotal counter-examples to Mr. Cox's ever-so-thoroughly-researched-by-watching-the-evening-news assertion that Detroit was untouched, plus my own story of the convenience of urbanized, clustered development. Cars are not the devil incarnate, but a transportation system (and, more generally, a society) solely dependant on cars is not any more immune to catastrophe than one with a large reliance on electric trains. Both patterns of transportation network were brought down, and both patterns of development left people inconvenienced. The blackout is not evidence that we should abandon trains, but evidence that we desperately need a robust, redundant transportation system, one that includes more than one of walking, biking, driving, bus transit, rail transit, and flying for any given trip.

I disagree

We live in cities because it is much more efficient to do so. Economics shapes cities, Wendell, not urban planners. Cities existed long before there were urban planners.

The lesson of the blackout is that we are increasingly dependent upon technology, including automobiles. The most reliable mode of urban transport is walking, and it works best in denser environments.

Flawed logic

The problem is people having to commute over long distances in the first place. During the blackout, I biked and walked everywhere without noticing any change to my routine. My 11-storey building had a back-up generator that powered lights, the water pump, elevators (until we reserved the use to those who needed them to conserve power), and even the supermarket on the ground floor.

Of course, eventually fuel would run out, but the advantages of denser living far outweigh the remote risks.

I was thinking of moving to a house a little further away from the core, but I have now changed my mind.

Lets play Madlibs!

As I was reading Mr. Cox's article I was thinking how easy it would be to replace "blackout" with "fuel pipeline break" and "New York" with "Arizona"

Hank Dittmar's comment addresses this quite well, as do the snow and fuel shortages circa 1970's comments.

As usual, these Rush Limbaugh-ish, black and white world commentors fail to realize their "revelations" can usually be easily discredited by changing the scenarios. Reminds me of that Madlibs game I enjoyed as a kid!

Absurd Even For Cox

Why bother arguing with a stone wall?


Google Search: transit stranded blackout

1670 hits just days after the biggest in history

Google Search motorists stranded snow storm

2590 hits in the middle of summer

Wendell Cox lesson

This reveals several aspects of Wendell Cox's ongoing propaganda crusade against public transport.

(1) Inattention to accuracy (to put it politely).

Cox states,

>>But there were no scenes of stranded commuters in the streets of Detroit,

Cleveland or Ottawa, which suffered the same 100 percent loss of power.<<

But there were scenes. See the lead article at:

The article "August 2003 Electric Power Blackout: Massive Disruption of All Transportation" contains a photo of a massive jam in Michigan of vehicles which had run out of gas, queued at a non-functioning service station. Similar scenes were presented by the media. But the major media focus was on NYC and Toronto ~ cities which have been able to support enormous accumulations and movements of people in their central cities because of the existence of electric mass transport systems. In contrast, inner-city Detroit is close to an urban wasteland.

Furthermore, the highway transportation system really did not function in any kind of effective manner in this crisis. True, some cars could sputter along until they ran out of gas. Well and good. But a modern city cannot function without its traffic-control system, and to imply that it can is charlatanism.

(2) For all his occasional embrace of bus transportation, Cox here reveals clearly his primary message, extolling "the automobile ... which demonstrated its value as a supremely

resilient and flexible mode of transport from Cleveland, Detroit and Ottawa to the suburbs of Toronto and New York."

(3) Cox also further reveals what seems to be an emerging crusade aimed squarely at discrediting electric public transport ~ on behalf of the motor vehicle and petroleum industries, perhaps? A similar assault in this campaign was launched earlier this summer by the self-styled Breakthrough Technologies Institute in Washington, basically a fanatically and absurdly pro-"BRT" propaganda mill. This outfit has issued a diatribe against electric public transport called "The Electric Rail Dilemma - Clean Transportation from Dirty Electricity?" which bends data and cooks up voodoo numbers in an effort to prove that somehow diesel and CNG buses are cleaner than electric vehicles. One wonders: is there coordination here?

Simple Minds

Mr. Cox's op-ed blames the demise of western civilization on the new urbanist, smart growth advocates because it puts so many people in harms way. He cites the recent east coast black out as an example. A couple of points. Firstly, new urbanism doesn't mean all towns will eventually become New York City. The principles apply very well to smaller communities and can provide a life style in those towns that is people and user friendly.

The second point is that the problem with the blackout was not the concentration of people put the concentration of the energy business. Maybe we should think about decentralizing the multi-national corporations that run our lives. Just think, I live in the desert southwest and if solar or wind power was available to produce power for my house or block then the massive blackouts experienced in the east could be reduced or eliminated. Mr. Emory Lovins explored that matter in the 70's in his book "Soft Energy Paths." Maybe it is time to look at his theories again.

Let it snow

Am I the only one annoyed by this opportunistic editorial capitalizing on other people's misfortunes to push a one-sided agenda? In fact, as a New York City resident, I'm doubly annoyed, because it recalls the editorials trumpeting 9-11 as the "end of cities" even while remains were still being plucked from the wreckage.

Where was the editorial about this past February’s blizzard? All those cars stranded in driveways and parking lots, while the NYC subway kept on humming. I was in DC when the blizzard hit, but made it home to New York using a combination of Metro, Amtrak and subway. It took a while, but at least I didn’t risk sliding off the roadway. Afterwards, I was able to stock up on food by walking to my local supermarket, one block away.

Likewise, in 1997 when a hurricane tore through North Carolina, I was living near downtown Chapel Hill. Thousands of people were trapped in their neighborhoods by downed trees and power lines that took several days to clear. However, using that most flexible transportation method, walking, I was able to eat in out in a restaurant and see a movie the next night, buy food in a local food market, and basically survive the event without much difficulty.

What’s the point? Different travel modes are subject to different stresses given different events. Rail is taken out by power failures, but is much more reliable than either planes or autos during major snowstorms (a far more common event than multi-state blackouts). Being within walking distance of basic goods and services is always a plus. It seems that a diverse transportation network is more resilient than total reliance on a single mode could ever be.

What a crock!

I suppose the next time a major snowstorm totally closes down major roadways on the Eastern Seaboard -- a frequent occurrence as opposed to a twenty-year event such as last Friday's -- then Wendell will be going on line to praise the reliability of rail transit systems as the only means of getting around.

One wonders how well all those EZPass transponder readers, parking garage lighting and lift gates worked last Friday. Were your street lights burning last Friday night? Without ventilation, think the air in Holland Tunnel became a little toxic as the day wore on?

Dependency and Urban Form

I predict that the point of Wendell Cox's op-ed will be overlooked in a headlong rush to denigrate automobility with the usual claims of waste and excess.

Intensive urban forms are more vunerable to disruption and the consequences are more severe. That doesn't mean they need to be abandoned in favor of a suburban nation but it does mean that these already expensive patterns need to get even more expensive to provide equivilent levels of protection. Cox is correct that the reigning planning dogma is one of higher density. The problem is that this higher density is not being truthfully described as more expensive and less robust. It isn't choice when the public is being misled.

Wars to maintain cars

That is one of the lowest blows yet Wendell Cox! Why don't you write a similar report about how being dependent on gas guzzling SUVs and cars has required the massive Middle East wars, 2 in a decade, and costing us something like a billion dollars per week to maintain cheap oil! That would certainly be more realistic. And how many lives have been lost (Americans and Iraqis) to try to maintain our unsustainable lifestyle? How many people are killed in car accidents per year in America from this car/sprawl lifestyle you continue to promote? Something like 42,000 deaths EVERY YEAR! Come on Wendell, face the facts and the realities of today's world, and think about a better future for a change, instead of more of the same misery.

Andy Kunz

Oh! Density caused SARS

And I thought it was airplanes. Or was it Chinese restaurants? What's that you say? Oh, it's a disease? Hmmmm.

I hope that Mr. Cox tells the Parisians to decamp for the burbs since their reliance of subways and regional rail is just asking for disaster as well inviting disease epidemics. Also, didn't you know a low-density city can survive a nuclear "exchange" better than a high-density metropolis.

We've probably got about 25 years to get ready for the next major black-out (since the last one was in 1977). Let's start unbuilding New York tomorrow!

Phoenix Pipeline Break Lesson

Wendell: you are opportiunistic as ever, choosing to use the power blackout to attack the millions of people strandesd by transit for not choosing to drive.

Doesn't the pipeline break in Phoenix, and the resultant gas lines and price gouging by service station operators underline the real point: we need redundancy in critical networks: transportation, electricity, the internet and the telnet?

Ideally, we'd all bike or walk to work

Wendell Cox and others of the Reason Institute continue to stimulate discussion in this forum - mostly because, there are so many points I (or, we) can disagree with. He argues that we cannot rely on electricity-dependent public transit systems, because they are vulnerable. So.. I take it that we are to depend on gas-guzzling automobiles forever? After all, availablity of petroleum is always a sure bet. He also probably assumes that technology will save us. Can't wait for those hydrogen-powered Hummers. Cox also assumes that government agencies are forcing us out of cars and to live closer together. I tend to think that people have the choice whether to live in a high density area or a low density area(well, depending on affordability - but then, why do people still choose to live in more expensive, high density areas than cheaper, low density areas?). Wendell Cox should stop thinking that all Americans want (or ought to want) the type of lifestyle that you and your institution promote.

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