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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.
August 19, 2003, 12am PDT | Wendell Cox
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 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.

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