I think it's worth quoting in depth the paragraph on page 37 of the Transition Handbook where Rob Hopkins dismisses New York:
If we see climate change as a separate and distinct issue from peak oil, we risk creating a world of lower emissions but one which is, in terms of oil vulnerability, just as fragile as today’s – if not more so – as energy prices rise.
A good example of this is New York, which recently emerged in a study as having one of the lowest per capita CO2 emissions of any large Western city, less than a third of the per capita US average. This is due to the density of living, the walkability, good public transport and the low heating requirements of apartment living. So, from a climate change perspective we can argue that New York is a good model of low carbon living we would all do well to emulate. Now let’s weave peak oil into that mix. What happens to New York in the event of a power shortage, or when the price of importing food starts to rise sharply? New York experienced such a power cut in August 2003, and although it only lasted for a day, its impact was keenly felt. While New York may have a small carbon footprint, it has little or no resilience to declining oil supplies (a concept explored in depth in Chapter 3).
You can read more of that section on the publisher's website.
When I read this, I immediately disagreed with Hopkins's conclusion (which seems to be that cities are doomed and we should all be living in small towns where we can use horsecarts to get our produce to market) but I had trouble defending New York against his specific accusation. The 2003 blackout did point to a particular vulnerability that the city has.
At 4:15 on August 14, I was working in Lower Manhattan in an enterprise that was essentially dependent on the Internet to function, so the boss told us to go home. The subways were non-functional, there was gridlock on the streets, and we didn't even think of taking a bus or a cab. I found a co-worker who lived near me and we walked six miles back to Queens. It took us a couple of hours. At least two car lanes on the Williamsburg Bridge were allocated to pedestrians. My wife had brought our infant son with her to work in the Bronx, and was not prepared to carry him ten miles home. One of her co-workers drove them to her apartment in Harlem, where they spent the night. The next morning they took three buses to get home. Power was restored the following evening.
Our resilience was tested in a less dramatic way three years later, when mismanagement by Con Edison resulted in sections of Queens losing power. At first there were two days of low power (our air conditioner and desktop computers wouldn't work, but the fans and laptops would), followed by a day of no power. At that point, Con Ed brought in several diesel generators in trailers and parked them next to large apartment buildings. Switching the apartment buildings to the generators freed up some electricity for smaller customers, but it took over a month before our generator was disconnected and driven away. In the meantime it was spewing diesel fumes around the clock under our bedroom window, which didn't help our son's asthma any. It was kind of a surreal experience, because in this case the subways were running normally and other neighborhoods had power. We could go work or shop in Manhattan or Forest Hills and it would be just another day with lights and air conditioning, but then we would get off the train and see stores with the lights off and the doors open.
There are two main questions that Hopkins's challenge raises. In both cases we made it through with minimal loss of life and property, but both cases were relatively temporary. What Hopkins is saying is that when peak oil finally catches up with us we will have to make do indefinitely with a much lower energy level. Is it possible to power a metropolitan area of nineteen million at roughly a thousand people per square kilometer without fossil fuels? What is a truly sustainable size and density?
In both cases we had a certain amount of redundancy between electrical, liquid and muscle energy that allowed the city to function at a reduced level while the problem was fixed. When the subways weren't running, there were gasoline and diesel powered buses, taxis and cars to transport those who couldn't walk or bike. When the cables couldn't bring enough power to work our lights, computers and air conditioners, we had diesel powered generators to supplement them.
In some visions of the future of cities, most transportation is powered by electricity, using energy ultimately supplied by sustainable sources. We already have electric subways and elevators, and in the past we've had electric streetcars and trolleybuses. Ultimately, I would like to see most car and truck trips replaced by electric rail and bus, and of course walking and bicycling.
But isn't that putting all our eggs in one transmission basket? What happens if we get another blackout like in 2003, and we don't have any cars or diesel buses to travel in? What if we get a brown-out like in 2006, and we don't have any diesel fuel to generate more electricity with?
Some of the answer is generating power locally, and in fact there are buildings in the neighborhood that have installed solar generators on the roofs and natural gas co-generation systems in the basements, but these only provide a fraction of the electricity needed, and the co-generation requires a supply of natural gas. I suppose we could have a completely redundant system of generators and buses powered by natural gas, but that presumes that we will have enough natural gas available then.
If any of you out there have information or insights, I'd love to hear them. Maybe you think Hopkins is right, and we should all move back to the land? In any case, please assume that we will reach peak oil, and that climate change will make other fossil fuels like "clean coal" and natural gas unsustainable. Feel free to disagree with those assumptions, but they are the premise of this discussion.