Blackout Lesson: Keep the Gas Tank Full

August 20, 2003
Wendell Cox

There was a transport dimension to Blackout 2003.

Two nations, at least 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

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 congestion of first-world
Asian proportions. And then there were the unfortunatefew 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 a senior fellow of The Heartland Institute; a consultant to public and private public policy, planning, and transportation organizations; and a visiting professor at a French national university. His email is This article first appeared on the PLANetizen,,

For further information contact Heartland Public Affairs Director Greg Lackner at 312/377-4000, 773/489-6447, email