Matt Yglesias says
For one thing, it’s just not the case that some amazing technological breakthrough is required for people to have less gasoline-intensive lifestyles:(From the units this looks rather like a natural gas graph but still the rough form of gasoline consumption would be similar so let's go with it for the sake of argument.) It's important to understand the reasons for these differences. The graph above of gasoline consumption per capita is basically the inverse of this one, which shows urban density around the world:
I found the data here. This is year 2000 data but changes since then will be modest (except possibly in China) - the figure is the average number of people per square kilometer in all urban areas of more than half a million people.
The places with the highest gasoline usage (like the US) are the places with lowest density and conversely places like India and China with very low gasoline usage also have extremely high urban densities. It's this density that allows these kinds of things to work:
The technologies deployed in France—shorter commutes, lighter cars, trains, and buses—don’t require a massive R&D effort to implement. They require some investment in transit, they require a lot of changes to land use regulation, and they require people to receive a clear signal that saving money on gasoline by purchasing a lighter car and/or living closer to work is a good idea.Indeed, shorter commutes and public transit are much easier if many services are close enough to walk, which depends on having enough people packed in walking distance of the store/bus stop/subway station, etc to make the thing economically viable.
So this is quite true, but it's also very important to understand that the present differences in urban density have taken a century (at least) to put in place and cannot be unwound quickly. For example, if you are going to pack far more people into a given area you are going to have to make substantial changes in the housing stock (higher buildings, more apartments, etc) but the housing stock only changes slowly. For example, from this piece, here's the ratio of housing units built to total housing stock in recent decades:
And so while the project of making US cities denser might not require much technological innovation, the project of making US consumers use far less oil within something like the current urban matrix probably does.