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Suburbs in the Era of High Gas Prices

Kevin Drum has posted a few interesting thoughts about the impact sustained high gas prices are likely to have on the suburbs.Here are a few reactions:(1) While he's right that jobs are now as likely to be in the suburbs as in center cities, I don't think this means that high gas prices won't lead to more centralization. Commutes are only one way in which people use their cars, and most car trips are for other purposes. The problem with suburban development as it exists in this country is not just that it keeps people far from work, but also that it makes them reliant on their cars for virtually everything they want to do -- going to the store, getting to the park, taking their kids to school, etc. Relocating to a suburb nearer to work would eliminate some miles traveled, but it would not fix the problem (this is particularly true for two-career families). Higher density and, perhaps more importantly, mixing of uses would increase the ability of both spouses to live near work as well as replace a number of non-commuting car trips with walking and biking trips.(2) It's true that, as Robert Bruegmann has argued, the suburbs are not a new phenomenon that suddenly appeared in the 1950s, but mass suburbanization is a new phenomenon. The auto-dependent sprawl that emerged as the dominant land-use pattern in the U.S. in the middle decades of the 20th century was simply not possible before car travel was affordable and convenient to the middle class (e.g., before the arrival of mass produced cars, cheap gas, and highways). People's desire for space was not something new, but the scale of the spreading out that occurred in this country, particularly after WWII, was unprecedented. Just as this spreading out depended on affordable automobile travel, making car travel dramatically more expensive undermines the viability of that mode of living. Increasing the cost of living in the suburbs by $1000-2000 per family member (as Drum hypothesizes) would put suburban living as it currently exists out of reach for an enormous number of American households, and this would have a dramatic impact on our metropolitan landscapes. (For a household of 4, this would mean $4000-8000 more per year in fuel costs, or -- for the median family -- more than 10% of already stretched and stagnant household incomes.)(3) Drum is right that people will resist massively higher densities, but this something of a straw man (Bruegmann sometimes makes the same mistake of treating sprawl as if it were just a matter of density). A great deal of our auto-dependence could be eliminated by mixing uses without huge increases in density. That said, higher density is inevitable and, as Bruegmann himself notes, was already happening even before the recent run-up in gas prices. But this does not mean that everyone has to give up their yards. Transit can be made to work even with densities that permit most people to live in detached single-family dwellings.

About the Author

Eduardo Moisés Peñalver is the Allan R. Tessler Dean of the Cornell Law School. He is the author of numerous books and articles on the subjects of property and land use law.



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Drum's talking about longterm trends, of course, but here's how some of that is playing out in our little burg right now. I live in exurbia, in a village where I can walk or ride my bike to the post office, grocery store, library and coffee shop. So lots of days I don't need to drive at all.Lot of carpooling started up with gas was over $4. Michigan has commuter lots off most freeway exits, so those of us within a 10-mile radius have a convenient place to meet up. Sadly, I drive a dinky Saturn, and nobody wants to commute with me because they're too squished in.Moving closer in looks attractive with the housing prices falling. But trying to unload a house out here in the sticks is a problem, especially if you've still got a mortgage on it. Our house will be paid for in a few years, and that's when we plan to move closer to the center of things.

I live a full hour's train ride west of Chicago and I ride that train in to work every morning. To do with one car in my family, I walk to the train station each morning; it's 2 1/2 miles from my house. It took me just a week to get used to doing this when I first moved to the town.The walking part makes me a flagrant non-conformist in my little town of course, but I am constantly surprised at how many people are amazed that I take the train. So many in the neighborhood drive to the Loop and their travel times are about the same as mine, end to end.We seem to assume that we either drive or we start building up. But public transportation is another option. Are there countries that whose communities are as dispersed as ours but who have a good public transportation grid? Japan comes to mind for me. At least in the Kansai, it has a good interconnecting train grid and lots of buses. But it also has people willing to use them. The bus system in my town is almost non-existant. The bus drivers are so used to not seeing any passengers that on the rare occasions that I have had to use one, I have had to carry a flashlight to flash in the eyes of the driver to get him or her to see me. The buses run every hour, but they are run down different streets at different times, which means that one can only catch it on the same street once or twice a day. The Regional Transportation Authority says that it won't put up any more buses because no one uses them. But no one uses them because no one can find them (or trust them).

Interesting post, Eduardo. As we've discussed before, I share your views (and, I think, aesthetics) with regard to cities and suburbs. That said, and with respect to Drum's piece, I think the whole picture is complicated by the fact that the "typical" commute is no longer a "suburb-to-city, out-to-in" trip; it is just as likely to be a suburb-to-suburb trip. In many cases, people live in the 'burbs *precisely* in order to be closer to where the jobs (at least, *their* jobs are). Which then raises questions about the disincentives that some cities present to businesses thinking about where to locate (and, of course, the incentives that some suburbs are willing to offer.) Like you, I think mixed-use development (and re-development) and traditional urban design have to be a part of the solution; but, so do local-government reforms, anti-corruption and -crime efforts, education and school-funding reform, etc.

It strikes me that there's an awful lot of interstitial space in suburbs that could be used for growing food -- i.e., lawns, parks, unused space along the sides of roads, etc. If Kunstler is really right in his apocalypticism, my guess is that "suburban farming" would start to take hold. I'd love to see it . . . I hate keeping up a lawn. Gardening is more work, but at least you end up with something other than grass clippings that get tracked in the house.

Amen, Stuart!If I can be allowed a short ramble on that topic:When we lived in student housing at Michigan State, the neighborhood set aside some city land for a community garden. Our plot was next to one cultivated by an elderly Vietnamese man. We were on the same weeding schedule, in the morning when the shade still covered the plots. He'd weed and then sit on his watering pail and drink a small bottle of Schlitz.He spoke no English, but one day I picked a HUGE zucchini from my garden and he started applauding and pointing at it. I had a lot of zucchini (nature of the beast), so I offered that one to him. He promptly pulled a bowl out of his knapsack, poured out half his Schlitz and offered it to me. I'd given up drinking years ago, and warm beer at 10 a.m. wasn't all that appealing. But I didn't want to offend him, so I thought of it as a kind of communion, so I listed to him pointing out all his vegetables telling me God knows what while I smiled and drank my bowl o' beer. I've never forgotten how much fun that garden was or how satisfying it was to make a present of something I'd grown myself.

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