High Gas Prices Won't Kill off Suburbs

With gas prices likely to head higher over the summer, expect urban liberal journalists to step up their campaign to get everyone to not just vote like them, but to live like them as well. The suburbs aren't going away anytime soon, though, regardless of what Iran or Katie Couric might do.

Joel Kotkin has an interesting article in Sunday's San Francisco Chronicle which argues that high gas prices will not only not kill off suburbia, they will actually make more people want to move in.
Predictions of the demise of suburbia, choked to death by high gasoline prices, may be greatly exaggerated.

Conventional wisdom suggests that high prices at the pump mean less driving and, hence, the withering of far-flung suburbs, whose residents must drive to jobs, shopping and recreation. [...]

Philadelphia Inquirer commentary page editor John Timpane, for example, suggests that high prices at the pump will lead to a return to the much mythologized urban past. He calls it, "Driving us back to the way we were." [...] CNN recently published a study that suggested that the "best cities" in an oil crisis are those much-loved traditional cities such as San Francisco, New York, Boston and Chicago.

Yet in reality, these fears -- or hopes -- may well prove misplaced. Higher energy costs could make people look for work closer to home, which for most of them is the suburbs.

Perhaps the best way to test the thesis of higher energy prices constricting suburbia is to look at the experience of the 1970s. In that decade, Americans faced an even steeper price rise than that anticipated by almost anyone today. Worse, we were hopelessly unprepared for it, and far more jobs, particularly high-paying ones, were located in the urban core. [...]

Nor did people move en masse to traditional older cities. In fact, the 1970s proved to be the only decade in the 20th century that overall urban population declined. Suburbanization proceeded apace, with jobs and people heading out to the hinterlands.

The energy-stricken '70s, notes Michael Carliner, an economist with the National Association of Home Builders, produced no discernible clamor for smaller houses or urban spaces. Driving, even by long-haul commuters, did not change much, although people did shift to more efficient, often foreign-made, cars.

Given this past experience, it's logical to expect more of the same this time. Higher gas prices will lead to fewer monster SUVs and more efficient cars, whether hybrid models or simply smaller, lighter versions of conventional cars. Home builders also may get smarter, as they did in the 1970s, using better insulation, double-paned windows and more efficient appliances, something that Carliner suggests might actually make new homes more attractive to buyers. [...]

Another thing that is unlikely to change is the trend toward urban decentralization. The evidence over the past two years shows a growing number of people moving from the largest cities to middle-sized and smaller communities.

Ultimately, higher energy prices cannot overcome the realities created by the car-oriented declustered environment in which we now live and work. As Paul Larrousse, director of the National Transit Institute, admits, the option for effective transit use has faded as the nation, and its jobs, have "spread out."
Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield, creator of NewsBusters and president of Dialog New Media, an internet marketing and design firm, left NewsBusters at the end of 2013