Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Cheap Land = Unresponsive Fuel Demand

NPR, the New York Times, and media establishments everywhere are running their usual kerfluffle about high gas prices that they always do when the average nationwide price reaches a certain even-numbered benchmark ($3.00! $3.50! $4.00!). In these pieces, there are often some recommendations for ways to get around without using cars, such as using public transportation, walking or riding a bike. Two things are certain: these recommendations will continue to be made by journalists when gas prices reach $4.50, $5.00, $6.00 and beyond, and these recommendations will continue to be ignored by Americans.

The problem is not with the callousness of Americans refusing to give up cars. We are often pointed to the examples in Europe where there are far fewer cars and more public transportation opportunities. But the only reason this automobile-less lifestyle thrives is because the structure of European cities is far different than the structure of American cities, and most of it has to do with the fact that European cities were built before cars were invented. Their cities are set up like the older parts of the older cities of America: high density, variable land use, narrow streets, all characteristics that encourage walking and discourage automobiles. But the newer parts of European cities are also built with more walkable characteristics than the newer parts of American cities. Why is this?

As always, it comes down to economics. Land is more expensive and harder to come by in Europe since more people have lived there for centuries longer than in America. In most of Europe, you had to be descended from nobility, money, the landed gentry, etc. to have a few acres of land. In America, land is plentiful, and we were annexing and giving away hundreds of acres of land at a time less than a century ago to anyone who promised to develop it. Therefore, a developer's can develop a lot more acres at a time in America than in Europe. This leads to lower density, larger areas of large houses and commercial developments, which of course leads to larger profits for developers. Larger developments and cheaper land also means that citizens may buy larger, better houses, as long as they are willing to live a fair distance from their place of employment, or place of shopping, or whatever. As communities spread in all directions, the ability to profitably serve all areas with convenient public transportation goes away. The only options then become cars or possibly bikes. But bicycles aren't all-weather vehicles, and some communities *cough* aren't very friendly to bikes in terms of bicycle infrastructure.

There are some people who could give up driving or decide to move away from Suburbia, but not most. Most of us decide that paying high gas prices is the price to pay for living in a decent-sized house in a good neighborhood. And if there is a ceiling to that price, we haven't found it yet. Are we all going to live in downtown apartments when gas prices get to $6 a gallon? $8 a gallon? $20 a gallon? I sort of doubt it. Therefore the only way most of us are going to save gas is by buying smaller cars, not by changing our modes of transportation or the places we live.


Jacob said...

I quibble with your potatoes. Not the first couple paragraphs' worth (spot-on), but most of the people who live far from walkable, public transportation-laden places certainly do it by choice. The unhealthy infatuation with land and space brought on by the cheap land prices that you mention is largely responsible (how long must we pay for that pioneering spirit that has so overextended us?). But there are other reasons people fled cities in the first place. Northern migration of a formerly enslaved population was one. Immigration is another. These are, after all, what people are talking about when they say "good neighborhood."

So I'd add White Flight to the previously-mentioned spaceloving as opponents to public transportation and walking. That's some values-driven stuff, Steve, which means it's probably really ingrained (no wonder gas prices aren't enough to change people!) but also something we can all take responsibility for.

In your last paragraph you first say that most couldn't leave suburbia, but then acknowledge in the next sentence that it's their decision. I'd agree that it would be incredibly difficult for most of the country to get up and leave the sticks, say, tomorrow...for reasons of industry location more than anything else. But industries will follow people if they all start migrating to urban centers. We could end up with a bunch of Londons, where people pay a premium to live in the city and in fact commute outwards(!) to industrial/office parks where suburbia would otherwise be. It would simply require Americans to adopt the spatially resilient attitude of their European counterparts, and be a bit braver about living amongst others not like themselves.

So it'll certainly take more than rising gas prices to change their living preferences, but not because their living preferences are so rational right now.

Steve said...

Okay, so the implicit racism of location is still flourishing in most neighborhoods in the United States, and while there can be an economic rationalization to this (land values that do not appreciate as fast), it is mostly a canard for the unwillingness to move next door to different races.

I never said that people who live far from walkable, public transportation-laden places don't do it by choice. But I did completely ignore the non-economic factors that are involved when people make decisions. Some value homogeneity more than others.

There are a mix of reasons why industries locate somewhere, and only one of those reasons is to go where workers are. Industries are as guilty as residents when it comes to chasing the cheap land though. New sizable places of employment tend to locate close enough to urban areas to take advantage of city infrastructure (utilities, human capital), but far enough away to escape the high prices of high-density locations.