The news is about gas price records, the booming commute times, tanking auto sales, and Barack Obama, who said Detroit has to step up on fuel efficiency. No surprise except that a presidential candidate said it. (When a Republican says it, that will be really something.)
Here’s how it goes: You move out to the burbs for space. It’s going to be a haul back and forth every day, but hey, you got a yard (finally), it’s quieter, air’s cleaner, and plus there’s the schools, and also your order isn’t constantly screwed up at the drive-thru’s out here.
That’s the commute-centered life. Very American! You take a hit on travel time but you get the good life (and more house for your dollar!). For 50 years, we’ve made this trade.
Now, though, we gotta stop.
We’re taking it to the logical extreme, and what once was a good deal is now a bad deal, agreed to only because it’s the best we can get. Now it’s the exurbs, not the suburbs. Places that used to be totally different towns are now satellites — the people all roll out at 6:45 every morning to beat traffic, and commutes get north of an hour, or even 90 minutes, each way. On a good day.
Couple that with gas prices. Average gas prices just broke all-time records, and when an uber-commute of 60 miles each way means you’re burning 5 or 6 gallons a day before your grocery run, you start approaching two 18-gallon fillups a week (since you had to drive on the weekend too). Monthly gas costs in that all-to0-common scenario crest $400 a month, $5000 a year.
The big problem is that for most people, you can’t not drive. It’s the only way to work for a huge majority of the US population. This elasticity of demand, i.e. you’ll buy a tank, pretty much whatever the price, is part of why prices go up so much in the first place. If prices go up 10%, you can’t reduce your mileage by 10% to match — you have to drive all the way to work, not just most of the way. Your mileage is locked in, no matter what the price.
So where are our cities going? They’re definitely growing. NYC is planning on another million people by 2030. The Economist pointed out that for the first time in human history, more humans are urban dwellers than rural dwellers. So will we grow wider, or denser? Will life in cities get worse, or better? How much should it cost, in money, hours and stress, just to go to work?
Cities can solve these problems by aggressively working to make sure their closer communities are livable, walkable, safe and economically vibrant. They can use zoning and tax breaks to shape, or reshape, their dormant areas where industrial sectors once stood or where neighborhoods never grew back after the original crowd left. They can invest in transit, and reap the long-term reward of a better tax base. Laissez faire, in this case, will not work for the benefit of most people; cities can use their power to direct growth and development for very positive changes that help the communities, the citizens and the environment.
But will they?