Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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August 12, 2008
By: Kevin Drum

THE BURBS....Matt points us today to a discussion on the Freakonomics blog about the future of suburbia in the face of increasing gasoline prices. The consensus view is fairly grim, but it reminds me of a few random points about urban land use that have been on my mind for a while. There's no big overarching point here, and nothing especially original, just a few thoughts that don't seem to get much attention in blogospheric discussions of the burbs.

First: Will rising gas prices inevitably push people into the cities as they become desperate to cut down their commutes? Maybe, but it's worth keeping in mind that commutes go in both directions these days. There are plenty of jobs in the exurbs (Joel Garreau's "edge cities"), and although individual circumstances vary widely, this means that an awful lot of commutes today are entirely voluntary. As gas prices go up, workers will start taking jobs closer to home (wherever that may be) or will move to be closer to work (wherever that may be), and commuting will be reduced substantially without any change in infrastructure or land use planning at all.

Second: A focus on increased density is going to mean a funny political switcheroo for a lot of liberals. We're mostly accustomed to fighting evil corporations on behalf of the little guy, but it turns out that most suburban (and many urban) zoning regulations have been put in place by exactly the little guys we're used to teaming up with. Developers, on the other hand, would happily build out every last acre to the maximum possible density and maximum possible profit if only they were allowed to. So if we're in favor of higher density, we're frequently going to find ourselves siding with big developers and very much against local public opinion — and believe me, you haven't really taken on the task of changing public opinion until you've sat through a planning commission meeting trying to out-talk an angry mob of homeowners who are dead set against a proposed zoning change that might affect their property values by 1%. Strange bedfellows indeed, but those are the bedfellows we're going to have to get used to.

Third: What will higher gas prices really do to the burbs? Well, let's suppose that over the next couple of decades the price of oil (adjusted for inflation) goes up to $400 a barrel. No — screw that. Let's say $800, with gas at 25 bucks a gallon. Are suburbs doomed?

Well, aside from prompting development of lots of alternative energy sources, sky-high prices like that will cause us to use less gasoline. At a very conservative estimate, prices like that are likely to reduce driving by 40% (about to the level of suburb-friendly Australia right now) and increase average fuel efficiency by 40% (about to the level of Europe right now). Taken together, this means we'd use about two-thirds less gasoline per person than we do now.

Today, the average American spends about $2,000 per year on gasoline. So, if the price of gas goes up to $25, but consumption of gasoline goes down by two-thirds, that means the average person will be spending about $4,000 per year on gasoline. That's a difference of $2,000 — not pocket change by any means, but certainly something that most suburbs can live through. They may be suburbs with more light rail and better bus service — as well as more apartment blocks and taller office buildings — but they'll still fundamentally be suburbs.

Anyway, that's it. Like I said, just some random thoughts. And pretty much in tune with sensible stuff like this. As Robert Bruegmann has pointed out, suburbs aren't just some unnatural American invention of the high-flying 50s: they've been around for a very long time, in pretty much every region of the world. Cities and suburbs will both see changes over the next few decades, but my guess is that those changes will be less dramatic than a lot of people think.

Kevin Drum 7:39 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (70)

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My guess: You're going to see more 20 and 30-somethings living in downtowns, which will lead to increased gentrification in inner cities across the country. Meanwhile, families will still prefer suburbs, because the $2,000 will be worth it for the safe feeling and bigger yard.

Posted by: AMP on August 12, 2008 at 7:48 PM | PERMALINK

Safety and bigger yards are not the only reason to prefer suburbs to inner cities. In many places the only way to select your public school is by living in the right neighborhood. Unless the annual price of gas becomes greater than the annual tuition at a private school, middle class families aren't going to be moving into downtown Washington.

Posted by: skeptic on August 12, 2008 at 7:55 PM | PERMALINK

I don't see any reason to beleive that developers are in love with super high density housing. Building high density is a lot harder. It's easier for them to pave undeveloped land and put up mcmansions.

Posted by: doug on August 12, 2008 at 7:55 PM | PERMALINK

Crime and schools are, of course, two of the key drivers of suburban popularity. However, just as it was a vicious cycle that was responsible for the decline of both schools and public safety in big cities in the postwar era, there's a virtuous cycle that might slowly improve safety and schools in urban areas and bring more families back into cities. It won't happen overnight, and it won't decimate the burbs, but it's certainly a dynamic to keep an eye on.

Posted by: Kevin Drum on August 12, 2008 at 7:59 PM | PERMALINK

I wonder if new communications and information technologies won't, at some point, appear more attractive to corporations than building taller office buildings. Most of what goes on in office buildings, as far as I can tell, doesn't need to go on at all. Much of the rest of it could be done using decentralized offices that require no new real estate development at all (home offices, e.g.).

Posted by: NealB on August 12, 2008 at 8:03 PM | PERMALINK

We're mostly accustomed to fighting evil corporations on behalf of the little guy, but it turns out that most suburban (and many urban) zoning regulations have been put in place by exactly the little guys we're used to teaming up with

Kevin clearly lives in California. In many places in the US, zoning boards are owned by the developers.

Posted by: Walker on August 12, 2008 at 8:17 PM | PERMALINK

"Let's say $800, with gas at 25 bucks a gallon."

The math's off. 42 gallons to a barrel, so $800/barrel is about $19/gallon, or $25/gallon is $1050/barrel (hope I did that right).

The second option seems unlikely.

Posted by: Brian Schmidt on August 12, 2008 at 8:22 PM | PERMALINK

I'm tempted to put a ticker on my car:

At ~$4 per gallon, this car costs ~13¢ per mile to operate.
How much does yours cost?

Posted by: Crissa on August 12, 2008 at 8:29 PM | PERMALINK

...It would take $8/gal gas for me to be paying the same as the average SUV. And I don't drive a hybrid or anything special.

Also, if at $100/barrel we have $4/gallon... How would we have $19/gallon at $800/barrel, Brian? Refined gasoline costs more than the raw material.

Posted by: Crissa on August 12, 2008 at 8:32 PM | PERMALINK

...Public School performance has more to do with who goes to the school than the school itself. If a neighborhood gentrifies, the school that belongs to it does as well.

(And PS, if we stay at the same ratio, $800/barrel would be $40/gallon gasoline, not $25 or $19...)

Posted by: Crissa on August 12, 2008 at 8:36 PM | PERMALINK

It is a rare weekend that no suburbanite empty-nesters ring all the buzzers in our lobby until someone comes down and tells them that no, there are no vacancies in our building, and no, no one is in sub-prime trouble or otherwise about to be forced out of our homes. Our building is nothing extravagant - a brick walkup with a curved staircase and nice appointments. Nice enough, but still modest and unassuming. What makes it really attractive is the fact that the public transit system in KC was, apparently, designed for the residents of this building. Access to transit was a major consideration in our decision to purchase here when a unit became available. Every time I think to look at the price of gasoline, I feel ever more validated by that decision.

Posted by: Blue Girl, Red State on August 12, 2008 at 8:45 PM | PERMALINK

There's another dynamic that's beginning to evolve. As the urban cores gentrify, it's pushing out the type of folks who make the inner city so scary for so many suburbanites.

And where is it pushing them? The suburbs.

Posted by: Wilm on August 12, 2008 at 8:47 PM | PERMALINK

I think you analysis is sketchy.

First - using the average to calculate the future costs is just wrong. All the people living in close-in suburbs mask the true effect.

A better measure would be to define a radius - say 20 miles. If your job is 20 miles away then you are driving 20 miles a day. Assume you get 40 miles a gallon (big assumption). Under your scenario that is $25 a day for gas alone. 50 weeks a year, 5 days a week ends up being $6,250. That is for commuting costs alone. We aren't including errands, etc. Considering that at current prices that same commute costs ~1,000 a year you can see the difference.

At that price you could easily spend 8K more on gas living in a suburb. Considering the median family income is 40 - 50K, that is a huge chunk of change.

I'm from Boston. Using Boston as an example - living outside 128 would become very expensive.

Of course gas won't hit $25. So many other competing technologies become viable well below that price. Still, even at $12 a gallon - much more reasonable - I still wouldn't want to live further out than Somerville.

Posted by: Adam on August 12, 2008 at 8:49 PM | PERMALINK

I disagree with Kevin's observation about the political switcheroo, and I think it's a really weird, bad point to make.

First: Why would we ever side against the little guy? We are, by definition, on the side of the weak and common.

Second: If more humble people want to live closer to work because they need more fuel-efficient living, then it's the common man whose interests ae going to do a switcheroo-- it's not just insane liberals who are going to want something that nobody needs or wants. It's going to be people who would have been much more likely to be in favor of parks and open spaces in the '80s, '90s and '00s who someday are going to be saying that the government needs to allow more building of apartments in large suburbs to accomodate them finding a job that makes sense.

Poor job, Kevin.

Posted by: Swan on August 12, 2008 at 8:53 PM | PERMALINK

in ball park figures, Kevin's analysis makes sense, but transitioning to driving 40% less and having 40% higher fuel economy is the killer.

Posted by: Patrick (G) on August 12, 2008 at 8:56 PM | PERMALINK

A big thing I think you left out is the political switcheroo that's going to occur as conservative whites from lower middle class backgrounds have to move into (or back into) neighborhoods that have become diverse. Living around people who are different than you tends to make you less racist, so over the course of a generation or two, this should end up converting a lot of them and their kids away from a very racist, privately-held ideology.

It won't be like the '50s or '60s-- there isn't going to be a lot of racial violence between common whites and common blacks. White people don't have the motivation to do it anymore. They may still be racist, but they're not going to pick up sticks and stones and do the fighting themselves.

Posted by: Swan on August 12, 2008 at 8:58 PM | PERMALINK

Well, let's suppose that over the next couple of decades the price of oil (adjusted for inflation) goes up to $400 a barrel.

Why? The U.S. can make liquid fuel plenty of ways for less than that, and is expanding its capacity to do so. Even with the costs of water clean-up and CO2 sequestration included, gasoline from coal is much cheaper than that. There are proven technologies for water clean-up and CO2 sequestration, the only unknowns right now being their exact costs and operating characteristics as production is scaled up.

And that's just coal. Honda makes H2 for its H2-powered cars. There's ethanol and butanol from cellulose. Fuel from algae and solar-powered catalysts (both CO[leading to synfuels] from CO2 dissolved in water, and H2 from water.)

Revisit this question in 2012. The whole fuel economy will be different.

Posted by: on August 12, 2008 at 9:05 PM | PERMALINK

Also- doesn't it seem like this is going to lead to a demographic switcheroo in which a lot of the formerly mostly which communities (except for the most affluent) cease to exist, or anyway cease to have that character, while a lot of new places are opened up to ultra-poor, non-white ethnic enclaves?

Follow me for a second:

1) Lower-middle class / middle class whites leave communities because those communities do not provide jobs that provide the kind of lifestyle they want, in light of the increased cost of transportation. The places where this vacated housing is located become cheaper in terms of home prices and rents because middle-class demand for it is less.

2) But there are other people who are so poor, they are willing to bicycle very far distances or take public transit very far distances to get to work-- like immigrants from Mexico and Third World nations. They may fill in some of those former suburbs.

3) So urban areas that were mixes with more blacks / minorities will get some more whites, new non-white enclaves will replace the previously highly-white lower class areas, and no new mostly-white areas will appear to replace the formerly mostly-white suburbs.

Posted by: Swan on August 12, 2008 at 9:06 PM | PERMALINK

Also- doesn't it seem like this is going to lead to a demographic switcheroo in which a lot of the formerly mostly which communities

This should have said "mostly white"- sorry.

Posted by: Swan on August 12, 2008 at 9:08 PM | PERMALINK

oops, that was I at 9:05 pm.

by "operating characteristics" I mean things such as exactly how much of the planned 90% (an example) of the CO2 is really sequestered, and how often the equipment has to be replaced. Lots is known, but except for the Great Plains synfuels plant there isn't any experience with large-scale production, and they sell their CO2 to the Canadian oil fields to enhance the recovery of oil -- probably atypical for the rest of the U.S.

Posted by: MatthewRMarler on August 12, 2008 at 9:12 PM | PERMALINK

Anyway, as people move out of their less-dense suburbs, and cities and dense suburbs become more developed, there is still going to be a demand for open spaces and relaxation in parks.

The thin suburbs of today will be redeveloped as parks, open-space amusement and the like probably by public forces as well as private entrepreneurs. The greening of America will happen, just by different means-- instead of by flower power, by necessity and capitalism.

Posted by: Always A Profit To Be Made Somewhere on August 12, 2008 at 9:15 PM | PERMALINK

Oh the humanity! Please save those that have a net worth of +millions$. Those who impede their ecologically motivated hegira must be removed. Isn't capitalism grand?

Posted by: Michael7843853 on August 12, 2008 at 9:28 PM | PERMALINK

I really enjoy reading this blog for stuff like this. Several random thoughts strung together into a coherent argument with thoughtful analysis.

Good job Kevin! You are my favorite blogger. I keep thinking that one day I will get redirected to the Atlantic or something for your new gig.

Keep it up man!

Chad

Posted by: Chad on August 12, 2008 at 9:30 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin,

If oil goes to $800/barrel, I can safely predict that we will then see a real "war for oil" no matter who is president. In those circumstances, even Dennis Kucinich would send the marines to seize the Saudi and Venezuelan wells.

Posted by: DBL on August 12, 2008 at 9:34 PM | PERMALINK

You're not taking telecommuting into account. Most white collar jobs are performed today mainly by people sitting at computers. With conferencing technology, those computers can be pretty much anywhere.

My company already has a de-facto policy that you can work from home one day a week. Many people I work with are already edging their way into two-day a week territory, with certain weekdays emerging as 'everyone come into the office for meetings' day.

Two days a week telecommuting cuts your transportation costs forty percent. Lots of people are figuring this out.

Posted by: Arachnae on August 12, 2008 at 9:36 PM | PERMALINK

Commuting to work isn't the only thing that'll get squeezed. Stand near the front doors of any suburban middle or high school after classes let out.

Hundreds of kids in flip-flops whining into cell phones: "Come pick me up." The rest of them are in the parking lot, in their own cars, getting revved up to tool around the streets and roads for a few hours. Play dates, sleep-overs, athletics and other extra curriculars--all dependent on cars and parents-as-chauffeurs.

Need something from the store; forget it. Price of gas says "Shop once a week".

Nothing is walkable, especially for sixth graders weighing 250 lbs., whose only footwear is flip-flops.

Suburbs are doomed.

Posted by: Jim Bouman on August 12, 2008 at 9:37 PM | PERMALINK

All you visionaries out there need to tell me where the poor are going to live in the future. It seems like the consensus is that the city is going to be taken over by hipsters, and the poor won't be able to afford the suburbs anymore. Do they just sort of disappear? Go live in the woods? But then who will do the dirty work for the hipsters and the telecommuters?

Your role-playing games are overlooking a good 50% of the population.

My guesses about some things:

Cars will get a little smaller and there will be more kids on motorcycles.

Some suburbs will go upscale and develop their own mixed-business cores. Others will die out.

It's easy to get a little crazy making predictions; apocalypse has a vividness to it that makes it seem more realistic and therefore likely; but what's most likely is that we'll just muddle through.

Posted by: lampwick on August 12, 2008 at 10:02 PM | PERMALINK

lampwick: It's easy to get a little crazy making predictions

Modifying John Kenneth Galbraith's famous quip, I'd say "the only function of futurist's predictions is to make astrology look respectable."

Posted by: alex on August 12, 2008 at 10:11 PM | PERMALINK

Lampwick's comment criticizing everybody seems to be mis-directed-- nobody seemed to be ignoring the poor in a way that defeated their speculations or arguments.

Sure, poor people will be pouring coffee and driving taxis in the future for middle-class and rich people. But just like it's going to be cheaper for middle class people to move to cities and bigger suburbs (because that's where the jobs will be) it will be cheaper for the poor to live in cities and bigger suburbs, or near them, because that's where the jobs (pourig coffee, mopping floors and driving taxis for the middle class people) will be.

The only people who are left out of this are the very poor, who (as I wrote in previous comment) might be priced out of living within a few blocks of a job and might be the new mass-transit commuters of the future. They'll have less monetary power to buy their way out of being imposed upon to ride two-hours on a train each way to work, or to bicycle a half-an-hour or an hour each way to-and-from work.

Less-dense areas may become the new Mexican ghettoes and a lot of city tenements that used to be occupied by people like Dominicans, Asians and South Americans may end up going to middle-class suburbanites like a lot of New Jerseyans.

We may see that mass-transit commutes will have to become cheaper per-ticket for the new arrangement to work.

Posted by: Swan on August 12, 2008 at 10:19 PM | PERMALINK

Sorry, Swan, just a little grumpy this evening.

All the population shifts were talking about don't seem plausible to me, though; and the reason is that it's taking a desire to economize and be prudent and making that the prime motivator behind decisions of where to live.

I think though that if you look at actual Americans, our lifestyle decisions are driven by a (usually misinformed) grasping after opportunity, costs be damned; and to a much, much smaller degree, by fear (fear drives white flight, for example).

So the question to ask is, what will be the cool or exciting place to live in ten years for the rich, the middle class, and the poor? And indeed it may be urban areas. Or it may not be. But just because a place is cheap to live in, doesn't mean that it will automatically attract people to it.

Posted by: lampwick on August 12, 2008 at 10:40 PM | PERMALINK

You're missing the variable effects by region. Generally speaking the older areas of the country are the more dense. And rural areas are more adversely affected than urban areas. Remember Clinton/Gore's ill-fated carbon/gas tax in 1993--it was sunk by the Great Plains and Mountain states.

On the other hand, we've been through this before in the 1970's. Oil is going below $80 before it goes to $400.

Posted by: Bill Harshaw on August 12, 2008 at 10:44 PM | PERMALINK

They may be suburbs with more light rail and better bus service — as well as more apartment blocks and taller office buildings

Um Light rail? you'll have to contend first with whackos such as Michelle Bachmann

This is their agenda," Bachmann states bluntly. "I know it is hard to believe, it's hard to fathom -- but this is 'mission accomplished' for them," she asserts. "They want Americans to take transit and move to the inner cities. They want Americans to move to the urban core, live in tenements, (and) take light rail to their government jobs. That's their vision for America."

link

Take light rail to go to a government job. I guess we ride our bicycles to collect our welfare checks.

Posted by: CSTAR on August 12, 2008 at 10:46 PM | PERMALINK

Re schools in urban areas - Here in Oakland, with a notoriously wretched public school system, I can think of three elementary schools that have been "turned" or gentrified in the last decade, with more on the way. There are a couple more that are "hidden jewels" i.e. just about ready to turn, and then there's one where the neighborhood gentrified rapidly and organized a committee to work with the local school principal.

Our councilwoman a few years back encountered a group of parents worried about the local school in their recently gentrified neighborhood. She told them to make a pact and put all their 5 year olds in one class. A handful of middle-class kids in one classroom can spike the test scores into "normal" range. That school, six years later, is now a recognized "good" school that people want.

THis does not always work out but it can happen. Organized parents, enough of them, can make a difference. I predict that as the economy bumps along and people stop being able to tap their home equity or the grandparents for private school tuition, more city schools in newly gentrified neighborhoods will get re-populated by the middle class.

Posted by: Leila Abu-Saba on August 12, 2008 at 10:49 PM | PERMALINK

I wonder if, when an urban area gets gentrified, does the population density go up, because abandoned structures are reclaimed, or does it go down, because the new arrivals require more personal space than their predecessors, or does it basically stay the same?

Posted by: lampwick on August 12, 2008 at 10:58 PM | PERMALINK

It is not just that fossil fuel will be more expensive. It will be expensive because it will be scarce. It is not as though we can have all the oil we want as long as we pay more for it. Think of it as an auction, the auction winners get gasoline, the losers don't. It is not just driving that will become prohibitively expensive. Water production, sewer treatment, electricity generation will all become costlier.

The prediction of the demise of the suburbs is based on the idea that these costs will make urban living more attractive. Even at $4 a gallon people are abandoning SUVs and trucks. If they see that city living is significantly cheaper that will skew their decisions.

Personally, I suspect that people will move to small towns centered on railroad stations such that they can walk to most places and goods can be shipped in out far cheaper than by truck.

I'll give the doubters their due, we can forecast that suburban living will become more expensive, it is much more difficult to predict how people will react.

Posted by: JohnK on August 12, 2008 at 11:01 PM | PERMALINK

The biggest problem with the burbs is not distance from home to work, it is the distance between home and shopping. Big boxes are the bane of suburban live.

When I was in Europe we spent time in a lot of time in suburbans, but we didn't have to drive to the store to shop for groceries. Every little town was built around a town center or a series of town centers close enough for everybody to walk.

I would love to walk or bike to the grocery. I would every day or two if it was close enough and didn't require me to cross a major and dangerous highway going and coming.

Several years ago I worked for a visionary developer. He tried to build a greenfield suburb on the European model including mixed commercial and residential. He wanted everybody to be able to walk to the grocery, school, library, a community center and boat dock. He wanted to have a lot community green space. He was turned down flat by the short sighted morons on the planning commission in love with the car culture, Walmart and Home Depot. Being turned down really crushed him. He thought he was doing something good for the community. Anyway he resubmitted a conventional plan and built a bunch of McMansions around a lake. He made a lot of money.

Here is a dirty little secret for you, many fire codes, zoning ordinances and subdivision restrictions essentially prohibit home offices. Most towns don't enforce those codes or ordinances and most homes associations wink at the restrictions, but it only takes one Barney Fife type fire chief, mayor or homes association president to really damage the development of home businesses in a community.

Posted by: Ron Byers on August 12, 2008 at 11:05 PM | PERMALINK

To second anonymous poster's point: If we're still using gasoline to power cars in a couple decades we'll have a lot more to worry about than where to live.

Posted by: nepeta on August 12, 2008 at 11:07 PM | PERMALINK

I think I may be the epitome of the something-or-other: to get to work, I drive ten minutes in my car, walk fifteen minutes to the train, ride the train for an hour and a half, ride the subway for an hour, and walk five minutes to my building. Total commuting time, one way: 3 hours.

Fortunately, I only have to go to my workplace twice a week, fourteen weeks per semester. And I do a lot of prep work on the train.

All this, because I would rather live in the suburbs than inhabit the city where the school I work is. (I'm finicky about noise and trash and cramped spaces.)

And I really like the train; it's fun.

Posted by: lampwick on August 12, 2008 at 11:12 PM | PERMALINK

$25 was the price I thought gas would have to go to before I would use the bare minimum.

Posted by: Brojo on August 12, 2008 at 11:28 PM | PERMALINK

A lot depends upon the speed of the gas price runup. If it happens too quickly, so that people systems and vehicle mixes etc can't change quickly enough it will be a bump transition. But if it slow enough, people can adapt. How can they adapt, here are several ways:
(1) telecommuting.
(2) Hybrids => plugin hybrids -> plugins running car pools.
(3) The average commute distance will probably go down.

By doing a bit of all three, things don't work out so bad. The real issue is if gas becomes too expensive (say $10/gallon) before the current crop of SUVs wears out, we will find a lot of stranded investment.

btw: a barrel is 42 gallons, but we only maybe 20gal of gasoline from it. We do get a lot of other stuff, from the barrel, stuff like butane/propane, diesel, kerosene (jet fuel), and tar for roadways. The refinery must find buyers for all these products, and overall pay for the oil, plus operating costs. Currently relative to the demand, gasoline is in excess, and diesel is in shortage. This means that diesel is more expensive, and gasoline less, i.e. fuelwise diesel users are currently subsidizing gasoline users.

Posted by: bigTom on August 12, 2008 at 11:30 PM | PERMALINK

What happens to the people and the lifestyles of those who live in rural Alabama, or North Dakota, when gas hits $25/gal.?

Posted by: lampwick on August 12, 2008 at 11:44 PM | PERMALINK

1) In our part of the country developers are pushing to develop whatever land they already have under newer zoning that allows higher use. But, that mostly means developing suburbs in small towns adjacent to larger ones and pushing out urban growth boundaries. Not being Los Angeles we don't generally see much of a push for building up. The developers don't own large amounts of contiguous urban landscape and they can turn farm land into houses much faster with fewer city council meetings.

2) Why does everyone think the price at the pump is the one that's going to hurt. How about the price of agricultural products? For instance the ones which used to be produced on that agricultural land we've been turning into suburbs -- and are now transported from Mexico or Chile? How about the price of textiles and manufactured goods made from petrochemical products and transported across the ocean in container ships? How about the price of raw materials, aluminum, steel, copper -- increasingly mined and refined overseas and transported to the US?

I actually don't know what reference frame to use for thinking about the price of oil. Can you give us an estimate in terms of loaves of bread?

Posted by: B on August 13, 2008 at 12:02 AM | PERMALINK

Lampwick,

Those communities die. They are dying now at $4 a gallon. Communities in Northern Cal are dying. Many of them have very high proportions of seniors on fixed incomes and they can't the distances required for shopping or medical treatment. Those town will die.

Posted by: Tigershark on August 13, 2008 at 12:11 AM | PERMALINK

Kevin, and Freakonomics folks, you're talking only about quantity, and not quality on point 2.

Cities can be and should be focusing on building codes more than zoning ordinances, requiring MUCH higher insulation standards, more use of recycled material, etc.

Posted by: SocraticGadfly on August 13, 2008 at 12:25 AM | PERMALINK

$800/barrel oil would severely reduce consumers.

Posted by: egg on August 13, 2008 at 3:13 AM | PERMALINK

I think you are way under estimating the kinds of changes that are going to take place if inexpensive alternatives to oil are not found in unexpected places. think about getting food to market. Right now we transport food long distances to market. The interstates are filled with semis, 24 - 7. Imagine what will happen to the dwellers of our big cities if this stream of trucks is not supplanted by more efficient energy consumers.

We are seeing some evidence of energy production welcoming lots of small producers. This kind of energy will fit well with new patterns of population. I believe people will begin to build satellite communities with a mixture of businesses and agriculture, and with a lot if innovation involved, like communities producing electricity from garbage and using the heat to warm their homes and greenhouses. I hope these communities will be interconnected by mag-lev trains or other alternatives that represent a new national transportation system taking the place of highways and air. And that's just the beginning. Imagine, that parking lot you paved may become a farm again.

Posted by: frank logan on August 13, 2008 at 4:42 AM | PERMALINK

I think you are way under estimating the kinds of changes that are going to take place if inexpensive alternatives to oil are not found in unexpected places. think about getting food to market. Right now we transport food long distances to market. The interstates are filled with semis, 24 - 7. Imagine what will happen to the dwellers of our big cities if this stream of trucks is not supplanted by more efficient energy consumers.

We are seeing some evidence of energy production welcoming lots of small producers. This kind of energy will fit well with new patterns of population. I believe people will begin to build satellite communities with a mixture of businesses and agriculture, and with a lot if innovation involved, like communities producing electricity from garbage and using the heat to warm their homes and greenhouses. I hope these communities will be interconnected by mag-lev trains or other alternatives that represent a new national transportation system taking the place of highways and air. And that's just the beginning. Imagine, that parking lot you paved may become a farm again.

Posted by: frank logan on August 13, 2008 at 4:42 AM | PERMALINK

Of course filling up the family car is the place where you least notice oil prices. Food prices, plastic & petrochemical stuff prices and the prices of hauling said stuff all over the world would also go up, and jobs at places that depend on those go down. In other words: the line "compensated for inflation" hides much of what a 2028 pocket book looks like.
But on the other hand the decades timeframe makes the whole "traveling to work" thing old fashioned for many. Everything done behind a desk with a computer and a phone on it can already be done from behind any desk with any computer and any phone. Once the kids that currently clog the networks with personal Im's and text messages get a job it becomes more acceptable to do personal communication at a distance. By then its not just the official big table and powerpoint "strategy meetings" that are accepted as much online as in person, but also the in-prompto watercooler talk at which crucial strategies are set.

And if people go from not eating microwaved sausage, in a pancake, on a stick to eating microwaved sausage, in a pancake on a stick in the timespan of on year, then clearly non of us can predict what people eat in 2028. If its durable and can be kept in a high efficiency fridge (if it needs cooling at all) then it could be delivered efficiently once a month by a truck delivering on-line orders door to door. Food sciences are... Well they are science and there is no telling how appetizing locally grown cheap crap-crops can be made to appear.

Posted by: mb on August 13, 2008 at 5:41 AM | PERMALINK

Crime and schools are, of course, two of the key drivers of suburban popularity. However, just as it was a vicious cycle that was responsible for the decline of both schools and public safety in big cities in the postwar era, there's a virtuous cycle that might slowly improve safety and schools in urban areas and bring more families back into cities. It won't happen overnight, and it won't decimate the burbs, but it's certainly a dynamic to keep an eye on.

Posted by: Kevin Drum on August 12, 2008 at 7:59 PM

Unfortunately. it probably won't rise all boats. There's still a considerable portion of our society that rates the quality of schools in inverse proportion to the percentage of non-wealthy non-whites enrolled. And for them, I'm not sure what the reverse "tipping point" is.

Beyond that, I welcome the future. I spent nearly a decade living in Westfield, N.J., an old-line suburban town with a splendid downtown core easily walkable for shopping, a NJ Transit train station across the street from my apartment. That's the direction future suburbs should go.

Posted by: Vincent on August 13, 2008 at 6:59 AM | PERMALINK

Has anyone ever made the point that rising land and housing prices are class warfare that property owners can support? Anyway that seems to be the intended effect.

Poor people spend most of their income on rents. There would be no need to raise the minimum wage if property values weren't raising at a much higher rate.

Posted by: slanted tom on August 13, 2008 at 7:02 AM | PERMALINK

It would probably be possible to preserve the car-based exurb if its dwellers were willing to switch to a mix of Honda Fit-type vehicles (and their smaller cousins sold in Japan) and minimal use of time-shared minivans. Probably powered by some form of biodiesel and electricity in the long run.

But the problem is that USians have invested so much ego in the size and "horsepower" of our automobiles that like the Easter Islanders who chopped down their lasts tree we will keep driving the Hummers and the BMW 980xslq's until the last drop of gasoline is burned, then be forced back to horses. The few that survive anyway.

Cranky

Posted by: Cranky Observer on August 13, 2008 at 8:16 AM | PERMALINK

There's been a huge fight in Brooklyn about the Atlantic Yards project, which will build very dense affordable housing as well as a stadium. Its interesting, because ACORN, the group I work for, has come out for the development and has had to fight tooth and nail against some very determined attacks to get it to move forward.

Its good policy, for many of the same reasons that you comment on here, but the left has killed us on that. If you want more affordable housing in a city, at some point, you have to plain build more housing.

Posted by: Brennan Griffin on August 13, 2008 at 8:32 AM | PERMALINK

I don't expect the mean density of the exurbs to change; I expect they'll just get lumpier instead, as little towns coalesce out of the featureless sprawl, centered around bus stops or rail, or streetcars.

Exurban residents whose houses are near these new centers will be somewhat the winners, and those whose houses are between centers will be somewhat the losers.

Posted by: derek on August 13, 2008 at 8:38 AM | PERMALINK

There's going to be a bit of a penalty for living in an oil-heated home in the northern latitudes, too. Where we live (a trolley-car suburb outside Boston) we've got the commute pretty well under control, but heating costs this winter are going to be alarming. For every gallon of gasoline I burn in my car, I probably burn four or five of oil in my furnace. It would take a really crap commute in an SUV to get the gasoline consumption for driving equal to the oil consumption for heating.

And I would agree more with the "we'll adapt" crowd; some of the suburbs I've lived in over the years (in Florida, in California) are dense enough to support close-in shopping/services, if you can convince the zoning boards to allow them, and if you can convince the people who control the roads to make them hospitable to pedestrians, bicycles, and golf carts (if you want your plug-in hybrid today, there it is).

Posted by: dr2chase on August 13, 2008 at 9:48 AM | PERMALINK

dr2chase wrote: "There's going to be a bit of a penalty for living in an oil-heated home in the northern latitudes, too."

If you have any sunshine on your property, you can implement solar water and space heating. It's far less expensive than solar electricity, and if you are "handy" you can even build your own solar space heat collectors yourself at very low cost. It probably won't eliminate your need for oil-fired heat, but it could significantly reduce it.

If you are interested in this check the Mother Earth News website which has a number of articles on solar space and water heating, including articles on how to build your own collectors. A commercially available, relatively low-cost solution is SolarSheat collectors.

Posted by: SecularAnimist on August 13, 2008 at 10:19 AM | PERMALINK

In the future, the suburbs will be "re-agriculturalized" and will become "green belts" providing food for suburban and urban populations. This will become increasingly important as the skyrocketing cost of fuel drives up the cost of food that is transported hundreds or even thousands of miles in refrigerated diesel trucks from farm to consumer, a practice which is vastly and absurdly wasteful of energy (and a major contributor to the overall global warming impacts of agriculture).

People will grow a lot of their own food, and suburban market gardens and "micro-farms" will produce food for sale at local farmers markets.

During World War II, urban and suburban "victory gardens" produced a huge amount of fresh produce. And when Cuba's supply of cheap (subsidized) fossil fuels was slashed following the collapse of the USSR, organic urban and suburban gardens fed the whole country.

There is already quite a lot of land available in the US suburbs where food could be grown. And suburbanites already spend a lot of time, money and effort on maintaining lawns and other decorative plantings. If those resources were simply directed towards growing edible plants instead of decorative plants, then a significant amount of food could be grown in the suburbs with hardly any more effort than people already put into maintaining their yards.

Posted by: SecularAnimist on August 13, 2008 at 10:30 AM | PERMALINK

I wonder if, when an urban area gets gentrified, does the population density go up, because abandoned structures are reclaimed, or does it go down, because the new arrivals require more personal space than their predecessors, or does it basically stay the same? Posted by: lampwick

Whether the population density of a city block changes is a function of whether the uses of existing structures are changed or not. If it's a warehouse converted to flats, then the population density will increase.

When we lived on the Upper West side, most of the brownstones on the block, built as SFR originally, had been carved up, typically, into four to six apartments. There were only a few that been converted back into SFR after decades of life as apartments.

Redevelopment is what increases urban population density - tearing down a block of low rise apartment buildings to be replaced by high rise condos or apartments.

Posted by: Jeff II on August 13, 2008 at 11:05 AM | PERMALINK

“As gas prices go up, workers will start taking jobs closer to home (wherever that may be) or will move to be closer to work (wherever that may be)…”

In California that trend will be suppressed by the property tax structure. I commute 60 miles round trip but moving to a house of equal value would increase my property taxes $7000 per year. A significant disincentive.

Tom

Posted by: Tom on August 13, 2008 at 11:21 AM | PERMALINK

But the problem is that USians have invested so much ego in the size and "horsepower" of our automobiles that like the Easter Islanders who chopped down their lasts tree we will keep driving the Hummers and the BMW 980xslq's until the last drop of gasoline is burned, then be forced back to horses. The few that survive anyway.Posted by: Cranky Observer

In my wildest dreams (on this topic, mind), I envision a program similar to the gun buy back programs done by local law enforcement, except this is a national program to get large SUVs and large pick-up trucks off the street and re-sold as scrap, and then simply forbid the production and purchase of said vehicles without special permits.

Even if you gave everyone who wanted to participate high Blue Book, it would cost just a fraction of what a month in Iraq has cost us.

Posted by: Jeff II on August 13, 2008 at 11:24 AM | PERMALINK

People are very resourceful and there are many low cost energy alternatives available for both transportation and modifying environments. The key motivator to tapping these resources is high oil prices.

Posted by: Brojo on August 13, 2008 at 11:54 AM | PERMALINK

Cranky, nice Easter Island analogy. Thersites' Ford Extinctions, erected Cadillac Ranch-style?

Posted by: SocraticGadfly on August 13, 2008 at 12:01 PM | PERMALINK

Kevin, the use of average gas costs here is highly misleading. Any reduction in average miles driven will come predominantly through cutting discretionary driving. Those people who drive a lot, and who's driving consists disproportionately of nondiscretionary driving will see their gas costs do a lot more than double.

Posted by: Joe on August 13, 2008 at 1:13 PM | PERMALINK

As Robert Bruegmann has pointed out, suburbs aren't just some unnatural American invention of the high-flying 50s: they've been around for a very long time, in pretty much every region of the world.

Good lord! Not this straw man! Not from Kevin!

Even smart people get confused when words are used inexactly. No one I know of is decrying the ancient concept of suburbs--the growth of towns and bedroom communities around large cities. Sheesh!

What the urbanists don't like is the particular style of development that came to dominate American suburbs beginning in the late 1940's--a focus on roads and parking lots and large setbacks, the making of a landscape which is impossible to walk through.

At some point in the 1950's this particular style of development came to be called "suburbia", which on a certain level makes sense but is, as I said, inexact. Sprawl might be a better word because it would not confuse Kevin and Robert Bruegmann.

Sprawl-style development is the norm even within many old urban centers--certainly in every city I've ever lived in.

So, no, suburbs won't go away. The Romans had suburbs. What a unique and inspired insight!

What Kevin describes, however, is the phasing out of sprawl style development. The current mass of sprawl around major cities, as derek says, is likely to get lumpy as undifferentiated 'burbs coalesce into towns.

Posted by: Rob Mac on August 13, 2008 at 1:14 PM | PERMALINK

People are very resourceful and there are many low cost energy alternatives available for both transportation and modifying environments. The key motivator to tapping these resources is high oil prices. Posted by: Brojo

No. Actually very few modern humans, particularly Americans, are particularly resourceful. Why would one need to be in a society that once thought electric can openers were a really useful household tool?

Mostly, Americans again being at the forefront, humans are pretty selfish. Here in the U.S. we needed to be legislated out of automobiles at least a decade ago because we weren't smart enough to understand that the future is not made of and powered by oil.

Already, with gas down below the psychological threshold of $4.00/gallon, consumption has ticked up ever so slightly. As I wrote a week ago in a related thread, Americans will be right back in our old consumption patterns if oil gets much closer to $100/barrel.

Posted by: Jeff II on August 13, 2008 at 1:44 PM | PERMALINK

In Antioch, CA, a Bay Area suburb, there is a high per cent of local housing which is now Section 8. (Better to get Section 8 rents then to lose the property.) There is also a rapidly increasing violent crime rate. Is this the suburban future?
http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/09/us/09housing.html

Posted by: lark on August 13, 2008 at 3:43 PM | PERMALINK

"There are plenty of jobs in the exurbs."

It stands to reason that if people are moving in large proportions the exurban/urban distribution of jobs isn't just going to stay the same. For every few dozen exurban McMansions there is an equally inaccessible McOffice Park or McIndustrial Park where those people work.

The overwhelming majority of suburban light industrial and commercial office property is built with total disregard for the relative availability of non-automobile transit. Likewise, any enterprise in the business of manufacturing, assembling, or distributing anything in the suburbs is entirely dependent on over-the-road trucking. All of their inputs show up on a truck. All of their products ship to market in a truck.

As transporting goods becomes a greater percentage of the cost of things, how and how much things get moved around is going to change. Heavy rail seems to be the mode which could most easily supplant a lot of trucking, but it would take a colossal effort. Whether you bring new rails to existing businesses or vice versa that's very time and capital intensive.

A concurrent change will be the end of cheap global shipping as a means of seeking inexpensive labor and raw materials, or as a means of reaching markets. Businesses will need to locate nearer to their actual customer base and they will need to more closely integrate far-flung suppliers.

Posted by: on August 13, 2008 at 4:23 PM | PERMALINK

The overwhelming majority of suburban light industrial and commercial office property is built with total disregard for the relative availability of non-automobile transit. Likewise, any enterprise in the business of manufacturing, assembling, or distributing anything in the suburbs is entirely dependent on over-the-road trucking. All of their inputs show up on a truck. All of their products ship to market in a truck.

Agreed. "Office parks" are probably a bigger blight on the landscape and more detrimental to a community than a shopping mall. The office park is mostly a 9-5 entity that becomes a ghost town after hours whereas a mall (at least one with movie theaters and restaurants) provides a greater diversity of services for a longer period of the day.

Posted by: Jeff II on August 13, 2008 at 4:36 PM | PERMALINK

All you visionaries out there need to tell me where the poor are going to live in the future. It seems like the consensus is that the city is going to be taken over by hipsters, and the poor won't be able to afford the suburbs anymore.

Not sure I follow you. Of course they'll live in the suburbs. This is already happening in markets like suburban DC and in California.

Posted by: ibc on August 13, 2008 at 5:13 PM | PERMALINK

As someone pointed out about Kevin's original post, he was conflating two different ideas, the age-old notion of suburbs and the modern type of suburban sprawl. Here in the upper Midwest, cities like Chicago have collars of suburbs, in that case towns such as Oak Park, Evanston, Skokie and Cicero that originally grew up along the railroad lines and were always tightly connected to the city by public transportation. The most recent iterations of sprawl have created developments of large lot/large house subdivisions that are so far out and so thinly populated that public transportation could never be provided economically and local business could not be supported. They will most likely not survive drastic increases in gas prices Kevin imagines. Most of these people are not actually wealthy; they are young professionals who have been sold on the idea that buying more house than they need is an "investment." The increase in gas prices will almost certainly be accompanied by similar increases in home heating fuels, not an issue in southern California, but it is here. At some point the mcmansions will be abandoned.

These places have been the spawn of developers and the mortgage providers who abetted them. The upwardly mobile buyers have probably identified with the Republicans. We may have an opening when they realize they've been had.

Posted by: Old badger on August 13, 2008 at 8:51 PM | PERMALINK

Pushing people into the cities isn't the only resolution to the problem. Another alternative is mixed use development in the 'burbs: growing miniature downtown commercial centers in them, incorporating neighborhood grocers, etc. The idea is to turn them into something like the old railroad suburbs in the pre-Model T days: miniature walkable towns, rather than monoculture bedroom communities.

But by the time Peak Oil runs its course, I expect even more radical changes--particularly a significant increase in the total amount of consumption that is produced locally in the household and barter economies. That means a lot more backyard gardening, for example. And informal mutual arrangements for childcare with neighbors, etc. And a lot more telecommuting where it's presently technically feasible but hasn't overcome the inertia of facetime culture. People will get serious about paying off debt to reduce their vulnerability to unemployment, and the combination of reduced debt load and increased driving cost may result in a signficant number of households deciding to abandon the second job as costing more than it's worth.

Posted by: Kevin Carson on August 14, 2008 at 2:52 AM | PERMALINK




 

 

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