The Car & The City
Peak Oil has been right around the corner for decades. Global warming requires a response that is going to make energy – oil in particular – more expensive. Commuters and drivers are subsidized with general funds. The solution to all of this is, of course, to stick it to the commuters. It’s nothing personal (ignoring everything negative we’ve said in the past about suburbanites), but we’ve got problems and it’s going to be up to them to change their lifestyles (which, coincidentally, we’ve never really approved of anyway). They’ll just have to take public transportation and live in walkable neighborhoods, like we do (or would like to, if it weren’t for the car culture making it nigh-impossible).
There seems to be an assumption, on the part of a lot of urbanists*, that solidifying our future (in terms of energy needs and/or the environment) or basic fairness (in terms of taxing negative externalities or subsidizing roads) will lead to a world more of their liking. If we just taxed gas or stopped requiring highways and parking (or if gas simply gets more expensive), the world will simply have to acclimate to their preferences.
As it happens, I do not oppose a carbon tax. I am in favor of increasing road taxes and fees so that the car culture subsidizes itself (though I do worry about it being regressive taxation). But I get off the train when we talk about the effect that these policies are going to have. Namely, while road construction and maintenance (for instance) subsidize suburban residents, they also subsidize downtown business. While the growth of suburbia was assisted by tax policy, now that people have gotten used to it, and now that our urban/suburban infrastructures have been built, I have enormous difficulty seeing mass conversion to smaller abodes, more restricted mobility, and so on. Not without a fight, anyway.
“But whether they want to or not, they’ll have to!”
Except that they won’t. Arguably, they will not be able to.
First, there are a lot of changes that people could make today if it were important to. Back home (a large city in the southern US), I know far more people that commute from one suburb to another. They could cut down on their commute considerably simply by moving to the suburb where they work. If gas cost is the primary issue, they could also reassess their choice in vehicles and get a hybrid or just a smaller car. A lot of people who could take advantage of park and ride don’t, but may start (making urbanists right on public transportation, though not necessarily on mode). And for some (maybe an increasing number), those with marketable skills may be able to find jobs closer by (with the pay cut being worth it by the money saved).
Our nations urban centers house a comparatively small portion of the population. Many of the nations largest cities (particularly outside the northeast) are sprawling megalopolii. Despite this, urban real estate is remarkably expensive. If people living in the suburbs try to move into the city, it will only become moreso. As it stands, we spend about 20% of our income on housing and about 5% of gas. Even if we make the unlikely assumption that real estate prices in more urban zones do not go up markedly, there is a lot more room to absorb costs on transportation than real estate.
Further, when push does come to shove, it’s not clear that increased urbanization and public transportation will be the answer. I do think that there will be some increased density as those that genuinely want walkable neighborhoods will more easily band together to provide them. I also do think that public transportation will become more attractive to more people (though I suspect it will be more of the Park & Ride variety rather than urban rail). But mostly, as it becomes increasingly untenable to live in the sticks and work downtown, it won’t be the people moving out of the suburbs.
In a lot of recent-growth cities, more and more employment is occurring in the suburbs. Increased transportation costs (or decreased road construction) will likely exacerbate this trend. A company having difficulty recruiting talent will create satellite offices or even more their headquarters to the suburbs. It would allow them to recruit more aggressively and save money on their own operational costs. In other words, more Round Rocks and Redmonds. The exacerbated rise of exurbs and suburbs more segregated from their anchor cities.
There may be other unexpected winners and losers, as well. For instance, smaller but growing cities may be able to more easily accommodate any transition compared to cities that have already spread their wings. The same way the initial rise of the suburb gave birth to Dallas-Fort Worth and Phoenix as major metropolitan areas. Building exurbs in cities of areas where land is cheap would likely prove to be easier than reconfiguring Chicago.
To the extent that people will respond to incentives, there’s actually a fair amount for urbanists to like. Smaller, more fuel-efficient cars. More density, to some extent or another. People driving less. And to the extent that urbanists are really concerned about negative externalities and fairness, there’s really no problem here. But as far as a clash of lifestyles goes, there will be all manner of unexpected winners and losers. A lot of people are convinced that the winners would be people that live in walkable, mixed-use, and dense neighborhoods and that the losers will be those polluting suburbanites. I tend to believe that the winners will be the capital-rich, megastores like Walmart, upper-middle class professionals (particularly those with stay-at-home wives), and makers of fuel-efficient vehicles, and that the losers would primarily be the poor, mom-and-pop shops, those in the working and service classes without options and capital.
To the extent that it needs to be done (for the sake of fairness, survival, or limited resources), come what may. In the end, who really knows how exactly it’s going to unfold?
* – I don’t mean this as a pejorative. It’s simply the best catch-all I can think of for smart-growth proponents, a certain type of environmentalist, and critics of suburbia. As it happens, I live in neither an urban or suburban area. I was raised in the suburbs, but have lived inside one city or another for most of my adult years.