Paul Krugman has an article up today on an issue that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately, hi gas prices and what it means for the American city. Krugman uses the example of Berlin to illustrate how US cities will need to change to cope with high prices for gas and how we get around in the places where we live. I find it disturbing that we are not having this conversation more often.
I grew up in Texas, in a big city that starts with a D. Anyone who has ever been there knows that getting around in Big D is a nightmare. There are no bike lanes. Rapid transit has made its way into certain parts of the city but a growing portion of the population lives halfway to Oklahoma and has 30-60 minute commutes each way to get to work. Many of these people lug around in their SUVs and I frankly don’t understand how they are able to cope with $3.50 a gallon gas (many who I know can’t, actually).
When Mrs. Juniorprof and I moved up to Montreal we learned a lesson about getting around that changed our lives forever. First off, 3.5 years ago, gas was already around $4.50 a gallon in and around Montreal. Second, parking was a complete disaster (we lived near downtown). One of the first things we did was to forget about using the car. We learned to love the bus and metro and found, rather quickly, that it was liberating to not have to drive. Soon after this we got bikes and I started riding to and from work (at least during the 6 months when there wasn’t snow everywhere). We still needed a car for some things so when we decided that our old clunker wasn’t going to work for us anymore (actually, the clunker decided this for us) we went out and bought a fuel efficient car (a Honda Fit). In a nutshell, we adapted to the European-type transportation life that Krugman describes. The problem was that we knew we were going to return to the US eventually — how, exactly, were we going to maintain this lifestyle?
This is what really gets me about most cities in the US (and Krugman writes about it today too), most of them are organized around the idea that gas will forever be cheap, this premise has obviously flown out the window. Our experience in Montreal broke us of all our previous notions of where we’d like to live and how we’d like to get to and from work. When it finally came time to move and we knew where we were going we made a few decisions that I am very happy we made:
1) we were going to live very close to our work places.
2) we were going to bike to work.
3) we were going to live near shopping and places to eat.
As it turns out, we actually got pretty lucky on all these fronts because in many cities these options are not available to everyone. We found affordable housing near the University and University hospital. The city happens to have extensive bike lanes that are very safe. The University also happens to be in a very nice part of town with shopping and restaurants within walking distance of our home and work.
So, while we made out like gangbusters on our wishlist for keeping transportation cheap and easy, I worry about people that live in places where options like these don’t exist or who are already locked into lifestyles that make transportation very expensive. I think this is also the underlying theme of Krugman’s article today. Here are some problems that I think lie on the not so distant horizon:
1) Continued problems with the housing market: There are obviously big problems here but one thing I have not seen addressed enough is pricing relative to location. An underlying assumption of many articles I have seen is that the housing market is tough right now but that it will eventually improve. I wonder if this is true insofar as developments that are far from city centers or other employment centers may have permanently lost their value. How many million people are expecting to ride out the current housing bust in homes that may never get their value back?
2) SUV values. I am fully aware that cars and SUVs lose much of their value the second you drive off the lot but how many people are aware that they may be paying for an SUV that they may not be able to give away in a few years (or even a few months)? If I had an SUV (and didn’t own a farm) I would dump it for a fuel efficient car now while I could still get something for the SUV. It would not surprise me one bit to see driveways full of SUVs that no one can afford to drive anymore in the coming years.
3) Expensive food. Expensive gas means expensive food. Been to the grocery store lately? I don’t know about you but we have certainly noticed the increases in food prices around here. I think this is a big problem for a society that already has too much debt, stagnant income growth for most of the population and growing transportation prices.
So, dear reader, what other worries should we add to the list? Any solutions?