Cars, bikes, metros, buses and good old foot power

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?

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14 responses to “Cars, bikes, metros, buses and good old foot power

  1. 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.

    Ahh, you people crack me up. Replace your old SUV with a brand new Prius to save money as gas prices go up! The middle class is supposed to jump all over this logic, right?

    Let’s take a nice round 12,000 miles per year as an estimate. Klunky old SUV gets, what, 10 mpg? So we’re talking 1,200 gallons per year at a nice round $4 per gal a $4,800 per year gas bill. Now suppose you buy a normal car and that city rate goes up to 20 mpg- $2400 per year in gas savings. pretty cool. 30mpg car? $3600 savings. schweet.

    Except….the klunky old SUV is paid off and as you point out, not very valuable on the resale market. So for a new car you can easily end up with a $300-$400 per month car payment.

    in short, the economic argument is complete and utter bollocks for real people. those advancing it make all kinds of convenient assumptions like that people are already making a car payment. not everyone is, my pundit friends. and they overlook the fact that many car buyers are looking for cheaper first rather than for the 5mpg edge that buying the pricey class-mileage-leader gets you. the extra $10K+ margin for a hybrid version of a platform? are you kidding?

    We found affordable housing near the University

    speaking specifically of our academic community…HAHAHAHAAAH! surely you jest. This may be a feature of a selected subset of locations but the hallmark of most major research towns is big fat real estate prices near the University. I find that even in little college towns, the prices for housing right around the college is exorbitant…given faculty salaries and the immediately prior post-doc salaries. again, it takes very little for the mortgage difference to wipe out any piddling difference in gas prices. total car costs if you can really dispense with a car altogether? well, then you might be talking…

  2. Except….the klunky old SUV is paid off and as you point out, not very valuable on the resale market. So for a new car you can easily end up with a $300-$400 per month car payment.

    Dude, a Fit or a Yaris will get you gas savings at a low car payment, who said anything about having to splurge on a hybrid. You’re also assuming that gas is going to stay at 3.50… I wouldn’t be surprised if it shot up to 5.00 sooner rather than later. Switching from a SUV to a Yaris/Fit (starting at 14,000) will give you a 20+ mpg edge on many comparisons.

    speaking specifically of our academic community…HAHAHAHAAAH! surely you jest. This may be a feature of a selected subset of locations but the hallmark of most major research towns is big fat real estate prices near the University.

    Like I said, we got lucky. In most places an academic like me would have had no chance of doing this. It also made getting rid of the car, more or less, an easy thing to do.

  3. I assume little about the future cost of gas. All I’m saying is that at present, the numbers don’t add up. Neither did they 5 years ago when we got jacked up from $1.50 to $2.50 a gal. At some point, sure, I can imagine the fuel margin associated with a gas guzzler that is paid off being disadvantageous relative to a new car payment. Not now though. And this is why we see a massive disconnect between the supposedly obvious right thing to do and people’s behavior.

    (But come on! A Fit or a Yaris is barely even a car is it? Might as well buy a scooter and have done with it!)

  4. I assume little about the future cost of gas

    Which was really my point… if you think gas can go to 5.00 a gallon (which I do — 6 wouldn’t surprise me one bit either) then you have limited chances to get something for whatever gasguzzler you have before you are left holding worthless goods. Even if you don’t have to make a payment you are still assuming that the thing you are driving holds some bit of value. Perhaps not for long.

    But come on! A Fit or a Yaris is barely even a car is it? Might as well buy a scooter and have done with it

    Anyone who thinks that a Fit is barely a car needs to take a trip to IKEA with my wife. She will show you what a Fit can do!!

  5. JP, I grew up in a city that is the opposite of Big D (in every way). I am now in a city with mediocre to inadequate public transit. I dream of moving back to HomeCity or any other city with worthwhile transportation options. It’s not just Canadians who know the value of a good metro system…(I think Krugman, incidentally, works at Princeton. Love his columns, aside from the Obama-bashing, but Princeton is such a suburb town.)

    But I’m with BikeMonkey on the housing complaint. Housing prices near the univ are stratospheric. So it’s a classic case of the rich get richer–i.e. the professors can afford to live within walking or biking distance, and save money thereby, while everyone else has to live at a distance and spend gas money. Much though I’m happy that high gas prices are causing people to rethink their SUVs, it’s a regressive tax.

  6. Living near the University is the ideal situation, but what’s wrong with living 30 or 40 minutes away by bike? Quit paying 500$/year for fitness classes at the health club and bike an hour or two a day. I live in Montreal and bike to work all year long. I haven’t used a drop of gas or paid a dime for public transit to get to the lab in a while, and I feel great too. Forty minutes on a bike sounds like a lot at first, but after a month, it flies by.

  7. FN, All year? WTF? How exactly do you ride up the mountain in ice and snow?? Are you using your spidey-sense?

  8. I never ride on ice, but snow is not a problem. The trick is to ask the bike couriers what kind of tires, chain lube, etc they use… And the spidey sense helps too sometimes…

  9. Color me impressed! Has this changed your eating habits?

  10. Unfortunately for my grad student income, I eat more…

  11. JP I’m with you on living within a walk of the work. This will be an important factor in deciding where to go next. Montreal is probably the greatest city in the world for this actually. For the vibrant and worldly city that it is, it must have the cheapest cost of living in the world. Alas, too bad I’m Canadian, if not I would post-doc there.

    Of course I also don’t mind a city with a good metro – a 30 min train ride is fine with me – live on the line and you still don’t need to drive to work. Montreal is good for that, but I have to mention, Zurich’s intricate network of pre-war electric trams will absolutely blow your mind. The Swiss public transport system is the best model I’ve ever experienced, although I’m sure other European systems may be comparable. Although the cost of living in these places doesn’t even close to compare to Montreal.

    With respect to SUVs and the like, I think that increases in the price of oil only change the decisions of the subset of people who are already against wasting gas in cars but have been going along with society on autopilot. A sudden elevation in gas prices shocks us into action not because it hurts you financially in any serious way, just because it draws your attention to the whole issue and you say, “Oh yeah, I forgot I’ve been meaning to get that fuel-efficient car” or “Oh yeah, I’ve been meaning to ride the bike more”. Anyway point is, there will always be the hard-core SUV types out there who will keep on guzzling as much gas as possible until we get to the last drop of oil. No matter how much it costs them, they will find a way.

    I think what’s really good about high gas prices is that it opens the door for companies (and governments?) to economically justify the development oil-sparing or oil-free technologies and alternative energy sources. Like hybrid/electric cars and solar power. Allowing the whole economy – not just the more conscientious consumers – to move toward more sustainable behaviors.

  12. Hi JP-

    We have lived in both kinds of places- one with really excellent public transportation- so good that I didn’t want to have my car… and places where it is very difficult to get around without a car and legislators are so backwards that they don’t want to have good public transportation (this is your home state BTW)…

    Although I drive a fuel efficient car- I’ll take good public transportation any day.

    I might add one thing- in Europe- it is exceedingly rare to SEE an SUV, let alone own one.

  13. Pingback: Bike thieves are the lowest form of life « JUNIORPROF

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