Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Suburbs And Gasoline: Disagreeing With Kevin Again

Kevin writes:

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.
First, I have to say I really disagree with Kevin's second point. I'll get back to that in a bit.

Here is my opinion of what this will do to the country vis-a-vis demographic shifts. White people who work or want to work at big offices / places of employment (like big corporate offices, hospitals, universities, and law firms) in cities (all kinds of cities, including little ones) or big, developed, almost-city-like suburbs will want to live closer to where their work is located. That means a lot of (mostly white) middle-class people moving closer to these cities (but not necessarily into them). The result is that around these cetral locations, population becomes denser. Demand and prices for the housing these people want will go up a little, so long as it doesn't outstrip what they save on gas by changning location.

This will lead to a lot of freed-up properties in the places the exodus comes from. Real estate prices in these areas will corresponding go down. Once all the dust settles there (once unsellable properties there are torn down and redeveloped, or are bought up by people there who want to move into them from more modest housing) who will want to live there? I think it will be workers who are going to work in the same towns as the office workers who moved, except they are of much more modest means than the office-workers-- i.e., foreign-born working-class people. These people are needy enough to be willing to make long mass-transit commutes to work instead of driving, or to even ride a bicycle a very long distance to work.

Racially, this means that a lot of cities (or suburbs near to cities) will become a lot more white, and a lot of suburbs will become more non-white.

I'm not confident on what this alone does to politics. Doubtless, and especially in the 2000 and 2004 "red" states, some conservative whites will end up becoming less racist or closed-minded once economics forces them to move out of white areas they've lived in their whole lives and towards more diverse and cosmopolitan areas. But there will probably also be whites who are so racist that they'll cling to their suburbs even though it hurts. They'll be shooting themselves in the foot, but will be so fixated on their prejudiced feelings that they won't notice it, and as gas prices (often) make them poorer and poorer (for the lower middle classes), they'll get angrier and angrier. It won't help that minorities (who ride bikes and take trains) will keep moving into their communities. I'm not talking about a resurgence of the Klan or anything like that, though. I actually doubt that the net effect of racial population shifts is going to be a lot of political fuel for the conservatives.

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

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

If more humble people want to live closer to work because they need more fuel-efficient living, then it's those people whose interests are going to do a switcheroo (regardless of whether those people are very liberal or not)-- it's not just insane ultra-liberals who are going to want something (more urban-centered housing) 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 economically for them.

A final point: 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. So perhaps the thin suburbs of today will be redeveloped as parks, open-space amusement and the like by public decrees as well as by private entrepreneurs. Maybe the greening of America will happen, just by different means-- instead of by flower power, by necessity and capitalism.