Will $4 Gas Kill the Suburbs?

One of the most common points of speculation coming out of escalating gas prices has been that people won't want to pay $100 to fill their tank and drive from distant suburbs to their jobs every day.
by | August 14, 2008

 One of the most common points of speculation coming out of escalating gas prices has been that people won't want to pay $100 to fill their tank and drive from distant suburbs to their jobs every day.

Our own Peter Harkness, for instance, wrote a CQ column saying that $4 gas might do more for land use planning than anything else we've seen.

My feeling has been that it's way too early to tell. Gas prices are certainly not stable; lately, they've been coming down. I don't know whether $4 gas is a magic tipping point, but we're now at $3.80 on average, and falling. People get used to prices and $3.80 seems cheaper coming down from $4.20 than it did coming up from $3.50.

So it seems early to say. The trend toward suburbanization has been so strong for so long.

Ryan Avent has a post at The American Prospect suggesting that gas prices might merely accelerate trends toward enhanced center-city development, not create them.

What's interesting about center cities, however, is that there are increasing returns to scale. As the population of a dense place grows, the city begins to function better. It becomes easier to develop the revenue to provide good public services. The number and diversity of retail options increases, making cities still more attractive. More people are out on the sidewalk, helping to keep streets safer. And growth in urban populations helps retain and attract urban employers, which then fuels additional growth. This is the growth engine that has given new life to New York City and Washington, D.C., but also helped transform the downtowns of places like Houston and Charlotte, North Carolina.

Avent has another post suggesting that suburbs may be hurt be $4 gas, but he thinks this would only exacerbate the problem of overbuilding in areas where foreclosure is a real issue.

The Freakonomics blog at nytimes.com hosts a lengthy forum on the question of what's happening to suburbs and what they'll look like in 40 years. Allow me to summarize:

James Kuntsler writes that they're doomed because they hugely squander resources and cheap energy is a thing of the past.

Thomas Antus has a sarcastic post about how all personal income will go toward paying for government services.

Jan Brueckner predicts that gentrification of the cities willcontinue, meaning that white flight will move toward the cities and thesuburbs will become bastions of minorities.

Gary Gates sees gays becoming more like Ozzie and Harriet and decamping for the suburbs.

John Archer say suburbs will continue to express a deep need for property and autonomy, but will become more mixed and dense.

Alan Berube says suburbs will continue but will have to become less parochial.

Lawrence Levy also sees a future that is more dense.

Freakonomics links to several other forums and articles more or less on this topic.

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