Location-efficient communities and $4 gas

There’s a great new article up at Planetizen by Scott Bernstein of the Center for Neighborhood Technology: “$4 per Gallon Gas — Are We Ready?”

It’s pretty clear that for many Americans, the answer to that question is a resounding No. After years of communities sprawling away from city centers and many homeowners seeking the biggest possible houses on the cheapest possible land, we’ve ended up with broad swaths of the population living in “inefficient” locations. I.e., travel to jobs and basic services is not only time-consuming but increasingly — sometimes even prohibitively — expensive.

The CNT is based in Chicago, so that metro area is the basis for many of Bernstein’s comments in the piece, but there’s still relevance for almost any community.

Bernstein notes the vulnerability of communities to spikes in gas prices:

Between July 2000 and July 2008, the average price of a gallon of gas increased from $1.99 to $4.30 in the Chicago area, increasing three times faster than the cost of housing and six times faster than the region’s area median income. The price spike cost the Chicagoland economy—its families and businesses—billions of dollars, with little benefit.

But not all communities are affected the same when there are spikes in gas prices like that in 2008 — or like the one we seem to be experiencing now in 2011. Some communities can adjust. As Bernstein notes: “Areas well-served with public transit and nearby jobs and services simply require less travel because residents have the option of walking, riding a bike, taking public transit, or driving.” As gas prices rise, residents of some areas can simply choose to drive less without dramatically hurting their quality of life, while residents of other areas have no choice.

Bernstein continues:

Our research shows that households in “location-efficient” communities were less vulnerable to the 2008 gas spike. Comparing July 2000 to July 2008 gas prices (and assuming driving behaviors remained the same), we found that transportation costs as a percentage of income increased from 9.7 percent to 12.6 percent for households earning the area median income in the most location-efficient communities. Meanwhile, typical regional households earning the area median income in the least efficient and least convenient places saw their transportation costs increase from 27.9 percent of their income in 2000 to 35.8 percent of their income in 2008.

In a related matter, in my column today in the Savannah Morning News, I note the increasing vacancy rate documented in the 2010 census. A nationwide phenomenon, the numbers are especially grim in states like Georgia that experienced the biggest real estate booms and busts. The problem is especially acute within the city limits of Savannah, with a residential vacancy rate of about 15%. The city is certainly more location-efficient than some of the suburban areas that have grown in recent years, but the city has been plagued with specific problems like crime and education combined with poor public policy decisions regarding expansion areas and property taxation.

The implications seem pretty clear. We need to make sure people have good data about overall costs of living before encouraging them to buy that seemingly less expensive house far from services and jobs. We need to make investments in existing neighborhoods and implement policies that will make way for the repopulation of neighborhoods struggling with vacant properties and blight. We need to think about transit and zoning policies that allow for nodes of development throughout cities, so that nearly all residents have transportation options beyond the automobile.

Eventually, gas prices will probably rise to the point that we have no choice but to implement policies like those that Bernstein and the CNT advocate. The sooner we start planning, the better.

3 comments for “Location-efficient communities and $4 gas

  1. matthew
    March 22, 2011 at 6:05 pm

    Bravo Bill, The last two paragraphs say it all going forward. Back to my usual point, why do we incentivise people moving west of 95 because it is rural by offering 100% mortgages yet the city itself has such high vacancies? The whole tax structure is geared toward moving people to the suburbs and I don’t know how to reverse the trend, Thoughts?

    • bill dawers
      March 22, 2011 at 11:49 pm

      Thanks Matthew. I fear that the only way to reverse the trend will be the high gas prices themselves.

      • matthew
        March 23, 2011 at 4:07 pm

        Said as somone who drives a pickup all over creation for work, I agree. We all used less gas post Katrina when the prices spiked, then gas dropped back down and collective amnesia set in. Increase the gas tax $.25 per year and put it toward public transport…

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