I find it interesting to reflect back over the last few months, where we saw record high gas prices leading to unprecedented declines in driving followed by steep declines in gas prices which will undoubtedly lead to increases in driving.
For decades now, environmentalists, many planners and a broad range of anti-sprawl groups have decried the impact of our auto-dominated transportation system and the sprawling land use patterns it has made possible. Whether it is the loss of farmland and open spaces, the degradation of the environment, the decline of "community" or any othernumber of ills associated with sprawl, efforts to create alternatives to the car are often at or near the top of the list when it comes to finding solutions. More walkable neighborhoods. Public transit improvements. Increased availability of bike lanes and parking areas.
So, let's think about how much has been accomplished over the last several decades. I don't have any hard numbers to back me up here, but I would be confident in saying that our nation has become vastly more dependent on the personal automobile despite all of the money, time and effort that has gone into trying to change things. I'm not saying that improvements in public transit and efforts to create more walkable neighborhoods are useless, but I would question whether a strategy focused on advocacy and legislating higher density and more walkable communities will evermake much more than a small dent in our auto-dependent world.
Now, by contrast, let's consider what would have been likely to happen if gas prices remained at $4-5/gallon.Or higher. It was already apparent that people were beginning to make significant changes in their lifestyles. Four-day work weeks were being discussedall over the place to cut down on the need to drive to work that extra day. "Soccer moms" were beginning to carpool with other families on those long trips to games in faraway communities. Vacation plans were adjusted. If the gas prices continued to stay high for a period of years, not months,I am confident in stating that there would likely be some significant shifts in land use patterns around this country (that is, unless we could all convince Congress of the need to bail us out...which probably isn't a ridiculous prediction. China did it.).
My point, and I'll expand on this in future posts, is that for all the effort people make in trying to convince others of the value of more traditional neighborhoods where people could live, work and shop for daily needs, it seems that cold hard cash (or the lack thereof) is stillthe most important determinant of whether a person will change how or where they live.
This would seem to teach us something. If the costs of our current land use patterns start to become prohibitive for the most people, they are likely to seek out communities that offer more efficient ways of getting to and from work, to and from daily shopping needs and offer recreational opportunities within a relatively short distance. If the costs remain low, they won't. Sure, we may peel off a few people here and there, convince a few developers to create a traditional neighborhood in a sea of car dependence, and maybe even succeed in funding a new light-rail line, but these are not enough to change the overall pattern by themselves.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not trying to discount the need for good, strong arguments to elected officials and others for why good planning makes sense - its just that it is not enough to overcome the tsunami of subsidies that come at our communities every day. Subsidies to expand sewer lines when the development density doesn't justify it. Subsidies to install more lanes of highway. Subsidies to have school buses pick up kids in the furthest reaches of the school district.
When we hide the true costs of our lifestyle and our choices, we shouldn't be surprised to see the continuation of a land use pattern that looks more like what we want than what we can afford.