Thursday, June 26, 2008

High gas prices and a return to local parishes

Several folks pointed me to this article on how high gas prices are affecting suburban life. Here are some snippets:
But life on the distant fringes of suburbia is beginning to feel untenable. Boyle and his wife must drive nearly an hour to their jobs in the high-tech corridor of southern Denver. With gasoline at more than $4 a gallon, Boyle recently paid $121 to fill his pickup truck with diesel. The price of propane to heat their spacious house has more than doubled in recent years.

Though Boyle finds city life unappealing, it's now up for reconsideration.

"Living closer in, in a smaller space, where you don't have that commute," he said. "It's definitely something we talk about. Before it was, 'We spend too much time driving.' Now, it's, 'We spend too much time and money driving."'

...In 2003, the average suburban household spent $1,422 a year on gasoline, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. By April of this year - when gas prices were about $3.60 a gallon - the same household was buying gas at a rate of $3,196 a year, more than doubling consumption in dollar terms in less than five years.

In March, Americans drove 11 billion fewer miles on public roads than in the same month the previous year, a 4.3 percent decrease. It was the sharpest one-month drop since the Federal Highway Administration began keeping records in 1942.

Suburbia was designed around commuter culture. That's how the geographic land-use patterns are generally laid out; neighborhoods presuppose that residents are going to drive, not walk. And commuter culture fragments us across various communities, where we live in one suburb and work in another and go to church in a third. Most commuting is not from suburb to city; it's from suburb to suburb. Suburbia was built in part on the premise of cheap oil, and most of us in suburbia are commuters by default. But high gas prices are challenging that commuter lifestyle.

I'm hopeful that all of this is going to push suburbanites toward a new localism. For Christians, it's a recovery of the parish concept, where we live, work, shop and worship all in the same community instead of driving all over the place. Many folks are finding that driving an hour or more to work is ultimately unsustainable. It eats up too much time, it costs too much gas money, it's bad for the environment.

So not only are people driving less this summer, I think we're also seeing people make larger lifestyle choices. Some, like this article mentions, are relocating to walkable urban communities. Some are moving closer to where they work, whether that's in urban, suburban or exurban areas. Others are finding work closer to home, or are telecommuting from home. As I mention in the commuting chapter of my book, no matter where we live, we can all do our best to reel our lives back in and focus more on our local neighborhoods. Instead of driving twenty or thirty miles to stuff, we can try to live our lives within a ten mile radius, or five miles, or whatever makes sense for our context. I pretty much live the majority of my life within a five-to-seven mile grid, though a few things take me out of that region. For the most part, I stay in my parish and invest my energy and commitments there.

Update: I just came across an article, Will soaring gas prices bring the death of suburbs? that links to a whole slew of other related articles. It summarizes:
What the commentators said
Americans got away with treating “smart growth” as an academic exercise for years, said the Hartford Courant in an editorial. No more. “The prospect of gas going to $5 a gallon and beyond" should force everybody, especially state and local governments, to say no to the sprawl that makes commuters waste fuel getting to work. It's time to “embrace a smart growth policy that encourages workers and companies to move to sites in town centers or on transit lines.”

The market will drive people out of suburbs if nothing else does, said Michael Corkery, Sui-Lee Wee and Nick Timiraos in The Wall Street Journal. Home prices have finally fallen enough to make them affordable again, but $4-a-gallon gas adds hundreds of dollars a year to commuting costs for people in far-flung suburbs. And if gas prices stay this high for a long time, property in some outlying areas will become, in the words of Deutsche Bank analyst Nishu Sood, “effectively worthless.”

The coming death of the suburb is shocking news for baby boomers, said Will Bunch in The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Attywood blog. “We grew up taught to think that suburbs were like a part of human evolution. I never thought the American Suburb would be the one to go first.”

The exodus from the suburb to cities is no sure thing, said Chermelle D. Edwards and Prashant Gopal in Cities came roaring back during the real-estate boom, but urban redevelopment came to a screeching halt in many places when prices stopped soaring. And downtown areas still have violent crime and other problems that the well-to-do moved to the suburbs to escape, so not everybody is ready to move back.


Helen said...

We would talk about living somewhere cars weren't required way back before gas was high...before we were married. And yet, culture has bred us this way...I drive 18 miles to work only because he still has to drive 30 to his. An "in the middle" solution. We drive 30 to church because we don't want to leave it yet. So yeah, while we wish for a closer, smaller community, a lot of times it just can't happen...

Al Hsu said...

Thanks for the comment, Helen. And rather than locating somewhere in between or halfway, sometimes it makes sense for couples to live near one job or the other. Especially when you have kids - it's good for at least one parent to be relatively close to the kids' school(s) in case of emergencies.

We have friends who live in the Wheaton area - one teaches at Wheaton, and the other teaches at a different college way down in the south suburbs. This way they are closer to one community and can be more plugged in there (but not the other one), rather than halfway in between and not being in either (and potentially having to develop a third community).

Unknown said...

On campus, of course, everything in my life was centralized, except for church (~30 min) and the occassional 10-15 minute drive to the mall. I thought I wanted to live an even more centralized life post-college, but I gotta say, it's not always easy telling potential part-time employers that I simply won't commute as far as they want me to. If it can be done, though, I am confident it will be worth it!

Some of my friends and I have been partially thrilled (though also frustrated) by the high gas prices because of the way we hope it could change American development and ultimately, culture, if the high price is sustained long enough. I am excited to see what happens to suburbia over the next couple decades-- should be an interesting maturation, whichever direction we go!

Marla said...

Hi Al,

I just stumbled across your blog and have really enjoyed digging through it. I'm headed to Amazon next to get your "Suburban" book on its way to me! My family and I have been trying hard to make an impact on the South Florida community where we live, which is difficult because South Florida literally doesn't "do" community. We keep trying.

Just thought I'd mention that I'm also a Wheaton grad.

Thanks for the are on my google reader and I will enjoy the future posts.

Marla Saunders

Friar Tuck said...

This is fascinating stuff...and I think the new localism would be a good development. In the community I used to live in though, the whole community was just a sprawling suburb.

How do you think churches need to find their place in a new localism. What will be the same and what will be different about them in the coming years?

Connie Kottmann said...

I live in a semi-rural area, and drive an hour to work in the closest city. I choose to do this because I wanted to have some land around me, and be in an area with a good school system. The people in my county value their rural way of life, even as suburbia is sprawling out in our direction. Many people commute to the 'burbs that lie between us and the city.

Our church is very outreach oriented and attuned to growing along with the increasing population in our area. Our county administrators are at least engaging the citizens in a dialog about how to retain the rurality of our place while accomodating growth in the next 20-30 years.

I personally have no desire to move into the city to be closer to my work, as I am very invested in my community. In fact, I'd like to find a way I could move my job closer to my "life"...

I wonder if anyone is engaging in a conversation in how to transform surburban spaces into real communities - "retrofit" them, you might say. Fleeing the 'burbs isn't necessarily the answer for those who have chosen that lifestyle.

LH said...

Al, a nice post and a good word! I've always maintained that a nice side effect (maybe a main effect?!) of a more localized lifestyle is the greater opportunity for "chance" encounters - with neighbors, congregants, co-workers. Versus the isolating, "have to make special effort and plan ahead in order to actually see people outside of our usual rhythm of life" nature of low-density living. Hopefully, people that follow your advice and "shrink" their world will be pleasantly surprised to see the gain in their depth of relationships as they "bump into" more and more familiar faces.