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 BusinessWeek.com. 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.