34. Viewpoint: $20 Gas

As gasoline hovers at around $4 a gallon (closer to $5 in California), the national media has focused on the single solution of smaller, more efficient cars. Some of the more farsighted observers also advocate close-co-home vacation destinations, more use of public transportation, and racking lip more walking and biking miles. Still, those who follow these suggestions remain in the minority.

What will we do when gas reaches $10 a gallon? Think that won’t happen soon? Just consider that it took only a couple of years for the price to double. Experts believe that petroleum shortages will increase, not decrease, in the coming years, and that any fresh source of oil, say from the Outer Continental Shelf, is at least a decade away, and a minor and temporary fix at that.

But, while a big jump in energy prices will hurt many people, it might also have a benefic It will depress real estate values in the outer counties of our metropolitan areas, where the rate of growth has zoomed in the past 50 years and where auto use is inescapable. And it will boost real estate prices in the more convenient central cities and inner-ring suburbs.

At some point between today’s gas prices and $10 a gallon, we will all have to recognize that we have been living in an economic dream world-and that it will take more than shrinking the size of the family auto or vacationing closer to home to solve this problem. We must face the fact that, for the past five decades, non-metro areas have been the fastest growing parts of the U.S. Sprawl, long a hot topic for planners is finally beginning to affect household economics-and local officials and their constituents are taking notice.

Changing this land-use pattern is ultimately the $1 0 solution. Transit -oriented development, a planning option today, will become a market necessity in response to the price at the pump.

The infrastructure is already in place for higher metropolitan density. Philadelphia can easily settle thousands of newcomers in its attractive but under-populated, transit-served neighborhoods. And adjacent towns in Pennsylvania and New Jersey offer abundant housing opportunities-along with nearby jobs and transit lines. There’s plenty of room near the center of these walkable, older inner-ring suburbs, which today record the highest rates of population decline.

Luring exurbanites to cities and first-ring suburbs depends in large measure on the educational efforts of metropolitan councils of government and regional planning agencies. They’re the groups that can spell out the financial benefits of living in communities that provide easy access to transit and that don’t require tax-supported bus systems to transport children to school. More children will walk to school and to the playground. More residents will mean more spending in local shops and businesses, adding to tax revenues.

Increased demand for housing will stimulate investment in older properties and the construction of new residences on relatively low-priced, bur dose-in, land. Money saved by reducing gas consumption can help support larger mortgages and even college tuition. Greater density will also support innovative car-sharing programs, which will allow residents to avoid the waste of the fixed costs of car ownership. Such savings amount to (he silver lining behind the gasoline price storm clouds.

These changes will be more effective because they are market-driven and because (hey don’t require new regulations or subsidies. Other solutions are less likely to work. Increasing gas taxes, as other countries have done, doesn’t seem to be in the cards here politically. And expanding transit services is difficult when a population is highly dispersed. Bicycling, often touted as a panacea, is unsuited to congested highways and busy city streets.

With official encouragement, Americans have long treated petroleum as a cheap commodity. It’s time for us all to wake up and to acknowledge the problems caused by our wasteful, sprawl-centered land-use patterns.

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