Rising gas prices aren't driving residents from suburbia

Suburbanites stick to driving as gas prices increase

August 20, 2005|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,SUN STAFF

Ruth Cronheim and her husband won't be doing much driving after they move this fall into their new condominium at Clipper Mill in Baltimore. That's because the retired couple plan whenever they can to hop on the light rail trains that stop in front of their development.

"It goes right to Camden Yards, and it goes right to BWI," Cronheim, 65, said of the rail line. "And if we get sick, there's the Metro we can transfer to that goes to Johns Hopkins [Hospital]."

Avoiding the rising cost of driving was a big factor in the couple's decision to buy a home in the city near mass transit, but that isn't true for many others - at least not yet. The latest increase in gas prices this summer doesn't seem to have driven many Americans to put "For Sale" signs in the front yards of their roomy suburban homes.

Though gasoline prices are 30 percent higher than they were a year ago, consumption nationwide is also up 1.5 percent, according to federal energy statistics.

The cost of driving would have to increase far more than it has, and stay there, experts say, before suburbanites would be persuaded to give up the vehicle-dependent lifestyle they have embraced over the past five decades.

"I think the imperative to build suburbia is greater than any one challenge of something like energy," said Robert E. Lang, director of Virginia Tech's Metropolitan Institute, a development think tank in Alexandria, Va. "We would make suburbia out of golf carts if we had to."

But others, noting predictions that gas prices could top $3 a gallon soon, contend that rising energy costs could finally spoil Americans' long love affair with the car, the shopping mall and the housing subdivisions sprawling ever farther out into the countryside.

"We're simply not going to be able to continue living this way," said suburban critic James Howard Kunstler.

In The Long Emergency, his latest book published in May, the writer and social critic predicts the demise from energy woes not just of Hummers and McMansions, but of most of the other icons of our modern culture, such as Wal-Mart, and even entire cities such as Las Vegas and Phoenix.

"Events are playing out pretty much the way I expected them to, especially with the ratcheting-up of gas and oil," Kunstler said this week in a telephone interview from his home in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. He foresees "tremendous trauma" as staggering energy costs force Americans to "downscale and rescale virtually everything we do and how we do it," from where we live and work to where we get our food and other goods from.

Few share Kunstler's apocalyptic vision of economic and social dislocation, in part because previous energy crises haven't caused such drastic impacts - and because they expect new energy sources and more energy-efficient vehicles to be developed to ease any problems.

Although posted gasoline prices have never been higher, the cost of fuel, when adjusted for inflation, is lower than it was at its peak in 1981. That might help explain Americans' muted reaction to the recent price increases - that and the fact that much of the past year's increase occurred in a spurt in the past month.

"There may have been some impact, but it hasn't been dramatic enough to really show up in declining demand," said Douglas MacIntyre, an analyst with the Energy Information Administration at the U.S. Department of Energy.

Based on past experience, analysts figure that if the price of gasoline doubled, demand would drop by about 8 percent. By that measure, the past year's price increase should have reduced demand by about 3 percent. But MacIntyre said the country's strong economic growth might have overwhelmed any immediate price pressure on demand.

The longer energy prices remain high, however, the more likely they are to affect consumers' big-ticket purchases, such as motor vehicles and housing.

"We've had bigger shocks in the past," said Michael Carliner, an economist with the National Association of Home Builders.

Adjusted for inflation, oil and gasoline prices spiked higher in the 1970s and early 1980s, Carliner said, which drove builders to put better insulation, double-paned windows and more efficient appliances in new homes. But there was no clamor among buyers for smaller living spaces or housing closer to work.

If the recent energy price increases persist, he predicted, they might increase consumers' demand for even more savings on heating and air-conditioning - which might make new suburban homes seem even more attractive than existing homes. But so far, he said, "there certainly doesn't seem to be a groundswell of interest."

Advocates of living in cities and pedestrian-friendly suburbs, though, think more Americans will finally look for alternative lifestyles as driving takes more out of their wallets as well as their patience.

"While we certainly have these very large houses that are continuing to sell, we also are seeing more condominium sales," said Don Chen, director of Smart Growth America.

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