As much as I’d like to see differently, higher gasoline prices are not going to change the way American metropolitan areas are organized — at least not for a long time. Here are two reasons why not:
1. Gasoline prices in the US are only now reaching levels that were “normal” for many years in other parts of the world. And in many of those places (think Canada, Australia, etc.) people still drove a lot and suburban living was popular. The main difference was they used smaller, more fuel efficient vehicles.
Already sales of the big SUVs are down so much that manufacturing of them has nearly halted.
2. There is too much invested in the current system culturally, economically, politically and physically (the infrastructure).
The automobile culture with great shopping malls and power centres is a way of life for millions. The American economy revolves around automobile based consumerism as well as around suburban business parks as employment centres. Politically, the suburbs have clout; even if the population declines relative to inner cities it will take a while for the political weight to catch up. Finally, the billions or trillions collectively invested in road infrastructure invites motor vehicle travel.
All this said, I do think that other forces are also challenging the suburban way of life. Everything from climate change concerns to a renewed interest in living close to places of work, entertainment and shopping to a desire to have more free time are pushing people to re-think whether they need a large suburban house. Gasoline prices are also one small factor in this equation for many people.
But, for those who want to live the suburban, automobile oriented lifestyle — and there will be millions in this category — there will continue to be affordable options. More fuel efficient vehicles will be available. The burst housing bubble will generate less expensive houses and mortgages. Suburban families may choose to save money elsewhere — eat out less, skip the movies, etc. (The “latte factor” will be less influential if there isn’t a latte nearby.)
While I’d like to see differently, gasoline prices have a long ways to rise before it will challenge the American suburban “way of life.”