Soaring gasoline prices not a threat to American suburbia

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.

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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.”

6 comments

  1. Tell that to the banks, housing manufacturers (Toll Brothers, Levitt, which has declared bankruptcy, etc.), and suburban jurisdictions dealing with foreclosure problems…

    But yes, for things to change significantly, a lot else has to change, and it takes many many years–zoning policies, transit provision, density necessary to make transit efficient and cost-effective, etc.

    Cf also the fact that for the most part, housing prices in center cities haven’t experienced much drop. Except of course, places overbuilt with condominiums (i.e., South Florida). And even in higher demand areas, there is a condo overhang.

  2. Wendy Waters says:

    Thanks for the comment. I should have clarified that I’m talking about the suburb-city regions that have been around a while — not those built by speculators over the past few years.

    But actually, it’s still not the gasoline prices that are the cause of the foreclosures in new suburbs. Poor lending and borrowing practices along with greed and speculation created the problem.

    Again, current US gasoline prices are cheap compared to those elsewhere where foreclosures are not happening. (For example, cheapest I can buy gas for here in Vancouver is $1.30 per litre or about $5.20 per gallon. Over the border in Washington State it is $3.65 per gallon).

  3. Charles Rostkowski says:

    Here in Utah there is another trend that will save suburbia: Commuter rail. A 45 mile rail route between downtown SLC and the outer limits of the two counties to the north make it possible now to live a suburban life while working in the city. It’s now only a short 10-15 minute drive to the train station the a 30-60 minute ride on the train which will be equiped with WiFi. In fact although commuter rail has only been in operation a month, some local urban gurus are already worried that it may breathe new life into suburban expansion.

  4. Minchin Web says:

    @Wendy: I agree Wendy that too much is invested to see many immediate changes due to rising gas prices. If nothing else, it will take time for people to change their mindsets.

    @Charles: It will be interesting to see how Utah/Salt Lake plays out. Paris might provide some clues: the TGV has made many cities within 160km (100 miles) easy commuting distance from Paris – take a look at a map; that’s a huge chunk of France. Paris has a good Metro (subway) system, so leaving your car at home is quite practical. I don’t know how many people have moved from Paris, but I heard, for example, that house prices rose substantially in Reims, which is about 145 km from Paris on the latest TGV line to open, in anticipation of the line.

  5. The issue is living on the edge. I understand that the foreclosure crisis isn’t because of oil price increases at the micro level, but it is a function, in part of larger economic forces and changes that result from large macro economic forces. Frankly, the housing boom has been fueled by a bad economy–only in a bad economy is it possible to have extremely low mortgage interest pricing, which is a signal that there is little demand for loans… Anyway, I have just blogged about this issue generally.

    Cheap cars with better mileage aren’t enough. Permanent changes are likely coming, but it will take a couple decades, minimum, to see. Meanwhile, I’m gonna learn how to grow more vegetables and fruits… (cf “Mad Max”)

  6. Tasuvus says:

    What if Gasoline Grew on Trees?
    Researchers have made a breakthrough in the development of “green gasoline,” a liquid identical to standard gasoline yet created from sustainable biomass sources like switchgrass and poplar trees.

    Reporting in the cover article of the April 7, 2008 issue of Chemistry & Sustainability, Energy & Materials (ChemSusChem), chemical engineer and National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER awardee George Huber of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst (UMass) and his graduate students Torren Carlson and Tushar Vispute announced the first direct conversion of plant cellulose into gasoline components.

    In the same issue, James Dumesic and colleagues from the University of Wisconsin-Madison announce an integrated process for creating chemical components of jet fuel using a green gasoline approach. While Dumesic’s group had previously demonstrated the production of jet-fuel components using separate steps, their current work shows that the steps can be integrated and run sequentially, without complex separation and purification processes between reactors.
    While it may be five to 10 years before green gasoline arrives at the pump or finds its way into a fighter jet, these breakthroughs have bypassed significant hurdles to bringing green gasoline biofuels to market.

    “It is likely that the future consumer will not even know that they are putting biofuels into their car,” said Huber. “Biofuels in the future will most likely be similar in chemical composition to gasoline and diesel fuel used today. The challenge for chemical engineers is to efficiently produce liquid fuels from biomass while fitting into the existing infrastructure today.”

    For their new approach, the UMass researchers rapidly heated cellulose in the presence of solid catalysts, materials that speed up reactions without sacrificing themselves in the process. They then rapidly cooled the products to create a liquid that contains many of the compounds found in gasoline.

    The entire process was completed in under two minutes using relatively moderate amounts of heat. The compounds that formed in that single step, like naphthalene and toluene, make up one fourth of the suite of chemicals found in gasoline. The liquid can be further treated to form the remaining fuel components or can be used “as is” for a high octane gasoline blend.

    “Green gasoline is an attractive alternative to bioethanol since it can be used in existing engines and does not incur the 30 percent gas mileage penalty of ethanol-based flex fuel,” said John Regalbuto, who directs the Catalysis and Biocatalysis Program at NSF and supported this research.

    “In theory it requires much less energy to make than ethanol, giving it a smaller carbon footprint and making it cheaper to produce,” Regalbuto said. “Making it from cellulose sources such as switchgrass or poplar trees grown as energy crops, or forest or agricultural residues such as wood chips or corn stover, solves the lifecycle greenhouse gas problem that has recently surfaced with corn ethanol and soy biodiesel.”

    Beyond academic laboratories, both small businesses and Fortune 500 petroleum refiners are pursuing green gasoline. Companies are designing ways to hybridize their existing refineries to enable petroleum products including fuels, textiles, and plastics to be made from either crude oil or biomass and the military community has shown strong interest in making jet fuel and diesel from the same sources.

    “Huber’s new process for the direct conversion of cellulose to gasoline aromatics is at the leading edge of the new ‘Green Gasoline’ alternate energy paradigm that NSF, along with other federal agencies, is helping to promote,” states Regalbuto.

    Not only is the method a compact way to treat a great deal of biomass in a short time, Regalbuto emphasized that the process, in principle, does not require any external energy. “In fact, from the extra heat that will be released, you can generate electricity in addition to the biofuel,” he said. “There will not be just a small carbon footprint for the process; by recovering heat and generating electricity, there won’t be any footprint.”

    The latest pathways to produce green gasoline, green diesel and green jet fuel are found in a report sponsored by NSF, the Department of Energy and the American Chemical Society entitled “Breaking the Chemical and Engineering Barriers to Lignocellulosic Biofuels: Next Generation Hydrocarbon Biorefineries” released April 1 (http://www.ecs.umass.edu/biofuels/). In the report, Huber and a host of leaders from academia, industry and government present a plan for making green gasoline a practical solution for the impending fuel crisis.

    “We are currently working on understanding the chemistry of this process and designing new catalysts and reactors for this single step technique. This fundamental chemical understanding will allow us to design more efficient processes that will accelerate the commercialization of green gasoline,” Huber said.

    For more information about how you can cut down on the rising cost of fuel visit http://fuellegacy.com/Tasuvus

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