Claim: Obama wants higher gas prices. Is this necessarily bad?

Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour (a rumored Republican presidential candidate) suggested today that Obama wants higher gas prices:

Barbour…accused the Obama administration Wednesday of favoring a run-up in gas prices to prod consumers to buy more fuel-efficient cars…

Barbour cited 2008 comments from Steven Chu, now President Barack Obama’s energy secretary, that a gradual increase in gasoline taxes could coax consumers into dumping their gas-guzzlers and finding homes closer to where they work. Chu, then a Nobel Prize-winning professor, argued that higher costs per gallon could force investments in alternative fuels and spur cleaner energy sources.

Barbour said Obama’s energy team wouldn’t be happy until gas prices reached $9 a gallon.

Barbour goes on to say that there are two primary negative consequences of higher gas prices: it hurts workers and it hurts the larger economy. In a troubled economic period, Barbour is suggesting that Obama is willing to risk a prolonged economic crisis in order to promote things like electric cars and clean energy.

But this is really a larger issue and affects multiple dimensions of American life. Let’s assume that raising gas prices cuts down on driving and gas consumption overall – and there is evidence to back this up. There could be some benefits to this:

1. This would limit our dependence on foreign nations forĀ  oil. What has happened in the Middle East in recent weeks can have an impact on our economy because we import so much oil. Some have gone so far as to say that this is a “national security issue.”

2. Using less gasoline would lead to lower levels of pollution.

3. Having more expensive gasoline may reign in sprawl, or at least make living in denser areas (cities or denser suburbs) more attractive. (See an example of this argument here.) In the long run, higher gas prices could be viewed by some as a threat (or by some as a welcome deterrent) to the sprawling suburban lifestyle that many Americans have adoptedĀ  since the end of World War II. Higher fuel prices would likely impact driving trips, fast-food restaurants, and trucking costs, all key pieces to the typical suburban lifestyle. One could argue that the American lifestyle of the last 65 years has been made possible by relatively cheap gasoline – and life would change if it was consistently at European price levels.

There could be other impacts as well including more walking and bicycling (cheaper, less pollution, better for health) and less time wasted due to traffic and congestion.

It bears watching how this rhetoric over gas prices continues. Is it simply a matter of a short-term (lower prices to help the economy) vs. a long-term perspective (higher prices help limit some negative consequences of driving) or could this turn into a debate about how driving (and cheap gasoline) is closely linked to the essence of American life?

Charlotte columnist suggests suburbs will face four problems

American suburbs contain the majority of United States residents (and this figure is likely to grow in the latest 2010 Census figures). And yet, there are a lot of questions about what the future of suburbs will be. A columnist/editor in Charlotte suggests suburbs will face four problems in the near future:

Demographics. Population trends favor urban-style, multifamily development. Gen Y’ers have a clear preference, at least for now, for urban living. Meantime, aging boomers will be selling houses and moving to condos or apartments. As illness and infirmity hit, many will have to give up driving. They’ll want walkable neighborhoods.

With the foreclosure crisis, the single-family home market will be sluggish for years. The nation is overbuilt on large-lot suburbia, and underbuilt in cities. The Urban Land Institute’s “Emerging Trends in Real Estate 2011” has this advice to investors: “Avoid commodity, half-finished subdivisions in the suburban outer edge and McMansions; they are so yesterday.”

Fuel prices. Remember when $4-a-gallon gas walloped the economy in 2008? Now, gas prices are over $3 again. Gas prices are likely to keep rising, and already, transportation is the No. 2 cost for average U.S. households. With pay and jobs sinking, more people are likely to want to live where they can drive less.

Carbon footprint. If we’re to avoid creating even more destructive changes in the world’s climate (more droughts, floods, blizzards or heat waves) for our children and grandchildren to live with, more of us will need to live in tight-knit, walkable cities. It turns out city dwellers have a much smaller carbon footprint.

Suburbs on the brink. Although some first-ring suburbs are thriving, others aren’t. Many suburban neighborhoods are seeing rising poverty and crime, dead or dying malls and derelict strip centers and big-box stores. We can’t just abandon them to blight.

These are all possible issues. Some thoughts about each concern:

1. We will have to see what Generation Y and the aging Baby Boomers want in the long term. Will they want to move back to cities or will they be okay with denser suburban development?

2. Fuel prices are up and American driving is down. What happens if most people can access electric cars within 10 years?

3. Carbon footprints – are people convinced that they should change their personal, residential choices based on this evidence? Do Generation Y members choose to live in cities for this reason or for other reasons such as proximity to entertainment and culture.

4. Inner-ring suburbs are experiencing many of the issues that we once thought were limited to cities. Interestingly, a number of these issues are spreading beyond the inner-ring.

The columnist suggests we need to fight the suburban blight, marked by “separate municipalities outside a city, regardless of age or form…development with a specific pattern, typically built after 1945: single-use zones (stores separated from offices and housing, single-family houses apart from apartments); lots a quarter-acre or more; car dependent.”

There are several other issues that many suburban communities face:

5. Budget crunches with the economic crisis leading to a downturn in housing growth. Not much money is coming in and this will lead to cuts in services and amenities.

6. More suburbs reaching build-out and facing questions about whether denser development can fit within a community dominated by single-family homes.

6a. Will American suburbanites want denser development that may threaten their property values?

7. Increasing minority and immigrant populations that challenge the white majority that has dominate American suburban life. Stories like that of a controversy over a proposed mosque in DuPage County could become more common.

8. Of course, lots of empty houses or homes with reduced values (here or here). This limits people’s ability to move, the ability of communities to collect money, and builders and lenders to make money.