What could kill the McMansion, SUV, and suburban way of life: $10 a gallon gas

One of the ways that the American suburban way of life of single-family homes and driving could come to an end is really expensive oil. Here is one prediction of the fallout:

For decades, we’ve lived — and driven — in denial, somehow assuming we have the “right” to cheap gasoline, and therefore, low-cost transportation. Now it’s time to face reality and consider what will happen when — not if — gas hits $10 a gallon, not because of taxes, but because we will use up the planet’s petroleum…

Highways

Rush-hour on Interstate 95 is a breeze as half of all motorists can no longer afford to drive. But the highways are riddled with potholes as the price of asphalt — made from petroleum — quintuples, making it impossible to maintain the roads because gas tax revenues have dropped with decreased sales. With more people working from home or on flex-time, traffic congestion is a thing of the past.

Homes/offices

With home heating oil at $12 a gallon, people close off rooms in their “McMansions” and huddle in the few remaining spaces they can afford to heat, usually with wood stoves, which are also in short supply. Office buildings, by law, will be allowed to heat to no more than 60 degrees in colder months. Sweaters become a fashion rage…

Around town

Local traffic drops as people consolidate their few truly necessary shopping trips. Because farmers are so dependent on oil (for fertilizers, packaging and transport), food prices skyrocket. Food imported out of season becomes an occasional treat. Few can afford to eat out at now-chilly restaurants dealing with the same food shortages. Wagons and carts, bikes with racks, mopeds and scooters replace SUVs. Kids take the school bus daily instead of being chauffeured by mom. Suburban housing prices continue to fall as people flock to the walkable cities with good mass transit. Small town taxes rise, encouraging further migration. Schools can’t afford good teachers who must still commute from far away due to lack of local affordable housing.

If gasoline was indeed $10 or more a gallon, I imagine a lot would change. Perhaps even more so if there was a sudden spike to that price range instead of a gradual increase that would provide time for people and communities to adjust. Even with significantly higher gas prices, some would be very reluctant to give up the American lifestyle organized around driving.

One question to ask in this scenario is how quickly society could adjust. The American suburbs have been decades in the making. How quickly could they be dismantled? It is common now to hear social scientists, policymakers, and others discussing resilient cities and communities. Could the country adjust if the suburbs became unsustainable due to high gas prices? (According to this one prediction, we should all have bicycles on hand and hope we live close enough to mass transit lines.)

A second question: if the American government has spent many resources in support of the suburban way of life (such as socialized mortgages), would the various government actors try to sustain suburbia in the face of such a threat? Just because living in suburbia might be tougher does not necessarily mean Americans will stop wanting to live there.

Poor residents displaced by Hurricane Katrina moved to better places

Sociologists typically find poor city residents have difficulty leaving poor neighborhoods but a large event like Hurricane Katrina may provide a bigger push:

One of the tragedies of Katrina was that so many of New Orleans’ residents were forced to move. But the severity of that tragedy is a function of where they were forced to move to. Was it somewhere on the Salt Lake City end of the continuum? Or was it a place like Fayetteville? The best answer we have is from the work of the sociologist Corina Graif, who tracked down the new addresses of seven hundred women displaced by Katrina—most of them lower-income and black. By virtually every measure, their new neighborhoods were better than the ones they had left behind in New Orleans. Median family income was forty-four hundred dollars higher. Ethnic diversity was greater. More people had jobs. Their exposure to “concentrated disadvantage”—an index that factors in several measures of poverty—fell by half a standard deviation.

The women weren’t going to Fayetteville but, rather, to places like Houston. “For low-income people in the South, Houston is a pretty darn great place,” Hendren said. “It’s not a beacon of phenomenal upward mobility like Salt Lake City. But it’s kind of the Salt Lake City of the South.” The odds of going from the bottom to the top in Houston are 9.3 per cent, which puts it fifteenth out of the top fifty U.S. metro areas.

“I think that what’s happening is that a whole new world is opening up to them,” Graif said. “If these people hadn’t moved out of the metro area, they would have done the regular move—cycling from one disadvantaged area to another. The fact that they were all of a sudden thrown out of that whirlpool gives them a chance to rethink what they do. It gives them a new option—a new metro area has more neighborhoods in better shape.”

That is, more neighborhoods in better shape than those of New Orleans, which is a crucial fact. For reasons of geography, politics, and fate, Katrina also happened to hit one of the most dysfunctional urban areas in the country: violent, corrupt, and desperately poor. A few years after the hurricane, researchers at the University of Texas interviewed a group of New Orleans drug addicts who had made the move to Houston, and they found that Katrina did not seem to have left the group with any discernible level of trauma. That’s because, the researchers concluded, “they had seen it all before: the indifferent authorities, loss, violence, and feelings of hopelessness and abandonment that followed in the wake of this disaster,” all of which amounted to “a microcosm of what many had experienced throughout their lives.”

Nearly ten years later, tracking the outcomes to this “natural experiment” is providing plenty of material for social scientists. Few major cities experience such catastrophes so there aren’t even many comparisons that can be made. Yet, Katrina helped spark interest in studying resilient cities as leaders and citizens think about ways that cities can bounce back from a broad range of major issues.