Monday, April 21, 2008

Sprawl reversing?

This is a post that falls somewhere in between cycling and politics, as will become clear as it progresses. I have to go out and check on my touring bike this afternoon, so I drove to work. On the way I heard this story on NPR, discussing what looks like a movement away from sprawl. The short version is that homes with a shorter commute distance have seen less of a decrease (and in some cases and increase) in price during the current housing market melt-down. One of the reasons that is mentioned in the piece is the idea that people are beginning to weigh the "costs" associated with a 1-2 hour commute (one way) more heavily.

The story doesn't specifically mention if the costs are the literal costs (fuel, vehicle maintenance) or philosophical (environment, time away from family) or a mix. I tend to think it's a mix. I know that when I finished school and took my current job I made a firm decision that I would not live too far away to bike to work. (Unfortunately that meant I would be living in Baltimore, because I don't like multi-modal commuting any more than long drive commuting, but that's me being picky.)

What I do find interesting is that this movement back into cities is happening without the cities first being redeveloped. There is a long running desire in sustainable living circles to remake cities, cut down on vehicle space, increase walking/biking space, add public transit, that sort of thing. In general I agree with these things but feel strongly that they will only be successful if they are done by demand rather than imposed. (See any number of anti-light rail arguments for the reasons light rail and other mass transit projects are often not cost-effective.)

What I see in this story (assuming it represents a true trend and not a short-term isolated incident) is that demand may soon come. The combination of desiring more family/recreation time and rising costs of fuel are making long commutes unattractive. That, in turn, will cause former suburbanites to reverse the trend of "drive until you can afford" that has been the mantra for the last 20+ years, and head back in to the cities where they work. That movement may lead to improvements in infrastructure, schools, and other things that fell into disrepair as a result of the tax base moving out of the cities.

Another, final, though. I do not doubt that the middle class families moving back into the cities will want some of the quality of life things (parks, playgrounds, good schools) that they had in the suburbs. Maybe, just maybe, this is the time to really look at how cities are organized and make some smart, sustainable changes to them.

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