Monday, May 01, 2006

Gas prices start to pinch

The Star Tribune today had a big A1 centerpiece on how higher gas prices are affecting homeowners and commuters.

The main revelation to me is that some people spend $500 a month on gas alone, not to mention the hour or two spent in traffic each day. That doesn't count the cost of buying, maintaining and insuring a car or two.

Are they insane?

It also cites a couple of studies that try to measure the transportation cost of living in various parts of the Twin Cities. One is by the Center for Neighborhood Technology; the other is by the Brookings Institution.

A lot of people decided to buy in the far-flung exurbs because the houses were a lot cheaper there. But there's a reason they're cheap, and many homeowners are now figuring out why.

If gas prices remain high, home prices will rise in the central cities and decline further in the sticks. But they're not going to fall enough to totally offset the ongoing cost of commuting, year after year.

The long-term implications could be interesting.

For starters, the "sweet spot" -- where combined housing and commuting costs are the most affordable -- will move inward somewhat. If mass transit gets a renewed lease on life, it will move in even closer, as those "expensive" homes in the city turn out to be cheaper in the long run. Even far-flung development will be affected, as it follows bus and rail lines rather than highways. That's one reason communities along the proposed Northstar commuter line strongly support its creation.

Meanwhile, businesses may seek to reduce transportation costs by locating near a rail line in the exurbs. That will allow residents to stop commuting into the city and instead drive to a local workplace. The small-town downtown may flourish again, creating a ring of minicities around the large central ones.

High gas prices may, in the end, achieve what government could or would not: curbing sprawl and the inefficient use of resources that goes with it. Yet another example of how dealing with the true cost of gasoline helps society as a whole make more rational choices.

Separately, MPR's Midmorning show had an interview with Oregon Rep. Earl Blumenauer, who's in town to take part in the Great Conversations series at the University of Minnesota. Blumenauer helped develop the Portland, Ore., transit system and is something of an expert on urban management and growth. They discussed several things, but Blumenauer made two points that resonated with me:

Zoning laws need to change. As long as we require people to drive to the mall or strip mall to shop, car usage remains necessary. A better idea is to have local stores within neighborhoods for small needs, and transit-linked shopping destinations for more regional draws. Right now, though, that's almost impossible because many zoning laws -- most of them drawn up decades ago and altered little since then -- still require sharp separations between commercial and residential districts.

Commuters deserve options. Blumenauer noted that the Twin Cities are less densely populated than Portland and have far more miles of highway. Yet we have more traffic congestion. That should be a flashing red sign that more highways are not a solution.

He expressed surprise that the Twin Cities is so far behind the rest of the country in the adoption of light rail, when even once-adamant opponents such as Phoenix, Denver and Houston now have systems. He said the goal should not be to force people to use mass transit; it should be to give them options, so they can decide what to use. Over time it leads to fewer roads, less traffic and less sprawl.

We have high gas prices to thank for the re-emergence of this sort of conversation. And it's yet one more reason why we should not be trying to lower those prices.

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