Will High Gas Prices Kill Suburban Sprawl?

When the award-winning film The End of Suburbia was released in 2004, it was considered by some to be an amusing but exaggerated view of what Peak Oil will do to the suburban way of life. As gas prices approach $5/gallon, it doesn’t seem quite so shocking.

As a passionate enemy of suburban sprawl, I listened intently to an interview this morning on NPR with Brookings Institution demographer William Frey in which he notes that housing prices are falling faster in the areas outside cities. Is this a permanent correction that is making “exurbs” less desirable overall? And how are gas prices influencing this loss of home value? Mr. Frey was cautious in his answer, saying “the jury is still out” and that Americans have a history of moving outward from cities in order to buy more housing for less, seeing long commutes as an acceptable trade off.

However, it doesn’t take a genius to see that, when a commute costs more than one is saving on housing, while sucking up hours of one’s valuable time, (and as the saying goes, “They aren’t making more of that”) why would one buy a home in the far suburbs? Why, indeed?

Sperling’s Best Places did a survey two years ago when gas prices were at $2.90 a gallon. The following were the most expensive cities in which to commute and listed the average annual commuting cost:

City Annual Commuting Cost (2006)

1. Atlanta $5,772
2. Birmingham, Ala. $5,464
3. Orlando, Fla. $5,404
4. Jacksonville, Fla. $5,360
5. Pensacola, Fla. $5,173

So, if gas prices reach $6.00, Atlanta’s commuting cost would be over $10,000 per year. Yikes.

A posting on Wall Street Journal’s online edition reports that even the conservative International Energy Agency is moving toward the Peak Oil Pessimists’ camp. The conclusion is that it’s not speculators making oil go higher but simple capitalist principles like the law of supply and demand – developing countries are going to be driving up demand for many years to come.

So will this result in an end to sprawl? Will avoidance of driving cause the demise of the ugly, cookie-cutter mini-mall blight that has mushroomed around our cities like an invasive species? Let’s hope so.

Related Posts

Sprawl Kills

Addressing Peak Oil at the Local Level

  1. Caroline Savery

    Provocative post. I’ve been waiting for this trend to appear on the radar, because it seems rational to me that cutting out car dependence will become a big part of the green movement. The major ‘car sales slump’ of this year seems to indicate a similar change in consumer consciousness. Thanks for writing this.

  2. Carol Gulyas

    Thanks for your comment. It does seem as if these factors must interconnected. Wish we had a better system of mass transit to fill the gaps for those people that are stuck in the ‘burbs (and those in rural small towns are even worse off).

  3. Marc

    Interesting, but one needs to be include caveats on results when talking about commuting costs because they are directly related to the type of vehicle being used. I checked the Sperling’s Best Places page to find out the fuel economy value that they used, but was unsuccessful. But since they list the gallons per day (3.3 for Atlanta) and say that the worst commutes are 60 miles per day, that gives an estimate of 18 miles per gallon. A pretty lousy efficiency, partially because of the time sitting in traffic (during which your mpg is zero) and partially because of America’s big cars. Switching to a small fuel sipper like a Prius or Civic would cut commuting costs significantly. As fuel prices rise, there will be more incentive to buy efficient cars and for manufactures to innovate.

    It won’t be easy, but we need to shift our thinking about gasoline from dollars per gallon to dollars per mile. I don’t buy gasoline because it’s a pleasant liquid, I buy it directly so I can get from point A to B or indirectly so my goods can move from point A to B.

    Posts like yours might help us change our thinking, reminding us that annual expenses also depend on where we live and what we drive, not solely the price of oil.

  4. Bob Wallace

    Using your Sperling’s data and a rough average of three gallons per day per commuter and 20 MPG ‘guess’ one would estimate a 60 mile commute day for suburb dwellers.

    $12 for gas at $4 per gallon.
    $252 per month.
    $3024 per year.

    $4536 per year for gas at $6 per gallon.

    (Their figure must include other car expenses – depreciation, maintenance, etc. Those expenses won’t ramp up with the price of fuel.)

    CalCars has converted a Prius hybrid to a plug-in so that it can be run using grid power, not petroleum.

    They report that their Prius uses 0.24 kWh per mile. (The Tesla uses 0.23 kWh per mile.)

    60 miles would use 14.4 kWh per day.

    $1.51 per day at $0.105 kWh (US average price).
    $32 per month.
    $381 per year.

    Charge up with off-peak electricity and significantly decrease that massive ‘$381 annual’ hurt.

    Suburbs are not going to die due to commuting costs. We have a rough patch ahead of us for the next 2-5 years while we wait for affordable electric cars.

    In the meantime one can cut their gas price to $2 per gallon by car pooling with one other person.

    They can cut it to $1 per gallon by car pooling with three others.

  5. mpgomatic

    Bob is spot on. A rapid electrification of the fleet will make this all seem like a bad dream, sooner than most folks think. This is the shot in the arm that the economy needs right now.

    100 MPG plug-in hybrids exist today … not from the manufacturers, but from the after market. Just as HP, Apple, and Google were born in the garage (and a good bet they were suburban garages), this revolution will happen under the shade tree …

  6. ChrissMC

    Back in the early 90´s there was many predictions of what the future would be like, and the notion that oil is not an abundant renewable source has been obvious eversince the gas crissis of the 70´s and even before that crissis…How ever the lifestyle never inclined toward an alternative energy efficient way of life, instead it remained on the waste and abuse unsustainable predictable future.

    Being optimistical about the many challenges humanity is facing I´ts never too late to revert the consequences…but it is a late start for everyone…and Us the “tree huggers” are saddly saying: we told you so…

    Housing value can still be rescued if community team work is done. By this not only Carpooling is the only place to start…but investing on public transportation infrastructure is a must for all comunities, and the value will recover significantly.

    No matter how many alternative energy source vehicles are available now in the market, there is a serious soul searching to be done about the personal use of vehicles…because as much of this hybrid trend sounds like a solution the efficiency on the use of resources with one passanger vehicles will always sore the economy all over the world.

  7. Cycling in Hollywood

    >When the award-winning film The End of Suburbia was >released in 2004, it was considered an amusing but >exaggerated view of what Peak Oil will do to the suburban >way of life…

    Considered by whom?

    I didn’t think it was exaggerated and neither did many others.

    Now its coming true…

  8. aullman

    There is a new option besides moving back to the city. (There really is not enough room for everyone). Suburbanites can work remotely, either from home as a telecommuter or from a Remote Office Center. Remote Office Centers are a fairly new concept. A Remote Office Center leases individual offices, internet and phone systems to workers from multiple companies in shared centers located around the suburbs. Workers can find information (including locations) about Remote Office Centers at a free web site:


    Moving everyone back to the city is not a viable option for most of America. Rather than move people to the workplace, it makes more sense to move the workplace to the people. Many people can work remotely as long as they have decent facilities available to them. Not everyone can work remotely, but those who can not, will benefit from less people on the road and by lower demand for fuel because of all the remote workers.

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