Gas prices changing the face of America

Google Trends gas pricesAlmost overnight, it has become the most pressing issue in the minds of most Americans. CNN’s most popular topic this week? “Fueling America.” Gas prices are now competing with Iraq, the economy at large, and even Angelina Jolie for primacy in the national consciousness. If you’re interested in the numbers, do check out Google Trends. Since April 2008, the term “gas prices” has been searched 3 times more often than the average for the entire year — a year when prices were already high and of concern. (click to enlarge the graph)

People are looking for solutions and grabbing the low-hanging fruit. Combine trips. Work from home occasionally. Drive the sedan instead of the SUV. Carpool. Vacation close to home.

As people quickly tap out these more simple alternatives to relieving the pressure, many are asking themselves the bigger questions: “How did we get to a situation where the only option we have is to drive? Why can’t I take a train to work? Why can’t my kids walk to school like I did?”

With 95 percent of Americans lacking easy access to public transportation and untold millions living in unwalkable places, the time is now to increase our investment in strategies to lessen our need for gasoline and oil: investing in things like better public transportation, more walkable and bikeable neighborhoods, and a style of mixed, walkable development — in high demand these days — that isn’t dependent on cheap gasoline.

Given the situation with escalating gas prices, global warming, and our dependence on oil — regardless of the country of origin — we need better alternatives to protect us from the pain of the pump.

A couple of mainstream media stories just this week chronicled the sea change that’s happening right now. Right now, the 3rd most emailed story on is not about Britney Spears, shark attacks, or even Angelina Jolie. It’s a thought-provoking piece about the fundamental change happening in the suburban and exurban housing market. It’s a change driven by more than just gas prices, but also including demographic shifts, changing consumer preferences, and the inability of an industry to quickly adapt.

Brookings’ Chris Leinberger summed up the core of the shift when he told CNN “the American dream is absolutely changing.” From

This change can be witnessed in places like Atlanta, Georgia, Detroit, Michigan, and Dallas, Texas, said Leinberger, where once rundown downtowns are being revitalized by well-educated, young professionals who have no desire to live in a detached single family home typical of a suburbia where life is often centered around long commutes and cars.

Instead, they are looking for what Leinberger calls “walkable urbanism” — both small communities and big cities characterized by efficient mass transit systems and high density developments enabling residents to walk virtually everywhere for everything — from home to work to restaurants to movie theaters.

Leinberger explains how the demand for walkable urbanism is unmet right now in most markets, leading to price premiums in many areas. Along with numbers and research from Chris Nelson at Virginia Tech, they make the case that — unless we change our course — we are headed for a massively overbuilt suburban housing market, while the demand for housing in walkable, transit-accessible, convenient locations will remain unmet.

The Wall Street Journal‘s Jonathan Karp, who also interviewed Leinberger for his piece, cites a CEO’s for Cities report (that we also covered here) for his piece called “Suburbs a Mile Too Far for Some:”

Even families who sought the suburbs or were priced out of cities now have an economic imperative to find their way back closer to town. Transportation is the second-biggest household expense, after housing, and suburban families face a relatively greater gas burden. At the same time, distant suburbs, or exurbs, where housing growth was predicated on cheap gas, have experienced the biggest declines in home values in the past year, according to a May report by CEOs for Cities, a nonprofit group of public- and private-sector officials that seeks to promote urban areas. “The gas-price spike popped the housing bubble,” said Joe Cortright, the report’s author.

It’s a perfect storm.

With around 40 percent of Americans preferring “walkable urbanism,” transportation consuming a greater share of of Americans’ budgets, and high gas prices apparently here to stay, it’s time we invested more of our national wealth into better transportation infrastructure and a form of development that can give people true relief from high gas prices.