Sunday, November 11, 2007

Sprawl, sustainability and foreclosure

Cars are bad in myriad ways. One of the worst is that a car-bound lifestyle is unsustainable. This is not just about the cost of gas. Taking a car everywhere requires people to have parking available for you everywhere you go. The larger the percentage of the population that has cars, the more parking required, the wider and less pedestrian-friendly the roads that are required, and the more money required to build and maintain those parking facilities and roads. It may be possible to sustain the large death toll from cars due to crashes, but it's not possible to sustain the death and disability due to pollution. If left to continue, they will most likely make the world uninhabitable in a few generations.

Everyone has noticed the suburban sprawl that's engulfed this country over the past ten years. (I know, it's more like sixty years, but the pace during the recent housing boom has been particularly stunning.) If, like me, you're concerned about sustainability, you've seen mile after mile of cookie-cutter houses being built on former farmland or desert and wondered, "what's going to happen to all this?"

What is going to happen to all these cheapo McMansions when we come to the end of our ability to sustain them? When it comes time to make a payment to maintain the roads and parking garages?

We're beginning to see a bit of that now. The workability of most of the new "exurbs" and "edge cities" was based on long drives in cars. Most of these "communities" are not built for walking, cycling or transit. Even if it was safe to walk, there is nowhere to walk to. If you're lucky, you can walk to a convenience store, but the supermarket is almost always out of walking distance, not to mention other shopping, schools, government offices and parks. Parks! I once lived in a house where it was inconvenient to walk to a park. And of course, jobs. Some of them with insane commutes, two hours and up.

With the recent rise in gas prices has come a wave of foreclosures. There's a relatively simple connection, as you can read in any number of stories. The Housing Bubble Blog has all the sprawl-bankruptcy horror stories you could ever want, but there's a nice summary in a study done by Sperling's Best Places.

The pattern boils down to this: someone plans a life in one of these sprawling subdivisions where they need a car for everything. They mortgage their property to the hilt, so that they have no wiggle room for an unforseen rise in expenses. One of these unforseen rises is in the price of gas. If they lived in a transit-oriented place, they could switch to transit, but no, they skipped that option. They're faced with an impossible choice: fuel their car, pay the mortgage, or buy groceries. They might not even be able to do two of these, let alone three. They're forced to foreclose.

If they recover, they may switch to something car-dependent but not quite as much. Perhaps they're able to refinance to a more reasonable mortgage, or they buy a car that gets better mileage. Maybe they buy or rent a house closer to work, or find a new job closer to home, or both. But they're not out of the woods yet.

Neither are the somewhat more sensible people who budgeted better, or already lived closer to work or drove a more efficient car. Gas prices aren't going down any time soon. I haven't studied the peak oil projections in detail, but they make sense to me. Even if the peak oilers are wrong in the short term, we're not going to have abundant sources of oil forever. And even if we manage to develop amazing batteries and find another fuel source, it's just incredibly inefficient to live miles from all your destinations and not be able to go anywhere without pushing tons of metal around with you. The Levittowns and Scottsdales of the '60s are more efficient than Fountain Hills, but they're still unsustainable. Eventually these people will have to move too.

We're talking about a huge migration. Over the past sixty years, people have migrated from the cities to the suburbs and "exurbs," and now they're all going to have to move back. Many of them have already started; it's no coincidence that high-density cities like New York and Chicago, and streetcar suburbs like Scarsdale and Winnetka, have been relatively immune to the foreclosure crisis: many of their residents can take transit to work and walk to the supermarket. In fact, the former "inner cities" have seen a "reverse white flight" of migrants from the suburbs.

The problem is that there's not going to be enough room for these migrants. We're talking millions of people, and the population has increased since their parents and grandparents moved out. Plus, much of the housing stock and transit infrastructure has been destroyed. Apartment buildings and stores knocked down for parking in a desperate attempt to save the "dying downtown"; trolley tracks ripped up, elevated railroads torn down, subway tunnels filled in, rail rights-of-way turned over to highways and recreation trails. Meanwhile, hundreds of McMansions accross the country sit empty, and their numbers will increase.

It's true that many of the houses built in the past fifteen (or fifty) years were built cheaply, but it's still a lot of sunk capital. We're going to need to find a way to rebuild towns quickly and cheaply, so we're going to need to figure out how to move these McMansions closer together - and closer to a train station - and convert them to apartment buildings. There's a lot of money in it for whoever figures out how.

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