Monday, June 09, 2008

Trapped in Gasoline Ghettos

OK, this is bad. The rapid rise in the price of gas is turning the nation's far-flung rural and suburban areas into gasoline ghettos, locking millions of Americans into houses they cannot sell, far from their jobs, with little hope of escape.

Even before prices soared, gasoline consumed a large portion of the household budget. In 2006--the most recent year for which there is household spending data--gasoline ranked sixth among items on which the average household spends the most. Back then, the average price of a gallon of gas was less than $3.00. Those were the good old days. With gasoline now above $4.00 a gallon, it is likely the fourth most costly item in the household budget, behind only Social Security deductions, mortgage interest (or rent), and car payments.

This is worse than ouch. Gasoline is the blood supply of the sprawling American lifestyle. Here are the facts: most of us drive to work, and three out of four workers drive to work alone. The average commuter spends 25 minutes getting to his job. Many are in the car much longer. Twenty-one percent of workers live 20 or more miles from their place of work. Among the unlucky workers who live in newer homes (built in the past four years), an even larger 29 percent live at least 20 miles from their work, according to the American Housing Survey.

Those newer homes are the epicenter of the housing crisis because of their distance from jobs. According to an analysis (pdf download) by David Stiff, chief economist for Fiserv Lending Solutions, single-family home prices are falling the most in areas farthest from employment centers. "Because of sharp increases in gasoline prices, living closer to work has become an even more important consideration in the location decisions of homebuyers," says Stiff. He maps housing price changes from the price peak through the first half of 2007 in two metropolitan areas, showing how prices in Los Angeles and Boston have fallen the most in the outer rings. The future doesn't look bright either. "When combined with large inventories of unsold housing on the edges of urban areas, this shift in preferences will mean that prices for homes in outlying neighborhoods will continue their more rapid decline and will be slower to rebound when housing markets finally start to recover."

On top of this bad news, most of the millions living in gasoline ghettos have no alternative but to drive. Only 54 percent of households in the United States have access to public transportation, according to the American Housing Survey. Among homeowners, the figure is a smaller 47 percent. Among homeowners in newer houses--the houses in exurban rings--just 27 percent have public transportation in their area.

If we are lucky, the spike in gasoline prices is only a bubble, which will deflate once speculators withdraw from the market, or the summer driving season ends, or a new administration is in the White House. The bursting of an oil price bubble will give us time to prepare for the permanent era of expensive gasoline. We will have time to build more efficient vehicles, encourage people to live closer to job centers, and invest in public transportation. If we are not lucky, then we have run out of time, and we are about to feel the fury of all those trapped many miles from stores, schools, and jobs.

1 comment:

Frank Goodman said...

So 20 miles one way means 3 gallons of commuting gas a day. The price of gas is up $2 a gallon so the cost of commuting is up $6 dollars a workday, or roughly $1,200 a year. It is hard to see any kind of disaster or strong behavior changer here, particularly among white flighters or people seeking more house for their buck.