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Is the End of Suburban Sprawl Finally In Sight?

For decades, sustainability pundits have been predicting that high gas prices would put an end to suburban sprawl and drive people back into the centers of cities. Chapter 12 of Chris Steiner’s book $20 per Gallon documents the argument quite nicely, for example. And for decades, of course, the fastest growing counties in the country have been those surrounding the country’s major cities, which in turn have been either stagnant in population terms or, in the case of the old manufacturing cities of the east and Midwest, declining.

A couple of recent reports, however, suggest the sustainability geeks just might have a point. First, new research conducted separately by the U of Michigan’s Transportation Research Institute and the CoPirg Foundation shows that there has been a significant decrease in the number of miles driven by Americans since 2004, about 6 percent in fact, most particularly on the part of the younger generation aged 16 to 34. And then there’s this report from the most recent US census showing that, in the past few years – and for the first time in decades – central cities in the US are growing in population terms faster than the surrounding suburbs.

The idea that ever-rising gas prices would drive people back into cities to avoid the increasing cost (not to mention time and hassle) of long commutes has been around for a long time. This argument goes on to suggest that, as this happens, our huge suburban and ex-urban shopping malls and giant McMansions will become stranded assets, in much the same way that the tens of square miles of abandoned manufacturing plants in North Philly were created by the migration of US manufacturing in the 1970s and ‘80s to China and other cheap labor cost countries. The market economics steamroller at work! Yet decade after decade the suburbs have continued to grow and sprawl outward, placing ever increasing demands on roads and other facilities, while central cities struggle with declining tax bases, crumbling infrastructure and high levels of unemployment. However, here we are: new evidence is beginning to trickle out of the think-tank pipeline!

There are all sorts of reasons other than high gas prices why people might be driving less and thinking about relocating to city centers. The CoPirg report suggests that it’s partly because people – especially the younger generation, where the decrease in miles driven is greatest (around 23 percent from 2001 – 2009) –  have found Facebook and other social media to be a preferable alternative to driving over to a friend’s house for a chat. I suppose 15 years ago the telephone – that ancient instrument of communication – just didn’t generate the same buzz as banging away at a smart phone keyboard as an alternative to a two mile drive to your buddy’s house.

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