The Solution to Sprawl

Higher gas prices.

From NPR (thanks to C-Ville), featuring a friend and fellow blogger, Danilo Bogdanovic:

Stiff says home buyers’ attitudes have changed. The old rule was, “Drive ’til you qualify” — meaning they should go out from the city until they could get what they wanted at a price they could afford.

Stiff says buyers are now asking different questions: “What is the cost of gasoline? What is the cost of my time?”

Recent studies suggest that buyers underestimated the costs of their long commutes. Those expenses can add up to more than the buyers saved on the home. Developers also miscalculated, lured by cheap land and rising home prices. They overreached, “partly because the bubble collapsed, but partly because these developments were just bad ideas to begin with,” Stiff said.

Many of the projects were simply too far away from places that people need to go.

As I said on Inman’s blog yesterday:

I firmly believe, to my core, that this (higher gas prices) is going to drive human settlement and development patterns toward properties that are close to “stuff that is within walking distance.” Buyers who buy today and are within a mile of grocery/coffee/gym – even if in the suburbs – will be grateful and thankful for their decision in three to four years. I filled up on Tuesday it was painful – $61 for a fill-up.

And I drove 120 miles today showing property. 🙂 My tips – work from home at least once a week, combine errands, walk or ride my bike wherever I can, and encourage walkable decisions by my clients and political representatives.

More discussion at Bacon’s Rebellion

The Charlottesville/Albemarle region is becoming more and more segmented, as evidenced by the growth of Town Centers.

————–Map of Charlottesville areas, and a corresponding explanation of these sub-areas:


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————–Map of CharlAlbemarle Town Centers, and an explanation of these sub-regions.


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18 Comments

  1. Arthur April 25, 2008 at 08:33

    It’s more than gas, though. No doubt shorter commutes are worth a lot in money and time. But the big savings comes when you can get rid of a car. In a two income household, if one of the earners can bike, walk, or bus to work, then you can get rid of the the insurance, taxes, maintenance, and interest payments on the other car. Even if the car is paid off, you have at least a few thousand dollars tied up in an asset that is rapidly losing value instead of earning interest. After you count those costs, just owning a car is likely to cost at least a thousand dollars a year (or much more depending on the value of the car that is depreciating) before you even consider the costs of driving. If you can buy a house where you can live with one car, the annual savings are big.

    Reply
  2. Lonnie April 25, 2008 at 08:46

    The big question though is whether this is a lesson people will remember once the market recovers and fuel prices go down again?

    What most people don’t realize is that a huge chunk of our taxes were subsidizng artificially low fuel prices. It might not be popular politically, but the best thing we can do for the economy and the environment remove all oil subsidies so that people have to pay the real cost (Although we might want to wait until the price goes down again). We can never change our behaivor until we actually see what it is really costing us. In countries that do pay the real cost of energy, they make very different choices.

    Reply
  3. Jim Duncan April 25, 2008 at 13:00

    Arthur –

    Amen, but for those of us who live close – Crozet, Lake Monticello, Greene, etc – that’s just not an option as we don’t have reliable public transport, and not everyone has the chance to work from home.

    Lonnie –

    Agreed, and I think that if we can get the people to be less short-sighted, we’ll be able to come out of this better than before.

    Reply
  4. Julie Emery April 25, 2008 at 20:28

    I wonder if we’ll see the suburbs dying and the inner cities coming back to life. Maybe the suburban lawns will get plowed up to grow food!

    I’m afraid the very outer ring suburbs where are never coming back. They worked well as small towns, but how do you go back to that? What if the hundreds or thousands of homes built for commuters simply can’t attract buyers?

    Reply
  5. Joel April 26, 2008 at 10:17

    I think it’s more than just gas prices. People will pay infinitely higher gas prices as long as it means their kids can stay in better, safer schools. Unfortunately, in 99% of American cities you’re stuck with the school you live, unless you can afford to pay private school tuition :\

    I’ve never heard anyone mention school choice (vouchers, etc) as a way to reduce sprawl, but it makes perfect sense.

    Reply
  6. Jim Duncan April 26, 2008 at 11:21

    Joel –

    Thanks for the comment; I like the way you think – big, nearly impossible, and right all the way.

    I think there is a threshold that may prevent people from buying more and more gas.

    It seems that people’s behaviors may already be changing: –

    Is oil-guzzling America changing its ways? Some think so, though it’s worth noting the U.S. still consumes one-third of the world’s annual gasoline output. “It appears we’ve finally hit the ceiling that’s causing the U.S. population to rethink how and where they use their vehicles,” says Paul Weissgarber, who heads the energy practice at consulting firm A.T. Kearney.

    Reply
  7. Anonymous Coward April 26, 2008 at 16:20

    I want to talk a moment re: Joel’s comment on schools. The underlying thrust of the comment is that people are willing to drive because suburban schools are generally better than urban schools. Sometimes, but sometimes not. The City of C’ville has very good schools — from elementary right up through high school. Every bit as good as Albemarle. There are differences between urban and suburban schools in this area, but they are subtle. There is no doubt that most students will receive a good education in either system.

    W/r/t other cities, well, it’s a mixed bag. Urban public schools can be quite good — for example, in New York City, which has many fine urban public schools (the best of which — such as Bronx Science or Styveusant — outclass even the best suburban public schools). Or they can be very bad, as for example in Philly or Washington, DC. But the same can be said about suburban schools. The very affluent inner-ring suburbs tend to have excellent schools. My mother, for example, had a long career as a public school teacher in one of wealthy New York City suburbs in Nassau County, Long Island. The schools she taught in were first-rate. On the other hand, the schools in outer suburbs are sometimes awful. My father had a long career as a public school teacher in one of the outer suburbs of NYC, in a school with every imaginable dysfunction.

    The upshot — public schools are a mixed bag. Quality tends to follow money, rather than the urban/suburban divide. As people with money are re-urbanizing — and I think this is a big trend that gas prices are only going to accelerate — the trend is toward improving urban public schools. AC

    Reply
  8. TrvlnMn April 27, 2008 at 13:53

    If unless your student is “above average” and in the Academic/advanced classes then the Cville School system isn’t very good, or at best is not very different than any other unimpressively average school system.

    New York City Schools can probably credit a lot of their improvement to Mayor Bloomberg’s massive overhauls”.

    W/r/t the topic – higher gas prices, I suppose it could work to prop up the inflated real estate prices in some areas, at least if everyone got it in their head to move “closer in” to cut that fuel bill.

    Reply
  9. Anonymous Coward April 27, 2008 at 21:07

    W/r/t TrvInMn’s post, I have no information re: how the poster has decided that, aside from what’s available to the smart kids, the education on offer in the C’ville public schools “isn’t very good”. I would ask whether TrvInMn has any direct experience in this regard, and if he has, what his comparators are.

    In any event, everyone has an opinion, but school quality is a very difficult thing to gauge. Test scores don’t send a good signal, b/c scores closely track socio-economic status, and the diversity of, say, C’ville’s elementary schools vs. those in Albemarle County make comparisons difficult and misleading. A school that manages to raise test scores of a cohort of students with a socio-economic status that would predict lower test scores is a good school. That is true even if the scores are lower than those in an elementary serving almost uniformly upper-middle-class whites. The question is what the school does with the hand it’s dealt.

    The test score comparison is difficult, and of course focus on test score often becomes a proxy for people wanting their kids to attend school with the “right” kind of students. The subject is also difficult because the question facing a parent is, of course, “Where is my kid going to do well?” The answer to this question is different for different kids. But I will repeat — and the large number of high-achieving kids coming out of the C’ville public system will bear me witness — that if a kid is delivered to school healthy and ready to learn, the C’ville schools are a fine place and not much different, over the run of cases, than schools in Albemarle. Plus there is a value for kids in experiencing some racial and economic diversity, which is part of the experience in C’ville. AC

    Reply
  10. Lonnie April 28, 2008 at 09:17

    Well I went to Western Albemarle so therefore it’s better ;-b (Besides, I can only remember one Cross-Country season where we didn’t demolish the other schools at the Ragged Mountain Cup)

    Seriously though, someone else’s point about tracking is correct, but I don’t think vouchers would fix it. Each school in the city and the county is effective two schools – One for middle and upper-class students, and one for lower income and minority students. I recall a classmate once saying to me that there’s this whole other group of people that you only see when you play sports. Then you go back to your separate classrooms where you almost never mix.

    The thing here that parents need to know is that it has nothing to do with how intelligent your kids are. The upper level classes are not necessarily harder than the lower ones. Basically the kids in the upper level classes had parents that would advocate for them, and the students in the lower level didn’t. I can’t tell you how many under-achieving students I saw in upper level classes whose parents were members of Farmington. To make it worse, they put all the kids with behavior problems (regardless of how intelligent they are) in the lower level classes. That means that kids that are having trouble catching up, then have to deal with screw ups, making it effectively impossible to learn.

    The solution is far too complex to summarize here, but to start with the Feds need to get out of the education business, and give control back to localities and teachers. I’d also suggest that school funding be done state-wide, so that every school averages the same amount of money per student.

    Reply
  11. Anonymous Coward April 28, 2008 at 17:13

    I want to respond to Lonnie’s post — all I can say is “amen”. The public schools in this region rely heavily on tracking, and you can’t look closely at how it’s done and think it’s really a meritocracy. It’s a means for reinforcing social class. This isn’t to say that the schools are somehow meaning to do ill. Quite the contrary. But the fact is, in school as in life, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. And wealthy, active parents are the squeaky wheel.

    So, I see what Lonnie sees w/r/t tracking, and I also agree with him as to solutions. Fed’l intervention has been a huge net negative. The states should be in the drivers seat, and funding should be equalized via state uniform taxation and distribution.

    And — so that Jim doesn’t think we’re going off track — this all relates right back to the real estate market. The price of gas is going to drive future real-estate densification. To make that work, we have got to make sure that we straighten out the school funding issue. Otherwise, the market and the government are going to be working at cross-purposes.

    Reply
  12. TrvlnMn April 28, 2008 at 19:31

    I would ask whether TrvInMn has any direct experience in this regard, and if he has, what his comparators are.

    My opinions are based solely on my own personal experiences. Enough familiar faces still remain from the time I was a student for me to believe that not much has changed. That and the simple fact that public education is a bureaucracy which resists change.

    Lonnie captures the essence of it perfectly when he wrote:

    Each school in the city and the county is effective two schools – One for middle and upper-class students, and one for lower income and minority students.

    […]

    The upper level classes are not necessarily harder than the lower ones. Basically the kids in the upper level classes had parents that would advocate for them, and the students in the lower level didn’t.

    To make it worse, they put all the kids with behavior problems (regardless of how intelligent they are) in the lower level classes. That means that kids that are having trouble catching up, then have to deal with screw ups, making it effectively impossible to learn.

    Reply
  13. Anonymous Coward April 28, 2008 at 23:48

    You will notice that Lonnie’s quote applies to city and county schools in equal measure.

    Best, AC

    Reply
  14. Scott Rogers April 29, 2008 at 08:04

    Jim — a friend and I were recently talking about whether the commuting cost of living outside Harrisonburg outweighs the cost savings of more affordable housing. I found that there are still cost savings to be had by living outside Harrisonburg. Do you think the same is true in the Charlottesville area?

    Reply
  15. TrvlnMn April 29, 2008 at 19:08

    You will notice that Lonnie’s quote applies to city and county schools in equal measure.

    As I said…

    …or at best is not very different than any other unimpressively average school system.

    Reply
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