Ryan Avent

Odd to see a piece at CiF about oil and society that actually manages to get things right. But there is one.

Yes (consistently) high oil prices will change the urban and exurban layout of American cities and their surrounding areas. Yes, the cost of commuting will change relative land and housing values. Over the longish term, assuming prices stay up, we might see the US reorganise itself along more European lines in terms of population densities and commuting distances.

The shift in housing preferences may begin to reverse one of the defining national trends of recent decades – the massive migration toward the south and west of the country. Sunbelt boomtowns like Atlanta, Houston, and Riverside, California have grown at breakneck pace thanks to cheap and plentiful housing built along sprawling highway networks. Some of these places are now rushing to build transit service, but the soaring cost of petrol has caught most flat-footed. Such cities can expect outward expansion to slow, but perhaps more importantly, households considering moves to warmer climes may rethink their decision. Northeastern and Midwestern cities in long decline, such as Baltimore, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Cleveland, may find their dense structures and legacy transit systems an incalculable asset.

That little bit might indeed be true, but there\’s something missed as well. It\’s a great deal cheaper to cool housing than it is to heat it. Certainly, it\’s a great deal cheaper to cool a house in Phoenix than it is to heat one through the winter in Cleveland. (Yes, OK, that\’s assuming current levels of insulation of course: but then it\’s also assuming current methods of cooling, rather than shaded verandas and so on which can be used as excellent passive cooling devices.)

So high oil prices might well increase the move to hte Sun Belt: indeed there are those who say that the moves of the last few decades have been a reaction to the last oil price rises of the 70s.


6 thoughts on “Ryan Avent”

  1. The other factor in moving to the sun belt is tax.
    California has had lower growth than other, lower tax, states.

  2. So Much For Subtlety

    Southern States have traditionally been lower per-capita income states (and hence large numbers of Blacks moved North in one of the largest shifts of human population in the English speaking world) and yet also low taxing ones.

  3. Insulation upgrades work both ways-lowers the required energy to cool as well as to heat.

  4. You imply that higher oil prices will encourage Americans living in the rust belt to move to the warmer areas of the South-West. Surely they should just stay where they are and let global warming come to them.

  5. I’m seeing a lot of breathless speculation that urban land will see an increase in value while suburban land languishes for the high cost of gasoline. But 1/2 century of suburbanization has shifted jobs from the center-city (what we call downtown) to the suburbs, themselves.

    In 2008, it’s much more likely that Joe Commuter travels from his home in a third-ring suburb to his job in another. Downtown is just the place he goes to see a baseball game a couple times a year. Certainly high energy costs will spur changes, but perhaps not as revolutionary as some are hoping.

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