The ‘burbs gas bill

Some commentators are of the opinion that rising fuel prices will eventually lead to the death of the ’burbs, which were created with fossil-fuel-guzzling cars in mind. In fact, it was the advent of cheap gas and cars that made the suburbs possible in the first place and led to that other vehicle-dependent phenomenon — the exurb. 

Before cars and SUVs dominated the urban landscape,  public transportation was the only real option available to urban dwellers. Easy access to public transportation necessitated that people lived near the downtown core of cities, and the so-called suburbs were confined to those areas served by a streetcar line. 

Until millions of cars arrived on the scene in North America, people were effectively limited in their housing choices: confined to apartments and closely packed houses close to the downtown where the majority of jobs were found. In cities such as Winnipeg, housing clustered around factory and job sites, such as the CPR Yards in the North End.

In Winnipeg and numerous North American cities, the change to gas-powered vehicles led to the creation of new suburban neighbours, many of which were typified by cul-de-sac streets that are unfriendly to pedestrian or public transportation. In these car-friendly neighbourhoods, sidewalks are scarce, but one-, two- and even three-car garages are plentiful. In the U.S. and Canada, gasoline has been relatively cheap, allowing suburbia to thrive. In fact, Canada and the U.S. historically have had the lowest gas prices among all industrialized nations. If they could get petrol at $1.30 a litre, British drivers would think they had won the lottery. 

The suburban home and a new vehicle in the driveway became the new status symbol in the years immediately following the Second World War, when returning servicemen and women demanded their own swath of grass and gas-powered lawn mower. When someone bought a home in the ’burbs, they were said to have truly arrived in Eden.

But $130 a barrel oil signals that some cracks may soon be seen in the driveways of Eden. One author has made a rather dire prediction on the suburbs’ fate. Although James Howard Kunstler was dismissed as a crank in the past, some are now beginning to take note of his ramblings on the state of suburbia, but few are tempted to take the message of the ’burbs’ demise to his extreme.

“The suburbs will turn to slums,” warned Kunstler in his book The Long Emergency, “salvage yards and ruins. Expensive oil will thunder through the economic system cutting a wide swath of destruction.”

When oil leaps to $200 a barrel — few energy commentators doubt that oil will reach this lofty plateau, while the more alarmist among the predictors are calling for oil to hit as much as $300 a barrel in a  few years — it is unlikely that people will still be looking upon suburbia so affectionately, although few will jump to Kunstler's conclusion and determine that suburbia is fated to become an abandoned junk yard. 

What is more likely to happen is that many people will still opt for suburbia, but rely upon on other options to travel back and forth to their jobs rather than gas-guzzling SUVs, such as public transportation and fuel-efficient sub-compact vehicles. The SUV was more of a expensive status symbol than practical urban transportation. In urban North America, there are few gravel-surfaced back streets which require the hill climbing ability of a four-wheel drive SUV. 

It is also more likely that the two-car  and three-car families will become a rarity as people seek ways to cut back on their fuel bills. Driving habits will change as the price of fuel climbs into the upper stratosphere.

What is more likely to happen is that more people will think deeply before purchasing homes in exurbia, where a lengthy commute to jobs in the city is required five days a week. Exurbia will still be an option for better-off Canadians, who can still afford fuel prices rising beyond today’s $1.30 a litre, but everyday Joes will begin to see a quaint home in a rural setting as less viable for their financially-challenged pocketbooks.

In some instances, the price of fuel could become as much a determining factor in home selection as the price tag of the home. Easy access to public transportation, bicycle paths or the ability to walk to work may also become part of the home buying equation. It is also an equation that will dictate how future suburbs are developed. For example, Waverley West in southwest Winnipeg has been planned as public transportation and pedestrian friendly.

Fortunately for Winnipeggers, the daily commute to work is not overly time consuming. Motorists can still travel from one end of the city to the other in roughly 45 minutes. And, bedroom communities such as Stonewall are just 25 minutes from Winnipeg’s downtown.

Be thankful you don’t live in Toronto   where a daily commute of two hours or more is the norm rather than the exception. It is likely that Kunstler's dire prediction has more bearing in North America’s largest cities than in mid-sized cities such as Winnipeg. 

Yet, Toronto has a good transit system. Statistics Canada indicated only 55 per cent of Torontonians regularly commute to work by personal vehicle. In other North American cities of its size, often the number of automobile commuters can be as high as 80 per cent.

The civic and legislative committee of  the WinnipegREALTORS® Association has indicated to the city that it favours the implementation of a comprehensive plan for rapid transit service in Winnipeg. But, much of the city’s rapid transit $142-million upgrade is far behind schedule. Transcona Councillor Russ Wyatt, the chair of the Rapid Transit Task Force which made the upgrade recommendations and a frequent guest speaker at WinnipegREALTORS® meetings, called the numerous delays “a bloody disaster.” 

It’s an unfortunate occurrence due to the need for more transportation options, especially for suburbanites, in an era of excessive oil prices. Suburbia will not perish any time soon, but it might need some help to get through the looming gas-price crisis.