Photo: FrankMaurer FlickrThe news that GM will cease production of Hummers revived the brewing argument that suburbia is in fatal decline. Hummers are the perfect corollary to McMansions, symbols of excess, leftovers from the roaring aughts that now seem outlandish, indulgent and environmentally offensive.
No buyers for Hummers plus no buyers for homes in far flung suburbs equals The End. NPR’s Marketplace recently reported that “drive-until-you-qualify” suburbs are facing a rash of foreclosures because high gas prices make them undesirable; even a decent mortgage rate can’t compete against $3-a-gallon gas. Ghost Town Suburbia, a made-for-TV movie in the making.
Which is why I was surprised to read that driving is on the rise again. In 2007, as the economic crisis began, driving declined for the first time in decades. According to USA Today, a study by traffic-watchers INRIX “found that driving increased by 0.3% in September, 0.2% in October, 0.3% in November and 0.2% in December over the same periods a year earlier, according to federal data.”
Increased driving is partly the result of an as-yet unfulfilled promise to put public transit back on the front burner; many of those outer suburbs would be more feasable digs if trains or busses or rapid transit reached them. But it’s also a sign that the economy is slowly on the mend. Retail sales are higher, and fewer people are filing for unemployment (although the latter may have more to do with Congressional delay on the unemployment benefits extension).
Sadly, the best thing for reducing traffic congestion, in the absence of a comprehensive public transit system, is a sour economy. Rick Schuman of INRIX told USA Today, “As the job situation goes, so goes congestion. If we have a recovery and we start seeing employment starting to grow, congestion will grow along with it.”
Here’s the question: if the existing, largely empty suburban greenfield developments (products of wayward policies though they may be) will inevitably fill back up as the economy eases, wouldn’t it be better for mass transit to trundle their denizens back and forth to work? Of course it would. It’s time to front-burner public transit to the foreclosing far-out lands, a better way to tackle congestion and the housing crisis at once.