Focusing population growth in the right places will make us both
The New York Times looks at the impact of high gas prices in communities across the nation today and concludes that increases are most painful in rural areas. Part of this analysis involves an examination of money spent on gas as a share of total income. The big middle of the country does badly, and Appalachia and the deep South do very badly.
We can explain some of the excessive spending on fuel in these places by noting their dependence on trucks and the lack of transit alternatives, but the biggest factor, without question, is simply that those places have very low incomes. The nation’s highest average gas price (by municipality) is only 30 percent or so higher than its lowest, but the nation’s highest median income is more than five times higher than the nation’s lowest.
Now, it’s also true that expenditures on gasoline as a share of income don’t really capture the stress faced by people living in some of richer metropolitan areas. Housing in such places is much more expensive than in poorer areas. Families on the outskirts of those regions are often driven there by high home prices, generally have very long commutes (and high levels of auto-dependency), and don’t have a lot of room for error in their household budgets.
But all of this suggests that increasing access to the nation’s richest metro areas should be a priority. Limits on housing growth in those places push up home prices, exacerbating income inequalities as marginal households are pushed to areas paying lower real wages. Limits on growth also push people away from central areas and from transit, increasing exposure to high fuel costs (and also increasing emissions [PDF]).
And while it would obviously be desirable if places like Washington, D.C., and New York boosted housing construction, we should also recognize that the biggest gains will be possible in the suburbs. If Fairfax County, a Virginia suburb of D.C., were built at D.C.’s density, it would contain four times as many people as it currently does — three million more than the current population. Meanwhile, a doubling of District density, while nice, would only mean the addition of 600,000 people.
Basically, we need more places that look kind of like the District: dense, walkable, and with good transit access. And if we focus on building those places in areas with dynamic economies, then we’ll solve multiple problems at a stroke.