High Gas Prices and the Poor

The 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 spending on gas as a share of total income. The big middle of the country does badly, and Appalachia and the Deep South do very, very badly.

Now 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 just 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 they 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).

And while it would obviously be desirable if places like Washington and New York boosted housing construction, we should also recognize that it’s in the suburbs that the biggest gains will be possible. If Fairfax County were built at the density of the District, 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, 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.

Comments

  1. low-tech cyclist says:

    Basically, we need more places that look kind of like the District–dense, walkable, 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.

    Exactly. I think of the area around the Huntington metro station just south of Alexandria, an area that I’ve been familiar with since well before it had a Metro station. And there really isn’t much more development there now than there was 30 years ago.

    It’s crazy: tens of thousands of people could live within walking distance of this Metro station, instead of having to drive or take a bus to the station to start the subway portion of their commute.

    I assume that zoning has to be a major culprit. It makes no sense to have so much single-family housing so close, when so many people would like to live near Metro.

  2. monkeyrotica says:

    There’s a big condo complex across the street from Huntington, but it’s dwarfed by the parking lot they’ve built adjacent to the Metro. The intersection with Telegraph is a major thoroughfare, but there’s no there there.

    Contrast that with the very next station, Eisenhower Avenue, and you have serious dense development, office complexes, condos, rentals, restaurants, groceries, cafes, a theater, and it’s all walkable. Now, if they could just get rid of that sewage station that Loudon County is dependent on…

  3. dcuist says:

    I’d trade all the restaurants in the Eisenhower Valley/Carlyle area for the Bosnian place on Kings Highway. And other than the Hoffman Town Center, the place is still deserted after 8:00.

    For Huntington (and Braddock Road) the challenge is to change the reputation of the neighborhoods around the station. Or stop charging a fortune for apartments/condos in the area. Otherwise you’ll end up with a bunch of empty “luxury” apartments like the Monarch.