Skip to comments.Surburban Flight: Commuting to Work Less Attractive as Gas Prices Soar
Posted on 07/16/2008 5:43:59 AM PDT by Diana in Wisconsin
Debbie Kelly and her husband, Tom, have been living the dream for years.
They've got a cozy home nestled in the Wyoming Valley, the bucolic Iowa County setting where architect Frank Lloyd Wright drew his inspiration.
Deer graze in the yard. Orioles flock to the bird feeder. When nights are clear, the Milky Way lights the sky.
It's a little slice of heaven -- save for the 45-mile commute to work.
It wasn't a big financial drain driving into Madison, even as gasoline passed $2 a gallon in 2004 or $3 last summer. But for Debbie Kelly, $4 fuel has been the tipping point.
Now, instead of driving all the way to her nursing job at the Dean Clinic on Fish Hatchery Road, Kelly will often park in Verona and ride her bicycle the rest of the way. One night a week, she camps in the back of her pickup truck at Lake Farm County Park, south of the Beltline on the shores of Lake Waubesa.
"They've got the hottest showers," said Kelly, 54, a mother of three.
Kelly admits she's thought about moving closer to the city. The time spent driving and the rising costs are beginning to wear. But she said her husband isn't budging.
"Tom will probably go with the property," she said. "I don't think he'll ever leave the valley."
Whether high fuel prices are going to affect where people in Wisconsin live remains to be seen. It's not that simple to just pick up and move, especially for those who already own a home.
Still, it's a question crossing the minds of many who chose to buy a home miles from their place of employment or school.
"It really hit me when it cost nearly $100 to fill up the truck last week," said Rich Eggleston, who lives in Fitchburg and commutes to his job downtown at the Alliance of Cities.
And there are early indications that life in the suburbs is starting to look less attractive to home buyers.
Consider the median price of homes sold in McFarland is down nearly 19 percent from a year ago, falling from $258,000 to $210,000, according to the latest figures from DaneCountyMarket.com.
In Mount Horeb, prices are down 14 percent. In Fitchburg, they're off 8 percent. In the New Glarus/Belleville/Monticello market along the Dane-Green County border, prices are down nearly 10 percent.
While real estate insiders say it's dangerous to draw conclusion from just a few months of data -- Verona, Waunakee and Sauk City, for example, have all seen prices climb in 2008 -- there seems a growing realization that gasoline prices are not going down again.
That's left some observers wondering if the drivable suburb -- the model for virtually all post-World War II development in Wisconsin and the U.S. -- has run its course.
"I think we're looking at a tremendous societal shift," said Steve Hiniker, executive director of 1,000 Friends of Wisconsin, a statewide group that advocates for better land use. "Urban areas such as Madison and Milwaukee will continue to fill in and modern transit will soon be a part of the urban setting. Suburbs will continue to lose value as gas prices hit the stratosphere."
Indeed, the future of the suburbs in the face of rising energy costs has sparked a flurry of national reports in the past months. Many have come from groups that would like nothing better than to see an end to sprawl and a reinvestment in mass transit and the urban core.
One study from Chicago-based CEOs for Cities argues that soaring gasoline prices are what really popped the nation's housing market bubble.
"The popular narrative on the collapse of housing prices has only blamed exotic lending practices," said the group's economist Joseph Cortright. "But the much more important story is about how higher gas prices have re-drawn the map of urban real estate values."
In another report, Arthur Nelson of Virginia Tech predicts the nation is facing a surplus of 22 million large lot homes (houses built on 1/6 an acre of more) by 2025. That represents roughly 40 percent of the "McMansions" in existence today, places like Bergamont, Bishop's Bay and Hawk's Landing in Dane County.
And long-time sprawl critics like James Howard Kunstler have cheered the higher fuel prices as finally bringing an end to decades of suburban madness. He said trying to find solutions to keep the "Happy Motoring" utopia running is naive.
"The truth is that no combination of solar, wind and nuclear power, ethanol, biodiesel, tar sands and used french-fry oil will allow us to power Wal-Mart, Disney World and the Interstate highway system -- or even a fraction of these things -- in the future," Kunstler said. "We have to make other arrangements."
Closer to home, not everyone shares the same doom-and-gloom scenario.
Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz said fuel prices haven't reached the point where Americans have been forced to make fundamental changes. Rather, he sees a more gradual shift to a balanced mix of transit, compact development, walkable communities -- and single-passenger vehicles.
"I just got back from Europe and people still love to drive but they have other options," he said. "Unfortunately we've created a physical environment in this country that makes us slaves to our cars."
Cieslewicz said those who oppose mass transit or improved rail service often argue that environmentalists want to take away the freedom to drive.
"People on the other side of this issue use scare tactics and say everyone will be forced to give up their cars," he said. "But there is actually more freedom in having the option to bike or walk somewhere without fear of getting killed."
Troy Thiel, who moved to Madison in 2003 from the Chicago area and narrowly lost a 2007 bid for a seat on the City Council, predicts the suburban housing market will weather the storm. He notes that many of the area's largest employment centers are no longer located downtown -- including Epic Systems in Verona, American Family on the far east side and Discovery Springs in Middleton.
A sales agent with First Weber West Towne, Thiel also questions whether fuel prices are having much impact at all on an already depressed real estate market. He notes that sales of homes and condos within five miles of the State Capitol were down 30 percent for the first six months of 2008 versus a 25 percent sales decline overall.
"People are choosing more efficient personal autos and will locate closer to their jobs, many of which are already in the 'burbs," said Thiel. "Rich folk are putting their SUVs in the garage. That way $4 gas looks like $3 gas and they're just fine with that."
Needless to say, those who can afford it don't feel the fuel pinch as acutely.
But rising oil prices are costing everyone plenty. The average American household will spend over $3,200 to fuel their vehicles this year, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than twice the cost of just five years ago.
In Dane County, drivers are now spending a combined $428 million more on gasoline than in 2004, according to professor Andy Lewis, community development specialist for University of Wisconsin Extension. That's money that could have gone to a lot of other uses, whether affordable housing or commuter rail.
Lewis noted that in 2006, when gasoline averaged $3 a gallon, households with incomes under $14,999 were already spending eight percent of their income on fuel versus three percent for households with incomes over $100,000.
"As expected, the lower income households are feeling the pinch more then wealthy households," said Lewis.
On the other hand, Alan Harvey, chairman of the town of Windsor, said Dane County enjoys the advantage of having a diverse economy -- a mix of both urban, rural and suburban development.
"Clearly, all of society is going to be looking at a period of adjustment," he said. "But I think we're pretty well-positioned since economic activity is spread throughout the county."
Harvey said the real impact is being felt in communities outside Dane County like Fall River or Pardeeville, where people have purchased homes because they got a lot more square footage for their dollar.
"Those advantages start to disappear when commuting costs get too high," said Harvey, who is skeptical about the ability of mass transit to solve the problem.
Madison Ald. Robbie Webber, who defeated Thiel in the District 5 council race, has championed higher density urban development and mass transit as the long-term solution. Despite the growth in the suburbs, she said Madison remains the engine that drives the area economy with its downtown and UW campus.
"Even lunch is easier to get to without a car in a dense area than in a suburban business park," she said.
Webber said the concern isn't so much with Middleton or Verona, two places where real estate values have been holding.
"What about Mount Horeb, Dodgeville, Lake Mills, Edgerton, Portage?" she said. "Those long commutes, with no hope of transit, are going to be pretty painful."
To that end, commercial real estate developer Terrence Wall says he realized several years ago that rising gasoline prices were going to dramatically impact Dane County. For that reason, he's pursuing mixed-use projects combining office, residential and retail at Tribeca Village in Middleton and the West End in Verona.
"I've been warning people for the last three years that demand for oil in China was going to send prices skyrocketing," said Wall, president of T. Wall Properties.
Dan Miller, a Realtor with Keller Williams who maintains the DaneCountyMarket.com Web site with colleague Shawn Kriewaldt, cautioned against drawing too many conclusions about the long-term impact of gasoline prices on the local housing market.
"For example, I just helped somebody sell a house in Madison and buy one in Mount Horeb because they work at Epic and wanted to be closer to their job," he said.
Miller said a few more months of data may help paint a clearer picture.
"I think we're on the early part of the curve right now," he said. "Most folks spend several months looking for a home before they make an offer, and once an offer is accepted, it can be another 1 to 3 months until the closing. Given the lag between the decision to buy and the actual purchase, my hunch is the data will become more telling later this fall and winter."
At this point, most commuters are just biting the bullet, trying to combine trips or share rides when possible.
Nicole Weisenberger, who drives 100 miles round-trip from Madison to her job as an occupational therapist in Beloit, has found a few ways to offset the high gas prices. One is purchasing a Pontiac Vibe, which gets over 30 mpg on the highway. The other is cutting back on doggy day care from three days to one day a week.
"To be honest with you, I think the dog has been suffering more than I have," she said.
Fall in line, now! *SMIRK*
Unless, of course, you have more cash than either and can afford to buy yourself a nice chunk of land outside of the city or your own McMansion now that prices are falling!
See? There's always a Silver Lining. :)
This is my situation, too. I live about 50 miles from work. This lady just gave me an idea, about camping part of the time!
I noted the word “truck” in the lament about commuting costs. I have a truck. I use it sparingly. I use my 37 mpg car for going to work. Perhaps the loon that wrote this article might start using one of his two brain cells to bring these things up.
Liberals secretly love higher gas prices.
I have to disagree with you here....i have some liberal friends ( we do not discuss politics ) and they are livid about the gas prices.....and have suv’s and trucks...i do not believe it is the liberals as much as the old smelly drug using flea infested hippies....they just gotta go
“Liberals secretly love higher gas prices.”
They like anything that hurts Joe Six-Pack. Eventually he will be financially ruined due to their policies and will have to depend upon Mother Government for sustenance. Jerks.
I have a 10-minute commute; wouldn’t have it any other way. Husband runs his business from home. It works for us.
Agreed. My wife has an 80 mile round trip commute each day and the gas prices have not hit us that badly because her car gets great mpg.
Bottom line is, you only get what you can pay for. Nobody has a God-given right to live in the middle of nowhere. You want to use up a ton of energy, it's your right, but expect to pay for it, and expect prices to continue to go up. Anybody with any brains saw this coming from a mile away. High gas prices have really brought out the ugly sense of entitlement that so many of today's suburban warrior style “conservatives” have.
Why do you live 50 miles from work? That’s nobody’s fault but your own.
I doubt she can save enough gas to be "worth it" to ride her bike part way. I don't know how far she is riding, but the last few minutes of a drive are when the car gets the best gas mileage, as it is warmed up. The first 10 minutes are generally worse for gas mileage. Cutting 10 miles off her trip, if her truck gets 20 mpg after it is warmed up, would save her $2 a day. But 10 miles of bike riding is expensive.
If her entire commute is 90 miles a day, at 15 mpg average, that is 6 gallons a day of gas, or $24.
Is it worth $24 to camp out in the back of your truck? Maybe, the article doesn't say how much it costs to stay at the campsite and use the shower. You could cut the cable premium channels, or turn the A/C up 1 degree higher and replace a few light bulbs with CFL, and probably save about as much.
Now, if her truck gets 12 mpg, that's $30 a day, or about $150 a week, or $7000 a year.
If she went out and spent $2000 on an old corolla (I did this in 2004 and it cost $900), she could get 30 mpg, and cut her fuel costs to $12 a day, $60 a week, or $3200 a year, which would save her $1800 in the first year, more than she saves camping.
Of course, a lot of people decided to own property far from where they work. They generally (not always) are less connected to their community because they work so far away, and often leave early and get home late. They can't pop in for lunch, or attend community activities, or meet their kids for school stuff very easily.
While people who live and work in a community want most to spend their tax dollars making the community better, people who commute long distances primarily want their taxes spent on day care for kids, and for more roads to get them to their work.
They drive up the costs of living "out in the country", because they have higher-paying jobs associated with near-city living, but live out where the jobs pay less and are less plentiful. This puts pressure on those who want to live and work in the same location, drives up their taxes, puts a strain on services.
In the end, I understand their plight now that gasoline isn't so cheap. But I don't have enough sympathy for them, I guess.
“High gas prices have really brought out the ugly sense of entitlement that so many of today’s suburban warrior style ‘conservatives’ have.”
I’ll assume you’re not just b*tchin’ at me, personally.
However, I’ll never give up my land. They’ll be carrying me out of here feet first, LOL!
I WORKED for 20 years and made many sacrifices to OWN land in the country. I worked for it, I PLANNED for it, and screw anyone that takes away MY choice to live as I please. I lived in-town and in suburbs with the SOLE intent of getting the heck out of there on day down the road. And I DID it! Wa-Hoo!
As for people that live in McMansions...that chit doesn’t come cheap, either, and I’ve YET to meet anyone that has their wealth tied up in a house that didn’t work for what they wanted JUST as hard as I’ve worked for what I wanted.
Sense of “entitlement?” WTF?
I think they are pretty open about it. Everytime I drive by a gas pump I wonder again how it is that Democrats are attempting to destroy the American middle class.
The enviro-wackos led by the Demo-dummies in Congress are quick to say that it will take 10 years for any new oil drilling to impact the price of gas. What they don’t tell you is that we are at least that many years away from any benefit from bio-fuels or other alternatives.
Drill here, drill now, pay less.
You’ve got it backwards. We’re more depending on the government now, using their road system, begging them to drill for more oil, paying gas taxes they can raise, etc. If people moved back in to cities where they could walk or bike to work, or drive a short distance on local roads maintained by a more accountable local government, we’d be less dependent on government.
I’m no liberal, but I think high gas prices will be good in the long run. People have made poor choices that have put them in a rough situation, and now they’re paying for it. Nothing is for free, and nobody is entitled to anything. Time for people to grow up and take responsibility.
BTW, the answer is to get businesses to move out into the country. After all, in the internet age, a fair number of these jobs could be done from anywhere.
This is especially true in the DC area. There is almost no reason for a million people to be commuting into DC each day just to push papers around and answer phones and do office work.
If we spent a billion dollars moving some government work into the Maryland and Virginia suburbs, we wouldn’t have to widen the roads, or spend more on the subway and buses.
1/6 of an acre is a LARGE LOT? That’s about 75’ X 100’! What kind of McMansion can you put on a 75’ X 100’ lot? And a 2000 square feet house is just average, not a mansion.
It’s all pretty clear that the euphoria that the Left is getting about the high gas prices making people move back to where crime and criminal municipal politics is rampant is part of a contrived strategy.
A lot of jobs in the service sector and even light manufacturing is already in the suburbs. Failed government policies have forced both the jobs and the workers out there.
More than a few “republicans” seem to move in that direction as well.
Every day there is more and more written about why government should provide this or that service, arguments which could be used to pretty much justify government takeover of everything.
Well, in my case I live 15 miles from work. The cost in the difference in housing will off-set my commute to the tune of $800/month or more. That's just for the house on a lot.
I have 1/2 an acre inside the city limits where I live. To get that same amount of room in the city where I work would cost me more than $300,000 more. I chose elbow room over commute. I can buy a lot of gas for the difference.
Well, then, she should ride her bike the first ten miles and commute from there. Then she'd get that advantage of efficiency (kinda like daylight savings). ;-P