by Ryan Avent
Will expensive gas kill the suburbs? Journalists can't stop asking the question, and an increasing number of suburb defenders are rising in protest. The easy answer is: it depends. It depends on what happens to gas prices, and it depends on how we respond. But the best way to think about how American urban geography will change in response to expensive gas is to break the question down into smaller parts. I'm going to try to do that today.
Smaller part one is this: will expensive gas lead to rejuvenated center cities? One thing that often gets neglected in news stories on this question is the extent to which center cities were resurgent before gas prices really took off. Central areas in both older cities and Sunbelt boomtowns began seeing new waves of investment beginning in the late 1990s. There were three main reasons for this. A big one was the rapid decline in urban crime that had plagued cities in the late 80s and early 90s. Shifting tastes and household sizes also played a role. And finally, congestion costs were catching up with commuters, encouraging a general move toward employment centers among those who could afford it. Rising gas prices have added to the momentum in center cities but they didn't generate it.
What's interesting about center cities, however, is that there are increasing returns to scale. As the population of a dense place grows, the city begins to function better. It becomes easier to develop the revenue to provide good public services. The number and diversity of retail options increases, making cities still more attractive. More people are out on the sidewalk, helping to keep streets safer. And growth in urban populations helps retain and attract urban employers, which then fuels additional growth. This is the growth engine that has given new life to New York City and Washington, D.C., but also helped transform the downtowns of places like Houston and Charlotte, North Carolina.
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