The Top Story by Chris Graham
Cars are our freedom. They’re how we get to work, go on vacation, make it to the parents’ house for Sunday dinner, travel to and from play practice and baseball and soccer games after school.
Our freedom is in peril with gas prices inching closer and closer to the remarkable $4-a-gallon mark with no end to the cost creep in sight. Which is why the question on all of our minds right now is, What do we do, other than continue to sit back and take it?
“You said something that’s so important. Remember Mr. Goodwrench, the GM guy? Remember how he used to say, It’s not just your car, it’s your freedom. That’s the point that you’re making. The automobile is really the average American’s second right. The average American’s freedom is their car. They’re not going to give it up,” said George Hoffer, an economics professor at Virginia Commonwealth University who is an expert on transportation economics.
And I think Hoffer is right on that. We really have no option other than to continue to sit back and take it, at least for the short and medium term – in large part because of the residential and work patterns that we’ve settled into over the course of the past 50 years. We’ve been moving more and more out of the city and into the suburbs and even further into the rural countryside, sacrificing proximity to our places of employment and the centers for goods and services for the value of relative peace and quiet and overall tranqility. It’s a phenomenon known more in major metropolitan areas like Washington, D.C., Hampton Roads, the big cities of the Northeast and Midwest, L.A., but we even see it here in the Shenandoah Valley and Central Virginia.
Where I live, in Waynesboro, at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains, we see scores of people who have made the decision to trade a commute for quality of life driving back and forth across the ridges every day to work in Charlottesville and up the Valley floor to work in Harrisonburg. Part and parcel to those decisions, of course, is the economics of the commute, and I have to wonder what kind of impact high gas prices are having on people who have to be close to coming out on the short end of the fiscal stick in this regard, if they aren’t already.
“This is standard urban economics. Typically the way we think of this is when people look for a house in a metropolitan area, they’re making a tradeoff between accessibility and housing costs. If you’re in a more accessible area, you pay a premium in terms of house price for that. If you’re out in the suburbs, you get a cheaper house, but you also have a long commute. So it’s a tradeoff that people are willing to make at some levels. But obviously the more expensive gas prices become, the more expensive that commute becomes overall,” said Casey Dawkins, the director of the Virginia Center for Housing Research and an assistant professor of urban affairs and planning at Virginia Tech.
I think it is obvious that the average person is going to have a hard time getting out of this bind. As Hoffer pointed out to me, people who own the big SUVs and performance-oriented luxury cars that have been popular in recent years often owe more on their loans than they can get from selling. Many homeowners are facing that same dilemma right now in today’s rather sluggish housing market. I think, therefore, that the pressure is going to be on policymakers to figure out, above all else, how to build microeconomies that can be more self-sustaining.
“Our legislators need to be thinking outside the box at the state and national level that it’s not just about people putting gas in their personal cars. I think the picture legislatively needs to be broadened. Businesses are certainly on an economic slowdown due to gas prices, and I’m sure they know that, but if you watch the media, nationally and some statewide, they’re focusing on the individual taxpayer. I think the picture is getting much bigger than that,” Waynesboro City Council member Lorie Smith said.
I worry in Waynesboro, for example, about a local economy that is largely based on retail sales that come from people who live in Western Albemarle County on the other side of the Blue Ridge. I see a lot of Proud Western Albemarle High School Parent bumper stickers at the local Wal-Mart and Target and Home Depot and Lowe’s on my way in and out of those stores. Eventually those big boxes are going to realize that they can make more money serving those customers closer to home. Eventually, I should point out, can be a long time in economics terms.
“I don’t know that that disappears, certainly in the short term. Because if you’re in a place like Crozet, your options are Waynesboro or Charlottesville. And my guess is that the gas expended to get to those two locations is fairly similar. So I’m not sure that you see any savings to shop on 29 North versus the West End of Waynesboro,” Waynesboro economic-development director Meghan Williamson said.
So we might have some insulation there, at least for a little while. Vigilance will be important there, though, as it will be in one other important policy area. “The goal for Staunton is to provide better public transportation in the form of expanding the trolley routes, so that people won’t have to use their cars. Also in creating a pedestrian-friendly city, creating more bike paths and possibly a greenway project that will offer some exercise opportunities as well as pedestrian-friendly conveyance from place to place. And the opportunity perhaps to use more bicycles as time moves on in the city,” Staunton City Council member Bruce Elder said.
Public transportation might be a hard get in the Greater Augusta area. A recent survey conducted by the Waynesboro Disability Services Board revealed a significant amount of interest locally in the development of a more extensive public-transportation system, but the devil is in the details of how to best provide the services and most crucially how to fund such a system. I think there is potential in having our three localities look at ways that they can cooperate to provide public transportation on a regional basis, but we’re going to have to see some political will develop that I don’t know is there quite yet.
And that criticism, actually, could be delivered across the board. As much as we have all been hurting with the spike in gas prices that dates back to the walkup to the beginning of the Iraq war, it’s not like we took the issue at all seriously even while knowing full well that our gas-fueled quality of life would have to take a serious hit at some point in the future near or far.
Augusta County Board of Supervisors member Nancy Sorrells sees a silver lining in the storm clouds to that effect.
“We’ve been pretty wasteful, I think, and we haven’t thought about quality of life. Our lifestyle hasn’t been conducive to good environmental stewardship. We may be forced back into it. And you know what, if you stay within your community – we’ve kind of lost our community sense, I think. A lot of people don’t know who’s right up the road. But if you’re forced back into looking within your community, you might find that there’s some real neat people out there and some real neighbors who can help each other,” Sorrells said.