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A Future Full of Pumped-Up Gas Prices?


The American love affair with the automobile has resulted in concrete ribbons of highway all across the country. In fact, highway construction has often taken priority over building mass transportation systems. One result, urban sprawl, and move over more concentrated housing in much of the country. Some urban rail and bus services have reported increased ridership as gas prices have gone up. Might this be an indication of bigger changes in American commuting habits? Or even in choices people make about where to live? Robert Cervero is chair of the Department of City and Regional Planning at the University of California, Berkeley. Welcome.

Mr. ROBERT CEVERO (Chair, Department of City and Regional Planning, University of California, Berkeley): Hi.

GONYEA: So do you anticipate that rising gas prices could prompt significant changes in the way America goes about building transportation networks and housing and commercial development, things like that?

Mr. CEVERO: Yes, I certainly do. It'll take a while. We would have to have probably a good four to six years of fairly sustained high gasoline prices in real dollar terms over the $3.00 that we're now experiencing probably to induce those kinds of long-term structural shifts in where people locate, where businesses locate. Because after all, gasoline is a major cost people incur in getting around cities, and as prices get higher, that's going to prompt more and more people to try to cut down the distance and the amount of time they spend driving around. But over the long term, we know that when prices become very high, that's very much what we would expect in the long term.

GONYEA: You're an urban planner. With or without rising gas prices, give us a description of what a fuel-efficient America would look like in terms of highways, railroads, housing, office buildings, shopping.

Mr. CERVERO: What you find, and no great surprise, are people owning fewer cars, living in locations where they can take advantage of public transit more often, housing is being built clustered, sort of in configurations around train stations. And most businesses and shops and major employers likewise sort of gravitate to these rail nodes.

That creates a market demand. It starts filling up trains and busses and there becomes all the more incentive for the public sector to invest more and more in transit, in subways, in busways, versus freeways.

And what you find in time is a city form, and a city landscape, which is far more conducive to alternative forms of mobility such as, not only public transit, but walking and biking and even ride-sharing versus taking a car any and everywhere. Which, for the most part I think, characterizes most suburban-exurban American settings.

GONYEA: We see some new developments that try to be created with all of that in mind, but for the vast majority of places, we would have to evolve into that from something that's very different from what you're describing now.

Mr. CERVERO: Most studies suggest that there's probably upwards of 20 to 25 percent of the niche market of American households potentially that would be very receptive to living in these kind of walkable neighborhoods, clustered within a, you know, a mile or so of a train station or transit station; granted, in big metropolitan areas, but nonetheless, a substantial share of future households, which could then take advantage of public transit and accordingly put less of the stress and the demand on expanding our highway system.

So, it's a cluster of factors, I think, that are giving rise to more and more market demand to living in these kinds of neighborhoods. Developers understand that, and they're building more and more housing products around these train stations.

GONYEA: When you describe people living in greater concentration around rail lines or around public transit options, and how there is an emerging trend, perhaps, toward that in some places, is it in some ways a 21st century version of what the country was like before the age of the automobile, when the train was the main way to get around?

Mr. CERVERO: Exactly. You know, the only way people could really get around, for the most part, over longer distances was to take street cars and inter-urban electric trains. Accordingly, the city adjusted. The city evolved around those train stations, and what you found around most train depots and stations were retail shops and offices, two to three to four story buildings right clustered around the stations. Then you would find the higher density housing in a three to four story walkup apartments, and then four or five blocks away you would find the detached, higher quality housing. Plus you would find a lot of civic squares, schools, playgrounds and so forth.

So this, in many ways, is trying to bring us back to a good century ago, how we designed and built cities where we had landscapes which were far less reliant on cars and much more transit-oriented forms of development.

GONYEA: Robert Cervero is chair of the Department of City and Regional Planning at the University of California, Berkeley.

Thanks very much for talking to us.

Mr. CERVERO: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.