3.07.2010

Help, I'm Trapped in My Car


If you're familiar with this space, you know where I stand on driving. It's as if I'm allergic to my car; if I can avoid it, I do. Thankfully, living in a big city, it's not hard to.

You may interpret my stance in some more noble way: I'm trying to be green, I'm trying to be urban, I'm trying to be economical, I'm trying to get more exercise. All fine reasons, all in part reasons why I do what I do. But car avoidance is also a hedging strategy.

Let me explain. Consider our recent snowfalls. In the burbs, if the snow falls hard and the plows haven't arrived yet, you're effectively stuck. Nothing's close enough to get to, not a grocery store or a park or, God forbid, a hospital. In the city, if the snow falls hard, you shift to other modes of travel, all of which have been made more difficult but not rendered completely unavailable. In an absolute pinch, even during a complete whitewash, I could lug myself or my wife or either of my children a mile down the street to one of the finest medical institutions in the world.

But let's now think in a little bit less extreme terms. After all, it doesn't always snow 40 inches in a week like it did last month. And, I can hear my suburban California friends and family members screaming into their computer screens: just move somewhere where it doesn't snow! Fair enough. But what if gas prices (or whatever fuel is used to power cars) skyrocket? Or what if automobile manufacturers have so much trouble with soaring pension costs, mismanaged finances, and quality control issues that we're left with poorer cars, less selection, or higher prices?

Neither of these scenarios is too outlandish, given recent rumblings. Best to hedge by not putting oneself in a position in which one must rely solely on the automobile to get around, no? Hey, if it turns out I'm being too doomsdayish, my only downside is that I get to keep on driving, which is no big deal; but if you're used to driving everywhere and all of a sudden that gets a lot harder, you may find the adjustment to be pretty steep. So if I'm wrong, I'm OK; but if I'm right, you're . . .

Indeed, it is expected that, from a real estate standpoint, auto-dependent locations will suffer vis a vis multi-modal locations, for these very reasons. The current foreclosure crisis will likely be looked back on as bearing this out, in terms of the spatial distribution of the worst pain.

In short, it can't be good to be tethered to your car. If you're with me, you may get some pats on the back for being environmentally conscious. But you and I know that's not the whole story.

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