Ding ding ding went the light rail

Gasoline is back at four dollars a gallon. I am still smiling because my 2005 Honda Civic Hybrid continues to purr along nicely, averaging about thirty-five miles per gallon around town and forty plus miles per gallon on the highway. If gas stays at these prices for long, Americans will probably reluctantly start purchasing hybrids again. Yet, much of the growth in car sales over the last year has been from Americans resuming bad habits by buying those behemoth SUVs like the Ford Explorers and Lincoln Navigators. You would think we would have learned by now.

We may pine to live farther away from the city, but it is increasingly becoming a privilege only for the rich. This was brought home to me by a recent report on NPR, also carried by MSNBC, about a woman in Montana named Myriam Garcia. She is forced to carpool forty-five miles to Helena, Montana to do ordinary things like buy groceries. Between high gas prices and the economy she cannot afford to drive alone anymore, so she looks to neighbors going into town and commutes with them. In fact, the further you get from a city, the more your life is tied to your automobile. As oil supply remains about the same but demand keeps increasing, it’s easy to see why cities are luring people back to them. Cities have the virtue of being relatively efficient, and one way they are more efficient is they have networks of buses, subways and (increasingly) light rail to connect them together.

You may not realize it if you don’t travel much, but there is a light rail craze underway in American cities. As I travel relatively frequently, I see it more often than not in the cities I visit. I particularly see it in Denver, which I visit at least twice a year. Lakewood sits on Denver’s outer edge. Business takes me to the Denver Federal Center in Lakewood. Over the last few years, I have noticed a lot of light rail construction. Last year I watched a light rail bridge being constructed over Route 6. This year I saw tracks for the light rail mostly in place and ramps and overpasses for the light rail also being constructed. I haven’t checked if light rail is going all the way out to Denver International Airport, but I expect it will get there eventually. It’s quite a haul from DIA to Lakewood, but I expect within a few years I will be able to take light rail from the airport to Lakewood, obviating the need to take the Supershuttle. I noticed a new light rail station is under construction at the Denver Federal Center. I can probably walk from there to my hotel without much difficulty.

The whole Denver area has been very public transportation-friendly for decades. Denver’s RTD (Regional Transportation District) is very commuter-friendly. It addition to local buses it has regional buses, some that take commuters deep into the Rocky Mountains where they can still enjoy a rural life while earning money to pay for it in the city. I took a regional bus from Lakewood to visit my brother in Boulder a couple of weeks ago. It cost five dollars for a thirty plus mile trip. I enjoyed a lovely scenic ride through the Rocky Mountain foothills as well at no extra charge. My bus stop was about a thousand feet from my hotel. Many employers in the Denver area offer subsidies so their employees can take RTD buses and light rail.

You don’t have to be too bright to figure out that the Denver area is smartly positioning itself for the future. Those cities that will prosper in the 21st century will be cities like Denver, but also Portland (Oregon), Baltimore, Washington D.C., Boston, New York and now Los Angeles. Washington D.C. has had Metrorail since the 1970s but its high cost makes its reach limited. Inside the city, the D.C. City Council is wisely putting in streetcars along K Street and other streets to go places the Metro will not but faster than the local buses. Out here in the suburbs where I live, a Metrorail extension is well underway that by the end of this decade will extend well past Washington Dulles airport. I will live three miles from a new Metrorail station.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the Washington region was one of only two regions that reported increases in housing prices last year. I know my house’s price has begun to recover. Fortunately, I have no immediate plans to sell it but I do have confidence that when I do, it will be in high demand because my neighborhood will be conveniently connected to the larger community.

The automobile age is clearly not over, particularly in places like China and India where they are getting a taste for personal mobility. But its gradual decline is not too hard to discern because as cheap oil ends permanently we will have to find more efficient ways to live, so living closer to places you need to go will become important. A savvy real estate prospector only needs to look at these trends to understand where to invest. My suggestion: vacant lots in and just outside the city.

As I approach retirement age, I too am rethinking my retirement based on these new trends. At one time I thought a city like Helena, Montana might be a good place to retire. Now I realize it is too small and too remote. It is too risky a place to live on a fixed income. Where I live now would be ideal, except I won’t need a house this big much longer, and I am already annoyed by the hassle of maintaining a house. Wherever I end up, it is likely to be closer in, not further away from civilization. Frequently running buses or a light rail station will need to be nearby. It will be in or around a transportation-friendly city, allowing me to get where I need to go by public transportation without undo hassle. Preferably, the street will have a bike path on one side. Hopefully, it will also have a culture and values that match my own. There are plenty of places still to visit, but two candidate cities come to mind based on what I have seen so far: Boulder, Colorado where my brother is already living and Portland, Oregon. Both cities meet my prerequisites. Boulder probably ranks higher for the convenience of family nearby and it is not in an earthquake zone. (Water and wildfires are a concern, however.)

I have pretty much decided that I can cross off my list any city without light rail, or at least firm plans in place to add light rail. These cities get it. As more of us try to fit on the same planet, we need to connect more, not just in cyberspace, but also in real life. It will be a Back to the Future experience. For light rail is essentially the trolley reborn. The DC Trolley Museum, which I visited six years ago with my father, rather than being the past, is now a harbinger of our future. I feel like Judy Garland in Meet Me in Saint Louis. I can’t wait to get on board.