Trapped in exurbia

The Thinker by Rodin

As a part time prognosticator, I sometimes get it wrong. Sometimes I get it right. When I get it right, it is not necessarily a reason for feeling smug. Today, I reread this post that I wrote back in 2005. I wrote it when the oil squeeze was just beginning. I remarked how uncomfortable I felt seeing new exurbias sprouting up in nearby Loudoun County, Virginia because virtually all of them are inaccessible to public transportation. I wondered what would happen to these communities with continued increases in price of oil or its unavailability.

Now we are finding out, and the answer is scary, as this NPR story reports. Ashburn, Virginia is in Loudon County, Virginia and part of the greater Washington D.C. metropolitan area. It is one of those newly built exurbias. What is happening in Ashburn is that home prices are tumbling much faster than the national average.

Realtor Danilo Bogdanovic surveyed two rows of neat, new, brick townhouses on Falkner’s Lane. “These were selling for about $550,000 at the peak, which was about August ’05, and they’re selling right now for about $350,000,” Bogdanovic said. “Fifty percent of this community has been ether foreclosed on or is facing foreclosure.”

Coincidentally, my hair stylist lives in Ashburn. Today while she was cutting my hair, we were chatting about high gas prices. If she and her husband had to do it over again, she said, they would have never moved to Ashburn. Their gas prices are driving a big dent in their budget. Yet, I learned, moving in closer was not an option. They would lose too much money, because their house was worth less than they paid for it. If her house is on Falkner’s Lane, I can understand why she would feel blue, since she might now own a house worth $200,000 less than what she paid for it.

What might turn things around? As I implied back in 2005, some public transportation might help. That is not to say that it doesn’t exist in Loudoun County, but it is very limited and assumes you commute to work in Washington, D.C. A resident of Ashburn could drive or bike to the Dulles North Transportation Center and from there take an express bus into Washington D.C. This bus is not cheap. It costs $6.00 each way with a smart card, or $7.00 if you pay cash.

What would someone in Ashburn do if they needed to commute to some other job center like Tyson’s Corner? Perhaps they could catch another bus at the West Falls Church Metro Station, where the bus stops on its way into Washington. What if they need to take public transportation to go to a doctor’s office in Reston, Virginia? It might be technically possible at certain times of the day, if they can make it work with the commuter bus schedule and make their bus transfers on time. What if they need to take public transportation to go to the grocery store? As best I can tell, there are no such routes. Even if routes were put into place, given that Ashburn is such a sprawled out community they might have to walk a mile or more just to get to a bus stop.

For all practical purposes, residents of Ashburn are stuck. Owning a car is required to live there. Their lifestyle is held hostage by the price of oil. Oil prices may seem astronomical, but they are fortunate that gas is available at any price. Without it, Ashburn would become a gigantic modern ghost town. Combine rising oil prices with a falling dollar and the negative net worth of so many residents of Ashburn and you end up with houses that are worth $200,000 less than they were just three years ago. You have whole communities of people with negative equities in their houses, unable to move and who are one job loss away from financial catastrophe.

My own house is about three miles away from Reston. Reston is a major source of employment and has thousands of great jobs for knowledge workers. In the unlikely event that you lose your job at one company in Reston, you can probably pick another one like it somewhere else in Reston. A Fairfax Connector bus serves my neighborhood, but it operates during rush hours only. However, my house is just three to five miles away from thousands of jobs, not ten or fifteen miles away like in Ashburn. Where I live, you can probably get to your job without a car if needed. I bicycle to work, which is three miles away, three or four days a week. Consequently, gas prices affect me much less than most commuters. Yet even if I worked downtown, I still would not be too badly inconvenienced. I could bike to the Herndon Monroe Park and Ride, which is also three miles away, or grab the 929 bus, which runs by a road a few hundred feet from my door. Once at the Herndon Monroe Park and Ride there are plentiful express buses that will take me to the West Falls Church Metro station. From there I can get to any place on the Metro system. If I needed to take a bus to nearby Reston, Herndon, or even some of the local malls, I can transfer at the Herndon Monroe Park and Ride. Obviously, I could get to these places more quickly by car, but it is possible. The same cannot necessarily be said about communities like Ashburn.

My neighborhood is not immune to the real estate slowdown either. Our house has lost about $75,000 in value since its 2005 peak. However, that is $75,000 though, not $200,000. There are plenty of houses for sale on my street, virtually all in excellent condition. We live in a terrific family neighborhood where owners take pride in their houses. I suggested to my stylist that they should move to a house on my street. She would be two miles from work so the cost of gasoline would be insignificant. However, with the negative equity in her house, moving is out of the question. Where would she and her husband find the money to pay off their loan on closing?

I do not think these underlying dynamics are likely to change. We are at the beginning of a fundamental transformation of America. This means our love affair with the automobile is likely to change dramatically. At best, I expect oil prices will stay about where they are now. Therefore, for many homeowners out in exurbia the financial squeeze, already bad, is likely to get much more painful. The long-term trends though are clear. Unless you can work from your home or can find employment close by that pays your bills, do not buy in the exurbia. If you are in the exurbia and can move in close, this is the time to do it.

Housing prices are down substantially in good neighborhoods like mine that are close to jobs and public transportation. Because prices are down and mortgages are very affordable, now is an excellent time to buy in these neighborhoods. It may not be easy to sell your current house, but as I learned in 1993 if you lower the price enough you can sell any house. You can buy a better and closer house at a substantial discount and be primed for appreciation during this seismic realignment of society. In addition, selection is plentiful.

To the many residents of Ashburn and similar far-flung communities who are feeling the squeeze, you have my sympathy. If I lived in Ashburn, I would still move closer in if I could find a way. The long-term housing dynamics for Ashburn and places like it look dismal. You may find yourself inhabiting a modern ghost town.

The end of the best of times

The Thinker by Rodin

Some time ago, I wrote about the end of cheap oil. The oil economy is definitely on my mind today because we are in transit. As I write this, we are snaking into Ohio from Pennsylvania on the turnpike. I am wondering how much longer Americans can take for granted simply getting into your car and taking it anywhere you want to go.

There are scary signs out there for us drivers. If they are causing jitters on Wall Street, they should at least make our hearts skip a beat.

– Crude oil prices spiked past $67 a barrel in open trading on Friday
Gasoline prices hovering near $2.50 a gallon
– The markets are nervous about our ability to refine all the oil we are importing. Refineries do not have much excess capacity. Moreover, it is difficult to finance and locate new refineries.
– General uncertainty about our foreign oil supply

It may be that these oil spikes will be a passing phase. Frankly, when I first wrote about the end of cheap oil, I did not imagine it would get this expensive this quickly. I wrote about $150 a barrel oil prices as being something fantastic. Now it seems quite plausible. After all a year ago, the price of a barrel of crude oil was $40. Now it is at $67 a barrel, an increase of more than 50% in one year. You would think that with such high prices that demand would be dropping, but that is not the case.

Economists tell us that there are few better ways to stimulate the supply of a commodity than a sustained high price. One expert on the talk show circuit assures us that there are large new untapped oil reserves out there. He says that they will add much more new oil onto the market the within the next decade, bringing down prices. Perhaps these new supplies will buy us another decade or two of the status quo. Perhaps the increased cost of oil will make it economically viable to mine oil from shale, or to use synthetic fuels like ethanol. Nevertheless, as National Geographic points out in its most recent issue, these new approaches will help but is no silver bullet. More people are coming and they will demand more energy.

Demand shows little sign of slacking. In addition, it is not just emerging economies like China and India are driving new demand. The United States needs more and more oil too. Our population keeps expanding. Moreover, the way we are growing is fueling even more demand. People tend to live where they think they will get the best value for their money. Not surprisingly then they prefer the outer suburbs where land is relatively cheap. However, by making the choice they also exacerbate our nation’s oil dependency.

Today, for example, we were trying to wend our way from Northern Virginia to Frederick, Maryland. I could not help but be astounded by all the growth in Loudoun Country, Virginia. Reputedly, it is currently the fastest growing county in the country. My memories, only a few years old, recall the area of U.S. Route 15 north of Leesburg being only a two-lane road. Now it is four or six lanes as necessary. Townhouses, condominiums and ubiquitous shopping centers crowd along the edges of the road. Frankly, I find this kind of crazy growth disturbing and more than a little frightening.

Of course that far out there is little resembling public transportation. The closest Washington Metro Station is probably twenty-five miles away. For the most part people who live in Leesburg work elsewhere. Typically, they work ten to forty miles from where they live. There might be a commuter bus or two that wends commuters from Leesburg into Washington D.C. every day. However, only a fraction of these commuters needs to go to the big city. Most are moving from an outer suburb to an inner one. With virtually no other choices, they get there by car.

Consequently, for these new homeowners a car is an absolute necessity of life. Of course their cars must have gasoline. This new growth has created an already amazing amount of congestion in the exurbia along roads like Leesburg Pike or Sully Road. Where will the oil come from to keep these commuters mobile? What if the oil is simply not available to sustain their lifestyles? What then?

It is a hard question whose consequences are hard to think through. If the situation were to last for any length of time, there would be huge economic problems. We would be fortunate if the situation merely instigated a recession. A depression seems much more likely, along with huge amounts of inflation. In the short term, some sort of gasoline rationing would be needed. Our experience during the oil shocks of the 1970s does not bode well for this decade. Those 1970s oil shocks might be relatively mild by comparison. Back in the 1970s, we pumped most of our own oil out of the ground. Now we import far more oil than we pump from our fields. Expecting new oil fields like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to solve our problem is naïve. Even if we could get at the oil, we could not draw it fast enough to make much difference in our oil dependency.

If we did not have enough oil it is not like these people living in exurbia could suddenly turn to public transportation. It could not begin to cope with the demand. It would take decades to rearrange our infrastructure to suit an oil-diminished reality. I am not sure if it is even possible. Our whole infrastructure is no longer arranged for public transportation. We live too far apart. Even if public transportation were available, getting from A to B would likely take much longer.

There was a time not too long ago when we lived in villages and life’s necessities were nearby. This became clear to me during our last vacation. We spent one night in Schenectady, New York, the city where I was born. I was amazed by how convenient everything was. You could easily walk to your church, to the store, to your school and to your job. The streets were narrow. The lots tended to be small. What happened? The automobile made the village less attractive. So there was little reason not to build your house out in the country where the land was cheap, since the cost (reasonable commuting time) was less than the benefits (cheaper land, privacy etc.) Cheaper land and cheaper labor elsewhere also drew jobs away from these villages and small cities. It was all predicated on a sustainable economy forever based on oil.

Moreover, our new economy has exacerbated the situation. It is often cheaper for me to order my medications from a mail order pharmacy than to patronize a local pharmacy. Some of our medications are shipped from Phoenix, Arizona to Northern Virginia packed in several pounds of ice. It is cheaper, yet it carries with it a hidden transportation surcharge: the oil that is needed to move it from there to here.

Yesterday our dryer stopped working. This gave me a good excuse to knock on our neighbor’s door. She was happy to let us use her dryer since we were in urgent need. On her kitchen table was a bucket full of tomatoes. Yes, it was tomato season and she was reduced to giving them away. She persuaded me to take a few with me, which I consumed with supper. They tasted delicious and were clearly better than anything I could purchase at the store. Tomatoes sold in stores, of course, are engineered for transportation, not taste. I marveled that I could eat something so delicious that did not cost me any money and was grown a couple hundred feet from my house. No petroleum products were needed to get it from the supplier to the consumer.

In our modern world, we are blessed with a seemingly infinite variety of products. However, the variety does come at a cost since almost all are transported to us using oil based products. Unless we can find a substitute for oil in our not too distant future, or unless there is a lot more oil out there than we think, our times will be a changing. The life you are living will likely seem nostalgic to your children. Perhaps your grandchildren yet unborn will be incredulous that you lived through such a marvelous time.

I sense that the transportation economy we have known may be coming to a rapid end. I suspect it will arrive sooner than we think.

My May Day Biking Journey

The Thinker by Rodin

Biking is a large part of my leisure life and my primary form of exercise. Today I will share with you my May Day 2005 bike ride. This ride lasted about three hours, at least half an hour of which were consumed taking these pictures. My total ride was about 30 miles. As
usual the Washington & Old Dominion (W&OD) Trail was my gateway to adventure. Yesterday I chose to bike west.

After two days of inclement weather it was a pleasure to have a Sunday that was mostly sunny. The temperature hovered in the low 60s. The wind was brisk out of the northwest. I began my bike ride as I always do from my house.

All the images are thumbnails. Click on them for the full size image.

PDRM0037.jpg (210559 bytes) I had to bike three miles north up the Fairfax County Parkway before I was able to pick up an on ramp to the W&OD Trail on the west side of Reston.
PDRM0038.jpg (142750 bytes) Like many places on the W&OD trail, there are elevated bridges over the major highways. This is good because we high speed bicyclists don’t like coming to unnecessary stops. Here is the W&OD trail bridge crossing the Fairfax County Parkway (Rt. 7100), where I got on the trail. I headed west toward Leesburg.
PDRM0039.jpg (190036 bytes) This bridge over the Fairfax County Parkway is high quality. Because this part of the parkway is new, this may be the newest bridge on the trail. Here bicyclists hang to the left, and horses/joggers hang to the right. For much of the trail an equestrian path follows on one side. Unfortunately you don’t see many horses on the trail. The view here is looking west.
PDRM0040.jpg (129715 bytes) A couple miles west the trail crosses Elden Street in Herndon. This is part of “Old Town” Herndon. Concerts are held here in the summer, but the businesses here get a fair amount of bike traffic. There is a convenient Dairy Queen for fat friendly bicyclists a hundred feet off the trail.
PDRM0041.jpg (114211 bytes) Here is what is left of the old Herndon train depot. The view is looking east.
PDRM0042.jpg (181724 bytes) As I prepared to get on my bike I snapped this picture of the trail looking West from Old Town Herndon.
PDRM0043.jpg (109896 bytes) An old caboose is kept for visitors to inspect (from the outside only) at the Herndon station.
PDRM0044.jpg (120674 bytes) A few miles to the west of Herndon, the trail crosses Sterling Boulevard. At this point you have crossed from Fairfax County into Loudoun County. Before you reach Sterling Boulevard you pass over the western part of the Herndon Parkway and the Herndon Centennial Golf and Country Club. Here is a more typical “at grade” crossing on the trail. A median makes it not too difficult to cross. There is no walk light for bike riders.
PDRM0045.jpg (99405 bytes) A mile or so further you pass Church Street in Sterling. Here is a view looking east.
PDRM0046.jpg (189186 bytes) Another large trail bridge crosses over Sully Road (Route 28). This is the best picture I could capture since the mesh in the wire fence leaves small gaps. This is looking South on Sully Road.
PDRM0047.jpg (105737 bytes) Crossing over Sully Road, the trail west looks like you may be going toward the frontier. Alas, the frontier is more than half
developed.
PDRM0048.jpg (119910 bytes) A mile or two west of Sully Road is Smith’s Switch Station. You almost feel like you are in the country at this point. The portable toilets lend to the feeling that you are approaching the end of civilization. You can get water here and stretch your legs, but don’t look for snack machines. This view is looking west.
PDRM0049.jpg (108968 bytes) Another view from Smith’s Switch Station, looking west. I continue heading west.
PDRM0050.jpg (91248 bytes) After three or four miles of hard biking, and after passing under the Loudoun County Parkway, you end up at Ashburn Road. Here you will find a restaurant and an antiques store. Be careful crossing the street. Loudoun County commuters are not always accommodating to bicyclists.
PDRM0051.jpg (156059 bytes) Here was my destination for the day: Goose Creek. This bridge is the W&OD trail bridge, built on the foundation that used to
support heavy trains. You can park your bike and wander down and do some hiking or dirt bike riding if you choose. But warning: you can’t get here by car!
PDRM0055.jpg (160613 bytes) Sycolin Creek joins the much larger Goose Creek just north of the trail bridge. It was very bucolic on the spring day.
PDRM0054.jpg (342956 bytes) Here is where Sycolin Creek joins Goose Creek. Goose Creek is quite wide, more than a hundred feet. It counts as a river in my book.
PDRM0056.jpg (241195 bytes) Some wildlife in bloom along the banks of the creek
PDRM0060.jpg (110218 bytes) Undeveloped land (but doubtless not for long) right next to Goose Creek.
PDRM0061.jpg (244180 bytes) A better view of Goose Creek from the W&OD Trail bridge, looking South.
PDRM0062.jpg (112351 bytes) Goose Creek, looking north from the W&OD Trail bridge.
PDRM0063.jpg (181118 bytes) Just to the east of Goose Creek is the Luckstone Quarry. This is a wonderful destination. You can park your bike, enjoy a picnic or just enjoy the view. On weekends you are unlikely to hear the roar of the giant trucks pulling stone out of the quarry. No water fountain here, but portable toilets are across the trail.
PDRM0064.jpg (138485 bytes) A view of the Luckstone Quarry.
PDRM0065.jpg (81171 bytes) Another view of the quarry, looking southeast.
PDRM0067.jpg (148074 bytes) Heading home I had to pass Ashburn Road again. There is food to be found here for the hungry bicyclist.