An era is passing

My family and I are making plans to vacation in New England this August. We have never really explored it so it makes for a convenient destination. Also part of our calculus is that New England is not that far away (we live in Northern Virginia). Like many Americans, with gas over $4 a gallon we are downsizing our vacation. We will be staying closer to home and will not be as extravagant with our spending as we were.

An era is passing that I do not think will return. Just as my parents remember an era when the milkman arrived every morning and their parents remembered a world where personal transportation meant a horse, our era, centered on the convenience and affordability of the automobile, is ending. Let’s call it The Era of Living Large. The evidence is everywhere but it will take a while before this fundamental reordering of our society will be apparent. Yet there are signs aplenty.

Amtrak, our stodgy national rail system that almost everyone ignored, is getting record usage. Despite our increasing population, we drove 1% fewer miles from November through April than we did during the same period a year earlier. At our local Silver Diner today, there were plenty of empty parking spaces right near the front door. A year ago, we would have had wait for a table. Perhaps the statistic that cemented it for me was this story in The Washington Post. The Washington region has one of the highest foreclosure rates in the country. House prices are dropping in most areas but less so the closer you are to the city or to public transportation. In Fairfax County, where I live, home prices have dropped on average 3.2 percent between April 2007 and April 2008. In our outer suburbs, the change is dramatic. In Loudoun, Prince William and Frederick counties, all about an hour’s drive (in no traffic) from the capital, house prices dropped on average 25 percent during that period. Within the city of Washington D.C., most home prices have stayed steady or have even risen.

Since 9/11, there has been a national malaise. We are trying to enjoy the same lifestyle we always have had but it is harder to come by and not as enjoyable when acquired. The economy throughout much of this period did relatively well, but little of it was felt where it mattered most: in our wallets. In 2005, when we traveled to Chicago I remarked how surreal it felt to pay nearly $2.50 a gallon for gasoline. There was a sense of unease even then. Three years later, we would pop a bottle of champagne to celebrate buying gas at that price.

Americans are discovering a new and inconvenient truth: we can never go back to the way things were. To expect that we will have the lifestyle that our parents knew is folly. Those days are swiftly passing. We do not know what the new order will look like, but we have a good idea what it will not look like. This uncertainty breeds unease and malaise. It contributes to polls that show Americans are far more disgruntled about the shape of the economy than the statistics merit.

The era of the SUV is ending. We are not all ditching our SUVs at once but news stories like this one are a harbinger. We demand fuel-efficient cars. I am trying to order a Honda Fit for my daughter only to discover there are few on the lots. We will have to wait for one to be delivered. I hope that it will arrive before her classes start. When we add on the cost of $4 a gallon gasoline, her choice to go to a community college now looks a little less affordable,

The far-flung suburbs are likely to disappear too. What may eventually replace them is the quaint notion of a village. It is hard for many of us to imagine actually living in the same community where we work. In the future employees may be forced to give preference to employees with short commutes. My friend Sokhama lives in Columbia, Maryland. Columbia is about halfway between Baltimore and Washington. She quit her job at a D.C. law firm a few months ago and is currently unemployed. She has had a few job offers, but she has spurned them because all involve a bad commute. She has decided that her next job will be much closer to home.

She is one example of a general trend. Americans everywhere are realizing that they have to rethink their lifestyles. This is why in D.C.’s far-flung suburbs house prices are down 25% from a year ago. Certainly, the sub-prime housing debacle has a lot to do with it. Yet $4 a gallon gasoline is also a major factor. We crave certainty in our lives. Uncertainty is lowered by moving closer to diverse sources of employment and public transportation. A new urban migration is beginning. Modern prospectors know that this is an excellent time to buy before everyone else jumps on the bandwagon.

Bicycle commuting, which I took up a few years ago, is becoming chic. Among all the new light rail projects, expect many communities to also construct bike trails for easy commuting. This will give them a competitive edge against other communities and help encourage progressive businesses to move to their cities. Many families are trying to orient their lives so they need only one car. This will give these families thousands of dollars a year to spend.

The global climate change skeptics are reduced to a crazy handful. Academics suggest that recent flooding in the Midwest is likely a direct result of global warming and using the land in ways for which it was not meant. So far, hurricane season has proven to be benign, but it is just beginning. However, this year tornadoes have been unusually numerous and powerful and have begun earlier. It is hard to escape the feeling that we are reaping the results of ignoring our impact on the environment.

One of our retirement goals is to take a cruise around the world. We are allocating $60,000 for the once in a lifetime experience. Now I am wondering if this is enough money. Perhaps we will have to settle for a cruise of the Pacific instead. With the cost of diesel exceeding the cost of gasoline, I have to wonder if the cruise industry will be one of the casualties of this new reordering.

Our round the world cruise, along with the cross country car trip I had planned, are possible activities we will have to give up due to the societal reordering underway. Perhaps instead of using a car we will take a train across the country. It will likely to be crowded.

I am also looking at my third of an acre lawn, which I meticulously mow weekly with $4 a gallon gasoline. I am wondering if it is time to give up the lawn in favor of a more natural terrain. A lawn is yet another invention of man. Grass has been around for millions of years, but keeping it neatly trimmed is not possible without either a lawn mower or many goats. I do not see our homeowner’s association approving us keeping a herd of goats in our backyard.

If oil prices continue to skyrocket, society may look a lot shabbier in the future. I passed a tree service truck today. Will there be the petrol to fuel these behemoth trucks in a couple decades? If there is petrol available, will anyone be able to afford it but the rich? It is hard for me to escape the feeling that thirty years from now, if I am still alive, that I will hardly recognize the crowded, denser and noisier world that I will be passing to my daughter.