If fuel prices stay high, the landscape will likely change within a decade, many experts say. Housing, transportation and the food industry will all undergo a major turnaround.
Suddenly, riding a bicycle to run errands makes a lot of sense to Cynthia Gedraitis of Wareham.
And just as suddenly, the 30 miles between her home and her husband’s job in Brockton seems a massive distance.
High gas prices are making the 42-year-old think differently about a lot of things. For one, she’s pulled her bike out of the shed and now rides it whenever she can. But the housing situation is a much harder fix.
“I would love to move closer to his job,” said Gedraitis, a mother of two young girls who drives a minivan. “But gas prices aren’t enough to make us move right now. That involves so much more.”
That may change in coming years for people like Gedraitis. Many experts believe that $4-per-gallon gas is here to stay, and that the price may rise even higher. The cost will be a greater factor on major decisions within the next decade, experts predict.
For instance, small cars, bicycles and motorized scooters will replace SUVs on the roads. Public transportation will always be full.
Meanwhile, housing in and near cities will be in high demand. New development will be densely constructed, with a mix of housing and stores. Far-flung towns will struggle to keep residents.
Unused farmland will be returned to production, as demand grows for local food — which is “cheap” because it doesn’t need to be trucked thousands of miles.
“We may be in for a dramatic turnaround,” said Stephen Smith, executive director of Southeastern Regional Planning and Economic Development District.
Changing prices, changing habits
Five years ago, a gallon of gas cost just $1.50 in the area. A year ago it was $3.
Now, it’s rare to find a gas station selling for much under $4. But the price may not stay put. At least one study, from CIBC World Markets, says that $7-per-gallon prices are possible within two years in the U.S.
Americans are already driving less, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. The total number of miles driven was down about 4 percent in March and about 2 percent in April, when compared to the same months in 2007.
People are also losing interest in sport-utility vehicles — national sales dropped 38 percent in May, compared to that month last year — while demand for small cars and hybrids is soaring.
Retailers also report growing interest in bicycles and in motorized scooters, which can get up to 90 miles-per-gallon.
“The first adjustment for people is in the size of vehicle,” said Catherine Mann, a Brandeis University economist. “But when people make that next big decision, about jobs and housing, that’s when we’ll see what appears to be a full-scale shift.”
The changes may not be noticeable within five years, but they might be within a decade, Mann said. That’s because many people won’t be ready right away to make major decisions like getting a new job or house, she said.
But when people do come to such decisions, it’s unlikely they will opt for a lengthy commute, said Marc Draisen, executive director of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council.
“I think you find more people now put a higher premium on living near their work,” Draisen said.
Locally, the commuter rail could become a more important factor for the region, said Smith, of the southeastern regional planning office.
Communities without rail stations will likely see far less growth and demand from homebuyers, Smith said.
But even with rail access, many towns may see a decline of interest, he said.
“Suburbs, where you have to get in a car to go anywhere, I think would be hurt,” Smith said. “I think that cities are better positioned to do well. They already have compact development patterns, more walkable layout.”
The “smart growth” model for development could become more popular in the age of high gas prices, said Pasquale Ciaramella, executive director of the Old Colony Planning Council.
The concept is to mix dense housing with stores and offices in a “village-style” development. In Easton, developer Douglas A. King is planning to do just this on a 60-acre parcel of land off Route 138.
Residents of the apartments and condominiums in the development will be able to walk to the store, the restaurant or to work, King said.
“It’s kind of like it was in the old days,” he said. “Maybe they had it right.”
A shift to grow local
Another throwback to an earlier time — which may be in our future — is a reliance on local agriculture.
The soaring cost of food is largely attributed to the surge in oil prices. One major reason is that much of the food eaten by Americans eat is produced thousands of miles away and must be transported.
“That is going to be unaffordable and unsustainable,” Smith said. “It will be a real boost to local agriculture.”
After decades of decline in local agriculture, Smith’s agency’s believes this trend may reverse. A report from an agency task force forecasts that by 2060, agriculture will drive the region’s economy.
“Abandoned farmland has been returned to productive use,” the report said. “The region has become an exporter of produce.”
Southeastern Massachusetts currently has dozens of working farms. And interest in local food has already been surging in the region and around the state, said Hannah Freedberg, community outreach director at the Federation of Massachusetts Farmers Markets.
This growth will most likely only continue in the future age of high fuel prices, Freedberg said.
“We’re just at the beginning,” she said.
Kyle Alspach can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.