One of my pet theories, supported primarily by the fact that housing prices in Cambridge, Boston, and Brookline remained high while the farther-out suburbs of Boston have never recovered from their 2005-6 peaks, is that as the transportation system in the U.S. collapses due to congestion, people who value their time at more than $5 per hour will abandon the suburbs. Anecdotally this is supported by reports from my friends who are regular commuters: “The reverse commute is now just as bad as the standard commute”; “What took 35 minutes in 2010 now takes 1:15”; “I used to have to get to the Weston tolls by 6:55 to avoid Mass Pike traffic but now I have to be there by 6:40.”
Today’s New York Times carries a story about how suburban poverty in the New York City metro area is growing while the central cities are “prospering.”
The typical house in a Boston suburb was built between 1950 and 1975, when the highways were new and the commute time was a predictable 20-30 minutes. During peak traffic periods, which now may include weekends, what had been a 20-30 minute trip is now a 45-150 minute trip and there is no way to predict which end of the 45-150-minute spectrum will prevail on any given day. Travel times get longer every year as car ownership and use increases. What’s the value of a house from which it might take hours to get anywhere?
What do readers think? Are the suburbs finished because we’ve melted down our transportation system? Or will Google’s computer-augmented cars save the suburbs by making much more efficient use of existing roads? (And if we haven’t mustered the political will to establish congestion pricing or to tax older high pollution cars so that people have an incentive to buy cleaner new cars, how will we ever muster the political will to mandate semi-automatic cars that can cluster efficiently on highways?)