Thursday, August 21, 2008

American Dream, RIP?

Will relentlessly high gas prices finally drive a stake in the heart of "urban sprawl," the bete noire of the better-living-through-centralized-planning crowd? Will pain at the pump finally force lethargic suburbanites out of their gas hogs and onto mass transit, where they belong? Has the long-sought Era of Lowered Expectations finally arrived?

New Urbanists, smart-growthers, "sustainability" gurus and other green-leaning "coercive Utopians" obviously hope so, as this recent story in The Washington Post makes clear. The Denver Post, covering somewhat similar territory, rather smugly reports about the sudden popularity (or is it utility?) of car pooling. Stories abound about an upsurge in the use of mass transit.

Having helped orchestrate the current energy crunch, by encouraging a U.S. regulatory climate that contributes to false scarcity, these same individuals and groups now are relishing the lifestyle revolution this scarcity will necessitate. They're reading last rites over the "old" American dream, with grand plans to replace it with something more "sustainable." Most of those plans involve more government planning by "experts," more central control, and less freedom for Americans to live as they choose. And their glee is barely concealed.

But I wouldn't so quickly count the suburbs out, given their long, stubborn association with the American dream. The Economist isn't, either, as this piece indicates. Here's another thoughtful examination of suburbia's future in Crosscut, a Seattle-area publication.

Some suburbanites will stick to their personal transport, instead of cramming into that hydrogen-powered bus, even if it means giving up two or three Starbucks a week. Transit options are limited in many parts of the country. Technology and changing work patterns mean more Americans are telecommuting, or spend their workdays in a home office (or have no office at all). The mass retirement of baby-boomers will free millions of Americans from the need to commute; and those retirees, though some may choose to live in city centers, will continue to prefer the suburbs.

High gas prices seem secondary to the mortgage meltdown and tighter lending practices as factors in the purported "death" of urban sprawl. When the housing market turns around, people will begin buying in the burbs again. And many urban areas will just never have much appeal to some segment of the American public, no matter how good the museums, the mass transit and the coffee shops are.

No, I think rumors of the American dream's death have been greatly exaggerated. But the delight with which some people are reading it last rites might serve as a warning to those of us who want to choose for ourselves what the dream means -- rather than have some self-annointed, environmentally-correct social engineers deciding it for us.

Addendum: A related story appeared in the August 24 Seattle Times

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