March 17, 2011

Energy price scenarios for evaluating zoning

I wrote earlier about different ways people evaluate zoning proposals: at the personal level and at the community level, and using forcecasts ranging from a shrinking population to a growing population.

I'd like to combine those personal and community levels for a moment, as most people bring some deeply ingrained expectations about the world to these conversations.

Last night, 87-octane gas was selling at Valero for $3.66 a gallon. That means that travel in your average vehicle ranged from about 9¢ a mile to about 40¢ a mile, depending on whether you're driving a highly fuel-efficient car or a heavy truck loaded with tools. I tend to assume - for the sake of argument - that the "status quo" reflects anything below $5 a gallon. Enough people will still be able to drive at that price that development patterns aren't likely to change much. (Lowering the price may accelerate growth in outlying areas, but other infrastructure limitations keep it difficult.)

Based on conversations I've had with Dryden residents over the past few years, I don't think most would be surprised - not happy, just not surprised - by $5/gallon. Eyebrows start climbing rapidly at $10/gallon, and disbelief definitely sets in around $20/gallon. Electric cars may ease some of this, but have their own cost and infrastructure issues - they're not a magic bullet.

Suspend disbelief for a minute, and assume that this week's strife in Bahrain has spread to Saudi Arabia. The oil spigot doesn't close completely, but prices skyrocket.

What will you do differently if gasoline suddenly costs $10 or $15 a gallon (in today's prices)?

What will your neighbors do differently?

Would you still want to live where you live? Could you afford to? Could your neighbors?

Now imagine a decade of those prices. What would change in Dryden? What would change in Tompkins County?

I'll let your imagination run - really, don't panic! - but when I'm reading the Dryden zoning, I try to keep (at least) two possible futures in mind:

Business as usual

Energy prices stay more or less where they are now. Guessing that the future will be a slightly modified version of the present doesn't always work, but it's certainly possible and a key part of the conversation.

Higher energy prices

Prices become high enough to change the ways we live. Apart from our miraculous modern conveniences, the main thing that separates development patterns in Dryden 2011 from patterns in Dryden 1911 is the much greater ease of moving from place to place.

Of the two, I think the first scenario has to dominate the conversation. It seems to be what most residents are expecting, and that's not likely to shift unless it has to shift.

At the same time, though, I try to keep the higher-cost version in mind. First, I wonder whether the zoning can accomodate shifts needed to adjust to something like that? And second, there are times when I wonder whether some of the ideas that already seem questionable in the status quo scenario seem even worse in the higher-cost scenario.

I'll be applying these different scenarios to the next draft of the proposed zoning when it appears. In the meantime, look around, and think about what change - or continuity - might look like.

Posted by simon at March 17, 2011 12:13 PM in ,
Note on photos


Kurt Cagle said:

I don't know the geography around Dryden all that well, but if Maryland is any guide, it tends to be mildly rolling with definite valleys and hills, mostly wooded, and rain or snowbound periodically. Given that, I suspect that the best zoning plan would tend to stress the development of villages within Dryden - local community centers and retail, with high density residential in a donut around that and light to moderate industrial around that, with a plan towards keeping these villages no larger than perhaps five miles across.

Build these with primary thoroughfares crossing through the center of each donut and heading out radially towards other villages. Five miles is large enough to allow some expansion while still being navigable by bike or light car.

Discourage big box stores. Not only do they tend to eat up real estate and export local incomes outside of the region, they also are highly dependent upon low gas prices. My guess is that Walmart's business model ceases to be economically viable at about $8 a gallon, but that's just a guess - it does become unviable at some point (KMart's demise was a good indication of that).

If possible, build in bike paths early so that they don't necessarily follow the main highway. One idea that I liked in Victoria was that most neighborhoods would explicitly build in a bike path that would run perpendicular to residential streets, often bisecting the streets. Not only did this keep bike traffic off the road traffic, but it also provided ways for school children to get to elementary schools more easily and safely (bike and pedestrian paths would run side by side).

I'd also give tax breaks to grocery and retail stores that provided delivery services, helping them subsidize those services to those who might otherwise not be able to afford the delivery fees. Treat such delivery vehicles as having HOV privileges as well. This helps mitigate insularity of smaller village settings, since such delivery vehicles could easily run between them.

Push to improve Internet accessibility, up to and including distance learning programs. Most school districts anymore or already hemorrhaging money due to their school bus presence, but the typical reaction of closing and consolidating schools actually increases the overall cost of transporting students to school. Similarly, I like the idea of promoting home offices and satellite offices in consolidated high density parks, perhaps interspersed with moderate to high density residential parks.

Limit single family dwelling permits in favor of townhouses. I'd also strengthen building codes - I suspect that a great number of the condos and single family dwellings that have been put up in the last 30-40 years are now crumbling because of weak building code enforcement. Either that, or figure out some kind of depreciation schedule that would provide incentives for people to move out of buildings that reach their forty year point, so such structures can be razed and new ones rebuilt. I prefer townhouses to condos - the latter tend to become tenements when they get too old.

Of course, I'm not a city planner. Still, I think that nodal villages make a lot more sense than urban megalopoli, possibly with the mayor (or her deputy) of each village in turn also being the de facto representative to a regional council, with one mayor being chosen from this group as council president for a fixed term.

Just a few thoughts.

It's a beautiful vision, but unfortunately there's a lot more to nodes than a five-mile diameter.