Seems I’m always late to the party.  A couple days back, NYTimes columnist Paul Krugman, writing from Berlin, had some smart things to say about the meaning of high gas prices for America’s suburbs.  Starting with the obvious:

If Europe’s example is any guide, here are the two secrets of coping with expensive oil: own fuel-efficient cars, and don’t drive them too much.

Well, duh.  But the problem is that, well, we don’t currently own fuel-efficient cars—not most of us, anyway, and the way we’ve developed our cities can make it hard to cut back on driving.  Changing things will take some time.  Says PK:

Any serious reduction in American driving will … mean changing how and where many of us live.

To see what I’m talking about, consider where I am at the moment: in a pleasant, middle-class neighborhood consisting mainly of four- or five-story apartment buildings, with easy access to public transit and plenty of local shopping.

It’s the kind of neighborhood in which people don’t have to drive a lot, but it’s also a kind of neighborhood that barely exists in America.

He’s absolutely right.  In the US, a middle class neighborhood consisting of five-story apartment buildings is almost an oxymoron.  We tend think of that sort of development as the exclusive province of the urban poor, or maybe the urban elite.  Either way, that sort of neighborhood doesn’t feel middle class to most North Americans. 

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  • Of course, part of the reason that high-density housing is so rarely associated with middle-class lifestyles is that most cities and suburbs have actually made this kind of housing illegal, outside of a few dense enclaves here and there.  This has made compact neighborhoods rare.  Unfamiliarity has bred contempt, which has helped foster a preference spread-out neighborhoods, which in turn has created a middle class that is largely car-dependent—and thus totally exposed to the depredations of high energy prices. (I’m not trying to create a grand unified theory of sprawl here—just pointing out that zoning laws and public attitudes were self-reinforcing.)

    But with oil currently hovering above $130/barrel, and with more and more families struggling to make ends meet, it’ll be interesting to see whether that contempt eases up—and, more importantly, whether zoning boards will start to legalize the kinds of housing that help families deal with the high cost of fuel.