Thursday, August 07, 2008

A Seismic Change

Whether we like it or not, the U.S. is going through the biggest period of change--economically, socially and technologically--since the end of the Second World War. At the end of WWII, hundreds of thousands of servicemen returned from overseas, got married and started families. These families needed homes, cars, appliances, furniture, and so on, bringing the true end of the Great Depression and the launch of the greatest economic growth ever seen. Demand for housing led to the birth and growth of the suburbs, and the Interstate Highway system, originally launched by President Eisenhower, enabled Americans to move into every nook and cranny of the country by car.

I just watched a story on a local television newscast, discussing the potential "slummification" of suburbs around Sacramento, CA, as residents abandon them to be closer to their jobs and public transit. The story quoted one forecast of more than 22 million excess homes in suburbia nationwide by 2025. These "McMansions" are generally woefully energy inefficient and well away from major public transit corridors, so their owners get hit by energy costs when they're at home, as well as when they're driving to and from work. The pendulum is swinging back to high-density, in-city housing.

I've often believed that we would eventually rue the day that we gutted our passenger rail and street car systems, and that day has come. Now, cities around the country are trying to build or extend their public transportation systems, at enormous cost.

This radical relocation of people is just one element of the change. Automobile preferences have changed almost overnight from trucks and SUVs to high-mileage passenger cars. Some SUVs coming off of three-year leases can't be sold, for almost any price. The future of the American car companies lies in their European and Asian operations; the salvation of GM is likely to say Opel, Vauxhall, Holden or GM Shanghai somewhere on it.

These are only a taste of the changes underway. The U.S. that we're becoming will increasingly look like a 21st Century version of the country in the early 20th century.

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