In the early 2000’s, urban planning researchers in Australia came up with a new way to look at the effects of urban sprawl on the population. While most of us are aware how much fluctuations in bank rates affect housing affordability, and grumble when high food prices make headlines (remember when cauliflower cost $8?), we can usually come up with work-arounds.
We put off buying a house or condo until we save a bigger down payment. We leave cauliflower off our menus. But what about expenses we can’t avoid, like gas? We need to commute to work, bring the kids to baseball and take Grandma to her doctor’s appointment. Most of us don’t have an alternative to regularly filling the tank.
What Happens When Our Work-Arounds Stop Working?
Many Edmonton families bought homes in the outer suburbs to stay within their budget – but committed to a 35 minute commute to work. A lengthy commute implies a further commitment to buying a tank of gas at least once a week. If the price of gas goes up by 20% per litre, like it has many times in the last few years, how does the family cope?
If your mortgage payment represents a significant amount of your monthly income, you don’t have a lot of room for other expenses. In too many cases, this means a gradual increase in household debt through larger credit card and overdraft balances. This increase in debt increases the families’ vulnerability to a rise in interest rates.
The VAMPIRE Index is a Vulnerability Assessment for Mortgage, Petrol and Inflation Risks and Expenses. Here is a link to the 2006 article.
The further we live from downtown, and a city’s core, the more exacerbated commuting issues become by a lack of public transportation. The above article provides the example of Sydney, Australia where just under half of commutes to work are made using private motor vehicles, and over 75% of trips from outer suburbs are made by car. This is due to the decreasing availability of public transportation the further you are from downtown.
The City of Edmonton is very similar to Sydney in this regard (and to other major urban centres that have seen a lot of growth since the 1950’s). Edmonton has just engaged in a major overhaul of its transit routes. It has succeeded in increasing frequency of buses, but has substantially reduced the number of routes. What came up repeatedly during the revision process was the fact that our road network makes it very difficult (and expensive) to provide a transit service that will provide an attractive alternative to a private vehicle. Sadly, the city persists in approving suburban developments that are difficult to service with public transit.
The below heat map of the city of Brisbane shows the areas most vulnerable to interest rate and gasoline price increases in dark red, and the least vulnerable in dark green. Brisbane is a good predictor for what Edmonton could grow into if we don’t change our growth patterns. Brisbane has a population of almost 2.2 million, but occupies an area over 23 times as large as Edmonton. More than half of Brisbane’s population is clearly vulnerable to increases in gas and interest rates. If we think about what such a map of Edmonton would look like, we could imagine green areas in the downtown core and the first ring suburbs and along the LRT lines. The rest of the city would be highlighted in red – especially the newest suburbs.
The illusion of cheap land (and a lack of immediate impacts of car oriented development) has shaped our city in a way that has left a substantial proportion of our population vulnerable to the negative effects of poor urban planning. Unfortunately, our developers and city planners continually increase density in our newest suburbs, while doing little to make them transit-friendly. As a result, an increasing number of Edmontonians are vulnerable to changes in gas prices and interest rates.