I’m no economist, but something has to give
One dollar and sixty cents a liter. Gas hit this stellar mark here in Vancouver?—?making it the highest gas prices in North America ever?—?and while I haven’t seen prices higher than that, we know prices are going to go higher. The $1.60 mark is a psychological barrier. Once gas hits $1.61 I think the next barrier is $1.80, then $2.00. And at $2.00/liter it’s gonna get real ugly, real fast.
As gas prices climb, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out at some point people aren’t going to be able to afford to drive to work. Are we there yet? No, probably not even really close. Is that point on the horizon? Absolutely. The end result will be a fundamental change to the economy of the region and will serve as a blue print (or warning) for the rest of North America too.
Here’s how I see it playing out.
I need to work from home some days
If you’re driving for an hour or more in traffic twice a day, your gas milage is going to suck. That’s science. The easiest step will be people who have the longest commutes ask to work more from home. Sounds simple, but this is going to:
- Force companies to change “butt in chair equals working” mentalities
- Trigger investment in technologies that allow collaboration when people aren’t in the same room?—?and email alone will not cut it.
- Allow more people to work remotely more of the time
As a big fan of remote work, I believe this is a net positive. People will have more time with families, get to know their neighborhoods better, and might even spur local growth in remote-worker friendly cafes.
I’m going to take transit. Holy crap, it will take how long?
When I commute into Vancouver I much prefer transit over driving. I can be more productive. Oh and it’s cheaper.
It also takes over an hour.
If you live to the south or east of Vancouver, and you don’t live and work near a Skytrain line or express bus route, an hour commute isn’t out of the question. Just one place I used to work would take and hour and a half each way. How long to drive? Forty minutes. The math doesn’t add up.
Because transit expansion can’t happen quickly, the transit system will be pushed beyond its limits long before new Skytrain or LRT lines are ready. Yes, more buses can be added to the system, but buses are vulnerable to all the same variables as cars on the roads. A couple accidents at key places muck up the system for hours?—?or the whole day.
I’m going to find work closer to home
Or I’m going to move elsewhere. Or I’m going to work from home full time. People are mobile. They have choices. If you’re sick of being stuck in traffic, can’t afford gas, transit a nightmare, and your job won’t let you work from home sometimes, you’re going to look for a better job.
I see this as the biggest benefit to the region. If people don’t want to work in Vancouver, then maybe have your office closer to where (more) people are? Surrey is booming. Lots of office space. Coquitlam. Maple Ridge. Lots of places to set up shop and find people sick of heading into the city for work. I’m surprised at how few tech related jobs there are in Surrey. Yeah, Yaletown and Gastown are hip, but unless you live in the city of Vancouver (and close to those areas) getting there kinda sucks. I’ve done it. It’s not a barrel of laughs.
This brings a dark side to the shift for Vancouver proper. With rents out of line with what people can make in the city, suddenly retail and food service businesses are going to find themselves short staffed. Businesses will have to increase wages to attract people to work there. No one will work for near minimum wage in downtown Vancouver if better jobs are available closer to home.
What about electric cars?
Yes, electric cars are going to play a big role in the transition, but right now EVs are out of reach for a lot of people. They are too expensive and we don’t quite have the infrastructure to meet heavy demand. Also a commute from the edges of Greater Vancouver to downtown Vancouver is pushing over 40 km. An 80 km round trip might strain batteries. I know they should go over well 100 km, but if you’re looking at a low battery, would you want to push it?
EVs are essential, but they only extend the region’s dependence on people driving a long freakin’ time to get to work.
This is just the kick in the pants we need
The blessing of high gas prices is forcing a fundamental shift in how North America has organized where people live and work. In the Bay Area “supercommutes” are becoming the norm (a supercommute is 90 minutes or more). The factors in the Bay Area aren’t so different from Vancouver, sky-high housing prices are forcing people farther and farther from where they work. Even here in Surrey, once a bastion of affordable houses, it’s getting expensive. People are moving farther and farther east. This isn’t sustainable. We all know it.
This is the silver lining of high gas prices. There is a magic number, maybe $2.50/liter, where driving 40 km to work each day will not be affordable. Maybe by then super-rapid transit from the south and east of Vancouver will be a reality. Maybe more people will be working remotely. Maybe more businesses will move to where the people are and going to work around the corner in your own neighborhood will be the norm.
Maybe. For our region’s economy’s sake we better get our act together because otherwise we’re going to be in a world of hurt.