PEOPLE HAVE BEEN moving farther and farther out of the metropolitan area, and even the high prices and shortages of gasoline aren't likely to reverse the trend. Why? What does it mean for the region? One reason for the faster growth rate in the fringe areas and the decline in the growth rate inside the region is the high cost of closer-in housing; another is that jobs are following this movement of people, many of whom still prefer single-family homes. If this spread continues without more residential and commercial development closer in, there are likely to be unpleasant effects on the air, water, transit, energy and employment in the region. So could the local governments strike a better balance between development in the closer-in jurisdictions and that in the fringe areas?

They could, but because neighborhood groups in and around the city tend to oppose further development, many of the things they do seek -- a sell-used transit system, convenient and affordable housing and other amenities of city living -- may not exist. Atlee E. Shidler of the Center for Municipal and Metropolitan Research, who has just issued a report on these and other trends in the region, isn't optimistic: Without a constituency that supports more development in the city and nearby suburbs -- at Metro stops and on unused land in the city and surrounding, for example -- the dispersion of people is likely to continue.

Besides, there is much that is beyond the control of local governments. "You can write all you want about what is an ideal community," says Walter Scheiber of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, "but it's hard for any local government in a democratic society to exert the kind of development controls" to fit problems caused by national and international economic forces -- inflation, energy and the resistance of people to higher taxes.

But the difficulties of adjusting living conditions -- less reliance on cars, more self-contained communities, tighter limits on public services -- can be tempered. That can happen if local government leaders will place emphasis on better uses of what "resources" can be conserved through more efficient use of streets, sewers and water lines and an end to those policies that have worked to depress the supply of intown housing.