I may have posted on this before. If so, I apologize for the redundancy. Every now and again I hear (generally urban, generally liberal, almost always one or the other) types talk about how the suburbs are unsustainable in the long term and when energy prices start rising, people are going to move back to the city. They won’t have much of a choice.

This could be, but it isn’t nearly so imminent as many believe. They tend to look at things through the lens of two options. The option of living the right way, in densely populated cities, and the other, wrong option, which is the current suburban model. The latter, they say, will be unsustainable in the long term and therefore we will Manhattanize while the suburbs become slums as is the case in Paris and many other world cities. Often though not always attached to these beliefs are the following assumptions:

  • People don’t actually want to live in the suburbs. They live there because the suburbs are subsidized by public policy. Because…
  • Suburbs are dreadful places to live. They often make statements and suggestions that are empirically untrue such as that the suburbs are socially isolating. In fact, suburbanites are more likely to know their neighbors than urban apartment-dwellers. What is lost in distance is made up for in continuity. Also, parents with children are more bound to their neighborhoods and more likely to want to make sure they know who their neighbors are so that they know their kids are safe. It is possible (maybe probable) that you put these same people in a downtown condominium together you will get even better results, but it is not the case that suburbs are inherently isolating in a way that our cities are not.
  • If they do want to live in the suburbs, it’s for stupid reasons like racism or because they’ve been duped by capitalism. Nevermind the advantages of larger houses and larger yards and the peacefulness of being at a little distance from one another. No doubt some of the rationales can be tied to racism if looked at in a particular way (they’re worried about crime and/or want good schools, ergo they hate minorities), but it’s a rather myopic view in my opinion. But they kind of get away with saying it because most of the logical responses to it are politically incorrect and not things that people like talking about.
  • Living in cities is more environmentally sound. This assumption is not particularly faulty except to the extent that suburbanization in some parts of the country lead to irrigation and forest-planting that turn deserts and otherwise barren places into towns where developers believe that people want to live. But on the whole, the urban planners are right insofar as something can be designed that’s easier on the environment than the current model. But as The Onion has pointed out, people want public transportation and the like for other people.
  • People are irrationally addicted to cars. Once you put them in walkable neighborhoods, they will prefer them. They have studies to back this up and often their own personal experience. But… cars are convenient, man, and people like “walkability” in the same way that they like “lower taxes” or “more government services.” People like walkability, but once you start talking about the costs involves (taking away their cars, living in a smaller place) I think you start to see a different picture.

So while people say “they won’t have a choice,” they are often operating under assumptions that minimize the resistance to re-urbanization that would develop.

But underneath it all, I believe people will have a choice. Some choices that are not great, but choices nonetheless. It strikes me as far more likely than everyone packing up and moving back into the city that the features of the city will instead follow them to suburbs. As it stands now, there are a whole lot of people in the suburbs that actually don’t pay all that much in gasoline costs. My father commuted less than five miles to work every day. One of my brothers does the same and his wife commutes less than twenty. I barely knew anyone that actually commuted to the city. My other brother commutes over an hour, but he doesn’t commute to the city. Rather, he commutes from one suburb to another suburb.

And that is the case far, far more often than people realize when it comes to cities like Colosse that cover a wide geographical area. Nearly every job I’ve had has been in the suburbs. In Colosse, I ended up driving from the outskirts of town to the suburbs or from one suburb to another. In Estacado and Cascadia, I actually drove from a city core to a suburb or exurb. My ex-roommate Hubert commutes from one suburb to another, well over an hour away. When people start really feeling the pinch, one of the things you’re going to start seeing is people relocating to live closer to the suburb that they work. Right now it’s lost time and some lost money, but once it starts hitting their pocketbooks more heavily, that’s what you’re likely to start seeing.

None of this is to say that nobody commutes to the city. I know a number of people that do (including Web), even if they’re outnumbered by the suburban workforce. Besides, you start driving on an inbound freeway during rush hour, the fact that a lot of people live in the suburbs and work downtown is patently obvious. But as people start feeling the pinch, what do you think is more likely… people giving up their space and their yards and all that to spend ten times as much on half the space (the strength of the suburban housing market keeps urban housing markets more manageable than they otherwise would be) or more businesses opening up satellite offices in the suburbs or relocating there entirely? You have to make the assumption that people would really prefer to live in the city for it even to be a contest.

It does strike me as likely that more people would indeed move closer to the city, but nowhere near enough to make the suburbs some sort of wasteland ghetto. It also seems likely that a number of people will start doing things that urbanists and liberals both love like carpooling and utilizing public transportation. Commuter rail will probably garner support, for instance. And park-n-rides will probably increase ridership significantly. Maybe private busing* companies will be able to turn a profit by keeping poor people off their buses*.

There is at least one major hole in my argument, though. Energy prices are not limited solely to gasoline. In addition to commuting expenses, in places like Colosse you can also have extensive electricity bills and the like because keeping these places hospitable during the summer can be expensive. In this sense, you might start seeing a decline in the size of the average house. Or you might start seeing smarter air conditioners where the goal ceases to be keeping the whole house cool and instead becomes keeping portions of the house cool. On the other hand, household energy is also a lot more amenable to alternative forms of energy that will start to look a lot more attractive when/if peak oil occurs.

Of course, this is a different subject entirely that I’m not going to get into, but my views on peak oil are rather out of the mainstream. It really strikes me as one of those things that is going to be “right around the corner” for my entire lifetime and probably my children’s. So this is, to me, a mostly academic argument. Or an argument about what happens if we start leaning more heavily on heavy commuters through gasoline taxes and the like. I am actually quite amenable to gasoline taxes and tolls as a way of paying for the roads and to reduce wasteful driving. But I don’t see it doing what a lot of people argue it will.

When I look at rapidly escalating gasoline prices, though (either through taxation or supply/demand) it’s not actually our driving and housing habits that I think will be most important. Rather, the bigger issue, I think, will be that commodities will suddenly start becoming noticeably more expensive due to increased shipping costs. This has its pluses and minuses. Even here, the urbanists argue that their way-of-life will be vindicated when places like Walmart won’t make sense anymore. For better or worse, I think the opposite is true. As gasoline prices increases, it will be the Walmarts of the world with their own distribution networks that will likely be at the greatest advantage. And the sort of one-stop shopping that places like Walmart and Target supply will probably become more rather than less desirable compared to having something shipped (really expensive) or driving all around town to get this and that in lieu of being able to get most of them from a single location.

* – Gawd I hate the spelling of these words. It should totally be busses and bussing.

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22 Responses to Our Urban Future?

  1. web says:

    In Melleorki, you definitely don’t want to locate a business inside city limits – almost every good business long ago ran out into the suburbs because of the high taxation rate the City of Melleorki developed to pay for all the deadbeats, public-assistance-recipients, and worse that moved in back in the ’50s and ’60s.

    For a while, my father was commuting from our house in a southern suburb to his job in a northwestern suburb every day. My own main summer job had me traveling an identical path during high school. For Melleorki-ites, this is actually fairly normal.

  2. Peter says:

    Park & rides? You mean like the one I was in yesterday afternoon?

  3. Peter says:

    Another thing to keep in mind: even if Peak Oil or some other change makes suburban living much less popular, most people who live in the suburbs aren’t going to be able to pack up and move to the cities, not right away at least, because they’re paying mortgages on their suburban houses. Declining values will mean that they can’t just sell their houses and pay off their mortgages.

  4. PeterW says:

    This debate definitely seems to be an example of Tyler Cowen’s hypothesis that lots of political debate is about lowering the status of other groups of people (suburbanites) more than it is about actually optimizing policy. (http://www.marginalrevolution.com/marginalrevolution/2008/07/xxxxxxx.html)

  5. Maria says:

    But people do leave urban environments because of “diversity.”

    Robert Putnam’s studies on ethnic diversity found that too much of it destroys the kind of social capital needed to create decent, less-stressful societies and raise families.

    This article in USA today makes light of the “reverse Grapes of Wrath effect” of Californians fleeing their diversity paradise for Oklahoma of all places: http://www.usatoday.com/money/economy/2010-10-12-oklahoma12_CV_N.htm

    The fleeing Californians say they are headed for Oklahoma to get away from crime, overcrowding, rude drivers etc.

    But what they are really fleeing from is a place with low social capital, in order to get to a place with high social capital. The crime, overcrowding, rude drivers, etc., are merely symptoms of low social capital, caused, at least in part, by too much ethnic diversity.


    “Robert Putnam, Harvard professor, best known for his work on social capital. He has recently published a study based upon a wide-ranging and detailed survey of ethnic diversity carried out in the US. Social capital can be understood as the informal networks of relatives, friends and associates that people depend upon for support in their everyday lives. Putnam found a direct relationship between the homogeneity of neighbourhoods, the level of trust and the existence of social capital. In neighbourhoods where most people are alike—such as predominantly white suburbs—people tend to trust one another more, and also be more involved in community activities, voluntary associations and so forth. In diverse areas, such as inner cities, trust and social capital diminish.”

  6. trumwill says:

    Trying to tread carefully here…

    The ostensible reason remains, though, the externalities rather than the mere existence of diversity are the main reason that people leave. When diversity brings neutral or positive changes, such as when the suburb I was raised in had an influx of educated Asian-Americans that helped bolster honors programs and the reputation of my high school, people didn’t leave. And when homogeneous places are undesirable places to live for other reasons, they’ll often leave for places that are actually more diverse but also containing the opportunities and features that come with larger populations.

    I’m not particularly anxious to discuss the merits of diversity vs. homogeneity on Hit Coffee. The main point behind that bullet-point was to push back against the notion the primary motivation is getting away from minorities rather than, say, those negative things that Putnam says that diversity causes.

  7. Maria says:

    Okay Will,I’ll let it go.

  8. David Alexander says:

    Manhattanize while the suburbs become slums as is the case in Paris and many other world cities.

    Danger! As somebody who has been to France, I should point out that Paris is a small city in terms of size by American standards, and thus, the areas that are slums are just European versions of urban American multi-story housing projects. The exteriors look nicer, and there are more whites in their housing projects, but it isn’t that dissimilar. They’re just housing projects that are not located in the city of Paris itself, but in neighbouring cities.

    Regardless, poverty in the suburbs is growing, but it’s due to immigrants and poorer residents that were once project residents now living in low end suburban housing.

  9. David Alexander says:

    People don’t actually want to live in the suburbs. They live there because the suburbs are subsidized by public policy.

    I look at suburbanization as a push-pull issue. When one looks around the world, to a certain extent, rising living standards creates some degree of suburbanization and population growth, but how it develops can vary. In European countries, the model seems to avoid American style large burbs on large plots, but a mix of apartments, townhouses, and single family homes on small plots in neighbouring cities or new cities planned by the government is what one would find. One could argue that it reflects a certain demographic development that was seen in certain older cities in their pre-war development phases. In contrast, you have Canadian and to a lesser extent Australian suburbs which are on smaller plots with smaller home sizes when compared to the United States. I live in a 1800 square foot home, and my cousin from Canada calls it large. In contrast, I’d imagine that in Colosse Metro, my home is small and overpriced at that size.

    In the case of the United States, to a certain extent, suburbanization has always existed, and was fostered by the growth of local railway networks that permitted people with money to move further away from the core. The big difference is that starting in the 1930s, but more so in the post-war period, we subsidized home purchases of single family homes in newly built developments in lieu of older, denser areas. Crime and schools didn’t really become problems until the mid to late 1960s pushing the last of the working class into suburban locales. For what it’s worth, the best context is to compare cities like Montreal and Toronto where the Canadian government’s housing subsidy programme didn’t lead to de facto abandonment of Canadian urban cores. Even in a limited context, cities like Colosse and Calgary are cities that have blossomed in the modern era with their growth in the automobile era, but the former has massive amounts of sprawl, while the latter has relatively dense development and higher transit usage than some American cities with large extensive transit networks. In other words, a lot of American cities could have looked like Canadian ones, with similar planning techniques, but it simply never happened and we ended up taking a different course of action.

    They often make statements and suggestions that are empirically untrue such as that the suburbs are socially isolating.

    In contrast, I live in a cul-de-sac where nobody really talks to each other. Ultimately, it can easily vary because in some places, the suburbanites keep to themselves, and in other places, the urbanites have a small town coziness with each other.

    people want public transportation and the like for other people

    Public transport is rather workable in an urban context, so people tend to use it. Given traffic, limited and expensive parking, it makes far more sense to just walk to the public transport stop and use it. Hence why there are higher numbers of carless or single car homes in urban areas which has the benefit of keeping marginal drivers off the road, and leaving highways for people who *like* driving.

  10. Abel Keogh says:

    You’re going to love The Third — it brings up a lot of the issues you talked about.

  11. Nanani says:

    Different people want different things, and their ultimate choices are constrained by multiple factors in multiple directions.

    Anybody claiming that everybody is going to choose the same way is pushing an agenda, nothing more.
    Or else they’re -really- blind to the complexity of reality.

  12. trumwill says:

    David, Calgary’s population density are actually very close to one another’s. Whether looking at the city itself or the metro area, Colosse’s appears to be slightly higher. I’m sure you’re right about transit usage.

  13. Escapist says:

    Some lefties think that people will give up cars in favor of mass transit, but there’s a fundamental freedom to having a car as an option (not necessarily having to commute though) in the garage:

    Taxis and public transport involve a certain amount of waiting/scheduling around other people, while having one’s own car is get-up-and-go (provides a level of freedom/choice)

  14. David Alexander says:

    but there’s a fundamental freedom to having a car as an option (not necessarily having to commute though) in the garage

    It certainly explains why some Europeans still own cars* and urban dwellers who don’t own cars maintain memberships in car sharing programmes or use rental car agencies. There are always going to be certain trips that cars are simply more convenient for. Mind you, in an urban context where many things are within walking distance and there’s frequent service, it’s not that noticeable, especially if at the endpoints, parking is limited or expensive. It’s hard to apply mass transit usage in the suburban context outside of something that realistically isn’t headed toward the urban core in most American cities.

    *Secret joke: The Europeans have big box stores too. They just don’t operate in the Anglo North American market…

    Colosse’s appears to be slightly higher.

    Colosse is actually larger than I thought, so I’ll have to use a smaller city in the Sunbelt for comparison purposes next time…

  15. Peter says:

    On Friday afternoon I met with a customer at his place of business in a working-class suburban community in Suffolk County. He mentioned that a long drawn-out road rebuilding project, just recently completed, had caused a significant loss of business for both him and other area merchants. What most annoyed him was that the main point of the rebuilding project was to add sidewalks, a sensible goal but for the fact that almost no one ever walks in this spread-out area. It sounds to me as if local officials decided that urban-style pedestrian traffic was something to be encouraged. What they didn’t realize is that distances in the area are just too long for walking to be practical, even if there are nice wide sidewalks.

  16. Samson says:

    People don’t actually want to live in the suburbs

    Do you hear this in real life? I’ve read it online, very occasionally, but never actually heard it from anyone I’ve met.

    As most of your readers probably have, I’ve lived in the city (and this was a small city, under 500 000), and it was Hell. On. Earth. Too many people, concrete everywhere, noise-noise-noise-noise, too many cars, dirty, 45 minutes to any semblance of wilderness, no yard for kids to play in… I could go on and on.

    I can’t imagine more than a tiny minority of post-college-age folks actually thinks the city beats suburban life, and I tend to dismiss the argument when it comes up.

  17. Mike Hunt says:

    Middle class people in an urban environment is the best combination.

    What makes a neighborhood (and a school for that matter) “bad” are the people.

    The only difference between college dorms and the projects are the residents.

  18. trumwill says:

    Samson, I have mostly heard it online, but from people online mostly. I do hear from people offline about how the only reason people leave the city is to escape minorities (things like “crime” and “bad schools” being code).

    Mike, but people don’t don’t want to live in college dorms past a certain age. Urban life necessitate serious limitations on space that’s an issue regardless of who your neighbors are.

  19. David Alexander says:

    Mike, but people don’t don’t want to live in college dorms past a certain age. Urban life necessitate serious limitations on space that’s an issue regardless of who your neighbors are.

    One of the things that a urbanist blog had alluded to a few weeks ago is the fact that urban housing is still geared toward young people. While there’s some pre-war stock that’s decently sized, a lot of the new developments are geared toward singles or young couples with at most one child. The blog in question argued for the construction of larger homes to cater to this segment. Regardless, if you think 3000 sq ft is the ideal size of a home*, then you’ll probably never be in the market for urban living even in a single family home context.

    *I grew up in a house with 1200 sq ft and I live in a home with 1800 sq ft. I’m on a 60 X 100 lot. I suspect this is small by Colosse standards, but when I watch House Hunters, I can never understand why people with two kids need five bedrooms on a huge plot, especially when they’re ugly and gaudy McMansions. Of course, landscaping is not free, nor is heating a home, but I live in oil heat country where it’s $600 a month to heat my home for six months of the year…

  20. trumwill says:

    , I can never understand why people with two kids need five bedrooms on a huge plot, especially when they’re ugly and gaudy McMansions.

    That one is easy! A bedroom for each of the kids, a bedroom for the parents, an office or computer room, and a guest room. It’s handy to have space.

    Clancy and I don’t have kids but we have four bedrooms and a basement. It’s preferable to our old place in Cascadia, which had three bedrooms was somewhat smaller. Oh, and we are on a .6 acre lot. Our current place also has a half-finished basement that takes it from about 2200 square feet to probably a little over 3000 and we’re on a half-acre lot. Our rent in Arapaho is the same as our rent was in Cascadia.

    Young people in the cities makes sense and families, regardless of transit policy and whatnot, are going to be harder to cram into the cities. Even if you build the houses, they’re going to be pretty expensive.

  21. Samson says:

    Samson, I have mostly heard it online, but from people online mostly.

    I, uh, don’t think you proof-read this. 🙂

  22. Mike Hunt says:

    Mike, but people don’t don’t want to live in college dorms past a certain age.

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