Something I’ve been following with great interest for a long time is the decline of vehicle miles travelled and the increase in demand for in-city living. There has been a sea change in America’s relationship with low-density, auto-centric “sprawl”, where fewer and fewer Americans are opting for that lifestyle. In Leigh Gallagher’s new book, The End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream Is Moving, Leigh Gallagher tries to explain the causes behind the trends and extrapolate the future of the same.
Gallagher details the public policies that made suburbia and exurbia what they are today. Road polices have long supported highway construction rather than fixing urban streets, while municipal governments have let builders pay the up-front cost of building sewage, electricity and the like out to remote suburbs, but then foot the bill for maintenance. Gallagher also points out how unsustainable those policies are: the low-density construction results in a small tax base trying to pay for a lot of physical infrastructure spread over large distances, and large highways and large distances result in a long commutes that have become very expensive with higher fuel prices.
Gallagher also documents the shifting taste that “millennials” have vis-a-vis their parents. Millennials seem to value cars, space, and privacy less than their parents, while instead putting a premium on human connections and activities. Some of this I attribute to the “end of stuff“, and some of it I attribute to this generation never really experiencing the problems cities had in the 1960s and 1970s. What remains to be seen is whether this trend will hold when millennials children start to attend schools, especially when cities have fallen behind on keeping schools around and up to high standards.
One interesting trend is the “urban-lite” suburbs that have become more popular. While, Downtown Bellevue, downtown Kirkland and Renton Landing don’t look a lot like Sammamish, they also don’t look a lot like the U District, Capitol Hill or Belltown*. This realisation was a bit of a wake-up to me. When the King Farm residents in Maryland fought to route light rail around their walkable development, rather than through it, I really couldn’t understand what was happening. But now it makes a bit more sense: not everyone’s idea of what a good urban area constitutes is the same. A lot of people want to drive to work but walk when they get home.
I mostly enjoyed The End of the Suburbs, but I think a few important topics are missing or given scant attention. First, restrictive zoning rules – usually instituted and administered by the generations before the millenials – have been blocking more housing from being created. The problem has become acute now that at demand is rising. As Seattle has been experiencing, this is turning real city living into an option for only the privileged. Second, while cities and “city-lite” suburbs have been growing, we lack much of the physical infrastructure to make these lifestyle choices scalable to larger populations. The combined effect is one of a dramatic increase in the immiseration of the poor as they are displaced to the less desirable suburbs without the personal capital or the public infrastructure to easily leave for where ever they wish.
We’ll have to wait and see the trends play out. Still, I worry that if we don’t make the choices that allow cities and inner suburbs to scale up, we might end up missing the trends entirely, with low urban population grow due to restrictive zoning used as ammunition to justify more restrictions. It’s up to us to make sure the sea change doesn’t drown the poor along with it.
* Whether or not they look like South Lake Union, is a question I’ll leave for the comments.