An article in The New Republic argues that land use patterns are already changing in America. The focus of the discussion is less about transit or even gas prices, and more about the cultural changes in this generation of twenty-somethings that attracts them closer to the city core — and to stay there. Of course, the people who move into the core also displace those who can no longer afford city life, which we discussed in February when an article in The Atlantic Monthly explored the topic.

Here’s a tidbit from The New Republic article, “Trading Places”:

In recent years, teaching undergraduates at the University of Richmond, the majority of them from affluent suburban backgrounds, I made a point of asking where they would prefer to live in 15 years–in a suburb or in a neighborhood close to the center of the city. Few ever voted for suburban life.

I can’t say that they had necessarily devoted a great deal of thought to the question: When I asked them whether they would want to live in an urban neighborhood without a car, many seemed puzzled and said no. Clearly, we are a long way from producing a generation for whom urban life and automobile ownership are mutually exclusive. In downtown Charlotte, a luxury condominium is scheduled for construction this year that will allow residents to drive their cars into a garage elevator, ride up to the floor they live on, and park right next to their front door. I have a hard time figuring out whether that is a triumph for urbanism or a defeat. But my guess is that, except in Manhattan, the carless life has yet to achieve any significant traction in the affluent new enclaves of urban America.

Not that cars and the demographic inversion aren’t closely related; they are. In Atlanta, where the middle-class return to the city is occurring with more suddenness than perhaps anywhere in the United States, the most frequently cited reason is traffic. People who did not object to a 20-mile commute from the suburbs a decade ago are objecting to it now in part because the same commute takes quite a bit longer. To this, we can add the prospect of $5-per-gallon gasoline. It’s impossible at this point to say with any certainty just what energy costs will do to American living patterns over the next decade. Urbanists predicted a return to the city during previous spikes in the cost of gasoline, notably during shortages in the 1970s. They were wrong. Gas prices came down, and the suburbs expanded dramatically. But today’s prices at the pump are not the result of political pressures by angry sheiks in the Persian Gulf. They are the result of increased worldwide demand that is only going to continue to increase.

An absolute must-read that manages to express an opinion about urban development without being callous to the real human cost.

The Washington Post talks about a regional trend in the D.C. area toward the city core or inner-suburbs, “Gas Prices Apply Brakes To Suburban Migration”. (By the way, check out the graphic on the right side of the article).

Not too long ago, they were looking farther out — for a newer house, a bigger yard and all the amenities. But no more. “You get less house and property for the same price, but we’re willing to make that sacrifice to save on gas prices and commuting costs,” Dawn Schaefer said.

Cheap oil, which helped push the American Dream away from the city center, isn’t so cheap anymore. As more and more families reconsider their dreams, land-use experts are beginning to ask whether $4-a-gallon gas is enough to change the way Americans have thought for half a century about where they live.

“We’ve passed that tipping point,” U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary Peters said.

Since the end of World War II, government policy has funded and encouraged the suburban lifestyle, subsidizing highways while starving mass transit and keeping gas taxes much lower than in some other countries.

And why is this relevant to a transit blog? Why do we here advocate density, and laud urban infill even when it’s at the cost of suburban tranquility?

For a frank answer, reading the first article in this blog post would be helpful. Nearly all the bloggers here fit the urban twenty-something stereotype. But ignoring those personal inclinations, a public transit supporter is going to find himself on the side of density more often than not.

Public transit is more efficient and cheaper-per-rider in areas of high density. Fixed-guideway rapid transit (say, light rail) is most feasible in areas of high density, or with the artificial creation of it via park & rides. More-over, low-density living fosters a dependence on the personal automobile which can give residents of these areas the impression that “no one” rides public transit. For these reasons, this blog advocates a move to density that is hopefully done with as little strife as possible to allow for larger investments in public transit, preferable fixed-guideway, grade-separated rapid transit such as the light rail that is the backbone of the fifteen-year Sound Transit plan.

Now, it’s important to say that Bellevue, Redmond, and Kirkland and examples of suburbia but many of them have large neighborhoods that are good examples of suburban development. Kirkland’s main drag features storefronts on the sidewalk, a walkable waterfront, and an active nightlight. Bellevue’s downtown is home to an impressive business district. Redmond’s downtown is walkable and provides easy transit connections to Microsoft, Bellevue, and Seattle. That is, we don’t feel that Redmond, Kirkland, and Bellevue represent the sort of terrible sprawl seen in Los Angeles/Orange County.

These Eastside cities will continue to grow, hopefully around the transit provided in Sound Transit 2. But the massive houses ten minutes away from Woodinville will continue to lose luster as high gas prices take over the national consciousness. If a cap-and-trade system becomes a federal reality within a few years, as both Obama and McCain advocate, the monetary cost of living on the fringes of a metro area will begin to match the environmental cost. To those families who want to live far from the metro area, the cost will either be worth it or their concerns about living closer to things will be negated by the economic reality.

We have no desire to see Redmond or unincorporated Woodinville turn into slums. But we at Seattle Transit Blog think that density in the city of Seattle and its suburbs creates a better quality-of-life for most, a cleaner environment for all, and a stronger place for transit for this region.

11 Replies to “Are Land Use Patterns Changing?”

  1. Great story, and that’s really an excellent graphic. The lower section has a really clear demonstration of what’s happening in DC. I’m sure we’ll start seeing that everywhere.

    As a 30-something that wasted several years of my 20-somethings in the suburbs (drive-work-drive-sleep, repeat), I’ll never live outside the city again. The fact that city living is a great deal economically and environmentally is just gravy – I’m here for the culture, convenience, and free hours of my life not wasted in a car.

  2. Reading the article in The New Republic, it occurs to me that the best transportation and land-use planning in the world isn’t going to be enough to create and maintain vibrant cities, unless those cities are filled with people from all economic and social backgrounds. The larger problem is one of economic segregation matched with rising inequality. Good transportation helps, but if a place can only support either an urban elite class or an impoverished underclass, we’ll just end up with good trains that shuttle us back and forth between social wastelands.

    A city that plans for economic and social diversity will support better public transportation.

    1. I think an entire city that is all rich, white, twenty-year-olds would be kind of unappealing. As the article opines, many of these people might be moving to the city to escape the monoculturalism that they feel in suburbia. So absolutely we need to plan for diversity.

      I’d argue that transit helps facilitate this by connecting diverse neighborhoods. The poor aren’t going to be able to afford a loft downtown, but their communities can benefit from a richer clientele who comes in via rail — while these rich people are a stop away from authentic Ethiopian. Eventually, the downtowners don’t even want to travel for Ethiopian: Now there’s a demand to fill a cultural niche in downtown.

      1. mildly off-topic: I’ve experienced this already with the bus tunnel. The International District is just two stops away from the usual boring Business District lunch options.

      2. All rich young people? You mean like the Vulcan ads for South Lake Union and Denny Triangle? Luckily the Cascade neighborhood actually does have some diversity and LIHI.

    2. That point is well taken, but if you densify enough, the supply of apartments/condos/townhomes will be large enough to keep the price cheap. One of the reasons Seattle is so expensive to live in now is that 20 years ago no one was building anything.

      Those 20 year old condos would be affordible now. Hell, even high-rises can get cheap over time; when I was in college and had barely any income I could afford an apartment on the 23rd floor of a building built in the 1960s. One of the best ways to fight rising prices is to build more, supply and demand.

      So it’s important to keep that in mind that all construction, even high-end construction, will eventually make the city more affordible.

      1. Good point. It just sucks to have to wait. Also, the highend stuff is driving out the original identities of every neighborhood. And thats not really a good thing.

  3. For twenty-somethings like us, moving to live in the city is a no-brainer but for families it’s a different story.

    One reason for people moving to suburbia that is often given to me (from my parents) is to raise a family. The suburban school districts are typically better funded. People feel it is safer out there because there are no homeless and gangster hoodlums harassing people. The streets are cleaner, etc. Not only the city has to be more affordable, it has to be safe, clean, and attractive, too if we want everybody to live there.

    For me, I’m a poor young guy so I’m still living with my parents on the Eastside.

    1. Oran, this topic is definitely discussed in the first article I talked about in the above blog post. It’s quite a good and comprehensive read.

      1. My bad, I hadn’t read the article. A good read. Land use and transportation are intertwined and for any solution to be effective, a plan must consider them hand in hand. Like discussed before on this blog, the TOD currently planned doesn’t seem to take full advantage of the land and transportation infrastructure being put in place.

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