Saturday, March 14, 2009

More End of Suburbia Hype

It's sad that urban analysis so often gets caught up with utopian nonsense. And few people who actually think about these things consider the suburbs any kind of utopia. But as much as I hate the chain restaurants, lawn mowing, and lack of pedestrians, the suburbs are not going away.

The latest silly article predicting the end of suburbia comes from Fast Company, a magazine which covers companies that are mostly based in suburbs. The story has the usual quotes from James Kunstler, the NY Times, and others who understand rants better than economics. Interestingly, it makes its point against the suburbs by claiming that 1 in 13 homes in Cleveland, a city, is vacant. While the census data shows an even higher rate, nearly 15% of housing units in Baltimore City and Detroit are vacant. These abandoned buildings have far less to do with subprime mortgages, greedy bankers, or other overcovered news stories, but rather neighborhoods that have been depressed for decades. Few suburbs can match the weeds and burnt out buildings that blanket Baltimore City.

The End of Suburbia crowd has been oscillating between high gas prices and a weak housing market as the reason for why suburbs are doomed. But while they speculate on the implications of more expensive oil, and more expensive credit, the populations of suburban areas continue to grow. Loudoun County, 30 miles west of DC, had 80,000 people, or one seventh the population of the District in 1990. Its grown over threefold in the last 19 years, and now has 280,000 people, or one half the amount of the distant center city. In between sits Fairfax County, with over one million people, or nearly twice as many as the District.

One of the most interesting stats of outer counties is their average household size. Rural Virginia counties like Louisa and Orange have about 2.5 people per home. DC and close-in Arlington County, Virginia both have 2.15. But Loudoun and neighboring Prince William have 2.9 people per household. Combined, these two counties have more people than DC, does anyone think these large households are all going to cram into 2 bedroom condos by Metro stops?

The reason the outer suburbs will survive weak housing markets and oil price hikes is that most of their residents don't drive downtown for work. Only 9% of Prince William citizens work in DC. Three and a half times as many work within the county itself. $5 gas might suck for the people going to DC, but they're a small minority.

Just because we don't want to eat at Applebee's or drive minivans doesn't mean others are going to stop choosing this lifestyle. If we don't like it, we just need to remember what former DC mayor Marion Barry said when he was re-elected in 1994 - Get Over It!


  1. Good job bringing some sanity to this discussion. If what we call suburbia ever does cease to exist, it will be with a whimper (not a bang).

  2. Nick, thanks for the comment. Ultimately, the number of urbanized pedestrian neighborhoods is growing as is the population of car-friendly outer suburbs. Yet the city first people would rather tell everyone who makes a different choice than they do their world is ending, rather than just enjoying the fact that everyone's options have expanded.

  3. The unrealistic thing to believe, in my opinion, is that the suburbs as the dominant living arrangement are somehow a permanent and universal fixture of history. It only took about three decades for the world as we know it to emerge, and it is not unreasonable to think that if the economic foundations shift or environmental limits impose themselves, living arrangements could shift in the same amount of time - if not quicker.

    The average household size in the U.S. in 1950 was 3.33 persons with much less square footage than today, and you find it remarkable that today's households will ever "cram" into a 50's size house. 1950 was not too long ago. It may be hard for us to imagine living without the kind of wealth that we enjoy now, but it has not also been like this (nor is it everywhere in the world like this).

    End of Suburbia will never happen, of course, but we are witnessing a remarkable slowing of growth and disproportionate loss of property values relative to distance from cities. Those Virginia counties you cited are not growing nearly as quickly as they were 5 years ago, and they are losing value. National VMTs are down for two years straight, for the first time in about 50 years. Believing the status quo will persist simply because it is the status quo may actually be more utopian than the alternative.

  4. Dan, appreciate the feedback.

    The status quo is not persisting, both cities and suburbs are growing, which is very different from 30 years ago when only suburbs were growing. This suggests that freedom of choice is expanding, yet many people who want to wish the suburbs away would rather complain about other people's choices than celebrate their own.

  5. I agree with you that people should have the ability to choose where to live, but I think we have a ways to go before these choices are available to most households in the real world.

    For example, suppose I want to live in a relatively safe place with good public schools, and I want it to be a mixed-use walkable neighborhood. In some metro areas this option is scarcely available at all, and in other metro areas it is only available to the highest income echelon. Yet there is nothing inherently contradictory in this choice bundle.

    I believe that the market has been inhibited from meeting this demand through both a set of subsidies for drivable suburbs and a set of regulations against walkable urban places. Pointing to the suburbs and saying, "look, obviously people want to live here because they chose this" is a fallacy, because for many decades, they have had a constricted range of options under a set household budget.

    I may even be forced to live in the suburbs once we decide to purchase our own home (or I can continue to rent and forgo federal tax benefits).

  6. Daniel, transit is highly subsidized as well though. Local governments here are pouring money into Metro to cover its operating expenses, and drivers are subsidizing the capital costs of the Dulles rail extension though toll collections.

    Also, I don't understand why you want to go the suburbs for a mortgage interest deduction. It's applied equally to people who buy condos in the city. Moreover, the high cost of real estate close-in allows for a bigger deduction per square foot than you'll ever get in an outer suburb.