American Affairs: Exurbia Rising

Lots to think about in this article, Exurbia Rising by Joel Kotkin (click to read the entire piece):

Perhaps nowhere is the gap between America’s cognitive elite and its populace larger than in their preferred urban forms. For nearly a century—interrupted only by the Depression and the Second World War—Americans have been heading further from the urban core, seeking affordable and safe communities with good schools, parks, and a generally more tranquil lifestyle. We keep pushing out despite the contrary desires of planners, academic experts, and some real estate interests. In 1950, the core cities accounted for nearly 24 percent of the U.S. population; today, the share is under 15 percent, according to demographer Wendell Cox. Between 2010 and 2020, the suburbs and exurbs of the major metropolitan areas gained 2.0 million net domestic migrants, while the urban core counties lost 2.7 million.

This is less a growth in “bedroom suburbs,” supplying workers to the urban core, but one that serves multiple employment centers and commercial development. The latest edition of Commuting in America estimates that almost 70 percent of metropolitan-area workers now live and work in the suburbs; trips within suburbs or suburb-to-suburb commutes constitute more than double the commutes with a central business district as the final destination. . .

The pandemic clearly hastened the shift to the periphery. Despite the disease’s relentless spread, the greatest concentrations of Covid fatalities have tended to be in dense urban areas. Much of this has to do not with population concentration per se but with the inevitable “exposure density” among those forced to take public transit, live in crowded apartments, and take elevators to work.

These concerns are behind what Zillow calls “the great re-shuffling” toward suburbs, the Sunbelt, and smaller cities. Between 2019 and 2021, preference for larger homes in less dense areas grew from 53 percent to 60 percent, according to the Pew Research Center. During the pan­demic year alone, construction in exurbs increased 20 percent, faster than other geographies. Both prices and the rate of building have risen the fastest in exurbia, with price increases twice the national average, according to a Wall Street Journal analysis.

Planned communities have done particularly well; the fifty largest exceeded expectations in the first half of 2021 and are experiencing growth of 20 to 40 percent annually. Robert Schottenstein, CEO of Columbus-based M/I Homes, Inc., a builder with fifteen projects in the Midwest, Southeast, and Texas, explains, “This is a flight to safety and security. The millennials are getting older, and they are transitioning as they start families.

In contrast, according to a New York Times estimate, New York City lost 420,000 residents in the early months of the pandemic. This is nearly as much as the entire 455,000 gain from 1950 to 2019. Some of these urban migrants headed to smaller metros, but Bloomberg’s City Lab found that 84 percent of movers in the top fifty metros stayed within the same metropolitan areas, most likely due to proximity to jobs, cultural centers, airports, and family. . .

For decades, it has been an element of faith in the major media that the economic future lies primarily in a few, often very dense, “superstar cities.” The rest of the nation was considered home to the undereducated, old analog industries, and permanent backwardness. Yet in reality traditional urban systems, based around dense downtowns and transit, have been losing ground since World War II in every major metropolitan area, according to research by Bumsoo Lee and Peter Gordon at the University of Southern California. Since 2000, more than 90 percent of major metro employment was in the suburbs and exurbs. . .

Transportation policy is, of course, still a critical area, and the administration and many local governments’ focus on mobility is largely about transit. Outside older “streetcar suburbs,” however, exurbs are almost totally auto dependent. The administration’s transportation sec­retary, Pete Buttigieg, embraces the idea of getting Americans out of their cars and into trains and buses. For at least half a century, this has been a principal public policy objective—and the results have been spectacularly unsuccessful. Despite the expenditure of more than $2 trillion and the construction of many new rail systems, transit’s share of daily commute trips dropped 44 percent from 1970 to 2019 (8.9 percent to 5.0 percent). Even prior to Covid, more people worked at home than took transit, which already accounted for less than 2 percent of all urban travel. The administration nonetheless is thinking about taxing vehicle mileage to pay for transit infrastructure, something that would be wildly unpopular outside of the handful of dense urban cores where transit-ridership is high. . .

A principal purpose of federal subsidies to build urban rail systems was to attract drivers away from cars. But a review of twenty-three completed rail systems shows that no such thing occurred. Overall, where the new systems have opened, the percentage of commuters driving alone has increased. Even in the largest metropolitan areas, the average transit commute takes about 75 percent longer than the average auto commute. And high-density communities, notes Wendell Cox, have far longer commutes—led by New York and Los Angeles—than more “sprawling” communities like Dallas–Fort Worth. Exurbanites generally have shorter commutes, in part because they are not generally headed to large urban business districts. Transit cities tend to have the longest commutes. . .

A more sensible policy in these areas might be to encourage not only at-home work but also the use of dial-a-ride service, which requires less infrastructure and is better suited to the needs of most Americans. Further down the road, the exurbs may become ideal places for what Alan Berger calls “the autonomous suburb.” Such communities would be able to drastically reduce the need for parking or garages. Autonomous vehicles could simply be called out when needed, from a central place. Unlike traditional transit, this approach does not sacrifice privacy, efficiency, or speed, particularly outside a few dense urban cores. . .

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