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Suburb Envy

“Everybody who comes from the gangster life—they want what the man in the suburbs wants. Nice family. Nice house. Nice cars. Bills paid. Kids in school. Food on the table. Nothing more.”
-Ice Cube

One of the hard things about transportation is addressing needs at different scales. What we want at the neighborhood level can be hard to reconcile with regional needs. If we desire an intimate, walkable neighborhood, certain policies make sense—road diets or lane reductions, two-way streets, large sidewalks and bike paths.

Meandering tree-lined roads are much more pleasing within certain neighborhood contexts than streets that are designed for the most efficient flow of traffic. It is easy to see why urban planners advocate for these things. But we also must recognize the geographical realities of a large metropolitan region where people may live, work and play in different counties that are many miles apart. I live in Dallas-Fort Worth, a large, sprawling place with limited mass transit. We may not like the sprawl, but we have what we have. We need to accept the realities of our landscape and make decisions based on an appropriate scale. It’s okay to hate cars and want everyone to walk everywhere at a neighborhood scale. To make policy decisions based on those views for broader regions is denying reality. Most of us aren’t going to walk 35 miles to work and, if we have children, we aren’t likely getting them to school on bicycles even though that can work in some neighborhoods.

These competing visions of what we want our community to be sometimes result in tension and, frankly, some hostility that seems unnecessary and unfortunate to me. Not long ago an urban planner was quoted in The Dallas Morning News saying that suburban sprawl was a Ponzi scheme. Although the article was about Dallas as the central city losing ground to the northern suburbs, I discovered that this statement didn’t originate in Dallas. It came from a planner in the small town of Brainerd, Minnesota, surprisingly a place I’ve actually visited. It is as different from Dallas as New York is—in the opposite direction. The planner, Charles Marohn, has written extensively on this idea, and his writings are thoughtful. I disagree with him, though, when he says that the “American pattern of suburban development is an experiment, one that has never been tried before.”

Suburbs are not unique to America, not an experiment, and not something that hasn’t been tried. In fact, the word “suburb” has a Latin root and comes from ancient Rome where the elite chose to live to escape the noise, chaos and disease of the urban core. It was a lifestyle choice. And today with the global pandemic, it’s a lifestyle choice that many people are embracing yet again. The real estate market in New York is feeling it right now as people left in droves and bought up everything they could in Connecticut and other surrounding suburbs.

 Are the suburbs evil? Are people who live in them bad people? Where’s the Ponzi scheme? Why the hostility?

Bill Levitt broke ground on the nation’s first suburban master-planned community, Levittown, in Nassau County, Long Island, not far from New York City on July 1, 1947. Virtually since that day, little good has been written about the suburbs. Countless books and songs have decried the banality, the conformity, and the lack of intellectual creativity that is perceived to define the character of these neighborhoods … “Little boxes made of ticky tacky …” as Malvina Reynolds wrote in 1962. Some even claim that the 1956 horror movie, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, was a commentary on the sameness of the suburban life, that aliens could replace people, and no one would even notice.

 The funny thing is that people who live in the suburbs like them. To read Growing up Levittown: In a Time of Conformity, Controversy and Cultural Crisis by Steve Bergsman, is to find a loving homage to suburban life in the 1950s in this pioneering place. Through the lens of 1950s America, which is what these planners are referring to, there were a lot of reasons for the suburban boom. Yes the post-war prosperity enabled much greater ownership of cars than ever before and made them a status symbol. And, yes, cars required roads and the interstate highway system that emerged in the 1950s, as well. But these forces did not singularly create suburban sprawl, and it is not really fair to say that “cars caused the suburbs.” America had a serious housing shortage.

Life in the suburbs today is not as simple as it was in the 1950s, and the input you’ll get, if you talk with people who live in them, will be less nostalgic. But you often find devotion to their communities. Drive around Southlake, Texas, and see how many Dragon stickers and personalized license plates there are celebrating the powerhouse state championship football team, the Carroll Dragons. There is a fair bit of civic pride in these places from coast to coast. I have friends who moved to suburbs for the schools when they were raising their families and still live there today, even though their kids are working adults living in other states. These people like these places!

The theory goes that Millennials want to live in urban environments. But for every two articles that state this as fact, there is at least one article that contradicts this notion. A recent survey by the National Homebuilders Association was addressed in the Wall Street Journal and showed that 66% of this age group wants to live in the suburbs. It could be argued that there is bias in this survey, but it isn’t the only data out there that suggests this to be the case. The U.S. Census Bureau says the same thing.

Here’s the reality from my perspective and why On the Road Lending is needed—one size does not fit all. What is right for a 25-year-old in her first job is not the same as what is right for the 40-year-old with three kids, nor the 75-year-old with grandchildren. Living in the center city is fabulous for many people. It’s great to live in a trendy little neighborhood where you can walk to unique shops, galleries and restaurants with ease—once we’re all vaccinated for COVID-19! But people with children need different things than hipster urban dwellers. While mass transit or walkable neighborhoods may be what certain people want, that may not work for others. Just because a lot of people move to the suburbs and traffic gets bad does not mean that mass transit will solve the problem. People with families want cars. They need them. It is hard to get kids to school, get to work, buy groceries, and haul sports equipment on the bus. And, unless you have a job where you sit at a desk all day, in a region with a weak mass transit system, you likely want a car to get from meeting to meeting. We just cannot make public policy decisions regarding transportation needs with a one-size-fits-all mentality when everyone’s needs are different.