Contrarian Take on Cars and Suburbs


            Marble Falls     Who among us city dwellers hasn’t taken shots at suburbs and the sterility of suburban lives?  Ok, you’re right, lots of people, because a huge number of Americans live in them.  In this time of climate concern, those of us who are still driving have also caught some hairy eyeballs from time to time as well from the self-righteous.  We’ve seen their downward glances in our rearview mirrors as we drive away.  You know who you are.  I’m not saying I completely disagree, but I am saying that it turns out to be more complicated than just black and white.

All of which caught my eye when I saw the subhead on the Free Exchange column in a recent edition of the conservative Economist that touted “How America’s car addiction makes the country fairer and more efficient.”  Wow, was this guy paddling upstream!

He makes an interesting case though that “cars are a crucial part of the equation, making American suburbs both efficient and equitable.”  His arguments boil down this way:

  • According to the World Bank, American “traffic is about 27% faster than that of other members of the OCED club of mostly rich countries. Of the 20 fastest cities in the world, 19 are in America.”
  • Why? “American cities are 24% less populous, cover 72% more area and have 67% more large roads.”  Yes, we’re a tall glass of water, stranger.
  • The hot new concept in urban planning right now is the “15-minute city” allowing an urban dweller to get to work, school, and groceries by walking or biking in that amount of time. The columnist argues that, “Many Americans …already live in 15-minute cities, so long … as they get around by car …a quick drive for suburbanites.”
  • How about another urban planning concept, “accessibility zones” which defines the time it takes to reach city centers. He notes, “Although European cities have better public transport, American cities are on the whole more accessible.  Consider the size of accessibility zones 15-30 minutes from city centers.  If using public transport, the average is 34 square kilometers (about 20 miles) in America versus 63 square kilometers in Europe.  If using private cars …1160 square kilometers in America versus 430 square kilometers in Europe.”
  • Suburbs are no longer just the haven for white flight either. The columnist quotes a Brookings Institutions crunching of 2020 census data and found, “In 1990 roughly 20% of suburbanites were non-white.  That rose to 30% in 2000 and 45% in 2020.”
  • Looking at bus-based transportation, researchers found that “…America is surprisingly effective: public-transit options between distant suburbia and city centers are roughly comparable in America and Europe.”

I’m not moving from the city, but as my comrades in the UK and Europe sometimes say, that’s “worth a think.”  One recently commented to me that he had lived all of his life in city centers, but realized that living in another town not far from a big city, he was still only a 20-minute train ride from the center and his office, which was about the same time it took to get from his old house in the city to the office.  The same friend was thinking maybe it was also time in his 40s to learn to drive.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying run out and buy a gas guzzler or tell your councilperson not to improve bus service in the city – quite the opposite!  But I am saying, before we simply scoff at other life choices, we should realize that it might be more nuanced on the good and bad spectrum, and work harder on our arguments.  We can’t really persuade people to join us, if we don’t appreciate that all of the choices might be much more complicated than we sometimes like to believe.