An argument against suburbs: live closer to stuff

I was thinking about writing this post well before today’s Dear smug urbanites, stop ridiculing the suburb I love defens(iveness) of suburban living in the Strib, but that commentary seems like a good motivation to actually sit down and write it.

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But it’s also a bit funny, because I don’t have much to say to its author. I’m glad she likes where she lives and agree that some of the criticisms she responds to are silly (where are things not largely beige?). If she’s weighed the pros and cons and is happy with her choice, good for her.

Let’s keep in mind that the policy choices and marketing-driven cultural influences of the past weigh heavily in favor of the choice she’s made. Culture says we’re supposed to want a single family home with a yard. Land use policy says that level of undensity is generally expensive unless it’s far away from stuff (or, more accurately, that its price is substantially reduced thanks to subsidized suburban infrastructure). And the good old American auto industry is there to offer you the true freedom that comes from owning a car. If you want a house with a three car garage and your budget is $250,000, it’s out to the outer suburbs for you (or is it?).

I want to push back and ask whether the assumptions underlying those factors are what people really “want.”

Let’s start with cars = freedom. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, because in my mostly urban life, this does not feel right. Using my car generally limits my freedom (especially the two times recently when I made the mistake of driving to suburban shopping locations on the weekend). It’s a mild pain to retrieve from the garage. It’s a mild pain to find parking. Adding in more stops increases those minor annoyances in ways that do not exist at all if I’m walking and exist to a lesser extent if I’m on my bike. If I’m out without a car and the plan changes (I’m a stick-to-the-plan kind of guy, sadly), I think, “you know, there is no reason I can’t just zip over there.” If I’m driving, I think, “ugh, I need to fight through another crowded parking lot.”

So where does this notion that cars are freedom come from (aside from more than a half century of auto maker marketing)? In a word: space.

Cars feel like freedom when they are necessary to cross larger spaces. If you’re at the lake and its a 20 minute drive to the store or restaurant, the minor inconvenience of getting into, parking and getting out of your car pales in comparison to what you’d have to do to get somewhere without it. There’s just no other way to deal with the five or ten or twenty miles you need to cover.

Which brings us back to suburbs. I picked a Woodbury cul-de-sac more or less at random on a map and drew a one-mile radius around it:

A mile radius around a random Woodbury cul-de-sac.

The average reasonably healthy adult can comfortably walk at a pace around three miles per hour, so one mile is roughly a 20 minute walk. How much of their lives can the people who live on this cul-de-sac live within that area just using their feet for transportation?

Well, there are no sidewalks in their development, so maybe nothing outside the home, but let’s assume they are willing to walk in the street on their quiet neighborhood streets. And it looks like there are multi-use paths along the Radio Drive and Bailey Road, the two adjacent arterials, so it’s nice that they aren’t physically limited to only leaving by car.

I’m only looking at maps, but it looks like there are schools, at least a couple of churches, a grocery store (which it seems you can walk to in just under mile) within the circle and a few places to eat on the very fringes. That’s actually pretty good, but they almost certain can’t work within that mile.

And is it better than, for example, here:

A not as random Minneapolis radius

Sure, you’re probably not working within this one mile radius either, but you might work downtown and here you have to option to take the train from the 50th Street Station. You also have a grocery store, a coffee shop, several places to eat, a library, multiple parks, schools, several churches, a post office and banks within a few blocks walk (the nearest pharmacy is a little bit farther, but still within the radius). There is even an easily navigable grid of streets with sidewalks on which to get to and from them. And it’s still a neighborhood of single family homes.

I know where my preferences lie (even though this is not my neighborhood). I’ve said repeatedly on this blog and elsewhere that I think everyone should live within an easy walk of a grocery store, a liquor store, a pharmacy and at least a few places to eat. I don’t expect everyone to share these preferences but I would, however, hope that everyone at least honestly weighs the costs in time, convenience and money involved with not having the option to get to stuff without driving.

Yes, I know these aren’t the only factors. I’ve not covered schools or price. I’ve not covered perceived or actual safety differences (seriously, they are mostly perceived). I just think people should place a lot more value on their time and the convenience of accomplishing their every day tasks, which can be a lot more pleasant without a car.

This post was written by Adam Miller and originally published on streets.mn. Follow streets.mn on Twitter: @streetsmn.

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Comments (19)

  1. Submitted by Adam Miller on 09/16/2015 - 10:36 am.

    Obviously I did not write the headline

    As I’m not sure I would call this an argument against suburbs. It’s definitely possible to live closer to stuff in the suburbs too. Although it’s probably easier in closer in suburbs.

  2. Submitted by Wes Sanford on 09/16/2015 - 12:32 pm.

    I don’t think the car is the problem here.

    “It’s a mild pain to retrieve from the garage. It’s a mild pain to find parking. Adding in more stops increases those minor annoyances in ways that do not exist at all if I’m walking and exist to a lesser extent if I’m on my bike. If I’m out without a car and the plan changes (I’m a stick-to-the-plan kind of guy, sadly), I think, “you know, there is no reason I can’t just zip over there.” If I’m driving, I think, “ugh, I need to fight through another crowded parking lot.”
    -This is not the car’s (or urban planning) problem, it is your problem. You seem easily annoyed and let those minor annoyances alter the decisions you make. You should not let minor annoyance dictate your life choices, because everyday is filled with them (not just driving) and it is easier to just let it slide then change your plans. Really, fighting through a crowded parking lot, having to go to a garage, finding parking is your argument?..Whats that maybe 1 extra minute of your day? Maybe learn patience and those minor annoyances will vanish.

    “If you want a house with a three car garage and your budget is $250,000, it’s out to the outer suburbs for you (or is it?).”
    -Nope. Many houses in my neighborhood have ample garage space for reasonably priced homes.

    “I want to push back and ask whether the assumptions underlying those factors are what people really “want.” ”
    -You don’t do this at all, you only state what you want. Do you have any surveyed information about what “people” really want? This article would have been a good place to put this research. You didn’t do any did you?

    Your entire article is based on opinion and you wrap it up with an opinion… “I just think people should place a lot more value on their time and the convenience of accomplishing their every day tasks, which can be a lot more pleasant without a car.”
    -You think, not a basis for anything. My car has added value to my time (as well as lets me listen to more grateful dead while driving which is of tremendous value to me).

    Why does minnpost post such simpleton articles that appear more suited in a high school daily? I don’t disagree with the over-arching premise, it is just lacking any unbiased content and surveyed facts and opinions. I only get the author’s opinion based on his personal biases. Thanks.

  3. Submitted by Pat McGee on 09/16/2015 - 12:48 pm.

    the same could be said of St. Paul or Minneapolis

    Much of the cities is not within walking distance of work, transportation, restaurants or shopping. I live in a northern suburb. All are within walking distance of where I live. Not to mention the hundreds of miles of bike trails that start 2 blocks away.

  4. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/16/2015 - 01:57 pm.

    You guys just can’t help yourselves

    Urban chauvinism pretending be some kind of “critique”…. again. Look, we know for a fact that in the real world you “density” bias fails because simply put, cities are far more expensive than suburbs, it costs more per capita to sustain a city dweller than a suburban dweller, period. If “density” is so much more efficient, why does it cost so much more to live in the city? One reason is the fact that real cities in the real world are 100+ years old- the infrastructure from water mains to roads is crumbling and expensive to maintain. Sure, in theory if you were building a cities and suburbs from scratch- TODAY, your density bias would make sense, but that’s not the world we live in. In the real world the city budget for MPLS per capita is five times that of Saint Louis Park.

    And by the way, all this stuff about not needing car? Well, if no one is driving in the city why is your air quality so much worse than mine? If we’re driving so much more than you urban guys how come my air quality is so much better? Again, it’s the difference between theory and reality.

    Look, I get it, I know what you’re saying, car centric planning is NOT a great idea. But you guys need to stop pretending that urban life is some kind of morally superior choice in the real world. I’m happy you like where you live, but don’t try to pretend that living where you live is somehow objectively “better”. The fact is you live under a cloud of smog, congestion, and crime that costs five times or more MORE than where I live. AND we suburbanites are paying for a lot of your stuff because despite all your density you don’t have the population and density to drive sufficient revenue. MPLS gets 50 times more LGA ( per capita) than dose Lakeville or St. Louis Park if not more.

    • Submitted by Wayne Coppock on 09/17/2015 - 09:27 am.

      LGA is a total red herring here. Minneapolis also pays far more into the state government coffers than it gets back from LGA, so we’re still actually funding the rest of the state and suburbs–you’re welcome. Your argument is 100% wrong and you need to get it through your head that the suburbs are not paying for anyone else and aren’t even paying their own way. You can selectively pick facts as much as you want but it won’t make your assertion true. Suburbs cost more than they make. Period.

      And guess what? That smog we deal with in the city comes from suburbanites driving their cars into town to make money, because that’s what the city does–it makes money. Lots of it. That’s why you all come here. Learn about economies of scale and stop spewing ill-informed lies about where the money to fund your suburban lifestyle comes from. Because you are *not* paying your own way, and you are certainly not supporting the central city.

      • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/17/2015 - 01:13 pm.

        Wrong numbers

        Wayne, there are 400,000 residents of MPLS, they do NOT pay more into the state coffers than the rest of the state, or the metro area which has a population of around 3 million. The metro area, which includes the suburbs, pays more than outstate, but MPLS get back more than it puts in in a variety of ways, including LGA.

      • Submitted by Bill McKinney on 09/17/2015 - 02:06 pm.

        Ponzi scheme?

        At least one pretty thoughtful analyst has likened suburban development to a giant Ponzi scheme. Google “Strong Towns” case studies and you can read the logic. Really interesting

    • Submitted by chuck holtman on 09/17/2015 - 11:18 am.

      Can you clarify?

      Paul, not sure I understand your point, which seems to be that because urban infrastructure is old and therefore expensive to maintain, we ought to all abandon the cities for greenfields (not just Mpls but also NYC and Paris, I presume). Obviously that’s not your argument but I don’t understand your point or its relevance. Old urban infrastructure exists, we rely on it, we can’t abandon or wholly reconstruct it, we need to maintain it and so the cost is a sunk cost.

      I do think there are moral elements to deciding where to live (as there are moral elements in every decision we make except maybe our choice of toothpaste), though in the hundred or so Strib comments I skimmed thru, no one on either side mentioned them. They have to do, for example, with the moral imperative to maintain a compact footprint of human disturbance and reasonably minimize the entropy one generates, Tragedy of the Commons issues of just distribution, and the imperative for those who have succeeded to remain within the boundaries of the relevant political community so that they remain civically informed and so their financial, political and other resources contribute to resolving the challenges of our public institutions and public life rather than aggravating or abandoning them.

      I’m not making a peremptory statement about how these moral elements cut here, but urban vs suburban vs rural etc isn’t just a question of personal preference; one’s choices are consequential for the community as a whole.

      • Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/17/2015 - 01:23 pm.

        Charles..

        “Paul, not sure I understand your point, which seems to be that because urban infrastructure is old and therefore expensive to maintain, we ought to all abandon the cities for greenfields (not just Mpls but also NYC and Paris, I presume). ”

        No one said anything about abandoning the city, perhaps if you read my comment again the meaning will become clearer to you. As for you’re moral imperative to have a compact footprint, you’re making that up. That can be your moral imperative, but density is not a UNIVERSAL moral imperative.

        • Submitted by chuck holtman on 09/17/2015 - 04:41 pm.

          Well, never mind.

          Suggesting I’m a little short in the reading comprehension department isn’t very helpful and if you don’t think your point is worth clarifying, that’s fine.

          Of course density isn’t a “universal” moral imperative. Nothing is a universal moral imperative. Moral imperatives are all “made up.” The proposition that we shouldn’t make the planet uninhabitable for humans is a “made up” moral imperative, as is the proposition that we should make it uninhabitable for humans as quickly as we can. Neither has any a priori standing over the other. Society is about husbanding toward a consensus on shared underlying values and then developing the moral norms that serve those values. I’d submit that limiting the human settlement footprint is one of them and I’d feel pretty confident about making the argument for it based on the fundamental values of self-determination and of preserving a sense of awe for things greater and beyond our understanding.

          I didn’t write my first comment as a critique of yours, but I agree with the author that you’ve got some strawmen going. No one is suggesting that 9-per-acre in Mpls is better than 9-per-acre in St Louis Park. St Louis Park is not Woodbury is not two-acre lots in the exurbs. As an urban area increases in population over time, of course it will occupy a larger footprint. The question is how that larger area is settled. Density or at least platting for future infill is important for both fiscal and moral reasons.

  5. Submitted by Brian Krause on 09/16/2015 - 03:24 pm.

    Argument is misleading

    The never-ending argument over the relative merits of “city” living versus “suburban” living is really only relevant when viewed through the lens of an individual making a decision for themselves. This is a common fallacy than merits near-constant reminders.

    Obviously not everyone can live in our core cities (especially given recent building trends of upmarket apartment complexes), nor can everyone live in the suburbs (as they’re currently designed). Given this the question then becomes who or which people choose to live in either place – And certainly we would all agree that this is a matter of personal choice.

    Perhaps the implied argument is that more suburbanites should “desire” to live in the core cities, possibly prompting market action to address the lack of affordable, recent construction units. If this is the case, this argument becomes nothing more than LARPing.

    Do we want to increase urban density and have more people living in our core cities? Probably. But this is not a question for individuals – and individuals are the knee-jerkers (on both sides) that are the participants in this debate.

  6. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 09/16/2015 - 04:35 pm.

    Good points

    …in both article and commentary.

    Mr. Udstrand’s point about aging city *now* and new (sometimes *very* new) suburb *now* is well-taken. Infrastructure – streets in particular – is crumbling, and without a massive, unsustainable tax increase, we will *never* reach a point where we’re working “ahead of the curve” in terms of maintenance. The author’s bias in favor of “close-in” retail, transit, entertainment, culture, etc., is one I share, but the comparisons are sometimes the proverbial apples and oranges.

    My experience as both resident and planning commissioner has been that phrasing it as an “either-or” sort of argument gets us nowhere. We want mass transit to work relatively economically, a sensible enough position, but “economically” is not the same thing as “cost-free.” Europeans have great public transit systems in their major cities (and often in their mid-sized cities, as well), but they expect – expect – to have to subsidize the costs of those systems. Only in the U.S. do we somehow expect public transit to be subsidy-free and therefore cost-free to the general public. People who think paved streets, whether urban or suburban, are genuinely free have not been paying attention – or their taxes.

    As Udstrand says, “I get it,” and yes, it would be much more cost, resource, time and energy-efficient if we all lived within a 15-minute walk of most of the core services we need. Pat McGee’s point in this regard seems right on-target to me. Politically and culturally, that kind of purposeful, built-in convenience is not going to happen, at least not in my remaining lifetime.

    I lived in suburbs for most of my 71 years, and except for 5 years spent living and working on a genuine farm in a genuinely-rural area, every suburb I’ve lived in has had better and more convenient access to the kinds of core services we typically associate with urban life than the city/urban neighborhood in which I now live. There is *zero* retail or any other sort of service within a 15-minute walk of my house, located in northwest Minneapolis. I and my neighbors pretty much *have to* get into our cars to get *any* services. That one-mile circle centered on my house will encompass no stores, restaurants, professional offices, or any other sales-tax-generating establishment.

    It’s not so much a function of the automobile as it is a function of *zoning.* My neighborhood, built out in the 1950s for the most part, has roughly 1,500 residential lots and *one* – ONE – lot that’s zoned for commercial activity. That lot currently has an empty former print shop standing on it. Every other lot in the neighborhood is zoned for low-density residential use, almost all of that in single-family detached homes. The neighborhood is a poster child for 1950s Euclidian zoning, and most of the negatives that can happen when the powers-that-be insist – sometimes with the active and unthinking cooperation of the residents – that there be *no* “mixed-use” activity allowed. Most of the inconvenience and auto-dependence encountered by neighborhood residents is, in truth, a self-inflicted wound that dates back to a zoning decision made decades ago by whatever planning body existed at the time and the Minneapolis City Council.

    Minneapolis is just as badly zoned and auto-dependent as the other metro areas where I’ve lived (St. Louis and Denver). I don’t believe someone with dictatorial powers sat down and thought to themselves, “How can I make this place more inconvenient and expensive?” We can’t help but be products of our times, and most of us are products of an era defined, in large part, by two related things: the automobile and cheap energy. Those two things have driven the thinking of urban planners, developers and architects for the past half-century and more. Until those professions change their thinking, and until the citizenry demonstrates in large numbers that they will no longer support auto-dependent sprawl – whether inside or outside the central cities – the area seems likely to remain auto-dependent.

  7. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 09/17/2015 - 10:32 am.

    Density shmensity

    It’s also important to get straight exactly what we mean by “density”. In a cities like MPLS and St. Paul there’s a huge difference between downtown and the residential areas. The Kenwood neighborhood in MPLS is actually much lower in density than my 1950s era neighborhood in SLP. In fact most MPLS neighborhoods are actually no more “dense” than mine once you get beyond the core downtown area and it’s ring of apartments. My friend who lives in the Riverside Neighborhood still has to get in a car and drive to Target or Home Depot, and he actually has to drive farther than I do. You can’t just call a city “dense” and leave it at that or assume that just because you inside some city limit you live in a more “walkable” place, even if you have sidewalks.

    We also have to think about what we mean by “suburb”, there’s a big difference between the first ring suburbs like Edina, Robinsdale, and St. Louis Park, and Lakeville and Eagan, or Maplewood. When I think of “Sprawl” Eagan and Maplewood, maybe even Minnetonka come to mind, not Edina or even Golden Valley.

    The idea that people have to move into cities in order to increase density is also a fallacy. For instance we’ve increased density considerably in St. Louis Park with very large new apartment, town home, and condo construction all over the city. We also have an ongoing project to increase walkability and bikeability throughout the city. Even in Wayzata they just build a huge combination retail living complex next to downtown by the lake.

    Again, I get it, sprawl is not a good thing, but you can’t just label everything
    West of Kenwood or South of 494 as “sprawl”.

    As a matter of simple geography and economics density can’t just be about moving more people into the city. The idea that density resulting from more people moving into MPLS for instance is somehow more “efficient” is simply false. MPLS is a “real” city, and the truth is when you move people into the real city you don’t necessarily increase efficiency, you just put more strain on aging and inefficient infrastructure, like that big old water main that blew out downtown last year. And before you point out the fact that all infrastructure ages, let me point out that we are already on a program of replacing ALL of our streets, sewer, and water lines here in SLP, (my street, sewer, etc. was replaced two years ago) and still, our expenses per capita are a fraction of MPLS.

    And anyways, cities don’t actually grow as simple function of density and population, look at New York City, for instance, it didn’t get to be NYC simply by piling more and more people into apartments in Manhattan, all those “Boroughs” used to be separate cities. You’re never going get 3 million people moving from suburbs into the city of MPLS, that’s not actually how density works in the real world no matter what kind of planning you do.

    • Submitted by Adam Miller on 09/17/2015 - 03:07 pm.

      Those are some mighty fine looking straw men

      You built there, Paul.

      Minneapolis has no monopoly on walkable density in our region, and your St. Louis Park neighborhood probably looks a lot more like the Minneapolis one I used as an example than it does Woodbury. There are definitely lots of neighborhoods in SLP, Richfield and the like where you can live close to stuff. And there are even towns like Hopkins that have their own centers too.

      The level of defensiveness in some of these comments is baffling to me. If you don’t want to live close to stuff and/or you love driving everywhere, go right ahead and do what you want. My point is that if walking to things sounds nice, you can make it happen.

  8. Submitted by Dan Berg on 09/17/2015 - 01:40 pm.

    Want fairness AND efficiency?

    The car isn’t the most prevalent form of transportation simply because of marketing or some vast automotive conspiracy it is because it was the best solution for transportation for a huge number of people. This was true before the freeways were put in place and would be true without them. The freeways made long distance travel more efficient and made development of the second and outer ring suburbs possible but the anything built before 1970 basically was built before the freeway system existed.

    City streets have been around a lot longer than cars and in most of the US the streets were fairly wide even when horse and buggies were the fastest form of transportation. We pay for those with property taxes because we want to charge property owners the cost for the infrastructure to access their property whether it is car, bike, bus or foot. Surface streets are also the most flexible option as they allow access for emergency vehicles, deliveries as well as buses or guests for whom non-auto transportation may not be possible or effective. Surface streets aren’t going away even though they may see some modest redesign.

    The only way to make a system that encourages people to make efficient choices is to charge users the true costs of those choices. Eliminate subsides for all transportation and people will adjust their behavior to act efficiently. Generally selecting the lower cost options for the same or similar results. Charge those who choose to live in Deephaven or Lake Elmo and drive in the total costs for their use of auto infrastructure and those who take the train or bus from Longfellow the costs of that choice. Subsiding rail transportation that makes living further from a persons destination isn’t going to encourage efficient selection of homes or businesses any more than subsidizing the same amount of capacity via freeways. It also has the advantage of integrating the true costs of transportation in to the products we purchase. Those of us in the core cities might not drive as much on the freeways but almost everything we eat, wear or otherwise consumes get to them that way and we should pay our share of those costs.

    This way people get to live where they choose and balance things like long commutes against the value they find in lower taxes or large yards. The other benefit is nobody needs to get defensive about who is support who and we can eliminate a lot of the ideological BS that happens around this subject. Most of which is no more valuable than talking about sports.

  9. Submitted by Bill McKinney on 09/17/2015 - 02:10 pm.

    Tiresome…

    I find this whole “debate” tiresome. People like different things and are willing to make trade-offs to get what they like. It’s that simple. I like being able to walk to the lakes, send my kids to diverse schools, and get downtown on Uber for $10. I trade-off a smaller lot, higher taxes, and listening to planes thunder over my house at 5:30 a.m. My friends in the ‘burbs like more space, newer schools, and proximity to big malls. They trade-off driving more and not being able to walk to restaurants or stores. Different horses for different courses…

    • Submitted by Adam Miller on 09/17/2015 - 04:19 pm.

      This does not sound like disagreement

      I’m arguing that more people may find they like the things you like if they stop and think about it.

  10. Submitted by Matt Haas on 09/18/2015 - 12:45 pm.

    If your premise

    Was “the stuff I like is better and more important than the stuff you like” why not just write that and save us some time. I prefer solitude, privacy, and quiet. I like having a yard, and public facilities that I don’t need to fight thousands of other users to enjoy. I like that I can jump on my bike and ride for twenty miles without needing to access a public street. I like being able to turn up my music, or have a fire without fear that my neighbors will be inconvenienced. None of that is available in your city, therefore I no longer reside there. It’s really quite simple, people have different tastes, quit suggesting that they might realize they’re mistaken if they only “think it over. It’s condescending.

  11. Submitted by John Appelen on 09/20/2015 - 03:50 pm.

    Preferences

    I am sitting on the 15th floor of the Landmark hotel in Nanning China. I mean if you want to talk about “convenient urban living”, this is it. Rich people here buy penthouses, not estates where they need to travel into the city. Saturday night I took the elevator down, walked 2 blocks and had access to tons of shops.

    Now would I choose to live this way… Not on your life… I love my 3+ car garage in Plymouth. I live less than a mile NE from the Target, Kohls, French Regional Park, my church, a county bike trail, etc. And I usually drive to all of them, why would I walk a mile and spend 15 minutes when even if Target is swamped the walk from the parking lot is less than a block and I can be there in 3 minutes? (ie rain, shine or snow) Besides I go there less since I can haul more in the car.

    I am happy that city folks like living in the city. I’ll happily stay in the burbs. Not sure why folks love to have this “Great Taste, Less Filling” discussion.

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