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What Happens When a Suburb Begins to Die? (psmag.com)
137 points by fern12 on Oct 11, 2017 | hide | past | web | favorite | 250 comments

> Once part of the central city, the suburb gains a high-profile mayor in the public spotlight who is now responsible for what happens there. It becomes part of a city with diverse neighborhoods and housing types that will rise and fall on different cycles. And there are the assets of a big city downtown to draw on to help finance services.

Why would a city agree to merge with a distressed, money-draining suburb?

There is no solution for these suburbs: they aren't economically sustainable, their income and household density is too small to support the vast infrastructure they require. The lower the density, the more miles of roads, pipes, wires are needed per capita, and more policing, fire services, etc.

Let them fail and wipe them out. Instead of wasting money trying to sustain a broken system, provide resources to facilitate moving to mid and high-density housing in the central city.

If people still want to live in large houses in low-density areas, let them pay for it.

There is no such thing as progress without failure and abandoning things. People are just too afraid of letting go. Not everything grows forever without end. It's ok if the world decided a place wasn't really useful anymore.

'What about the people there?' you might say. They're not literally rooted to the spot. If there is no way to be productive there (aka jobs) they can and should move. If we were all cavemen hunting the local game and it moved we wouldn't say "but the game was always here, it should stay here forever". It didn't stay there forever. It moved. If you want to catch some of that game, you move.

That's emotionally difficult in a world where we all think we're post-economies. But we aren't and it's a simple concept; things that aren't working need to fail and be abandoned.

That's easy to say, but packing up and moving simply isn't a viable option for many, many people. They're not staying because leaving is "emotionally difficult". They're staying because leaving is financially impossible.

If a homeowner's neighborhood is dying, then their home value is practically zero. And even if their house had some market value, the potential number of buyers is so small that the home could sit on the market for years, all the while incurring maintenance costs.

And as the neighborhood dies, the pool of available work shrinks. Wages shrink and job opportunities dry up. Economic diversity plummets, leaving the region more exposed to sudden shocks. Towns become increasingly reliant on parasitic industries -- payday loans, gambling, furniture leasing, etc -- that further depress wealth and prey disproportionately on the structurally impoverished.

Even a relatively well-off resident of a dying suburb -- someone with savings, a paid-off house, and no attachments to the area -- would be hard-pressed to finance a move to a healthier locale.

And most residents of these areas -- for obvious reasons -- don't fit this profile. Most don't leave because they can't afford to leave. They don't have savings. They live paycheck to paycheck. They're underwater on their house. They're on a tiny fixed income and can't afford the cost of living elsewhere. They're a public employee two years away from a pension and, if they move now, they forfeit a liveable retirement. They're the sole caregiver for disabled family members. Their skills aren't valuable in another market.

Et cetera.

Too often, we assume that poor people make poor choices, without considering that they might actually be making the best of the shitty slate of options available to them.

I think most reasonable people are in agreement that the suburbs -- especially industrial suburbs -- were and are an unsustainable model for development. They will need to be abandoned. But the process of that abandonment matters.

If we go about it the wrong way, as we are in the Rust Belt, then we condemn the people stuck in those areas to a lifetime of poverty. And those people don't just go away when we turn out backs on them. Their problems will become our problems. So, for economic and humanitarian reasons, we need to find a responsible way to decommission post-industrial towns and relocate their residents.

Thanks for writing on decisions that poor have to make. I grew up in a poor family and can't stand when people don't even try to understand the plight many low-income people go through.

My mom pays 200-300 a WEEK for her car. Many people on here would say that's a terrible idea and she should just buy a cheaper used car for 1000-2000 dollars, but they don't realize she needed the car NOW or she'd lose her job and she doesn't have that cash laying around. No one would give her a normal loan and none of us could afford to help her at the time. It really seems the only people in the world willing to help her are the people that need 200-300 a week to sell her a car. And that's just the car. Housing, food, clothes, and nearly everything else can be explained with the same rationale.

Your line here is key: "Too often, we assume that poor people make poor choices, without considering that they might actually be making the best of the shitty slate of options available to them."

this is the case of almost everything available to the poor. go price the per-roll cost of a 4-pack of toilet paper vs. the per roll cost if you have the financial ability to maintain a costco membership and buy the giant 40-pack.

That suggests an easy path to a self-funding, virtual cycle out of poverty: a charity makes such "Vimes boot" loans where they get $20 to buy two years of toilet paper (instead of paying $5/week or whatever), charges some large amount of interest that's still much lower than the 200% effective rate, and uses that to keep lifting others out of poverty.

I suspect that the reason it doesn't work is that the theory is off. Lack of the initial capital (to bootstrap the virtuous cycle) is not the real bottleneck; it's the ability to commit to a plan where there is a big long-term benefit. Such a charity would run into the same problems as for-profit lenders and CCs -- not enough people paying back the money.

I imagine that some time ago, a community bank might have had loan officers who would know the person or at least the community personally. That would allow the bank to feel confident in writing a loan at lower risk than what the surface financial stats might indicate. Everything is now so financialized into homogenous trade units that I suspect that the original functions of banks to beneficially work out economic inversions like this have faltered.

On the other hand, the $200-300 being charged might represent a risk level of the whole class of rentals being made... it's hard to know without on the ground information.

The Costco membership isn't expensive to maintain (though, sure, even that can be a barrier.) Getting to Costco (which are fairly widely spaced) and transporting/storing the quantities of things that Costco often sells as the minimum quantity are probably bigger barriers.

Amazon also sells TP fairly cheap, and you don't even need a Prime membership if you order enough at once to get the regular free shipping.

Of course, using Amazon requires Internet access, which can also be a problem.

One thing I both do understand and lament is how the more impoverished communities are culturally tuned to turn on each other than work together. If your household is too poor to afford a lot of the things that are taken for granted - a working kitchen, for example - having four neighbors work together to have one working kitchen they could all share and set up time slots to use would go a long way to getting out of poverty.

But you really just cannot rely on other people in those situations. Its a prisoners dilemma where the prison is poverty. It takes one person taking advantage of cooperation to ruin it.

When you work 12 hour days 6 or 7 days a week, you have less tolerance for "bullshit" like when Steve didn't clean the communal kitchen that one time.

There's also the fact that if you can't afford to bulk buy a few extra rolls of TP, you sure as hell can't afford a quarter of a kitchen.

People seem to forget when they talk of the poor: "If only they invested in X, Y, or Z". The whole point of someone struggling financially is that they CANNOT invest, because they have zero, and often negative "extra" money. "Paycheck to paycheck" is not a euphemism, it's a literal situation. Even one missed hour of pay is devastating to these people.

> If your household is too poor to afford a lot of the things that are taken for granted - a working kitchen, for example - having four neighbors work together to have one working kitchen they could all share and set up time slots to use would go a long way to getting out of poverty.

Poor people who have close enough personal relationships to justify trust share resources all the time (source: spent several years in my late childhood in a family on welfare in public housing.)

Now, lots of poor people don't have close relationships with people with resources to share, and arms-length contracts with resort to the courts for enforcement don't work for them when personal trust isn't enough, because they can't afford the cost and delays of enforcement.

Storage and transportation of goods from costco is difficult as well. You need extra space in both a vehicle and your home. Difficult with a big family in a small house.

Poverty is very expensive and genuinely stable, middle class lifestyles are increasingly rare. It sucks. We really need to work on reversing this trend.

At those rates, wouldn't it be cheaper to rent a car?

Without a major credit card or the resources to meet a car rental agencies “cash qualifications”? No, it wouldn't, because conventional rental isn't an option.

Again, it's expensive to be poor.

You usually need credit to rent a car.

I'm guessing that at the prices the parent listed, the person isn't buying a $70k luxury car for $1000+ a month, but has bad credit and can't put any money down on the car so they're going to radically overspend. I'm really hoping that it's a late model Honda or Toyota that will go 300,000 miles and not something that was salvaged.

You're spot on. It's a 2010 toyota camry. It really is a tank.

If she's really paying $300/week, then absolutely. Checking Enterprise's website shows that my local Enterprise would rent me a small car for a week starting tomorrow for $225 (including taxes and fees).

I don't think she has the credit to rent a car sadly otherwise it would be a good recommendation.

Things must have drastically changed in the last seven years then. Between 2008 and 2010 I drove rental cars almost full time with horrible credit and a debit card. The weekly cost for a car was 170 and if I went monthly it was around 600.

This is exactly what I was thinking. I think most of the commenters here aren't homeowners.

I just bought a home. Even with excellent credit I still had to put down roughly 10k on the house (which was only 3%!) -- that includes the down payment, option and earnest money, fees for stuff like appraisal, inspection, and more.

10k is a lot of money for a lot of people. Granted they can get some of that back if they sell an old house, but as you said if the house value is low to zero they can only get the land value for it, if there is any. Now they're starting over from square one, paying off a new house.

And that 10k isn't even covering other expenses, like repairs I need to do, furniture (pretty much buying everything new now), moving supplies/expenses, first utilities, and more. Homeowning is not cheap, especially not upfront (though it does get a little easier beyond the initial investment).

Get out of the FHA mortgage into a conventional as soon as you can [1]. It'll save you the monthly mortgage insurance, which is for the life of the loan now.

[1] Keep an eye on home values 6-12 months from now; once you think you might have 20% equity, attempt to refi into a conventional. Should save you $150-200/month on the FHA monthly premium.

I'm already on a conventional; I was able to get 3% because of my excellent credit and good income. I only have PMI because I didn't want to put the full 20% down. The amount saved for each monthly payment + PMI wouldn't be worth the pain associated with virtually dumping out my nest egg hitting 20%.

Years ago I was able to get a 85/15/5. 85% first mortgage, 15% second mortgage and 5% down. The 2nd mortgage worked out to about the same as the cost of PMI but with the advantage I could deduct the interest on my taxes so overall it ended up cheaper. Not sure if that's an option now.

Not sure you saved anything since they charged you 105% of the sale price ;)

Whoops, I meant 80/15/5 :)

Ahh! Excellent news! I don't have time to be fully up to speed on mortgage guidelines, so whenever I see a down payment under 10% I assume its FHA. Congrats on the new home!

Thank you. Our lending officer and real estate agent are awesome folks, so if you're ever looking for real estate in the DFW area, let me know. We were complete novices coming in and left understanding enough to practically sell homes ourselves. Plus the previous homeowner was a great guy and worked with us a lot, so we really got lucky with this one.

> whenever I see a down payment under 10% I assume its FHA

It's increasing common to see non-FHA loans in the 3% ballpark (among anecdotal evidence from my friends and coworkers who've recently purchased). My gut keeps telling me something is wrong, but no other indicators seem to agree.

Your argument is well taken, but that reasoning suggests we should stop incentivizing home ownership. Indeed, we should start treating homes like the risky non-diversified investments they are, and require home buyers to purchase insurance against the downside risk.

Spending public funds on these endeavors ends up being something of a middle class bailout. Are folks who were fortunate enough to be able to purchase homes in the first place. 70% of those in the bottom 20% of the income distribution do not own their homes.

Except homes for most people are not investments. They are where they live, and everyone needs one of those. It is one of the greatest flaws in modern economics that the combination of policy and scarcity makes property values such an out of control growth space.

I'd love to see either state or federal buyback programs. Using the same appraisal rates used to calculate a property value when setting property taxes most states could offer to buyback properties at 80% of their assessed market value and then have redevelopment programs to reinvigorate dying neighborhoods like in the OP.

It lets the poor escape dying neighborhoods much easier, and it also creates a pathway to save these dying cities for relatively low investment by creating job opportunities to fix the state possessed properties or put them to auction so they can be competitively worth fixing. Either way the state should not be out the money for very long - you have a depressed area that has terribly low property values because its an impoverished slum, let the residents sell the land off as a means to get out of that hell, and then make a deal with a redevelopment firm or use the civil engineers corps and then sell the resulting revitalized properties, hopefully after some mixed used development.

That last point is probably the strongest reason why the US in particular has these widespreading "dying neighborhood" problems. Zoning for the most part has been an abject failure. It was conceived to segregate the rich from the poor and has failed to recognize that a thriving community needs work and play to intermix and develop organically. It also exists to constrain development to prevent cities from growing up and increasing density to meet population demands, all to prop up the real estate investment bubble making the semi-rich filthy rich.

Something like 40% of Americans rent --- similar percentages in Europe, and in some major EU countries, like Germany, more people rent than own. Having a home and financing that home are orthogonal concerns.

I mostly agree, but there is some reasonable logic to encouraging home ownership, as it aligns incentives, albeit imperfectly. When people own property where they live, then a big chunk of their net worth is tied up in something whose value correlates with (capitalized) general quality of life, which will lead them to be better stewards of the area.

>They're on a tiny fixed income and can't afford the cost of living elsewhere. They're a public employee two years away from a pension and, if they move now, they forfeit a liveable retirement.

I keep hearing stories about this, but I thought that any such pension this absurd was illegal or retroactively corrected. Is it really possible to lose an entire pension for quitting some trivial amount of time before some cutoff?

I would think that it would, at most, mean that you would delay the pension[1], or lose a few percentage points off of it, or be required to make some "down payment" before it starts.

Where are these pensions where a huge value can evaporate over such a small thing?

[1] e.g. under an "age + years of service" rule, each year worked gets you two units closer to retirement, and if you quit, that just means you become eligible at half speed (age goes up but years of service doesn't).

I'm not an expert by any stretch, but my understanding is that plenty of pensions have steep early retirement/termination penalties, especially in state and municipal service. And if the full pension benefit was already small, any penalty may reduce it to an unlivable level.

As an anecdote, a relative -- who had 25 years of public service when he was 57 years of age -- would have only received 35% of his pension if he had taken early retirement (or jumped ship to private industry) at that time.

Keep in mind, also, that most public employees are ineligible for Social Security. And most of these economically distressed towns tend to be concentrated in counties and states with severe debt issues, where raiding pension funds is not uncommon. And sadly, benefit reduction continues to be an option in public debt discussions.

Oh wow. I'm surprised that hasn't been made illegal. That creates very anti-public-interest situations (where a worker will be abused in every legal way because they know they can't quit).

Hug a municipal worker today. They deserve it.

To clarify, I mean they don't deserve a hug on the basis of being universally exploited and underpaid. Obviously they deserve, by virtue of being human, the kind of love typically expressed by hugging.

I wouldn't go that far. A lot of these pensions, if they get paid, are really disproportionate to what you could achieve with a private sector job.

(Admittedly, I don't remember very well what it's like to be poor. That was a long time ago. I do remember how pretty much everything is designed to take money away from poor people because they're poor and their defenses are weak.)

I would not expect it to be fun to loose $100k in home value moving away from an area that's dying. But that is part of being an adult and being adult enough to be allowed to make such an investment. Sometimes the investments go well. Sometimes they go poorly. And avoiding that risk is extremely easy; lots of people rent. I don't think we should bail our people's bad home investments just because they're poor. If they need to go bankrupt, there's already a process for that. And if that process is bad, we should just improve that process.

I'm not sure you read my response. I'm not saying that "it wouldn't be fun" to move away. I'm saying that, for a huge swath of the residents of these areas, it's practically impossible. Logistically and financially, impossible.

You're making a raft of assumptions -- they have the means to ride out a period of unemployment, or can afford the extra travel required to reach a new job in a healthy area; they can afford to rent in a healthy market; their skills transfer; they don't have a family member in long-term care in the area; they are not on a fixed income; et cetera -- because, as you say, you don't remember very well what it's like to be poor.

And that's OK.

I understand why you make those assumptions, and I'm happy so many people have the privilege to do so. The shitty things poor people have to put up with are all but invisible unless you're poor. Poverty has a stigma in the US that prevents us from talking openly about these issues. But once you see them, it's frustrating to hear someone say, "But [leaving] is part of being an adult," as if staying in a shitty, crime-ridden, failing municipality is a personal choice.

I want to emphasize this point: If you see people living in a one of these places -- drinking lead-infused water, sending their kids to skeletal schools, miles from an operating hospital, with intermittent emergency services, with no trash pickup, etc -- remind yourself that it's extremely unlikely they're there by choice.

I want to state upfront that I 100% agree with everything you are saying about the problems, limitations, etc. of these people.

My question though is--what suggestions do you have for solving this? We shouldn't prop up dying suburbs. We don't have universal basic income yet (not that that would solve for all such cases), and there don't really seem to be a whole lot of options.

If I imagine myself in such a desperate situation, I feel like my only options would be to stay there while things stagnate, watching things get worse and worse while trying to scrimp and save my way to something that would let me take a gamble and move, or just pack up a few things, yard sale anything I could, buy a bus ticket, and gamble on being homeless somewhere with better opportunities. And that's if I wasn't elderly/disabled/otherwise incapable of doing this.

The only larger solutions I potentially see are policy changes for social safety nets with these situations, which frankly, are going to be damn near impossible to get passed given the current government, and also the fact that a huge chunk of these places are in red states that would never do anything at the state level for these folks.

Again, not disagreeing with anything you say, but is there actually a potential solution beyond "let these people and places fade away" like so many people have in humanity's past?

I'm no expert, but I can think of a few potential approaches off the top of my head:

1) Force neighboring jurisdictions to take control of blighted areas, increasing the effective tax base, as advocated by TFA. There are NIMBY and fiscal reasons why this is hard, so counties and states might need to step in.

2) Offer free housing swaps to residents of dying suburbs, increasing density in a few targeted areas. This would reduce the cost of delivering services substantially -- fewer customers in a smaller target area -- while slowing the spread of blight.

3) Use state or federal funds to buy back foreclosed and abandoned properties in blighted areas, then employ out-of-work locals to help with remediation. A combination of this and #2 would even make full ecological restoration a possibility, converting large blighted areas into public parks and other amenities. This would have a long-term positive impact on property values and could even reverse the cycle of abandonment.

Hell, even straight-up paying people a year's rent just to move out, then leveling the abandoned homes, would be cheaper than the long-term costs of ignoring the problem altogether.

> If there is no way to be productive there (aka jobs) they can and should move.

A possible problem might be that a failing area is likely to be undesirable and therefore have low property prices and concomitant taxes. Moving to a more desirable area might be unaffordable. Many people have a strong emotional connection to their home, and would find it difficult to sell it (perhaps at a considerably lower price than they think it is worth) and move somewhere smaller.

Further, there may be people who are "post-economy" in the sense that they have retired. From their point of view, they've paid their dues and have no need to follow the jobs any more. They may have built up local social ties that they don't want to sever by moving.

My point isn't that failing places need to be propped up indefinitely, but that there's a middle ground between "successful, valuable" things and "failing, worthless" things. And there are infrastructure projects (e.g: rural broadband) which can help retain jobs and communities in "failing" places relatively cheaply.

Rural areas already get massive subsides in the US. Wasting even more money on them simply drags down society for zero net benefit because those resources are very much better spent where the impact vastly more people.

As to taking a loss on their home. That's already happened, staying there vs renting somewhere else has significant direct costs. If a community can survive on it's own then awesome, but subsidies are simply a terrible idea.

>My point isn't that failing places need to be propped up indefinitely, but that there's a middle ground between "successful, valuable" things and "failing, worthless" things.

True, but right now we are erring so far on the side of preserving the status quo that it's almost a moral axiom that the character of neighborhoods should be preserved forever and people should never be forced to move for financial reasons.

The debates over gentrification are rife with this philosophy. Ultimately it does much more harm than good for all except a lucky grandfathered-in few.

Some of these areas have valuable physical assets, and are inter-reticulated with the central city in such a way that their decay is at minimum an aesthetic concern for the city.

I think the author lead with East Cleveland for a reason. According to Wikipedia [1], East Cleveland contains the nation's first industrial park, historical millionaires' homes, and part of one of the main arteries into the city of Cleveland. Poking around on Google Maps shows that it also contains parts of two large and attractive parks (one attached to a historical cemetery where a US President is buried).

It would be hard to write this area off entirely.


This comment neatly encapsulates why libertarians are so widely mocked and despised.

What about it is despicable and worthy of mockery?

A few generations ago inner cities were too dense, filthy, undrivable and morally corrupt to allow civilisation to flourish. That’s part of why suburbs happened.

You can’t just walk away from cities or towns because they no longer fit with our ideas for how cities and towns should be. Cities and towns already are. They need to function, well. Creative destruction is not an acceptable solution. This is the kind of view that gives idealism a bad name.

> A few generations ago inner cities were too dense, filthy, undrivable and morally corrupt to allow civilisation to flourish.

Wrong, due to an specific Anglo-American cultural meme. Civilization has flourished in cities as long as there has been civilization. In the U.S. (uniquely), we ruined cities post WW2 by subsidizing highways and cars and low density suburban mortgages, due to said cultural fetish. Plus a whole lot of racism.

In France, to my knowledge, there was never a time when the central city was considered lower class than the suburbs (ahem, Paris, ahem). And I think this is generally true.

> Wrong, due to an specific Anglo-American cultural meme.

We're talking about the US, so those "memes" are relevant.

Well… it’s me he quoted and I’m Irish, not american. I wasn’t talking about the US only. Anyway, it’s not an american meme. In Dublin, there was a massive (and disastrous) effort to move the urban underclass from inner city tenements to what is now inner suburbs. Two generations before that, the upper middle class migrated from the inner city to (different) inner city suburbs.

The idea that cities are decrepit and suburbs are the future is a recurring one. Charles Dickens’ soot covered cities (in england, so I guess anglo-american?) existed and the middle class moved to the suburbs, much like americans.

The trend back into city centres today is wider than the US too.

Middle and upper class wants to move away from industrial spaces. This is why migration patterns have changed from cities to cities based on manufacturing shifting from urban to suburban to rural

> A few generations ago inner cities were too dense, filthy, undrivable and morally corrupt to allow civilisation to flourish. That’s part of why suburbs happened.

Orrrrr a good amount of racism lead to a great White Flight[1] which trapped minorities in downtown areas that were left to rot.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_flight

> Orrrrr a good amount of racism lead to a great White Flight

That's reductionist and possibly even causally reversed, like saying bad yelp reviews are the reason a restaurant closed.

Rates of crime increased 600% (robbery) [1] in America overall during the 1960-1980. That's enormous. The increase in crime was mostly in urban areas, not rural, so there was even more than an 600% increase in some areas. This was well before Reagan's and Clinton's strategy of mass incarceration.

It's deeply unfair to suggest that a family - of any race - that decides to move to the relatively affordable, calm suburbs, where they can own a full home and have a backyard, and avoid the massive increase in crime - was due to "a good amount of racism" as the primary reason.

If your neighborhood violence increased by more than 600% over the span of 10 years, and you were having kids, you might just decided to move somewhere else, no?

[1] http://www.disastercenter.com/crime/uscrime.htm

I think that's conflating different forms of racism. There's no denying that the modern suburbs was in very large part a racist development. That doesn't mean anyone who took part in that development had racist intents. As you say, it's a perfectly logical decision to move one's family to the suburbs. That doesn't contradict the fact that the opportunity for you to do so was the product of racism, even if it was someone else's racism.

The Levittown/redlining/white flight/whatever was already well underway by the 60s. Yes, crime increased in urban areas up through the 80s, but some of that is best explained by those urban areas being essentially economically abandoned by that time. Crime follows poverty, and when the tax money leaves, the result is fairly predictable.

I have spoken directly with a few people who left their southern in town neighborhood (still houses with yards etc) in the early 70's because they did not like the way black people behaved after civil rights in the 60's.

Not sure if that counts for you as racism but there it is.

Depends if "behaved" means, "being too successful" or "being too thuggish / criminal". If it's the latter, of course most people want to live in a nice neighborhood, not a crime den.

Do keep in mind that your statement is merely an anecdote. You might be right, but it's dangerous to assume that the people you talked to represent the majority of people who left for the suburbs.

I am a staunch opponent of racism (as if anyone would say otherwise) but I don't think that the answer is that simple. White flight is only part of it. The biggest reason for the birth of suburbia in the 50s was the affordability of the automobile combined with the newly minted Eisenhower expressways which made living far away from where you work cheap and feasible.

White flight was a reason why people wanted to take advantage of these new possibilities but was not the only reason. Land in the city is expensive. Land in suburbia was (and still is) far cheaper. For $xx/month you can have twice as much "visible wealth" at the expense of a longer commute, which was then portrayed as simply a part of the "suburbian experience" (see the car ads of the time and their romanticization of the commute).

I don't think there is consensus that white flight gave birth to suburbs in the first place. Rather, white flight is often used to explain the birth of future and farther suburbs as whites (being by and large the original inhabitants of the first suburbs) fought to keep that status quo and moved to newer suburbs and set up HOAs and zoning laws specifically designed to prevent poorer (and, directly, "more colored") persons from moving into their newly minted neighborhoods.

> Land in the city is expensive. Land in suburbia was (and still is) far cheaper. For $xx/month you can have twice as much "visible wealth" at the expense of a longer commute

The same thing (i.e. the creation of suburbs) is now happening in Eastern Europe, at least it's happening in the country from where I'm from (Romania) without racism playing that much of a part in it. Yeah, some of the middle-class people who chose to move to the suburbs mentioned as motives "wanting to get away from the gipsies", but most of said middle-class people used to live in communist apartment-blocks where there were almost no gipsies (the latter mostly inhabit the oldish houses from the downtown area, formerly owned by the local Jewish community).

The main reason for people moving out to the suburbs are those that you underlined: it has now become economically feasible for many families to own 2 cars and to buy a piece of land and to build a house on it. That's it. It's nevertheless pretty interesting seeing us repeating the same urbanism mistakes that the US did in the 1950s-1960s and the Western European countries started doing from the 1970s. We're now at the phase where we like to invest money into building road-bridges over everything, in order to reduce commute times, as the saying goes. There are very few people (myself included) who still say that this is not the good way going forward and that we should learn from others' mistakes, but we're seen as either nostalgics ("why we would still invest in obsolete things like tramways? tramways are communist!") or as "know-nothings".

I am from those parts as well and saw how some of the upper middle class people, have started to move to new housing developments around the city. Which is funny, because back in the day those suburbs previously were not desirable and it's were factories and cheaper and older apartments were located.

And it's true that at least there it has nothing to do with racism, it comes I wanting a bigger house, a yard, a fence, a safe place for kids to play in and so on. Now, sure those things have been there in the country-side in the villages, but unfortunately the jobs are all in the city center. Some villages less than an hour drive from the city have seen new development, but beyond that it is the suburbs - the American Dream right in the heart of Eastern Europe.

The downside is that now the roads are swamped in cars. Unlike some American cities, those cities were not designed to have that many cars so there is no place to park them, they are driven and parked on sidewalks, they clog streets and public transport can't move during rush hour. But what to do, they have more money, they can buy cars, there is land around the city. Maybe tax cars more, add a luxury property tax? The thing is the people who live in those suburbs are also the one running everything (either through corruption or just simple economic power).

The big thing seems to be population density. If you build massive suburbs with low population density then the only way to move around is by car. To big for a bike. Not enough density for public transportation. And then you get endlessly congested roads.

The problem is that is quite expensive to build attractive apartment buildings that either have enough underground parking space for cars or you have to convince people to give up on having a car.

Congestion is a feature of population density. America's many small to mid sized low-density, car-oriented cities have relaxed traffic and minuscule commute times compared to riding transit in a megacity.

Maybe as a non-americas I should stay out of this. But..

Not everything is best viewed through the lens of macro-politics and big concepts. Ucaetano is willing to “Let them fail and wipe them out” based on their balance sheets and (I assume) a distaste for whatever model was used to set them up in previous generations. stevenleeg wants to put the problem at the feet of discriminatory and racist policies from days past (and their modern consequences).

This is a terrible (IMO) approach to politics. There is a practical problem at hand. The solution cannot be to not have created the problem in the first place. If a population is too poor to support its municipal costs, the solution cannot be to let the suburb rot. There is no creative destruction option. If you let the suburb rot, all you’ll have is a more rotten suburb.

The solutions needs to be practical ones. If the infrastructure is decrepit, renew the infrastructure. If the munincipal funding model that works for wealthy suburbs can’t work in poor suburbs, it can’t be the funding model for poor suburbs. Maybe there are some more grandiose ideas, like preventing the rich/poor suburb dichotomy from existing but those are unlikely to work unless the practical problems are first solved.

I don’t understand this conversation at all.

> I don't understand this conversation at all.

Welcome to America!

Seriously, we don't understand it either - but we sure will fight about it. No matter how tenuous, we can blame anything on our favorite causes.

Everyone seems to want to spend time blaming and fighting instead of actually picking up a broom and cleaning. Our journalism competes with reality television and our political parties are treated like sports teams.

I don't understand it either, and I live here.

I find this comment frustrating because the "macro-politics and big concepts" end up mattering a lot. This is politics. It's about what's right, what's fair, and notions of equality/fairness. You can't talk about politics without contrasting notions of "right".

The way I see it, this whole conversation is just a proxy for money. The suburb doesn't have enough; it has no tax base and can't afford its municipal services. What they want to do is attach to a city and use the city's services. Now, there might be efficiencies of scale with service delivery to a larger population. But if you look at the history of many large cities in the US, many suburbs made the conscious choice not to be part of the city precisely because they didn't want the higher taxes, on sales, on property, on income, etc. that living in a city requires.

You say "renew the infrastructure". Are you writing the check? Your comment seems to assume we can just invent money out of thin air.

I'll be honest, I'm pretty fed up with this entire bailout mentality. I live in a high-tax, high-expense city. Meanwhile, I pay the federal universal service fee so that someone in Nowhere, USA can have a phone. I see low taxes on carbon emission, mortgage interest deductions on huge suburban palaces, a massive expressway system, agricultural subsidies, a postal service that charges the same rate to deliver mail across town as to Nowhere, USA, and I'm just tired of it. And I'm also tired of last generation passing the cost of their bad decisions on to us, in the form of underfunded pensions, a major housing crisis engineered by the Boomer generation, and 100% of GDP federal debt.

So yeah, guilty as charged re: "macro-politics and big concepts", but, enough is enough. If these people couldn't be bothered to move as their city crumbled over the last, I don't know, 30 years, I'm just not crying, as I pay through the nose for rent in a big city.


I think we might be more on the same page than not. Money problems is exactly the level that we should be talking about it.

What I was reacting to and labelling “macro politics” is trying to relate this to the most abstract (relative to the issue at hand) political viewpoints. On one side, calling for a Misesian creative destruction. On the other hand, insisting that the root of the problem is racism in the 70s and that’s what needs to be addressed.

To me, it seems like a problem of financing localities that have particularly bad balance sheets. That’s what I mean by practical and I think we agree on it mostly.

This is a very common problem. Every country that has locally financed authorities runs into it. Maybe a locality is poor (like this one). Poor people still have the same sewage needs as rich people, but they pay less tax. Maybe a local real estate is cheap or low turnover, and tax is tied to property values or real estate sales. Maybe the commercial-residential split is important?

I’m not particularly in any camp about how to fix it. It’ll depend on whatever the norms of the place are. I don’t know American norms so well, but there are an ultimately finite set of options. Maybe merging/gerrymandering is the right idea.

I’m not unsympathetic to your gripes either. I also think my country (ireland) has had (and still has) bad financial management, morally questionable bailouts, official public debt and a scarier unofficial stack of liabilities like pensions and other hand-me-downs.

But, are you really going to draw a line in this sand? A poor suburb that can’t afford police or sewage, because the way a map was drawn left it with more liabilities than income?

This is a great discussion. Thank you. Agree 100% on the whole creative destruction/racism/etc. point, it's impractical and leads the conversation nowhere.

On a slightly more charitable note than my last post, I'd be interested to see the actual balance sheets of these municipalities. I wouldn't be surprised if the root issue is underfunded pensions, because frankly, even a relatively poor city of people making 15k/year could probably afford sewer and garbage. I think people are just pissed because they bought into the American dream of a house, didn't save enough for retirement, and were planning to use their home equity as their retirement account. Otherwise, there just isn't a great reason not to move. I look at the hardships endured by generation after generation in this country (the US), from the pioneers putting it all in a wagon, the hard labor of homesteaders moving one-ton rocks in their backyard, to the smuggling of slaves out of the south during the civil war, and just wonder, what's happened to us? When did we become such a nation of entitled whiners?

I am sympathetic to pensions. Nobody saw the declines in interest rates we've had in the last ten years and in my mind, that's essentially an unforeseeable eventuality that might call for a special tax. In the overwhelming majority of cases I've seen, the underlying problem is crowding out of municipal budgets by pensions. We need to get this under control and I'm happy we're starting to talk about it.

Hmmm. I'm not sure. Trying to guess at a long term picture of economics is tricky, especially something as ethereal as a pension. Demographics seem to have taken most of the world by surprise, nevermind economics, and nevermind the politics of it all.

Over here, we're mostly hoping the French will come out of left field, surprise everyone and figure something out. Chances seem good, you know what they get like when they're stirred up.

Homesteaders heading west to get away from whingers were being replaced with irish people getting away from their own whingers. Both Ireland and New York still exist. Whingers too. Many localities set accounting books on fire along the routes. Maybe it's more a matter of perspective. You describe the past in terms of people doing things. The present, in much more numerical terms. But, crazy finances aren't new. People doing things isn't new.

Yes, the more grandiose idea is to be open to shutting down unsustainable towns and suburbs.

This does not mean abandoning the people who live there, but the opposite. It requires us to take seriously the people who find themselves living in a dying place, to know their lives, to build different and better places for them to live in and plan a gradual transition and eventual shutdown.

But for any of this to happen, the government needs to admit the problem at hand and the people need to trust their government. After decades of racist real estate policy and constant neglect of the needs of the working poor, and entrenched self-interested careerist local politicians neither are likely to happen.

(also a non-american)

Unfortunately it seems that the macro politics is very important here - it affects the issue of whether people outside the area care about what happens in the area.

Discussing the cause of a problem does help us avoid repeating it.

I think there's also an American tendency to place responsibility for fixing a problem at the feet of those who caused it in the first place, regardless of whether those people are still involved with the subject, or even alive.

> There is no creative destruction option

Know how I know you're not an American...?

>If a population is too poor to support its municipal costs, the solution cannot be to let the suburb rot. There is no creative destruction option. If you let the suburb rot, all you’ll have is a more rotten suburb.

A rotten suburb is not a problem if nobody lives in it.

This comment is exactly my point. Are we talking about reality or reconciling plato and information theory to form a metaphysical philosophy of roads and sewer pipes?

Cities, towns and suburbs do not go away. If they suck, they still stay where they are. People live there, even if the population declines a bit. If the schools are shit, people get poor education. If civil society, policing, job markets and community development sucks… you get the picture.

There is no walking away option. No scenario where this suburb does not exist. That’s crazy talk. The only context this kind of talk makes sense in is some disconnected political theory, with no relation to the reality of.

It’s not rational or intellectual. It’s fanatical.

The suburb won't go away but we don't care about the suburb anyway. The most important thing is the people in them.

Can't they move somewhere else? They can't because it costs money. Why can't their government just give them the money? It might be cheaper than their infrastructure costs.

Which government? The city government is broke. If they merge, the larger city could pay for transitioning costs, but that would be a massive cost (worth it, possibly!) and politically difficult.

I don't think it would be fair if the city paid for it. The direct cost would go to them and the direct benefit to others.

In that situation, the problem has to be solved on the level above. The State as a whole should pay the cost, since it is the State as a whole that would benefit.

Because then it becomes moral hazard (like every bailout or free handout). Let’s say I live in centre of big city and pay crazy high rent and make sacrifices to save much bigger cash pile required to be able to afford to get on a property ladder.

And people in suburbs will just get free cheque from government to move? That is incredibly unfair to people living in cities hence it creates moral issue.

Why? Was the death of the suburb something that they should have foreseen? An irresponsible risk they chose to ignore?

If not, it is not more unfair than when health insurance uses the money of healthy people to pay for treatment of sick people. Or when the Federal Government uses the money of people who live in the mainland to pay for hurricane relief for people who live near the coast.

Then why not write government cheque for all millennials to buy their own property so they don’t have to rent? Would you support that?

Where do you stop? Should a family of four (two young children) that lives in a 1 bedroom apartment in city be given a 2 bedroom apartment by the city government? They obviously need it.

I agree with socialised healthcare and education. First one because health is not some thing you choose but is affected heavily by genetic lottery (yes unhealthy lifestyle is a problem but it’s hard to objectively quantify) and second one because it means levelling of the opportunity field for young people not born to wealthy parents (again this is related to lottery of birth, what kind of family you are born into).

But housing is very different from healthcare and education.

My concern is not a moral one about birth lotteries and socialism. It's a pragmatic one about infrastructure costs.

Sick people are less productive. Uneducated people are less productive. People who are stuck on a dying suburb where there is no business and there are no jobs are less productive.

Of course there is a walking away option. In fact you will see this happen much more in 20-30 years as the absolutely monumental scale of the unsustainability of suburban infrastructure truly rears it's head.

There simply won't be enough money around to renew "infrastructure" in these areas. I use the term loosely. We're just talking roads/sewer/water/etc. lines, nothing most europeans would actually consider civil infrastructure like public transit.

You can say walking away is not an option, but continuing to just keep these communities on life support isn't either. There is no option for "make all of suburbia great again" simply due to mathematics.

> Of course there is a walking away option. In fact you will see this happen much more in 20-30 years as the absolutely monumental scale of the unsustainability of suburban infrastructure truly rears it's head.

First, most suburban infrastructure is not unsustainable, despite how many armchair urbanists wish otherwise.

But even if were, people don't have the option to leave anyway, so it doesn't matter. If your poor, and live in a poor area, you don't have a 'walking away option'. Even if you sold your shitty house in a shitty suburb, it wouldn't net you enough money to live anywhere else anyway. Or if you rent, you already live in the cheapest place possible, so how will you afford the higher rent anywhere else?

Detroit is pointed at as an example of people walking away ... but Detroit still has over 600,000 people. East Cleveland is mentioned in the article, but 17,000 people still live there. Flint had poisoned drinking water for more than a year straight, and 97,000 people still live there today. You can literally poison every citizen with bad infrastructure, and the place will still exist.

When you say "walking away is an option", you are speaking only theoretically. When /u/dalbasal says "Cities and towns do not go away. People live there, even if the population declines a bit.", that's a simple realistic truth. Barring a few extremely rare exceptions, places don't go away.

> You can say walking away is not an option, but continuing to just keep these communities on life support isn't either. There is no option for "make all of suburbia great again" simply due to mathematics.

Sure it is. We just need to pay for it. Which we will eventually be forced to do, and then will do so because it's the cheapest and easiest option.

We have plenty of money to support every suburb. We have enough money to build 2x more suburbs, support all of those, and double the entire freeway system and support that too. We just choose not to spend it. We waste our infrastructure funding on not-infrastructure. At some point, we'll be forced to support the people or the people will die.

Roads are cheap. Pipes are cheap. Powerlines are cheap. Freeways are cheap. Urban Planners will insist it's not true because of their political desires. But if you actually do the mathematics you mention, these things don't really cost much. Compared to the benefits they provide, infrastructure is dirt cheap.

Apart from some exceptional circumstances, towns and cities stay where they are.

Exceptions are frontier towns, mining booms, war torn cities.

In 99% of cases, cities stay where they are, bankrupt local authorities or not. Populations decline a little. Quality of life declines a lot, but the problem doesn’t just go away.

And anyway, what does unsustainable mean? What can’t be sustained exactly? It sounds like what can’t be sustained is the financing model for poor localities. Why not walk away from that?

The only way that no one lives in it is if there is such a huge housing surplus elsewhere that no one needs to. This will not happen in the US, because it puts the rent-seeker class at a disadvantage, and they give money to political campaigns.

There is no suburb so rotten that someone won't buy up pieces of it to extract as much money as they can from its local economy, and then not spend that money back in.

> The biggest reason for the birth of suburbia in the 50s was the affordability of the automobile combined with the newly minted Eisenhower expressways which made living far away from where you work cheap and feasible.

It's more complicated than that.

First, there's the history of red-lining[1], and no requirement that housing be "integrated" (which meant non-discriminatory back then), so you had people like Levitt only allow whites to buy home.

Second, the government financed most of the critical infrastructure necessary to "bootstrap" beyond just highway and roads. So if your water, sewer, electric, and school infrastructure was all built wholly or partially funded via federal or state grants or "pork", you could keep your taxes low because you have lots of shiny-new infrastructure that's cheap to maintain that you didn't need to finance yourself through municipal bonds. This allowed your tax money to be poured directly into hiring the best teachers, building parks, etc. Getting all that infrastructure for free greatly masked the inefficiencies of the suburbs and why, today at least, suburbs often carry huge property taxes burdens or offer very limited services (like not even curbs or sidewalks) and rely on a county/township to cover the essentials.

The Suburbs are basically a public housing project for the middle class. If you actually required the average American to pay for their suburb with little or no help from the federal government it never would have gotten off the ground.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Redlining

Land in the suburbs was also specifically cheaper to white veterans in the postwar era (when early auto-oriented suburbs were built) because subsidized GI Bill mortgages were essentially exclusive to whites: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/G.I._Bill#Racial_discriminatio...

We had a similar phenomenon in Canada, without the same racial dynamics. My bet is that the car was the main cause.

We also had the surge in population in the west compared to the old cities of the east.

We are also seeing a gentrification of urban areas.

I could be wrong. Is there some major difference between the Canadian and American cases?

My working hypothesis is that the car was the main cause, and that the cause of regentrification is that suburbs reached their natural geographic limits.

Race and crime may have been an additional stimulus in the us, but I feel like on this question americans are guilty of not even bothering to glance at the natural experiment running to their north.

But again, I might be wrong: am I missing something about the american case? One thing I can think of is that I’m not sure Canadian downtowns ever got quite so abandoned.

There's a demographic aspect to this I try to bring up every time these discussions arise.

Age demographics are very important for countries and cities. Due to the nature of demographic trends, there are a ton of people 20-35 in the USA right now, more than there are "baby boomers". Due to the similarities in taste due to age, many, many, people want to live in cities right now, which drives gentrification. Whether or not that continues probably has a lot to do with birth rates going forward for people 20-35.

What are the age demographics of Canada?

> Due to the similarities in taste due to age, many, many, [millennials] want to live in cities right now, which drives gentrification.

As millennials stop being poor, they start behaving more like the generations of before. College grads are starting to buy houses in the suburbs: http://www.npr.org/2017/09/15/551232392/as-millennials-get-o...

Right, though they are becoming less poor as they get older (and probably starting to have kids). Tremendously high housing costs in desirable core neighborhoods also muddy the trend, as it is simply impossible for the non-wealthy to buy in those neighborhoods, so millennials may be buying in the suburbs out of necessity, rather than preference.

There are a lot of conflating fine-grained trends that add up to aggregate shifts, which are not necessarily all that large (and therefore hard to examine). Cities/suburbs are not binary things. College-educated millennials don't have the same behaviors as non-college educated ones. Marriage ages and first child ages have shifted as have overall demographics. San Francisco is not New York City is not Detroit is not Austin. The cities that are thriving are much more livable than they were a few decades ago.

You end up with lots of fodder to spin tales that can reinforce just about any narrative you like.

Very similar, but one crucial difference: the provinces control funding to cities and equalize spending across county lines. So you don't end up with bankrupt cities, or super wealthy ones, and everyone tends to get the same services. Instead, at least in Toronto, you have "priority neighbourhoods".. poor communities that get extra funding and resources.

And, more specifically, it's mostly college-educated people in that age range who want to live in the core of a relatively small number of cities, generally on the costs.

White flight wasn’t just hysteria or racism at the individual level. It was driven by federal policy back in the New Deal era.

In most cases, it was very dumb on any metric to stay in the city if you had the means to move.

White Flight hit Allentown, PA very late. It wasn't till a new Interstate was finished I-78 and it was the mid to late 1980s. I live in Center City Allentown and it has now gotten over $1,000,000,000 in investment but the racism from the suburbs talking about how the city isn't what it was is infuriating.

Look at any comment on the local newspaper and it is nothing but racist anti-city comments, www.mcall.com. Even mayors from suburbs even wrote opt pieces on how their economy doesn't need a city, which is completely insane. People just hate cities and it does come from a emotional and non-rational mindset.

Comments on almost every website I have visited that are not moderated are a toxic stew of conservative trolls. It would be one thing if it was breitbart or infowars or r/the_donald, but when we are talking about newspapers for the bluest urban areas, there's something else going on where the actual residents can't or wont participate in the online discourse in this manner because we know the majority of voters in those areas don't think like the online trolls.

I think Allentown was affected more by the closure of steel mills than the construction of I-78- why live in the city center if there aren't any more jobs there than elsewhere.

The funny thing is Billy Joel's song about the jobs actually wasn't Allentown but Bethlehem. There were plenty of jobs just not Bethlehem Steel jobs. Today it is a casino (I hate Casinos) and some art and public TV studios. Bethlehem has and is doing fine.

Allentown's demographic shift was huge to where 75%+ of the students are of Latino heritage and 90% qualify for free Federal Lunch Program in Allentown School District. The hate is real against everything Allentown.

Do you think there is any merit at all to the view held by longtime citizens that newcomers to the city brought crime along with them (if in fact this can be demonstrated statistically)?

Allentown's decline has many factors, from my limited knowledge. The is the decline and departure of the steel industry. There are opiods.

If a billion in investment hasn't significantly helped (or has it?), what do you think is the solution to "fixing" Allentown?

You weren't kidding about those comments. First story I clicked on:

>Well buddy, They have been shooting each other here since they opened I78 and they started moving here. 20+ years now. They have ruined a once great all American city with this BS and it is true. When it gets cold they go back inside.

I grew up in a suburb of Allentown and, yes, the racists have short memories. Allentown was also a shithole before I-78 came along.

Well I can see your one of them. Remember Hess? I don't I grew up in CT and Allentown is an awesome city. :)

While it's fun to get emotional, I'm more interested in statistics. Has crime increased in Allentown since the 80s?

Actually the crime rate is fairly low for a city our size and the crime rate has had a consistent drop for the past 10 years. There are people who refuse to drive through Allentown due to fear of being a victim.



That's the key word. Not "white flight". The mass production of the automobile is what historians generally agree enabled the suburbs - not critical mass racism.

Also Blockbusting and the policy of destroying ethnic Catholic neighborhoods by running a couple of highways through them.

Ever been to rural parts of the West? Lots of abandoned towns all over the place, some swallowed up by trees, others preserved by dry desert climate. Many of them are barely 100 years old.

Cities and towns might look like permanent fixtures of civilization if you place them on a scale of mere decades; but they come and go, grow and shrink, appear and disappear, and are eventually reclaimed by nature on a scale of centuries and millennia. They are man-made machines just like steam engines and web services, and should be treated as such. There's nothing sacred about them! The only question is how to care for the people who are affected when a machine they've been relying on goes down.

Creative destruction is not a panacea, but it should be on the table as a legitimate option to be weighed against other options. This isn't idealism, it's being realistic.

Speaking of being realistic, I suspect that there are many cases where relocating residents and shutting down the town in an orderly manner would be far less costly, more humane, and perhaps even environmentally better than maintaining the decaying infrastructure indefinitely and making yet another generation of an already disadvantaged population grow up in a place without hope.

Combinations are possible. It is easy to imagine that in an area with three bedroom communities one might commit to a bus, rail, boat, or air link to a metro area and grow its downtown while the other two fade.

"A few generations ago inner cities were too dense, filthy, undrivable and morally corrupt to allow civilisation to flourish."

Read: "Non-white people were living there."

Seriously, don't try to whitewash what happened. White people fled the cities because non-white people were starting to live in those areas too.

> If people still want to live in large houses in low-density areas, let them pay for it.

Excellent! Same with urban mass transit, then.

Cool, cool, as long as we're moving to user fees for everything, let's also have that apply to roadways which are not remotely covered by the gas tax.

At least on the federal level, considering the federal gas tax hasn't been raised since 1993, it does a pretty good job at covering the costs of roads.


That link is only showing the state of the gas tax fund, and shows none of the transfers from the general fund to prop up shortfalls.

Second, local roads (i.e. the majority) are mostly funded through the general fund of municipalities.

Here's an overview of how laughably short gas taxes fall when it comes to paying for the roads: http://frontiergroup.org/reports/fg/do-roads-pay-themselves

I agree that road users should pay for the roads but fuel tax isn't the right way to do it.

First, bicyclists make use of the roads so there should be a congestion free.

Second, diesel taxes are aimed at trucks but also ensnare diesel cars which don't wear the road more than an equivalent passenger car so we need a vehicle specific paradigm. This is probably the appropriate way to price in scarcity - most motorcycles consume more fuel than most hybrids but motorcycles should wear the road less.

Oh yes, totally, the fuel tax is the wrong mechanism.

I also agree that congestion is the key. Congestion isn't a constant throughout the day, yet fuel taxes are. If we want to maximize our investment in all those roads, we should have higher pricing when that resource is most scarce.

At present, bicyclists mostly represent a mode shift away from driving, which represents a net mobility increase for a given congestion equilibrium. I suppose at some point we could have so much mobility being provided by bicycles that we experience significant congestion (I say we, as in the USA, as opposed to places like Amsterdam that have the lovely problem of bicycle congestion today).

That said, I'm not sure I'd ever be a huge fan of pricing bicycle travel the same way I'd price car travel. I guess I'd argue that bicycling is something between a really, really low cost means of providing mobility that benefits society as a whole, and a straight-up virtue good. I'd call bicycling a virtue good in that, the more of it a bicyclist does, the better their health, which has even more positive externalities for society as a whole.

>At present, bicyclists mostly represent a mode shift away from driving, which represents a net mobility increase for a given congestion equilibrium.

I challenge that, bicyclists who do things like run red lights seem to increase congestion.

Are you seriously arguing that people switching from driving to cycling increases congestion? In the face of every bit of research, ever?

Although, once I got past face-palming, I could read your comment as charitably as possible and interpret that what you're saying is "bicyclists who do things like run red lights seem to increase congestion [over bicyclists who don't.]", but I think that's a stretch.

I did find one counter-point, this study [0], but it's key to note that it's a simulation for a non-existent scenario, and IMHO it would be stupid to have a 10% proportion of bicycles and not have appropriate infrastructure.

[0]: http://peopleforbikes.org/blog/real-talk-bikes-cant-reduce-c...

You know that mass transit to/from the suburbs costs far more per boarding than in-city transit, right? More deadhead trips for commuters, longer distances.

Except that when you take into account the externalities, mass transit pays for itself, while suburbs don't.

So mass transit should be partially publicly-funded. Suburbs should not.

Mass transit reduces congestion, reduces land usage, reduces environmental damage, reduces poverty, reduces pollution, increases quality of life and is usable by the vast majority of the population.

Suburbia infrastructure only serves those living in suburbs and has the opposite effect of each metric listed above.

That typically comes from taxes on low-occupancy vehicles, which works out because mass transit also does a little bit to offset the massive emissions toll of those vehicles, as well as all the associated congestion/parking/etc issues.

I mean, we aren't putting the costs of hurricane relief efforts on people's car tabs yet, but give it a few years.

They already do? Last I checked the bus wasn't free . . .

I haven't read of a public transit system where the fares covered the costs of building and operating it. I have read that MTA (NYC), BART(SF), Amtrak, NJTransit, and other US ones definitely are in the red year after year.

It's probably super difficult to exactly quantify how much something costs, but I think it should be provable that public transit is cheaper per person than the maintaining the network of roads we have. Of course, it's also hard to quantify the worth of those roads when we have a natural disaster and public transit stops working...

>I haven't read of a public transit system where the fares covered the costs of building and operating it. I have read that MTA (NYC), BART(SF), Amtrak[1], NJTransit, and other US ones definitely are in the red year after year.

In all of those cases, the fares plus gain in property values far exceed their costs. Indeed, every one of those authorities realizes that it would be net money loser on the sales/property/business taxes generated if they could stop paying maintenance and shut down the transit systems for free.

[1] Edit: except maybe that one.

Hong Kong, Japan, Taiwan, and Singapore would very much like to disagree with you:


Even the London tube does pretty well by this measure.

I agree it is difficult to quantify the costs, but I wanted to get an idea.

A quick analysis shows that while a system like BART may operate at a loss of about one dollar per trip, that is not far off from the costs of operating our car and road network. Based on average fuel economy, and road expenses the state of California subsidies driving at a rate of about 6.2 cents per mile. I didn't find any hard sources, but a few references that the average commute may be about 12 miles. That would make the average subsidy for a commute to be about $0.75.

- BART looses about a dollar per trip: (https://www.citylab.com/transportation/2015/06/how-much-mone...) - California gas tax covers 22.7% of road costs: (https://taxfoundation.org/gasoline-taxes-and-tolls-pay-only-...) - Average fuel economy is 23.6 miles / gallon in the USA: (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2013/12/13/cars-...) - The gas tax is 48.6 cents per gallon.

Math: - Total road expense per gallon of gas sold: 0.486/0.227 = $2.14 - Subsidy: 2.14-0.486 = $1.65 - Per mile $1.65/26.6 = $0.062

Why don't we make road construction cheaper? Most of those jobs are unionized and pay a prevailing wage, it'd be much cheaper to pay people less.

King County Metro fares cover a little more than 25% (their target) of (the average) operating cost per boarding.

Nonsense. Mass transit is a necessity of city traffic fluid dynamics. That has zero comparison to fed funded roads and mortgage deductions for nasty white flight perpetrators. Let them suffer. Let kids inherit their parent debts. Speak in big paragraphs of wordy words. Quips are not funny.

There is no solution for these suburbs: they aren't economically sustainable

If the outer suburbs manage all the services you mention with an even lower density then of course the inner ring suburbs could do the same and should in fact do better. This is not an insurmountable obstacle.

However, OP doesn't diagnose the failure and therefore has no answer other than having the cities throw money at these suburbs.

The outer suburbs aren't economically sustainable either, they are just new enough that the maintenance burden of old infrastructure hasn't hit them[1].

[1] https://www.strongtowns.org/the-growth-ponzi-scheme/

To me the summary of that discussion seems to be simply, "budgeting failure". Unfunded liabilities are very expensive after they've accumulated for thirty years. They are not very expensive when regularly, progressively funded.

The outer suburbs are full of richer people and are newer, which means they have more money and fewer financial obligations. New development is also often subsidized in various ways. But as poor people move into them (e.g. after explicitly discriminatory policies were outlawed), the rich whites keep moving further away (because they don’t want their tax dollars paying for services for poor brown people). In some cases like the St. Louis area the leapfrog game is pathological at this point.




Why do the rich keep moving farther away? Is the new Tesla so great they enjoy spending two hours in it every day?

EDIT: I see your ninja edit but it's inconsistent. Either poor people are a drain on resources that the middle class wants to avoid or they're a great profit centre for the municipality.

It's not either or. Poorer people are essential to the operation of the city economy but simultaneously undesirable on an individual level. It's classic NIMBY.

It's not about them being a drain on the _city_ resources, but undesirable beneficiaries of the wealthier denizens' "resource pool".

I'm not arguing in favor of the OP's point or against yours: it's much less economics driven and much more socioeconomic status driven. People don't want to share their neighborhoods with those less well off than them because they want to feel metrically superior wherever possible ("I can afford to live here and they can't") and they don't want to "bring down property values" because there's someone that doesn't meet their vision of "minimum acceptable wealth" living withing a stone's throw of themselves.

> Why do the rich keep moving farther away?

Rich enough to feel they’re above a mere apartment[1], not rich enough to afford a condo.

[1] american also seem obsessed with the idea that houses are for owning and apartments are for renting. Having grown up in buildings full of people/families owning their apartments and sharing costs of building upkeep, I never understood this. Maybe the co-op approach is a remnant of socialism and I’m the weird one.

Personally I’d much prefer to own a nice flat downtown than to waste my life commuting.

Sharing space with the hoi polloi is half the fun of living in a city anyway. Gives your neighborhood some character, interesting people to talk to and to see out and about.

Nothing worse than a neighborhood full of your average middle class suburbanite to drain all the life out of a place. I’ll never forget how utterly terrible living in Menlo Park was. shudder

Edit: sorry that is probably offtopic. My initial point was that real estate is actually more expensive closer to city centers. Maybe “the rich” aren’t so rich after all.

Middle and upper-middle around here move farther out for the schools (it's the only reason I'm not in the city). Our household income's not high enough to afford housing prices (for a family of 5) in the city and sending all our kids to private school. So the in-all-other-ways-terrible suburbs it is. :-/

I'm in a the category that you'd call wealthy or rich.

I have grabbed three quick images to show you why I moved further away - after spending my whole life in urban areas.


That's not typical suburbia. I completely understand wanting to get out and into nature where you can't see your neighbors. Makes sense, not for me, but it's totally logical and easy to understand different strokes for different folks.

The cookie-cutter typical suburbs of most mid-tier US cities though? I cannot imagine a worse combination of all the bad things from rural living, combined with all the bad things from urban living. Utterly soulless, and I feel actively depressed if I must spend more than a day or two stuck in one.

My personal theory is that the social strife we are increasingly seeing in the US is due to the breakdown in the sense of community nationwide. I posit that suburbinification was by far the largest driver of this. This is bad enough, but when you realize 90% of the suburbs in the US are unsustainable subsidies for middle class folks it gets even harder to swallow.

Yeah, I did the suburban life for a while. Not quite urban, but a single occupancy with a fence that might have been ten feet from the sides of the building and maybe a thousand square feet of back yard.

Getting out was great. It's not realistic for many, but it has been fantastic. The comment mentioned moving further afield, beyond suburbia, so I wasn't entirely sure what was meant.

I'm about 25 miles from a village with 1200 residents. I'm in a pn unincorporated township that has six residences and a couple of hunting camps. Once the locals (I call them the village people) get to know and accept you, I've never seen a greater sense of community.

I suspect you're onto something with the sense of community. Even the unpopular people here, of which there are a few - some self-selecting for the role, wouldn't be allowed to go hungry or homeless. In my township, there is no crime and everyone knows where my keys are, just in case the door is locked.

In the village? Well, there are minor property crimes at the rate of maybe two a month. Most of those can be attributed to tourists. There are only 1200 residents but they may swell to ten times that many people during the height if tourist season.

The sense of community is not something I'd experienced elsewhere. Ever. Even as a child, my family moved a lot due to my father being in the military. It was unfamiliar feeling and very disconcerting at times - but it is something I've come to cherish.

This is the first time I've really felt at home.

You know you're an accepted member of the community when they are telling you the gossip and it is no longer about you. It has its charms.

I don't have words for it, but the sense of community really does have an overall effect on the people. There is true compassion, even when it isn't a crisis. It doesn't take a flood to make people help their neighbors.

I strongly suspect you're not something with that.

> The cookie-cutter typical suburbs of most mid-tier US cities though? I cannot imagine a worse combination of all the bad things from rural living, combined with all the bad things from urban living. Utterly soulless, and I feel actively depressed if I must spend more than a day or two stuck in one.

And for me, a "cookie-cutter" suburb like Plano, TX is utter paradise. We're all different.

I don't believe in a soul, and I've never understood what anybody has meant when they complain about something being "soulless". And I've never been interested in being part of a community.

I want to live in a single-family home with a yard, little undeveloped space, six-lane arterials on a grid, strip malls at every intersection, at least one hole-in-the-wall Asian restaurant in every strip mall (Plano is a very ethnically-diverse cookie-cutter suburb), etc. That's my dream town.

25 minutes on a bicycle will probably just barely get you to the neighbor's house, though you can take the trail through the woods.

What you're not seeing is I've got about 3200 acres of mountainous woodland. I can have a few hundred people on my lawn, complete with live music, and the nearest neighbor will only hear it because they joined us.

That's the difference. I'm more likely to see a moose than I am to see a stranger.

And that's why I moved away from urban/suburban areas. As near as I can tell, more wealthy/rich people are doing much the same. In the ten years since I bought the property, the cost of land has skyrocketed. People are buying remote and moving well past suburbia.

Comparatively speaking, I bought the property at a very low price. What I paid ~$500/acre for is now three to four times the price - in just a decade.

I see a downside to this for everyone else; I'm not faulting you because it may have been this way before you got your land...

...but now that you (and everyone else) owns that land - no one else (unless you let them, or there's some kind of government-mandated form of easement to allow for it) can use that land: They can't hunt on it, they can't fish on it, they can't go off-roading on it - they can't even hike on it and enjoy nature.

So in other words, it's a classic case of "I've got mine..."

I don't blame you for this - if I had the wherewithal I'd do the same. Heck, as it is (for my budget), my wife and I have been talking about moving out of the city and on to a plot of land (much smaller - even with the cheapest land we couldn't afford 3200 acres - not to mention any upkeep or whatnot, nor taxes). Not that we dislike our neighbors or anything, we're just getting to a point not liking the bustle of the city as much. Our greater concern is more of "how long will it take to reach a hospital for an emergency" (well, that and high-speed internet access - but even that is becoming both less of an issue, as well as something I am beginning to wonder if it might be better to be without).

But more and more, these spaces which used to be public property are becoming private, and rarely do the owners (whether individuals or corporations) allow for any others to set foot on the property, at least legally. I guess, though, that this isn't anything new.

My land is all open for public use, except a small area around my home. When I die, it doesn't go to my children but is maintained as a land trust which will ensure public access in perpetuity.

The public was using the land before my name was on the deed. I have a legal right, but not an ethical right, to prohibit reasonable use.

Instead of signs that say no trespassing, there are signs with my phone number, marked trails, and parking.

The firewall is blocking the image. I imagine it is a beautiful sight of nature. I also love nature. But I would rather have density AND protected natural areas that anybody can enjoy than having a beautiful natural sight in my backyard. Sure the beautiful backyard is nice for me, but it is unsustainable if too many people have one.

I don't want to derail the thread. I'm outside Rangeley, Maine. If you would like some pictures, I'd be more than happy to email you a few.

It is absolutely beautiful. It was comparatively inexpensive and you can hike all day and still be on my property.

At the rate similar land is selling, and the single occupancy homes going in, it appears that more monied people are moving in.

However, a million dollars will buy you a couple hundred acres here AND allow you to build a nice house on it. If you're patient, you can get the land much cheaper. I bought during the recession and the land was auctioned by a paper company that was going out of business. I pretty much stole it.

Meh. To each their own. Beauty is on the eye of the beholder. The giant forests of steel, glass and concrete in Manhattan are quite beautiful to me, along with everything else that comes with it: It's bridges, the subway, the people, its restaurants and bars, etc. etc.

Indeed, it is entirely subjective. I speak only for me and can only share observable trends.

I do see the appeal of urban living and I can find beauty in the structure. What I really appreciate is the combination of aesthetics, tranquility, and privacy.

On the subject of privacy, I am able to be more private in my location than I am if I lived in a city. However, the trade off is anonymity. I can be much more anonymous in an urban area.

Definitions follow:

I can pee on my lawn and nobody will know. If I pee on someone else's lawn, they will know exactly who I am.

I'm not a hermit, I have an active social life and a girlfriend. But, I do enjoy the solitude and tranquility. I also enjoy the furry woodland critters and the lifestyle that I can have here. (I can't really hunt moose in Manhattan and it's doubtful that I'd see one on my lawn.)

At least where I live, more and more businesses are moving into the suburbs as well. This phenomenon is called "edge cities" [0]. Someone who lives in an outer suburb will likely find themselves working in a suburban office park or a massive sprawling campus, not a skyscraper downtown. For this matter, I know people who live in inner-ring suburbs and commute to outer-ring suburbs!

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Edge_city

Technically, that kinda describes my current situation, and it's been this way for a while now. I live in what used to be a suburb when my home was built in the early 1970s (now it's more part of an "inner ring").

I "commute" about 15-30 minutes away to my job (software engineer) where my employer is located in an industrial business park area, on the more outer edge of the city (but not the extreme outer edge).

My last three or four employers have been like this mostly, but this one has been the closest to home, and it is pretty nice not having to drive so far for a change.

Why people move into those shitty small communities (where they fine you for not using the "city" enshrined garbage disposal service)? How come black/liberal/sane people don't move into a small city for themselves?

what a weird use of /


  If the outer suburbs manage all the services you mention
  with an even lower density then of course the inner ring
  suburbs could do the same
To take East Cleveland as an example. Population in 2010 was 17,843. In 2000 the median household income was $20,542.

Nearby South Euclid has a population of 22,295. In 2010 the median household income was $59,423.

And due to progressive taxation, South Euclid's relative tax revenue is probably even higher than those household income figures imply.

City governments are accountable to their residents, who almost never want to be gentrified and displaced by their suburban counterparts. If anything, they’re trying to do the opposite of what you propose.

No city views the existence of its suburbs as a serious problem. Most cities are in crisis re: gentrification and affordability in the urban core, a problem that suburbs directly solve by providing substitutes for urban apartments.

Why do we need to substitute an urban apartment for one further away (causing long commutes)?

Is the city "full" or something?

I can't speak for all cities, and clearly Detroit is different from New York, but at least here in Seattle the problem isn't the lack of space but the cost.

Putting aside the reasons (Amazon, Google, Microsoft, etc, all being willing to pay well, people wanting to live in an urban area, etc etc) the ground truth is that developers can charge a ton of money for a residence in Seattle now.

So they do.

No one's building anything affordable because hey - why not get paid a ton more for doing basically the same work by developing a luxury apartment/condo/etc.

So it's not that the city's full, it's that most people can't afford to live here anymore.

The nature of the apartment determining its price is not a very good model. A luxury apartment goes for $1200 in Chicago or $3800 in San Francisco. This is not because the San Francisco apartment has better finishes, but because San Francisco has a tighter supply/demand balance.

The suburbs contribute supply and absorb demand.

If developers built similar quantities of “affordable” units, we would have just as much trouble getting them, but due to waiting lists/lotteries/bribes/whatever instead of rental prices.

Given the sorry state of the apartments left after urban decay, “luxury” apartments are the only kind that won’t be a huge decrease in quality of life to middle class former homeowners.

I'm not disagreeing with your premise or the economic/logical rationale behind it. But to nitpick:

> If people still want to live in large houses in low-density areas, let them pay for it.

They did, though. I mean, suburbs are rarely directly financed by larger cities and initially, inhabitants of suburbs are, on average and in the United States, wealthier than their counterparts in the city (and nearer suburbs). The problem is that a certain class of people is only willing to foot that bill provided certain discriminatory characteristics are present. When those characteristics (such as racial segregation by means of socioeconomic discrimination via HOAs and zoning laws) fail to accomplish their purpose (the top-earning percentiles of those "undesired" classes of persons gain enough to love in, decreasing the desirability of the suburbs in the eyes of the people that initially wanted it, driving its prices down, allowing more diverse population groups to move in, rinse and repeat), those inhabitants that could moved on to other, wealthier and more exclusive suburbs even farther out.

The problem now is the suburbs in between, comprised of people "willing to pay" for the "status" of not living in the city but not able to afford it. You're essentially arguing to _increase_ segregation between the wealthiest and poorest striations of society, which would effectively redefine what it means to be middle class in America and possible wipe out the concept of lower middle class entirely.

"rarely directly financed"

Suburbs, sprawl are subsidized by urban areas. By zip code, county, state, region.

Not typically.

Unless you're claiming that by working in the city and commuting home to the suburbs, people are being subsidized by the city. But that would be silly.

In the USA, wealth transfer from urban areas to every where else is official policy.

Not a claim. Merely a statement of fact.

A suburb of a major city is considered part of that urban metropolis in all those numbers, to the best of my knowledge.

>They did, though. I mean, suburbs are rarely directly financed by larger cities and initially, inhabitants of suburbs are, on average and in the United States, wealthier than their counterparts in the city (and nearer suburbs).

You're missing in your equation:

1. Population density. If the population density is lower, the cost to maintain the infrastructure per resident is higher. The claim is that even though suburbanites are richer, they are not rich enough to offset the extra cost per resident.

2. A lot more businesses (and big businesses) in the city vs the suburb. This is a significant revenue stream.

I've seen maps and claims where even in the city, it is usually the downtown area that subsidizes the rest of the city (let alone suburbs).

> You're essentially arguing to _increase_ segregation between the wealthiest and poorest striations of society, which would effectively redefine what it means to be middle class in America and possible wipe out the concept of lower middle class entirely.

No, I'm arguing in favor of higher-density cities with a mix of low, mid and high income under a larger governmental entity.

>There is no solution for these suburbs

Despite how trite universal basic income is to bring up in threads these days, UBI could do a lot to help failing communities throughout the US. Much of the demand for housing in urban areas comes from people who may choose to live a less prosperous/expensive life elsewhere, if it were an option. This could change the dynamic of urban/suburban/rural life in the US. Whether or not that's a good thing is debatable, but I think with UBI a lot of people would leave expensive CoL areas.

Space unicorns with lasers would also do a lot to help failing communities throughout the US. Probably even more than UBI.

Perhaps the goal is to purchase the homes, which are too low-valued for the homeowner to get a fair price, and turn them over to commercial development - i.e. bulldoze them - for new office space, for example. Then the tax base goes up when businesses move in. Perhaps new high-rises as well so that they have higher-density habitation. Again, the tax base could go up.

It's pure speculation on my part, but it's the only rational reason I can find.

> bulldoze them - for new office space, for example

Not even that, just wipe it out, disincorporate and let nature retake it, or hand it over to agriculture. That's what Detroit is doing.

Why would a city agree to merge with a distressed, money-draining suburb?

Perhaps neighborliness. Perhaps a sense of community. Perhaps because neither city can move and arbitrary political borders are permeable to hard problems, i.e. if the roads in one city are impassible then people cannot get to the other. The other city owns the problems whether it acknowledges it or not.

Perhaps, just as perhaps you would buy your bankrupt neighbor's home and let them live in it for free.

Not happening.

> Why would a city agree to merge with a distressed, money-draining suburb?

I thought this too while reading. Only thing I can think is due to proximity, the suburb is a risk to the city. If the plight continues, it will eventually leak into the city in the form of crime, etc.

One solution is to upzone. Successful cities have trouble building housing affordable to lower earners when the land becomes too expensive for developers to target low to mid-range apartments. The increased capacity relieves the city of the burden of subsidizing housing on expensive land, and justifies greater infrastructure expenditures. Of course, you'll have some old timer NIMBY holdouts who will resist, but when the situation gets bad enough and losing their house to a ghost town is an imminent and the only alternative, many will probably change their tune.

> Why would a city agree to merge with a distressed, money-draining suburb?

From a purely self-interested perspective, it would increase their control of what happens in distressed cities. They could rezone the suburbs and build transit there to increase supply in case the city does not have enough. They may be able to help enforce law and order in areas that were outside of their jurisdiction. They may have friends and family living in the distressed city. They may have some basic compassion for their fellow humans.

This seems like such a strange comment, since generally it's the cities that are failing in the US while the suburbs do pretty well.

Suburbs, by definition, are already medium density, by the way.

Examples besides Detroit? That generally doesn't seem to be the case.

Also, there's suburbs and there's suburbs. There's a huge gulf between a town like Elizabeth NJ or Newton, Mass, and a Temecula housing development.

Downtown Detroit is actually doing very well, thank you. The problem is the poor suburbs, which are unsustainable.

That's why Detroit is buying the homes in those suburbs and demolishing them.

Fair enough

I've never heard of a single suburb being an economic center, what would be examples of it in the US(?) because when I think of economic centers I think of NYC, San Francisco, Chicago, Boston, Miami, Atlanta, or Los Angeles.

What do you also consider as failing?

> I've never heard of a single suburb being an economic center, what would be examples of it in the US(?)

Silicon Valley, for one. Most SV companies are in the suburbs.

Google in Mountain View, Facebook in Menlo Park, Apple in Cupertino, EA in Redwood City, etc...

In many of those places you list, much of the economic activity--maybe most of it--is actually spread out over the suburbs associated with the city rather than being within the city limits. And this was certainly true prior to a lot of large businesses moving into places like San Francisco and Boston over the past 10-20 years. [ADD: And if you do go back a few decades, there were lots of examples of prosperous suburbs and cities which, if not failing, weren't in great shape.]

Boston that people talk about is really Boston and surrounding cities, much like New York City is made up of the 5 boroughs with Manhatten being New York County, Boston proper includes a few different cities inside of it like Mattapan, South Boston, Roxbury and the Greater Boston area includes Somerville and Cambridge. Many people outside of NYC would easily confuse Long Island as being part of NYC since it's part of the metro area.

Ironically, part of the reason traffic in Boston is so poor is due to not wanting to destroy poorer areas when roads were being built.

Route 128, "America's Technology Highway", is at the edge of the Greater Boston area. It would certainly have qualified as an 'economic center' back in its prime (through the 1980s at least).



This is the unfinished road I was referencing.

That was true 30 years ago, but is not longer the case.

So if you let those suburbs fail and wipe out, then what happens to the people living within them?

From my comment:

> Let them fail and wipe them out. Instead of wasting money trying to sustain a broken system, provide resources to facilitate moving to mid and high-density housing in the central city.

They move?

Right, so there are two reasons why suburbs would die in the first place:

1. Businesses evict themselves from it, usually due to:

2. People being unable to afford anything else.

So what happens when you have hundreds of thousands of people who literally can't afford to move?

Annexation was a strategy used by Columbus OH some years ago to continue growth past the limits of its suburban sprawl (and officially past the size of Cleveland, making it defacto the largest city in Ohio). Cleveland has been talking about doing the same for some time now, but I don't think the state government has been very supportive. Cleveland proper isn't large in itself, but the metro area is about the size of Austin: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Metropolitan_Statistic...

A negotiation for merger between Cleveland and East Cleveland was shot down last year because of some pretty ridiculous demands by the EC leadership:


Some discussion at the time: https://www.reddit.com/r/Cleveland/comments/4zeubq/east_clev...

As a resident of the Columbus Ohio area for many years the equivalent to East Cleveland would be Whitehall. Whitehall is an inner-belt suburb that has nothing but [now] dirt cheap housing with a high crime rate. Meanwhile a 20 minute drive to the north is one of the fastest growing areas in the country, Delaware County. All suburb with upper six figure homes, retail, medical, and a near zero crime rate. One can use Columbus as the perfect example of what happens when affluent people keep moving further away from the city core. Far flung suburbs are building like crazy, like Dublin and Westerville in Deleware County. Gahanna is getting swallowed by Columbus annexing, New Albany's aggressive annexing may save part of the city from going "ghetto" in 25-30 years. Reynoldsburg, Pickerington, and Pataskala all annexed to block Columbus from swallowing them whole too.

Inner suburbia like Whitehall is not coming back. Highway infrastructue shuffles more traffic between suburbs around Columbus and many other citys rather than traffic into the city core. Poor people displaced from hip new downtown building are moving into these abandoned inner burbs and bringing all the crime with them.

Very helpful context. While a lot of comments here have brought up points regarding the density of suburbs, I'm not sure they are familiar with East Cleveland or the sort of inner ring suburbs that exist in a less-sprawly city that includes street car suburbs like Shaker Heights and what I think is the densest city between Chicago and NYC in Lakewood.

I'm glad someone pointed this out. There were many offers to get EC to join CLE proper, EC was negotiating like they had some form of power; for fans of Parks and Rec it reminds me of the Eagleton Pawnee merger scenes where the Eagleton people are shocked they must give up their precious amenities when they can't pay for them.

By not merging, those black residents are cut off from the tax base being created by the technology and medical industry booms happening in the city of Pittsburgh next door. Black control in many of these suburbs has meant inheriting a community where previous generations of residents did the equivalent of running up 250,000 miles on the odometer, then handed over the keys to what's now used-up jalopy and walked away.

That's not how real estate works. It's not a car. Usually, when a city experiences a boom, its suburbs benefit by housing workers from the booming industries.

If people choose to extend their commute or pay higher prices for residences in the city just to avoid you, I'm guessing you gave them a very good reason to avoid you. Why did the original middle class residents leave?

Why did original middle class residents leave? Because American suburbs are built unsustainably. Because maintaining or replacing infrastructure built 30 years ago and designed to last 25 years costs more (prohibitively so) than new greenfield development. Because they're moving into the city to shorten their commutes rather than further out to lengthen them.

Why does it cost prohibitively more to raze a house and build a new one? Or repave a road over building a new one?

At least some infrastructure is reusable and you get residences closer to the city therefore much more valuable than outer suburbs which are doing better. You beat the city by offering a real backyard. There, sold.

Some people will still live farther out and others will remain in the city but you should have no trouble finding younger families happy to live there. This is not the issue.

It's not uncommon for new development to be subsidized by regional or state (or in the case of building roads, federal) entities in a way that maintenance and replacement are not. Plus maintenance/replacement disrupts other infrastructure and activity in ways that greenfield development doesn't.

Sewer and water are the big tent poles there because you really can’t put it off for too long (see Flint, MI). Which usually requires tearing up roads.

It's funny, we created communities that are too low density, and which contain almost no commercial or industrial development to support the tax base, and then we act surprised that they can't sustain themselves.

These communities seem to me like unsustainable resorts built for the upper middle class of fifty years ago.

As with most American history, it makes no sense without discussing the role of racism. The exodus really got started when school integration became mandatory. Where I live now in DC that era’s suburbs are obviously designed to be unwelcoming to outsiders: no sidewalks, tangled street layouts which make walking/cycling difficult and driving confusing for anyone who doesn’t live there (more modern neighborhoods at least have easily visible street signs), public transit was either halfhearted or actively opposed (this is still ongoing: opposition to a subway expansion has included thinly-veiled references to “the wrong sorts of people”), etc.

Combine that with redlining and so many of the weird patterns make sense: a suburb wasn’t designed to be a viable community as much as a de-facto private school district which only has students like your kids.



This is my feeling as well. The marginal cost of expensive infrastructure such as sewer, water, transportation, etc. is intrinsically higher the further out you go. When you were building on greenfields during suburban expansion, you overlooked that because relatively affluent people were getting a bargain on the land and thus the development costs looked more reasonable. Now the deferred maintenance on those bits of infrastructure is catching up and they want the central cities—the places where the marginal cost of infrastructure is low—to subsidize repairs to the infrastructure that allows for low density sprawl.

To be fair, the article is talking about relatively close-in suburbs. Things will look worse when the even more farflung exurbs start having a lot of deferred maintenance catch up to them.

In many areas, far flung "exurbs" long predate many of the closer-in suburbs. The town I'm in was founded in 1653 or something like that. So this narrative that infrastructure for living outside of cities only exists because of subsidized greenfield development. Yes, many people in those outlying towns commute to work elsewhere but many of those jobs aren't actually in the major nearby cities. They're in other suburbs.

Then it would more properly be classified as a small town rather than an exurb.

"Small towns" constitute the vast majority of people living in more spread-out communities outside of New England cities. Some are more built up than others but most of them date to some degree or other to well before highways. FWIW ESRI classifies where I live an an exurb.

New England is an older part of the US and patterns are obviously different with newer cities.

New England really isn't interesting to discuss for the most part when discussing US suburbs. New England is as close to "europe" style development as we get.

The flyover states are really where this conversation needs to be focused on, as these are the communities that will first be hit hard.

Small towns that eventually got absorbed into a giant metroplex are not the usual in the country. I think most folks see them as entirely different when it comes to sustainability models/etc.

That's somewhat fair although I'll point out that migration out of the urban cores in Boston/Cambridge was the norm until not that many years ago. So the dynamics weren't all that different. And there were basically no significant tech jobs left in the core urban area until about 20 years ago.

There's a reason why many of these places are called "bedroom communities" or "commuter towns." They exist solely to house the people working in nearest city, and provide a 'safe' place to raise their children. They have no other sustainable reason to exist.

What do you think a good alternative is? Cities are too dense to house all the people.

The argument is generally that American cities are not dense enough. Build taller, build better public transport, the rest of the world has been doing this for a long time. Our best example is NYC which has done a poor job keeping up with modern developments.

There is a fundamental national issue with how things are done in the US that will bite us in the ass as we get even less competitive over the years.

seems to me counties do just fine, it is only when integrated within a city construct that issues arise. many counties are low density and doing splendid.

I guess it all comes down to which view you wish to support. people who favor city living tend to ignore crime, noise, and pollution, while harping on suburbs as all being gate communities that consume taxes provided by cities.

whereas those in the country, which is different than city subburbs tend to see it all in the reverse

If this inner ring suburb is dying then the city is also dying. Inner ring suburbs are usually one of the first to benefit as city workers, looking for a shorter commute, buy housing nearby.

My city, Miami, dilapidated shacks are being snatched up for 300-500k, cash. And they are <20 minutes from the city core. That is what a ring suburb in a thriving city looks like.

If they aren’t getting developers sniffing around driving up the tax base then merging with the city won’t fix it.

Not necessarily. Chicago is experiencing a trend where the city center and north/west side are booming but the inner suburbs are slowly dying while the outer suburbs are booming.

I remain to be convinced. The last figures I could find was for 2015, 2010-2015 population grew 0.9% [0]. Not necessarily booming.

[0] http://worldpopulationreview.com/us-cities/chicago-populatio...

It's more of the poor are leaving and the middle/upper class is arriving.

I thought British local government was a mess, but it seems US local government is much worse.

One thing that jumps out as soon as you look at a map is that East Cleveland isn't a geographically distinct built-up-area. It's not really a city of its own, I suspect much of its employment comes from Cleveland proper.

It seems to me that a lot of these urban sprawls should be merged into what the UK would call "unitary authorities", which could then better make area-wide planning decisions.

Yes, every time I hear calls from politicians to devolve more powers to regions in the UK I wonder what the outcome will be. It seems like an invitation for them to become fiscally irresponsible.

It seems like the problems are from low density so I wonder if there's a way to set up an economic incentive for residents of suburbs to congregate in naturally growing/shrinking high density clusters so empty areas remain completely empty instead of sparsely populated and can have their services shut down.

Perhaps property tax grows the fewer property tax-paying people are in a street/small area. Ulitimately making the one guy at the end of a deserted street pay for the sewer pipe and road going all the way up the street.

so in that case real estate prices in suburbs will drop to zero because nobody would want to have house with sky-high taxes for services and poor people will become poorer and be forced to move out of suburbs. And given that they already have little or no money, they would not have where to go, and they would need to purchase new apartments in city which will be expensive and they would need to take a loan for it, which most likely would not be granted because of a low income.

They should be able to purchase/rent inexpensive apartments in the city. Because the apartments are higher density, they ought to be cheaper.

It must be a result of inefficient and damaging market forces, poorly planned maintenance expenses, and selfish political manipulations that make it cheaper for one person to live at the end of a culdesac than to live in an apartment building.

Think about it. Individual electric, sewer, water, roads, foundations, roofs, garages, exteriors, etc. on each house, with services and businesses like groceries, trash pickup, police/fire/ambulance, and transport spread over a broad area, should not be able to compete with a system in which these costs are shared and services are concentrated between many residents.

Yes, there are downsides to apartment living. I personally own my house, and enjoy that. But it's absurd that I can buy 2300 square feet of house and 2 acres of land for $1200/mo in mortgage, taxes, bills and maintenance when a 2-bedroom apartment outside my small Midwestern city rents for $1100/mo. And I paid extra for a newer house, larger lot, and nicer neighborhoods - you can buy less desirable spots for $800/mo, less than renting in less desirable apartments (assuming you have decent credit and a small down payment)! I should be paying way more, or they should be paying way less, if we're going to have balanced costs on the local economy.

> Because the apartments are higher density, they ought to be cheaper.

In my experience, that is not true because of the location of the apartment buildings. Anecdotally, most apartments I know of are in an area where space, thus housing supply, is at a premium and demand is high, not out in the suburbs where land and housing are already cheap. Why would you pay $X/month for an apartment when $X/month will also suffice for a mortgage?

Yep, I don't deny that your points are currently true.

I'm trying to say that a more rational system would put efficient, inexpensive apartment buildings where they would be cheaper, and more accurately ascribe higher costs to inefficient, expensive suburban single-family homes.

It's because the system is stupid and ineffective that apartments are in premium locations and suburban housing is artificially cheap. This ineffectiveness results in arguments like the parent article where people propose that the artificially cheap suburbs should be propped up by 'merging' with the wealthier and more efficient city who would be able to afford their poor choices.

why it is "artificially cheap" ? price is result of supply / demand , and if nobody wants to live in suburbs then price will also be low. I agree that police/emergency/firefighters will be subsidised by district, but for example trash services could have higher pricing to compensate longer trips to locations. same applies for water/gas services. For example my dad recently build tiny house in suburbs of one small city and he paid his own money to do some pipe works in order to have city's water supply. Same for sewage. But still pricing is lower compared to city's more central places because of prestige and comfort, so it makes sense to have cheaper pricing in suburbs.

I understand what you are trying to say but it contradicts how currently market is working, because in order to make sense city's apartments should be cheaper compared to suburbs, but given that population in cities is increasing, it means demand for apartments in cities is increasing, so increasing pricing too, and then we go back to square one - suburbs are cheaper to acquire.

> inexpensive apartments in the city

New York City resident here. There aren't that many inexpensive apartments. To put things in perspective, one new apartment building in my neighborhood came with about 100 affordable units that ranged in price from $500 to $900 per month.

I'm sure that many people living in dying suburbs would love to move into the city and live in one of those apartments. But more than 80,000 people signed up for the lottery to get one of those 100 apartments.

If you don't have money it is really, really hard to move to the city, and inexpensive apartments are hard to get.

These suburbs are "dying" because the majority of their population are low-skilled, low-educated people who have fewer and fewer opportunities to prosper in an economy that is becoming more and more automated and skills-oriented. The blight and decay is just a symptom of the actual problem, which is decreasing opportunity for these people.

That's one of the reasons I oppose opening our borders to a flood of additional low-skilled, low-educated people. It hurts the ones who are already here.

I'm sure this will attract a lot of downvotes, and I'm perfectly fine with that, but I'd appreciate it if the downvoters would also point out the flaws they perceive in my logic.

One only needs to fly over Detroit to see what happens when suburbs die. At night, huge areas of houses with only 1 or 2 having lights on. In the day, you see giant areas where there are no people, houses are falling apart, and some areas where they've simply torn down the buildings and left the land empty.

How many more cities will see this fate happen to their outer edges?

China could deal with this problem pretty easily. They don’t have that pesky strong property rights issue like the US does. They could just relocate everyone and bulldoze the suburb.

We forget history so easily: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Bottom,_Detroit

Although it was home to one of the most prominent African-American business districts, the highways that were created through the Federal Highway Act of 1956 destroyed Hastings Street, home to many of the thriving businesses. Because of this Paradise Valley can not be found today. In the early 1960s, the City of Detroit demolished much of the Black Bottom district as part of an urban renewal project. It constructed major freeways through this area: the Chrysler Freeway (Interstate 75 and Interstate 375).

Where exactly would the money come from to do that? Bulldozers don't drive and fuel themselves.

Without pesky property rights it is not that expensive. It's probably less money than the maintenance budget of the suburb's inefficient infrastructure.

It is almost as if the US has been promoting unsustainable development and poor land use for decades and it is starting to bite cities and states in the ass.

Do you really think the US was 'promoting unsustainable development and poor land use', or do you think maybe it was more the case that things may have changed in the last 50-100 years, and we may have gotten a little wiser?

It's utterly silly to think that building suburbs in the 50s and 60s was malignant, purposeful behavior. Things change, our population has increased and our understanding about economics, technology and our resources has evolved.

Two of the terrible things that increase: crime and grocery stores closing.

In Canada, the provinces often force cities to amalgamate. Is this not possible in the US?

I'm always genuinely surprised that we don't build down instead of building up, especially when it comes to cities. Sure there are drainage issues but the difference in heating and cooling needs would prove beneficial. The only real reason I can think of is the risk of collapse, which we already have with above ground buildings. This would provide more affordable housing to those in cities themselves.

While it wouldn't solve the immediate issue it might mitigate some of the issues that cause the flight to suburbs in the first place.

Light, and you gotta move all that dirt, and the view out the window is less than inspiring.

Though probably not what the OP had in mind, your rebuttal is moot if one considers what we (humans) do with deep pit mining.

Essentially, we make a huge tapering hole in the ground, with each "tier" being part of the roadway for trucks and other mining equipment.

Light isn't really an issue, except at the very bottom, but even it receives some light during the day. Moving the dirt isn't a problem either - I'm not sure where it goes, but the tailings end up somewhere (it isn't all consumed in the mining operation).

As far as a view? Well - if such a construction was done for housing, the tiers could be rows and rows of buildings hugging the sides of the pit, potentially looking out and over at other buildings across a large expanse - like looking out over a valley (if you've never been to a deep pit mine, take a trip to one sometime - it's quite amazing). With trees, plants, etc - perhaps water features and maybe a lake at the bottom - I think (in theory) it could be quite lovely to look at and live in.

It would be nice if the deep pit mines we already have dug could be repurposed, but the problem with many are the amount of contamination caused by the mining and other activities during the operation of the mine; I doubt it would or could ever be fit to live in. Some of these mines are backfilled with the tailings afterward, but not all.

That's actually a somewhat ingenious solution to housing tbh. You could also utilize the interior space for hydroponic farming, etc, which would create attractive greenery.

So light is an easily solvable problem as are windows. We can simulate views out windows with television screens that project the outside and the light with actual light from the outside using light tubes and bulbs. These aren't insurmountable problems. You also wouldn't have to worry about cleaning windows or breaking them, you'd have storage for vehicles already built into your top layers and you already have to move lots of dirt in building skyscrapers, but you usually can't build parks on top of skyscrapers.

I feel the same way sometimes, especially about parking garages (which IMO are an urban blight) but I believe the real reason is just cost. It's expensive to dig first, far cheaper to just build right there on the ground.

Even if the long term HVAC savings would make it cost-effective, we already know humans are all about that quick buck, save money now and beggar thy future.

I got claustrophobic just reading this.

I had the same thought and asked a building engineer about this. I don't recall the details, but he said that it is in fact cheaper to build up than down (albeit he was considering construction cost, not HVAC).

I'd say in many cities thanks to zoning we don't build up too.

Also what's not helping is public opinion that multi-story buildings (9+) are some ghetto projects, unless it's a luxury condos.

It's not only zoning; it could be foundational as well: Tall skyscrapers need a sturdy base to build on, the closer to ground level the better and cheaper it is. In New York, it's why Manhattan has the majority of skyscrapers - bedrock is essentially just below your feet. Other places have to do things differently, which are more expensive - like driving deep piles or digging deep sub-basements to reach bedrock, or a combination of both.

East Cleveland went down with the incandescent lightbulb. It's home to Nela Park, the first industrial park, built in 1901 by the National Electric Lamp Association and later acquired by General Electric. For most of a century, the East Cleveland Lamp Works source of incandescent light bulbs. There were R&D facilities; the compact fluorescent lamp was invented there, but not produced there.

Now Nela Park is down to about 300 people and GE is looking at exiting the lighting business completely.

Good relation with a blog post i read recently: https://econimica.blogspot.bg/2017/10/the-tale-of-two-americ...

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