The Coming Suburban Welfare State

Some have predicted that high energy costs, either due to decreasing supply of oil or costs associated with carbon emission mitigation, will soon push people out of their cars and onto public transportation.

But there’s something else happening: people are getting sick of spending time in transit at all, making city living increasingly attractive. We are now increasingly able to infill “scrap-time” during our days with useful activity, and location-based social networks make it possible to maximize personal connections as we move about. We are engineering our own serendipity to generate real value from every moment. Why would we squander that potential by spending time in transit of any kind?

In the future, I predict:

  • Air travel will be reserved for trips greater than 500 miles
  • Trains will be used for trips less than 500 miles
  • Bicycles, walking, and local transit will be used within cities
  • Any local trip longer than 20 minutes will be seen as burdensome
  • Cars will be seen as a luxury to be used for road-trips + utility hauling

And again, this will not happen due to fuel scarcity alone – it will happen because people demand it; and I’m not talking about you – but your kids and grandkids.

Regardless of what happens with fuel prices, we know that roads do fill to their available capacity. And then that’s it. Expansion does not help for long, because roads then fill to whatever capacity is available and development occurs until roads are too broken to use.

Roads are also increasingly expensive to build. A major construction project such as the popular-but-doomed Intercounty Connector in Maryland will cost over $2.6Bn to build. Is this a good long-term use of resources? Seems to me we’re throwing a bone to some 55 year-old commuters who have been annoyed with the state of the Washington Beltway since it was built, and this is the only solution they thought could fix it. Enough with the reductionist, idiotic causal thinking already: it’s a dumb idea. I don’t begrudge it, but in the long term, who cares?

The idea-driven creative industries that America has hung its hat on can only thrive in cities, where people can get together and trade ideas freely. Any barrier to that exchange lowers the potential net economic value. Put simply, all of this kind of creative work will happen in cities. Period. Because if we don’t do it in cities, we won’t be able to compete with our peers around the world who will be doing this work in cities.

So, what of the suburbs? In many European cities, the urban centers have been long reserved for the upper-class elites; poorer immigrants, often Turks and other Islamic communities, tend to inhabit the outer rings of the city – denying them crucial access to economic opportunity. This kind of social injustice is baked into many European cultures; in France, you are simply French or not French, and no amount of economic mobility will allow someone who is not of that world to sublimate into it.

This is not the case in America. We are all Americans, and even marginalized citizens are able to fully participate in all levels of our culture – though certainly there is social injustice that must be overcome.

Over the next 50-75 years, there will be a net gain of wealthier people in America’s cities and also a net gain of poorer people in our suburbs. This will be a natural byproduct of an increasing demand to be in cities, and an increasing (and aging) suburban housing stock coupled with roads that no longer function.

To fulfill our challenge as Americans, we must use these dual gradients in our cities – the inflow of the rich and the outflow of the poor – as an opportunity to maximize social justice. By avoiding flash-gentrification and fixing education as we go, we can in a span of 20-40 years (1-2 generations) offer millions of people a pathway into new opportunities that stem from real, sustainable economic growth; all the while realizing this is going to mean more color blindness all around – and that suburbs will generally be poorer than the cities.

In my home state of Maryland, the only foreseeable damper on this force is the federal government and the massive amount of money it injects into industries like cybersecurity and other behemoth agencies like the Social Security Agency.

Because these agencies and the companies that service them generally do not have to compete globally to survive, they can locate in the suburbs and employ people that live in the suburbs – and subsidize all of the inefficiency, waste and boredom that comes with that.

This is nothing but a giant make-work program and its benefactors are little more than sucklings on the federal government’s teat, which is spending money that will likely come straight out of your grandchildren’s standard of living. Right on.

Cybersecurity, for all its usefulness in possibly maybe not getting us blown up by wackos (bored wackos from the European Islamic suburbs, I’ll point out), is  nothing more than a tax on bad protocol design. For the most part it doesn’t create any new value. In the end, we’ve got suburban overpaid internet engineers fighting an imaginary, boundless war with disenfranchised suburban Islamic radicals. Who’s crazier?

Lastly, for all of you who think I’m wrong or resist these predictions because you personally “wouldn’t do that” or can produce one counterexample, I ask you: Are you over 35? If so, your visceral opinion may not matter much. I fail this test myself, but I believe my argument is logically sound and is based in the emerging attitudes of young people.

The future will be made by people younger than we, and based on everything I can see, we are on the cusp of a major realignment of attitudes and economics in America.

It won’t be too much longer til active, entrepreneurial creative professionals (black and white) in our cities look at the suburbs (black and white) and decry the entitlement culture of the suburban welfare state.


#1 Mike Subelsky on 10.09.10 at 10:07 pm

Dave, this is awesome and inline with my own thinking. My family has to make a decision in the next three years whether to stay living within the city limits of Baltimore – for all the reasons above I'm desperately hoping we can stay. It's really obvious we should be here – even the extra 10-15 minutes away that we'd be if we moved somewhere like Rodger's Forge would have a material impact on our participation in the life of the city.

There are only two things that would drive us away; they're real threats even if they are totally stereotypical:

1) We need to find some kind of high-quality schooling for our kids that will be either free (e.g. public or charter) or low-cost (e.g. some kind of co-op private school). I know my kids will benefit enormously from growing up in an urban environment but I can't bring myself to send them to a place where I'm not sure they'll be safe or surrounded by other kids who are ready to learn.

2) Crime. I live in Charles Village which has been in the news a lot lately. There's also just a lot of everyday property crime that doesn't even get mentioned it's so run-of-the-mill. I don't really see the city doing much about crime despite all the hue and cry – it seems like the cops are just trying to hold the line. I know this is part of the risks of living in a city and just reading media can make things overexaggerated…so maybe it's just a perception problem…but either way, I feel like we're paying a high price in perceived or actual safety by staying here.

I know not everyone has the luxury of being able to leave. I'm just trying to be honest about what I see as the countervailing forces to this vision you've outlined, in the short-term.

#2 Mike Subelsky on 10.09.10 at 10:41 pm

PS I posted this to Hacker News if anyone would like to upvote it…

#3 Guest on 10.10.10 at 5:21 am

These are reasons to not live in Baltimore, not reasons to not live in a city.

#4 Mars Saxman on 10.10.10 at 8:30 am

I am 34 years old, and the future you describe sounds like my present – except that out here on the west coast there's nowhere much to go by train. Living in the heart of it all seems like a bargain compared to the time I'd waste driving around if I lived in the suburbs somewhere.

#5 davetroy on 10.10.10 at 12:23 pm

Education and crime are both addressed by fixing the social justice issues that I talked about.

In the end, the strategic truths I mentioned will play out; this *will* happen. As part of that, crime and education are largely going to fix themselves as social justice is addressed. You can see this in urban places where social justice is less of an issue.

This may or may not happen on a timeline that is workable for you, and people like you, to be able to benefit from it, which would be a shame. I'm thinking in terms of 20 years.

That said, stuff changes rapidly sometimes, especially when you're dealing with chaotic systems. I would not be surprised to be looking back in 5 years wondering how we (and other cities, especially well-situated cities like Baltimore) came so far, so fast. With everything I see happening, it's very achievable.

#6 davetroy on 10.10.10 at 12:26 pm

Not really. If you want to be on the right side of this coming change, Baltimore is better situated than most cities, as mentioned above.

#7 Mike Subelsky on 10.10.10 at 11:34 pm

Well I find your reply and the follow-on post encouraging. I hope something serious does start to happen in the next few years. My wife and a friend have started up a parent’s group in our neighborhood that has a primary objective of helping the local school and they are starting to have some good successes…bottom up as you say!

#8 Kate Bladow on 10.11.10 at 3:50 am

Dave, certainly the picture you paint could be the future, but should it be? Isn’t there some value in the diversity of thought created by geographic location? I ask not because I believe that there is a signicant difference between someone in Baltimore City and Baltimore County, but because I know there is a difference between someone who lives in Mayville, ND and Baltimore City. And many of the issues you listed as killing the suburbs will also empty rural areas. -K

#9 Collins Pt on 10.11.10 at 5:57 am

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#10 Anonymous on 10.11.10 at 2:58 pm

I have no problem with people living in either suburban or rural areas, but I think that needs to be sustainable. To the extent that this kind of lifestyle is only sustainable by way of artificially cheap fuel or excessive road subsidies, I’m against it.nnEverybody’s decried cities for years as the target of subsidy; my point is that in the long run, suburbs (and rural areas) will require even more subsidy to work, and I think we should have a serious conversation about what that means for American life and urban design.

#11 hardaway on 10.11.10 at 3:24 pm

Oh, you are so right! And BTW, I grew up in NYC and that’s the way my childhood was. The serendipity of meeting people on the street and filling small time slots with neighborhood activities

#12 Nate Mook on 10.12.10 at 12:43 am

I am in complete agreement that these issues will fix themselves, but the timeline is what’s open to debate/influence. If the current situation is pushing people like Mike out of the city, it will take longer for the city to naturally address the problems it faces.nnIf people like Mike stay in the city, then a rapid-shift becomes at least possible. But what can the city do to keep him around? These current, pressing issues will play a role in determining where a city like Baltimore is in 5 years. Sure, crime and education will eventually fix themselves, but with no proactive measures, it could take far longer.nnThat’s where the efforts of city governments (ideally with fresh minds after getting rid of the incumbent power structures) need to focus their efforts. If Baltimore (or any other city, for that matter) can’t keep people like Mike, it leaves nobody around to play the critical roles necessary to bring about such change.nnI’m assuming you would not have moved to the city had you not been able to afford private schools. So how do we fix that?

#13 Anonymous on 10.12.10 at 4:24 pm

While it would be a loss for any engaged citizen to decide they have to move out of the city for reasons like schools, that is tangential to my argument which is that macroeconomic forces u2013 fuel costs, road congestion, and emerging attitudes about lifestyle u2013 are going to drive people into cities over time and the accompanying influx of wealth will make our cities more livable and functional. Whether someone stays or goes today doesn’t strongly affect that future reality, and may not even affect the timeline.nnA strong understanding of that future may change someone’s mind today about whether they want to be in a city, and that may affect our readiness when the reversal does ultimately occur.nnIt’s tempting to think that we are creating the future and that if we do nothing, our city will languish in ruin. I don’t really believe this, as much as I do value engagement.nnI think the future is instead creating us, and that we’re the bellwether of things to come. In this case, we need simply to understand what’s coming and prepare for it. The rest is water under the bridge, and we may or may not be able to affect someone’s choices today, and that’s ok: the future’s the same the regardless.

#14 Nate Mook on 10.13.10 at 7:30 pm

Granted. I am in full agreement that a number of forces and generational mindset changes will drive people back to the cities and leave our suburbs as second-rate places to live (arguably they already are).nnBut if you look deep into any issue, you see a myriad of smaller actions that eventually lead to the major shift.nnIf the city were to stop picking up trash, policing the streets, or funding schools at all, the city would quickly deteriorate no matter what macroeconomic forces are at play. Little things play a major role when combined.nnLikewise, cities can be proactive and make decisions that will encourage the wealth to move back into the urban center — whether this be stopping road expansion, taxing fuel, working more closely with businesses, building districts that encourage young people to move in and stay, etc.nnIf the city/state sits back and continues to operate as it has been doing for the past 60 years, will things eventually change on their own? Probably so. But there are things it can do to make that change happen faster.nnLooking at cycling: Sure, more people may start riding their bike on their own accord due to clogged roads and expensive fuel, but if the city has proper infrastructure/laws/support the facts are clear that bicycle usage soars. If they sat back and did nothing to support cyclists, places like Bogota, Amsterdam, etc. would be very different places right now.

#15 Anonymous on 10.14.10 at 2:09 pm

Yes, of course. But sometimes I think people get overwhelmed by the calls to individual action and can’t see the overall trends. And in misreading the trends, they make the wrong decisions that ultimately undermine individual action anyway.nnSo, I’m just suggesting: it’s not all individual action, it’s part macro-economic trend, and the two will meet in the middle.nnAny mental model that excludes one of these two elements is deficient, and leads to bad decision-making.nnIn short, people are less likely to stick around to make a difference if they think there’s no point in doing so, or that the long-term trends are working against them, which is what happened from roughly 1968-2008.

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