U.S. Cities Are at a Crossroads

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When we envision our future, we often think in terms of technology, culture and geopolitics. All of that determines both our lifestyle and the kinds of cities we build.

U.S. cities have arrived at a crossroads. Explosive growth in the South and Southwest, heightened awareness of inequality, an aging population and technology that redefines transportation and buildings are changing priorities for development. Like never before, Americans have an opportunity to ask themselves how and where they'll live over the next few decades.

The past century has brought two huge changes in urbanization in the U.S. The mid-20th century saw the expansion of the suburbs, increasing auto dependence and an evacuation of affluent residents from urban cores. Then, beginning roughly in the 1990s, there was a move back to cities, especially by highly paid knowledge workers.

But this urban revival, driven by clustering in industries like technology and finance, was generally not accompanied by enough housing and transit construction to accommodate all the new arrivals. The result was skyrocketing rent, with landlords and incumbent homeowners profiting handsomely, and working-class Americans exiled to city fringes where their commuting options were limited.

Meanwhile, the suburbs kept right on building up through the middle of the 2000s. Houses got larger as the exurbs spread farther from city centers and commuting times rose accordingly. That process seemed to hit its natural limits in 2007 and 2008, when the housing market crash sent construction plummeting:

U.S. Cities Are at a Crossroads

Exurban development is limited by commute times, while urban cores have become unaffordable because of NIMBYism's chokehold on new housing. And now the pandemic has unleased new forces to disrupt that uneasy equilibrium.  The rise of remote work, in particular, promises to allow at least some knowledge workers to live outside of expensive city centers.

What kind of housing people will dwell in, how they'll get to work, where they'll shop and what they'll do for entertainment are fundamental to the quality of life in every country in the world. For Americans, a picture of the future is beginning to come into focus.

Suburban Makeover

Housing is probably the most important aspect of any city, and the U.S. simply hasn't been building enough of it. Politically powerful homeowners and landlords dominate local governments, blocking residential construction through a morass of zoning restrictions, parking requirements and other laws. New developments are strangled by endless reviews and challenges, often with environmentalism as a pretext. Fear of urban change is bipartisan — while NIMBYism has often been a tool of the right, it's recently won a growing number of champions on the left.

In response, pro-housing movements are springing up across the country. In Minneapolis and in the state of Oregon, these movements won their first big victory — bans on zoning laws that restrict neighborhoods to single-family homes. Now some California cities are following suit. There’s even talk of action at the national level: President Joe Biden’s infrastructure proposals include handing out money to cities that end the historically discriminatory practice of banning multifamily residences.  

So what would denser U.S. cities of the future look like? Those who fear density often imagine so-called “Manhattanization” — forests of gleaming towers rearing into the sky. But while these do occasionally get built, the vast majority of new housing won’t look anything like a giant futuristic hive. That's because most people in the U.S. don’t live in dense city centers where such towers make economic sense.

Much new housing will come in the form of low-rise apartment buildings. In a 2019 article, my Bloomberg colleague Justin Fox explained why a certain type of building — blocky, three- to seven-story wooden buildings — have become ubiquitous in American metros. They are cheap to build and they fill allotted space very efficiently. They're also convenient for public housing, so expect to see more suburbs dotted with these structures.

U.S. Cities Are at a Crossroads

You can expect subtler variations on America's existing single-family landscape. Duplexes, fourplexes, accessory dwelling units, townhouses and small, house-sized apartment buildings are all ways to fit far more human beings into existing neighborhoods while retaining the general feel of single-family housing. They represent an appealing compromise between the natural human desire for more living space and the need to live cheaply in neighborhoods that are relatively close to retail and offices.

This so-called “missing middle” housing might not seem like it would add much, but it could give density a huge boost if states simply allow it. Despite high-profile battles over housing in New York City and San Francisco, most of the places that need higher density are the sprawling suburbs. Those places could easily increase density by 50% by adding more middle housing  — an enormous increase in supply for relatively little change in neighborhood character.

Most importantly, middle housing is far easier to get past the NIMBYs. Indignant homeowners may rally against a big new apartment complex, but will be effectively powerless to stop a flood of new duplexes and townhouses. Thus, for political reasons if nothing else, it’s clear that modified suburbs full of middle housing are in America’s future.

Getting There

How people travel between their homes and work, retail and leisure is another key aspect of any city. Despite the many drawbacks, most modern American cities are built around the automobile. Changing the country to a train-centric landscape like Japan is both politically and practically a nonstarter; it would require tearing up and rebuilding too much existing infrastructure and housing. So cars  and roads will continue to be Americans’ main transportation option. Technology, however, will drive some important changes.

While everyone is waiting for self-driving cars to arrive, there's been a subtler revolution:  the arrival of electric scooters and e-bikes. Thanks to the rapid improvement in battery technology, Americans now have the means to get around their cities cheaply without being forced to rely on their own muscle power. That could be a real game-changer for the working class. And because these devices use existing roads and sidewalks, cities can accommodate them immediately. Preliminary evidence from China suggests that scooters and e-bikes could replace the bus for many people, taking fiscal pressure off of cities and reducing wear on roads.

U.S. Cities Are at a Crossroads

Trains will still play a vital role. Most U.S. cities won't ever be dense enough to create the kind of convenient, ubiquitous subway system boasted by Manhattan or Tokyo. Some subways and elevated trains might appear in downtown areas, laying the groundwork for greater urban density.  But in general, construction of metro systems will be limited by America’s construction cost problem.

Another kind of train system could be more promising. Commuter rail is very well-suited to taking Americans back and forth between their distant suburbs and their urban cores. And because wealthy Americans tend to live in the suburbs, there can be a political appetite for building this sort of train. Since commuter trains can pass through cities and make frequent stops within the city center — think of how BART has eight stops in San Francisco — they can also help urban residents get from one end of their city to another.

As suburbs densify with the addition of middle housing, commuter rail will become more important as increased traffic on highways bogs down commutes and makes more people want to take the train. But first, U.S. commuter trains need a number of improvements. Since they’ll be carrying more than just rush-hour workers, the trains will need to run far more frequently and regularly throughout the day. They’ll also have to be electrified. And there will have to be more express lines, so that local routes can be free to stop in many neighborhoods and towns without inconveniencing people who need to go farther faster.

Putting it All Together

A final component of future urbanism is retail. Densified suburbs will naturally encourage the construction of more shopping villages and other walkable retail areas, fulfilling the dream of the New Urbanist movement. Train stations can become an anchor for neighborhood retail, as in Japan. Zoning regulations will have to change to accommodate this mixed-use pattern.

U.S. Cities Are at a Crossroads

Put all of these elements together, and a vision of the future of American cities starts to emerge. Imagine suburbs that look much the same as today’s, but with duplexes, fourplexes and townhouses thrown into the mix. The sidewalks will have more people to say ‘hi’ to, and for many there will be nice little shopping villages within walking or scooter distance. Nearby commuter rail stations can whisk suburban dwellers into the city for a night out, or they can take a slow train to see friends or go shopping in the next town over. These cities will offer a far better balance of living space, commuting convenience, shopping opportunities and proximity to work than America’s current disconnected sprawl.

The best thing about this development pattern is that large parts of it can emerge organically. If states simply legalize more middle housing, it will get built. That will incentivize the creation of more local shopping villages. Government planning will be necessary for building and running improved train lines and allowing retail in key areas. But this is only a modest level of planning, so it’s not hopeless.

Of course, we'll still grapple with the same old urban dilemmas. Debates over policing will always loom over American cities, with the inevitable tensions between security and reform. Ideas like turning traffic-stop duties over to unarmed responders will continue to make headway, as will the push to make police more accountable, but abuses and the controversy they create will never entirely go away.

Neither will political battles. NIMBYs might have a hard time blocking middle housing, but they'll be very capable of blocking trains from connecting their own neighborhoods with lower-income ones. States will have to fight hard to put in enough rail stations. And construction costs will remain an issue until the U.S. figures out how to bring them in line with other nations.

Nevertheless, the  obstacles to transitioning to a denser, more walkable and convenient development pattern for our expanding cities aren't as large as detractors would wish. With some modest tweaks, U.S. urbanism can transform itself into something that the rest of the world might actually envy.  

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Noah Smith is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He was an assistant professor of finance at Stony Brook University, and he blogs at Noahpinion.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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