Let’s Get Real, People

By Hart Schwartz | November 2015

There seems to be a general idea that the suburbs are coming to an end: Millennials are going to live happily ever after with their smartphones and only use Uber and public transportation. Many prestigious firms get caught up in this hype and make statements about the future of urban transportation, which have only the faintest grounding in factual analysis, and betray a very shallow understanding of American urbanism. It's a fantasy land.

The predominant form of the American city, since the dawn of industrialization in the early 1800s, is and has always been the metropolis, a spread-out and decentralized complex. The metropolitan shape has in large part been determined strictly by available transportation technologies, and the radial distance one could travel in 60 minutes.

New forms of transportation over the past century have only further dispersed and diffused the metropolitan complex Why should we think that further innovations in transportation, such as the self-driving car or the on-demand, app-based ride-sharing services, will change this?

America's cities have been designed around the Interstate. In his 1991 book, "Edge City: Life on the New Frontier," journalist Joel Garreau coined the term Edge City to describe the American pattern of constantly expanding to the edges of metropolitan areas, and once that region is filled it expands again and again as the population grows. As a result, we have a nation of metropolitan areas with office complexes, shopping malls, warehouses, and apartment buildings clustered at intersections of the Interstate, to get access to the cheapest, most timely shipping, commuting and shopping.

Another urban historian, Robert Fishman, explained that the typical American chooses a residential location based on the driving distance from the home to work, shopping, school, church and the doctor. As a result, America has developed a movable metropolitan geography, profoundly centered on the automobile. Looking at population density statistics, we can see that population densities in the principal cities of metropolitan areas fell from 7,500 to 2,500 persons per square mile between 1950 and 1990. The total number of Americans living at less than 2,000 persons per square mile has seen a precipitous increase between 1960 and 2010.

The bottom line is that there are powerful forces driving America in this direction, and these forces show no sign of abating. It is a nation with an abundance of undeveloped land; a capitalist engine of wealth creation to finance new land development; a strong cultural preference for single-family homes that has held steady since at least 1940; and federal housing policies that favor suburban home purchases instead of urban apartment rentals. Furthermore, Garreau's Edge City concept is as much a spiritual and philosophical quest as it is a geographic phenomenon. He writes that the American spirit craves a sense of living on the edge, of developing new frontiers, and that this mindset is a powerful force driving the development of American urbanism.

In the face of all of this evidence, the media, consulting firms, auto industry pundits and urban activist groups remain obsessed with the supposedly impending demise of personal transportation. Nothing is further from the truth. The American way of living is a sprawled metropolitan region, organized around and facilitated by personal transportation. There are forces dictating that as the population grows, this will continue to be the case. There are actually hundreds of metropolitan regions in waiting. One-horse "rural" towns with only a main street are now considered micropolitan by the U.S. Census Bureau, since they resemble the form of metropolitan areas but at a factually smaller scale. Same shape, smaller scale.

My prediction is that as the general U.S. population grows, micropolitan regions will eventually pass the necessary population threshold (50,000 persons in the principal city) and become metropolitan regions in their own right, thus providing a whole new supply of metro regions where personal transportation is a must, due to sprawling geography.

Let's get real and get beyond the hype and marketing. Let's learn for ourselves what's really going on.

Read more from the November Issue of our Fuel for Thought newsletter.

Hart Schwartz is the Research Consultant of Clarify Consulting Research. He can be reached at hschwartz@clarifyconsulting.com.