The Rapid Urbanization of Suburbia

America’s best suburbs are becoming increasingly urban. This includes efforts to link homes to businesses via bicycle friendly infrastructure. I’ve seen it in communities as disparate as The Woodlands Texas and Carmel Indiana. Closer to home, the Ogden suburb of Riverdale has earned bicycle friendly status by providing on street connections for cyclists that are safe and convenient. This is very intriguing to me since Riverdale is, in some ways, one big long strip of suburban sprawl. It doesn’t seem to matter. It is also very bicycle friendly.

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It’s sometimes difficult for those of us who don’t bicycle to see all of this as anything more than a big waste of scarce tax dollars, but it’s not. Ironically, it actually saves taxpayers in the long run while better positioning these communities for the future. It’s no coincidence that suburban communities like the ones I just mentioned are doing better than many of their peers.

A lot has been written about the urban renaissance since the Great Recession and while it’s true that many of our cities are growing again, our suburbs continue to grow at a faster pace.  As they do, many are choosing to become more walkable and bikeable, not so much because it’s trendy or popular, but rather because it makes fundamental sense on a variety of levels.

The Woodlands Texas is not your father's suburb. This planned community sits on the edge of the Houston metropolis.

The Woodlands Texas doesn’t look like a suburb but it is. This planned community sits on the edge of the Houston metropolis.

Typical Riverdale bike lane.

There was a time not long ago when this Riverdale UT street might have been configured with four lanes and a 50 mph speed limit.  Those days are over.   This street works really well for cyclists.  I know, as I ride it regularly.

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Riverdale’s approach isn’t sexy, but the community has done a great job of linking homes to businesses.

American suburbia as we know it did not exist until the 1950s. It was built on the easy availability of cheap oil. I’ve read enough to know all the stories about GM paying cities to tear up streetcar tracks are just urban legend. That’s not how or why it happened. The reality is that we abandoned streetcars because it was easier and cheaper to drive private automobiles. That’s what people wanted and so developers built communities that accommodated that behavior. As long as oil remained cheap and space was plentiful, it was easy to continue to grow and develop in this manner.

Carmel Indiana is criss-crossed with bicycle infrastructure. It is also one of metro Indy's most desired addresses.

Carmel Indiana is criss-crossed with bicycle infrastructure. It is also one of metro Indy’s most desired addresses.

Meridian Idaho, a suburb of Boise, has big plans for a walkable, bikeable downtown.

Meridian Idaho, a suburb of Boise, has big plans for a walkable, bikeable downtown.

Even historically low density suburbs like Plainfield Indiana are now integrating bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure into new development.

Even historically low density suburbs like Plainfield Indiana are now integrating bicycle and pedestrian infrastructure into virtually all new development.

So what’s different today? Well, oil is no longer cheap for one thing, and if one looks forward it’s difficult to imagine a scenario where it’s ever going to be cheap again. We’ve exploited the easy reserves and those that remain are tougher and more expensive to extract. They require things like offshore drilling and fracking, for example, and so it’s going to be more expensive any way we look at it.

Then there’s the space issue. Here along the Wasatch Front, we have a linear city that stretches 100 miles along the mountains. The same is true of Colorado’s Front Range, Chicagoland, and the LA Basin. Urban areas like Austin and San Antonio are running into each other and increasingly scarce land is being underutilized in the process.  Given that,  it’s perfectly natural for suburbs to rethink development and add density as the opportunity presents itself. This is as true in smaller metros like Boise as it is in the mega-metroplexes.

I’m not really surprised by this rethinking of what a suburb is and should be.  It makes perfect sense when viewed agains the backdrop of energy and land and so I expect it to continue and accelerate as we move forward.  I am inspired, because everywhere I look I now see a future that promises to be more attractive to those of us who choose to  leave the car parked.  This is good news for our cities, our suburbs, and all of us who call them home.

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