Car Culture Cements Suburban Unsustainability

Photo:  David Shankbone
Photo: David Shankbone

America’s suburbs are becoming more diverse — economically and racially — but they are still just as dependent and just as unsustainable because of car culture.

A new study just published in the journal Urban Planning reveals that even as the demographics shift, suburbs remain defined by their dependence on driving and low-density development — which then gives suburbanites a distinct political identity.

“Whether supportive of automobility or not, they are locked in an environment and lifestyle that make dependence of the car a necessity,” said study author, Pierre Filion of the University of Waterloo. “Much of the world view of suburban residents is fashioned by what they see through the windshields of their cars.”

Challenges to that dynamic — such as the experience of metro Toronto — have met with backlash, writes Filion. About 175 million Americans live in suburbs. Those areas are key “swing districts” (and, at least in the 2018 midterms, swung Democratic).

Some scholars have predicted a “post-suburban” political landscape as cities become whiter and suburbs more diverse. But Filion says that notion premature.

Toronto has been more progressive than most North American cities about trying to promote density in the suburbs and reduce dependence on driving. But those efforts have had limited success, and in some cases have backfired.

For example, in 2006, Ontario established 25 “urban growth centers” in suburban areas of Toronto. When Filion examined the four most-advanced of those areas, he found that only one was very successful at offering an alternative to car-based suburbia. The other three — former mall sites — were all redeveloped at mostly suburban densities. The land area in each development was between 25 and 40 percent parking. The single site that was successful at becoming more dense — previously low-rise retail — was served by strong transit, including a subway line.

The study showed that increasing use of automobiles resulted in “the normalization of aspects related to unsustainable living,” Paul Ratner wrote in the Big Think. “This lifestyle also makes people more resistant to calls for ‘transformative’ changes that would influence their ‘comfort and convenience,’ said Fillion.”

Suburban resistance to urbanization can take two forms, Filion said: the classic NIMBY (Not in My Backyard) activism against policies that densify the suburbs or challenge the dominance of cars, is one form. NIMBY organizing to oppose zoning changes that would increase urban density have been a major thorn in the side of sustainable development advocates in U.S. cities.

Toronto has seen even more extreme types of suburban political mobilization. The election of former Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, a Trumpian figure who ran on a theme of “suburban alienation” and threats to automobility, is an example of the kind of wider populist backlash that can result from perceived threats to the suburban way of life, Filion said.

Ford made frequent reference to a “War on Cars” during his campaign and promised to cancel transit expansion plans. He also frequently suggested that downtown “elites” were unfairly gobbling up resources.

Those kinds of populist appeals were mobilizing for suburban voters, even as Toronto’s suburbs become increasingly racially diverse. Support in Toronto’s outer-suburban areas helped carry Ford to victory, to a much greater degree than his predecessor.

After Ford’s death, his brother Doug was elected Premier of Ontario on a promise to lower the gas tax by 10 cents.

“While the socioeconomic makeup and economic base of the North American suburb are in transition, one of its determining features, accounting for the enduring specificity of this urban environment, remains profoundly embedded,” Filion concluded.

  • Hey Angie,
    Let’s consider the Bay Area. Urban housing can’t keep up with influx of people + insane cost of living driving folks to the suburbs + almost ZERO transit infrastructure planning to discourage car ownership = major problem. How about focusing on why there’s so much opposition to urbanization of URBAN areas.

  • Greg

    The issue across much of the Bay is the same as any suburban area; a desperate instinct to cling to the car, and fueled by both ex-suburnanites from small town USA and long time residents used to quiet days or old. Many of my most progressive friends still complain about lack of parking, balk when I suggest transit or cycling, and disdain Berkeley for it’s relatively extreme limits on auto traffic. They can’t see life without a car at every turn, and every new resident who thinks that way does indeed make traffic worse.

  • True to a point, but let’s face it there’s a big difference between instinct and necessity. Our transit is woefully inadequate forcing many people to stick to their cars. Do I want to spend 2+ hours getting to San Jose by Muni and Caltrain or hop in the car and drive there in less than half the time? Even fighting traffic on 19th Avenue I still get to the Marina in the fraction of the time it would take me on public transit from Balboa Park. I didn’t own a car for 15 years. During that time I lived in Washington, DC, New York City and SF. Only after several years of terrible transit experiences in SF, I realized that it will never improve.
    You’re also ignoring the NIMBYs. Take Geary, for example. Forget density along its length, much less a subway or other mass transit upgrade. (Sorry, BRT is a joke in this case.)

  • Michael

    The primary problem of cars in cities is just spatial. It’s that if everyone drives, the city gets parked over in its most important economic or cultural places; it’s destinations. Thus, parking in downtown either squanders the most valuable land for development or ruins quality of place, or both. However, it’s on a continuum. A small town can have a couple stores & a corner tavern with just street parking. A mid-size city like Santa Barbara can have a thriving downtown & shopping district, with discretely located parking garages off of the main street & plenty of bike lanes (which have only ~10% the parking spatial foot print). But a bigger city like Cleveland becomes entirely dominated by parking lots & garages in its greater downtown. So bigger cities have a much greater need to get people to its destinations without parking.

    If suburbs want to support a nice main street, the model is simple enough. Good street design, narrow lots, sidewalks, leverage a near-by school or library parking lot where possible, maybe a discretely located parking garage. However, I think most burbs are still content with 55 MPH cruise control to the superstore. Time will tell if that changes.

  • Carter O’Brien

    I think Greg’s insights are pretty spot-on. I’m a lifelong Chicagoan, and we’ve seen this “return to the city” movement, and while people reading this blog are the choir, most of them bring their car dependency habits with them. It’s basically hard-wired by the time you’re in your twenties, so you can move to a big city and take public transportation when it’s convenient and most functional (rush hour downtown, for us), but people still have that car stashed on a side street somewhere, where it sits for weeks at a time, and fuels the fires of what we call NIMBYs. NIMBYs aren’t wrong when it comes to cars, parking demands and congestion – new housing brings it. The challenge/opportunity in my mind is to get these largely baby Boomers and aging Gen Xer folks like myself who in many cases have settled in to remember that there’s more to life than easy street parking. If you want restaurants, bars, nightlife, culture, thriving schools, public transportation, etc. you need people, period.

  • Joe R.

    Air pollution is a larger issue than the spatial problems when you concentrate large numbers of cars in a small area. That air also enters the passenger compartment. Besides causing cancer, air pollution degrades quality of life for city residents.

  • It depends on older vs newer suburbs. Take Arlington, VA…which is in all intents and purposes a suburb of DC. It had its pre-WWII car culture and commercial strips with low-rise development. When Metro came in during the 1970s it completely transformed the county, especially along the Rosslyn-Ballston corridor. Take all those little suburban towns along the peninsula between SF and SJ. It’s taking them a while to shift gears but new housing stock is going up around their commercial centers and Caltrain stations. By design, the suburbs will always embrace the car, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t welcome better transit and encourage density around transit. My beef is with cities, like San Francisco, that are relatively dense yet continuously build housing with egregious amounts of parking, mostly because they refuse to invest heavily in mass transit, thereby luring people to cars. Then you toss in the NIMBYism that doesn’t want any change to how SF looked in 1960 and finally the CA car culture that has no history in mass transit other than streetcar systems from the 1940s (which worked pretty darn well). Obstacles, galore. However, look at LA…the damage was done decades ago but the city is turning around how it thinks about mobility with a huge focus and commitment to expanding mass transit. It can be done, but if the city, like SF, has problems doing it at the urban level, then imagine how difficult it will be for suburbs.

  • Michael

    That’s a good point. Yesterday, I felt that acutely while waiting for an airport shuttle at O’Hare. The combination exhaust, 30 degree air temps, and a semi-enclosure… unhealthy.

    On the spatial comment, car parking (like rail yards, bus depots, airplane hangars) is a pretty low value use of space. Not that it’s not important, it just doesn’t generate property tax base or enjoyable human-scaled places. If my city proposed relocating its bus depot to downtown, I would be pretty upset. It would be ~30 acres of asphalt in a high value location, paying little to no taxes, & the bus traffic would be clogging up the most important transportation corridors in the city. Yet, the same dynamic exists all over America with personal car parking. Some places it’s even required by local ordinance.

  • Michael

    I don’t think car ownership is necessarily the enemy, while fighting it is amongst hardest battles. Germany & Austria seem to be able to balance high rates of personal car ownership, with walkable cosmopolitan cities, high quality urban plazas & squares, fast access to the rural countryside, a robust industrial sector, low cost big box shopping, & 90+ MPH highway speeds… so it can be done. The big differences is that they are less prejudicial against multi-family housing, car ownership is a little bit more expensive & they run their transit as an actual parallel transportation network with frequent regular “clockface” service (i.e. train every :05, :35), versus as an expensive supplement to rush hour commuter capacity as we do in the US. They also see local tourism as an asset & economic catalyst.

    One unforced era that we make in the US is that we dedicate tourist taxes (hotel, rental car, meal, etc) to discretionary projects like convention centers & arenas. Instead, I would take those revenues 50/50, as a local property tax credit & to fund a much broader range of critical tourism infrastructure like airport connectors, downtown circulatory transit, events, shows, museum exhibits… and maybe convention centers & arenas if it makes sense on an ROI basis.

  • Michael Escobar

    San Francisco has invested heavily in transit. Service frequency on most lines even during off-peak hours blows away that of Los Angeles. The problem is that the Bay Area has become a regional entity, where people commute long distances, and there is no single regional center; you’re lucky if you live within a half hour’s commute to work (whether by transit or by car). And the region barely exists as a region. If your home and/or work are not close to Caltrain or BART, the trip by public transit is going to be a megacommute, and it would be even if we accomplished the miracle of making all the local agencies coordinate their schedules with the regional trunk services.

  • Kevin Withers

    “Many of my most progressive friends still complain about lack of parking, balk when I suggest transit or cycling, and disdain Berkeley for it’s relatively extreme limits on auto traffic. ”

    Berkeley is long past rational approaches to anything. It has become a question of ‘how far left can you possibly go’ and of course, has created both a backlash and an example of dysfunctional yimbyism.

  • david vartanoff

    Part of the solution should be housing w/ zero parking but a monthly transit pass for each tenant who agrees not to own or lease a vehicle. With car rental, be it Hertz or zipcar, one can use a car when needed without owning it–thus saving insurance, registration, maintenance, and parking it for most of the week. SF has permitted a couple apartment buildings w/o tenant parking. Unfortunately, MUNI still sucks, so depending on transit is iffy at best.

  • david vartanoff

    No, SF has spent heavily with very little to show for the $$. When the mis-designed ‘Central Subway’ opens it will not have enough station capacity to have justified the cost, the actual rails laid are a cheaper grade than specified, and Muni still won’t speed up the running on 3rd St which is slower than the previous buses. Transit signal priority was built in for the extension from Market St to Caltrain and the ballpark but NEVER turned on.

  • Michael

    Most can’t comprehend that one policy can’t fit all. But land values tell a story of exponentials. In Milwaukee, undeveloped land values in the CBD peaks at about $5.0M/acre. At 2 miles out, it’s sells for $1.5M. At 5 miles out, land is worth around $300K/acre. While 15 miles outside of downtown (semi-agricultural), undeveloped land is valued at about $50K/acre. So there’s a 100X difference in underlying land value across the metro area, before it turns to unimproved agriculture land, but it’s a hockey-stick style price growth. And it only gets much more extreme in places like Boston or SF or Manhattan.

    In my opinion, our civic leaders should start treating land carefully as soon as it hits 2X whatever the metro area baseline is & as an extremely scarce resource at 10X. In Milwaukee, that means our beatdown 1st ring suburbs need to wake up & realize that their land is worth more than the 3rd ring mcmansion neighborhoods, and start behaving like it & it only gets more extreme as we move toward city hall. Free off-street lot parking with landscaping islands on land worth 10-100+ times the metro area baseline is a clear sign of a public policy failure.

  • maddog49

    ANGIE SCHMITT — You are spinning the issue as though conservatives are causing the problem of excessive reliance on privately owned automobiles.

    You are hereby reminded that the Obama administration bought out a failing General Motors in 2009, which should have instead been cut into pieces. About 20% of the corporation was given to the United Auto Workers union without its members having to buy in as a partner.

    Many union members were black people, and are now thus, well-to-do black people. The Obama administration pushed car buying very hard, including low interest loans with repayment periods as long as 8 years. Not only have more cars/trucks been sold as a result, the vehicles are BIGGER, filling up the freeways.

    If some level of government succeeds in getting ordinary people to abandon cars in the future, thousands of these union members shall lose their jobs.

    You had better realize that black activists are going to spin the massive layoff as an act of White Supremacists pushing down economically successful black people. Just where they are going to find actual White Supremacists to personally take the blame for the actions of environmentalists is unclear. Lots of white people could be witch-hunted for being affiliated with these UNNAMED White Supremacists. Or perhaps, they can conveniently finger President Trump, who has been neutral about transportation mode, so far.

    The complication is that Americans are going to lose their cars, anyway, not because of a nefarious plot against UAW members, or because of some blissful urban plan. No, we Americans shall lose our cars because nobody in power (Obama or Trump) cares about the damage to ordinary people’s livelihood caused by Fed “money printing.” As prices increase without end… as the U.S. dollar keeps losing purchasing power… those who can no longer afford car ownership costs or rent shall sleep in their broken cars that they no longer drive.

    This impoverishment may not happen until long after Trump is gone, but there is still nothing to stop it.

  • Michael

    Le Corbusier and many of the early designers of car-based suburbia were communists, who despised private rail interests. There’s really not much about today’s transportation networks that are capitalistic. We have public roads, public airports, public ports, public rail, public transit. All funded through a broad basket of taxes & fees.
    Nothing is profit maximizing, nothing pays income or property taxes. American transportation is a Stalinist dream.

  • ride_it_like_you_stole_it

    You’re focusing on two projects while ignoring numerous other investments over the past 2-3 years, such as in new bus, trolley, and light rail vehicles. SF went from having one of the oldest transit fleets to one of the newest. It has also invested heavily in red lanes around the city and street changes that reduce travel times at single locations by minutes (Lincoln Way at 19th Ave, Haight at Market are two examples that come to mind). Various Rapid lines are getting more vehicles and bus bulbs also.

  • ride_it_like_you_stole_it

    I agree on too many people being in the NIMBY camo in SF and will add to that the desire by some to spend more energy preserving buildings and neighborhood character over housing. They seem to care more about buildings than people. I disagree on the “egregious amounts of parking” argument though as SF is leading the way on parking management with little to no parking required for most new buildings.

  • ride_it_like_you_stole_it

    Berkeley is hardly the bastion of YIMBY-ism. Quite the opposite…at least when it comes to land use decisions.

  • Kevin Withers

    Berkeley is indeed, especially when compared to other Bay Area cities. Yimbys brag, quite loudly, how they influence the Berkeley city council, and how they impact Berkeley land use.

  • Joe R.

    Old broken cars = affordable housing. Sounds like the Republican free-market solution to the housing crisis.

    I think a more likely scenario is this:

    The suburbs in many areas are no longer “new”. The bills are coming due eventually for their upkeep, the pensions of their past public workers, and so forth. None of these things will be affordable at prices the people who live in them are willing or able to pay. Sure, they’ll try at first by raising real estate taxes. People who can’t afford them will leave. Their homes will be sold for less than they paid for them. Many who have underwater mortgages may choose to just abandon their homes, especially if banks exercise their legal right to call in an underwater mortgage. End result is banks or the local government will be left owning lots of homes but will have no chance to get back even half of the money owed them as prices keep falling. The houses themselves may be relative bargains but the high and rising real estate taxes will be the deal breaker. The taxes will need to go up even more as people leave in a death spiral. Eventually the properties will just be abandoned. No money to fix the streets, sewers, etc. No money to keep the local schools open. They’ll be decaying ghost towns eventually taken over by the now homeless. It’s already been said that today’s suburbs will become the new slums.

    Remember cities already went through the cycle mentioned above but they had enough inherent value in terms of location and existing infrastructure to survive. The suburbs don’t. They really exist at the expense of their core cities. Cities will experience some of the problems mentioned, also. Indeed, NYC is already experiencing some as the subway system is in need of billions in repairs. They will survive, but they will no longer have the money to prop up their surrounding suburbs. The inner ring suburbs will probably come out OK for the same reasons as the cities do—location and infrastructure. The outer ring suburbs will be gone. Probably most development past the Nassau County line, for example, will eventually be abandoned.

  • Joe R.

    Yeah, all this historical preservation nonsense is a big problem also. The concept makes sense but seemingly every building, no matter how banal it is, ends up on the list of historical structures if it’s over x years old.

  • Michael

    It’s really metro by metro. In milwaukee, it’s a game changer because we have a bottomless supply of stout, 120 year old, 5 story masonry buildings sitting idle since the great depression.
    Preservation designation open them up to a suite of financing options that otherwise aren’t available in mid-tier markets. On the other hand, in DC I saw it get weaponized as a tool of obstruction.

  • You’re missing the point. NIMBYs in SF don’t oppose cars, they welcome it and fight for every single parking spot that exists. They are usually longtime residents who balk at any notion of change. Geary is a perfect example of NIMBYs stopping mass transit upgrades. Last year, the opposition on Taraval to remove a handful of parking spots to install safe boarding islands for transit riders was fierce and ugly. The problem in our great urban city is that in order to move people around and brace for more residents you need to move them around effectively and efficiently.

    Contrary to what Michael posted above about Muni’s investment in transit (LMFAO to that!), Muni is backwards and reactionary. Its Band Aid approaches to “fixing” transit are weak at best. Why do you think more people are turning to ride sharing apps than waiting 45 minutes for an outbound K train at 7pm? Why do trains still sit forever at 4th/King when signal priority was supposed to have been implemented back in 2007 when the T line opened for service? Why is on time performance still below the level voters approved over 15 years ago? Muni can replace all its rail cars but if the system itself isn’t working properly then a shiny new car (with incredibly uncomfortable seats) isn’t going to attract many new riders.

  • You are absolutely correct.

  • Bottom line is: accept the megacommute by transit or by car. It becomes a lose/lose situation that over time just gets worse and worse. Meanwhile, people shouldn’t demonize car owners for choosing the lesser of two evils.

  • Carter O’Brien

    “NIMBYs in SF don’t oppose cars, they welcome it and fight for every single parking spot that exists. They are usually longtime residents who balk at any notion of change.”

    Are they welcoming new housing as long as it comes with more parking? This is often the bone of contention. And in general people have a hard time with operational improvements, and anything that is presumably “taking space” away from cars, no argument there. But we’ve instituted some BRT and it is really not helping matters, as it’s been ineffective thanks to abuse by delivery drivers and a lack of enforcement. Much of this infrastructure becomes meaningless without the enforcement, and in fact is couterproductive to the larger goal as an ineffective implementation of something like BRT becomes fodder for every libertarian/car freedom loving guy out there.

  • Stephen Simac

    The photo shows this suburb is actually fairly dense, compared to many larger lot size suburbs and exurbs. Most houses seem to sit on 60’x80′ lots. It’s extremely ugly, because of their narrow setbacks and lack of trees but many suburbs are cycling paradises with tree shaded, almost car free streets that parallel major arterial highways. I grew up biking in suburban Fort Lauderdale and do so when I visit because it is so pleasurable and scenic and avoids parking fees and traffic. The only problem areas are certain chokepoints where cyclists are forced to converge with heavy traffic to travel beyond neighborhoods, which could be transformed with bicycle bridges over “freeways” and canals to open up a greener network. The Broward County (greater Fort Lauderdale) Bicycle Advisory Committee, which I helped create in 1981 did publish a color coded road map of the county to show riders how to find those routes, and point out the gaps where such facilities were most needed. Trying to create more density in suburbs creates fierce resistance, but encouraging residents to explore other transport options will show them their neighborhoods are bicycle and pedestrian friendly and could be made much more so with network targeted facilities.

  • Daniel

    the LIRR probably homogenizes the Long Island market too much to write off Suffolk County: the real distinction would be between pre- and post-1980 burbs: the latter are far less walkable, far more exurban, outside the old rail web, and not even built to last: 90s buildings were already coming apart in the 00s

  • kevd

    Gas prices in Germany are also currently $6.31/gallon…
    There are loads of suburbs in Germany (I’m much less familiar with Austria). But, they are denser, they have village of town centers and there is a higher rate of multi-family dwellings (as you said)
    While the rate of households vehicle ownership in Germany nearly equals the rate in the US (85% vs 88%) the per capita rate is .91 in the US and only .55 in Germany. While German families and typically have a car, they tend to have 1 car.

  • No, they are not welcoming new housing. That’s another part of the problem. Once again, look at Geary. Merchants and neighbors are fighting transit AND housing. Here’s a perfect example of adding mass transit, which is sorely needed, and density around transit stations.

  • Michael

    It would increase annual cost of vehicle ownership by about 17%* assuming drivers don’t adapt their behaviors. I consider that to be a minor bump… plus drivers would inevitably adapt to reduce redundant trips, drive together, buy more efficient cars, etc. We’d behave more more like german households.

    I think it’s clear were in vast diminishing returns on our current model of repetitive sprawl everywhere, so it makes a lot of sense to pivot somewhat.

    *An increase $3.75/gal times 400 gallons/ year equals $1,500. AAA says it currently cost $8.7k per year to operate a car. Similar estimates by the IRS)

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