Why I love the suburbs

1. We live 30 minutes from Washington but we also have a fox in the backyard.  Deer are a frequent sight as well.

2. Chinese restaurants are usually better in the suburbs these days.

3. Driving is fun and a good way to experience music.  MR readers know I favor a (revenue-neutral) gas tax.  My worry is that car culture makes people more individualistic and thus I have some reluctance to tax this trend.  Try Chuck Berry’s "No Particular Place To Go."

4. A few weeks ago, the first Fairfax County police officer died in the line of duty.  That’s the first ever.  In New Jersey, where I grew up, you might speak of the first local cop to die today.

5. Many of my friends who live in Manhattan lose interest in global travel or never acquire it.  Sadly they feel they already have everything they need from the world right at home. 

Natasha and I talk of retiring in New York City.  But are we up for it?  I’ve started subscribing to New York magazine.  Sometimes it is interesting; more to the point I can pretend I might someday live there.

I’ll cover Jane Jacobs soon.


Unfortunately those who purchase residential property and those who live in it are not one and the same. Consider the average teen trapped in the remote exurbs of a sprawling city, with arterial roads not designed for bikes (and in the US, continental weather often incompatible with cycling), and no public transport. I was amazed when I lived in Kansas City how many colleagues regarded the place as a paradise for children, when to me it looked like a prison with a super-expensive private parent-run taxi system. Give me my urban London commuter town upbringing any day!

You favor a gas tax OO You must be crazy! Look at Germany and our wonderful eco-gas-tax we have there. It only made driving a car more expensive, but didn't change the way people go to work. Only recently with the half-hearted privatisation of the Deutsche Bahn has a change come to it (with reasonable services at the train services) - although there is still much to lament over this "privatisation".

Gasoline in Germany costs roughly 6 dollar a gallon and 65 % of this price is due to taxes. It has started with a low tax, but whenever you politically start to tax something, the tax will increase over time to fund excessive spending of government institutions.
Now, Germany is essentially still a country of car-lovers, despite the greenish eco-religion trying to trump that (it might be that the heritage of Daimler, Otto and such is still influential here). So, this tax is one of the many factors preventing mobility, which has resulted in clustered cities, where you stand in traffic queues a long time, but only have a short way to drive.
It is the most unefficient way to use the car, economically speaking...

I know many DC snobs who would never condescend to cross the river (water! eek!) who nonetheless love to travel, so that may be a New-York-City-specific attitude. On the other hand, inflated as the DC real estate market is, it's still at least two orders of magnitute cheaper than Manhattan, so simple living expenses might explain it.

My favorite New Yorker-parochialism moment was when I was chastized for not going to experience "the best Japanese food in the world." I had just returned from Japan.

"Unfortunately those who purchase residential property and those who live in it are not one and the same. Consider the average teen trapped in the remote exurbs of a sprawling city, with arterial roads not designed for bikes (and in the US, continental weather often incompatible with cycling), and no public transport."

I think it's worth keeping in mind that suburban communities vary enormously (as do conditions within a particular community). I grew up in a suburb that was very bikeable, and we rode our bikes absolutely everywhere--to school, to parks, to shops, to the movies. Now I live in a medium-sized city (Ann Arbor, MI) in a suburban-style neighborhood near the univeristy and a large park (out of which deer do wander from time to time). But it's a short, easy bike or walk downtown, and my kids do that a lot (so do my wife and I--it's simpler than finding a place to park).

But there are also many new 'McMansion' developments farther out where nothing is within bike range and kids do have to be chauffeured everywhere. Both 'suburban' neighborhoods in the same city, but very different conditions.

My memories of Zaragoza, Spain, remain very strong. It's the 5th largest city in Spain (650K people according to Wikipedia) but so compact you can easily walk from the city centre to the edge of town. And when you reach the edge of town it just stops. Literally one side of the road is seven storey apartment buildings and the other side is just countryside. Who needs suburbia when you can have that?

When you talk about Jacobs, would you mention at least in passing whether you think "early Jacobs" and "later Jacobs" has more to give us, or whether they are both just as important. The NYT had an article a few weeks ago, after she died, about how Death and the Life was a breakthrough, but her later work on sprawl made less of a contribution. I've been wondering myself.

I grew up in a middle class suburb of Detroit and whined constantly as a teenager that there was nothing to do. About 15 years after graduating from high school, my wife and I looked for a house and quickly realized the best location was the same suburb I couldn't wait to escape from as a teen. Recently the city polled teens and found they had nothing to do.
My wife taught high school for ten years and heard the same sob story at every school she taught at. The schools ranged from rural to exurb to inner-ring suburb and nobody ever had anything to do. I would wager that teens in downtown Manhattan say they have nothing to do.
Our city spends a lot of tax dollars to provide things to do, such as a very large community center. Teens have far more electronic distractions than I had and I had plenty. There are two malls within our city limits, numerous parks and one of the best libraries in the state. There are numerous extra-cirricular activties offered by the schools and within the community. But still teens have nothing to do.
And they have more mobility than ever, not less. There are 238 million vehicles in operation in the United States. There are few, if any, suburban teens who don't have access to an automobile and a driver within their age range.
Yes, I'll admit I had less to do as a suburban teen than my father had to do as a teen in the glory that was World War II era Detroit. That's because he had a full-time job while in high school because his family had no money.
Suburb bashing is one of the most tiresome hobbies on the intellectual class. I am so glad Tyler is standing up to it.

Deer=Rats on Stilts.

In terms of suburbs, I think DC is unique; the choice isn't as clear when one is talking about NYC v. NYC suburbs, where commuting time makes a big difference, and the commuter tax takes away much of the DC suburban benefit. Here, commuting from the suburbs might save time relative to commuting over the inferior DC roads. It is regularly a mystery to me why people in the DC area pay an additional 3% of their incomes (not to mention higher real estate prices) for the privilege of living in a higher-crime neighborhood with worse public services and schools and restaurants. In the Wilson Corridor, I'm closer to downtown than people in Upper NW, I'm around taller buildings than DC has, I have cheaper expenses and better markets and quality of life.

The only thing that I really don't like about the suburbs is the entitlement mindset that it encourages. People leave cities (or closer in suburbs) and move out to the 'open' and enjoy the amenities involved with being out there.

And then they immediately do everything in their power to prevent other people from spoling their new life and lifestyle, either by horrible 5 or 10 or more acre zoning, ridiculous growth management plans and the like.. It generates this false sense of the ability to control something that really can't be controlled..

(not to say that people in cities don't feel a similar sense of entitlement, its just far less possible for them to do much about it, with so many more thngs being outside of the bounds of control)

"A few weeks ago, the first Fairfax County police officer died in the line of duty. That's the first ever."

This is an artificial creation of zoning which keeps poor people out of Fairfax County, and not something inherent about suburbs.

Bill - homosexual orientation is highly correlated with certain cities, but it's a positive sorting on the part of that demographic. (See the Black, et al. paper "Why Do Gay Men Live in San Francisco?")

There was an interesting paper, too, by Thomas Nechbya entitled "Mobility, Targeting and Private School Vouchers (AER 2000) that argues segregation by income (which in the US means by race) is an effect of the current public school system that zones by district. To select schools, families select neighborhoods, and this probably does fuel migrations into suburbs and out of the cities. A voucher system, Nechbya shows, leads to less geographic segregation.

The former thing about gays and the city probably has more to do with the relatively high incomes of the homosexual demographic (relatively high levels of human capital) combined with a mode of 0 children in the family. As a result, cities with expensive amenities are affordable. Suburbs, though, are populated by families, in part for the same reason. The latter thing about school finance, though, speaks to an unintended effect of using geographic zoning that results in the kind of segregation you're noticing.

Many of my friends who live in Manhattan lose interest in global travel or never acquire it. Sadly they feel they already have everything they need from the world right at home.

Odd. My urban friends like travel very much. In my experience it is suburbanites who cannot imagine there is anything abroad worth the trouble. Of course, I'm generalizing from a relatively small group of people. What about you?

I grew up in New York City and had tremendous mobility from the age of about 8 onwards, and I made good use of it. But that was a long time ago. The public schools were different. Now people move to the suburbs to get extra space. If you have a boy and a girl you would like them to have separate rooms when the girl gets past 10. Then there are the schools, private school is out of reach of most middle class parents with multiple children. Besides you’re not a teen forever. As for Fairfax County, I lived there for 14 months and hated it, so I moved back to California. The two share some of the same problems (traffic), but at least the weather is better. The services are better too. I would have gone back to New York City, but the real estate is out of reach and I’m not at all poor. My experience with the medical services in the DC area was dreadful. I ended up going back to my old doctor in NY. A total of three different surgeons and two internists misdiagnosed my condition, which was instantly detected by all three doctors (different specialties) in NY. I went to the big med centers like GW, which I found chaotic, and extremely error prone. The summers in the DC area is like living in a furnace, and the traffic congestion is second only to LA.

1. If more people lived in cities there would be more wildlife ingeneral and people would be 30 minutes away from plenty of deer and foxes.

2. Around DC this seems to be the case.

3. Driving is not fun, this is what makes it a good way to experience music. It is boring and requires little attention.

4. I'm not sure how much of the crime difference is do the the nature of the suburbs and how much is do the nature of the people that would choose to live in the suburbs. Probably some of both.

5. I don't think people that live in big cities are less likely to travel internationally than people that don't even adjusted for income. My experience has been very much the opposite of yours.

I can't even believe 2, 4, and 5.

I moved to the suburbs recently, and let me tell you, unless you live in a really nice one, they are lame.

My neighborhood in Chicago had over 40 resturants within walking distance, with some of the best Thai food I've ever had within a 6 minute walk. Famous burgers right down the street. At least 3 awesome diners. Chens chinese would deliver. Stellar vietnamise on Argyle that would deliver, and all the Indian I could want. I walked to the train station every day, where a train would pick me up within 10 minutes (usually 5) of my random arrival time. If I decided to hop in the car and drive a few minutes, the number of resturants was uncountable. There were hundreds available, with many, many excellent places to eat. Korean, Sushi, Organic, Italian, Ice Cream - god I miss it so much.

Once you are in the burbs, you have to drive everywhere and its usually 20 minutes away. I joke to my friends, its like I have to get in the car to go to the bathroom.

I don't think anyone on the block where I currently live in the burbs has a passport, except for the Indian family. None (thats right!) of my suburban friends have a passport. All of my urban friends have passports and have extensively traveled. I consider extensive to be more than a dozen countries, I know, its really not that much, but compared to zero or two (Canada/Mexico), its quite a few!

You simply have less time to do things out here, and it takes longer to do the basics. Much, much more time is spent in the car, traveling to where you need to do your business. I would estimate about 1 extra hour a day is spent traveling. You don't realize it, until you move from one place to the other. I can't wait to get back to the city. Its way, way easier to live.

However, we do face the schools problem. My sons are 2 and 4.

Suburbs provide more affordable education for children and a somewhat closer contact with nature. That is about it. To suggest that suburbs have better restraunants and cultural activities, or residents who are worldly and travel more often is bizarre.

Driving, in addition to being boring, is dangerous. Walking and mass transit are better from both an accident and a health perspective.

I'm also puzzled by number 5. I live in Manhattan and almost everyone I know who lives here has travelled extensively. Friends I have that live in the suburbs have in most cases been almost no where. In general they haven't even travelled within the US very much.

Re no. 4 New Jersey has had 437 police deaths, Virginia 365. That's since 1792. (http://www.nleomf.com/TheMemorial/Facts/state.htm)
More seriously, were your "local" cops living where they worked, or commuting from 50 miles away?

(1) Odd comparison between Fairfax County and New Jersey -- isn't New Jersey mostly suburban? Most New Jerseyans are not commuters to NYC or Philly, of course, but most probably have neighbors who are.

(2) I personally enjoy living in a very special type of suburb -- the suburb situated on a major regional commuter rail line. I live in one now, in New Jersey, but have also lived in another west of Chicago. "Train towns" like these offer (a) the suburban virtues that you mention, but also (b) the ability to commute to work without driving, at least if you work in the urban center, (c) the ability to experience the cultural opportunities of the urban center, again without driving, and finally (d) the advantages of the small walkable town centers that often spring up around the train station. The biggest disadvantage is probably the housing cost increment that comes from being commuter-friendly. Our little downtown has at least half a dozen restaurants, three or four coffee places, a few delis, convenience stores, drug stores, bakeries, a book store, a shoe store, and a few other stores, all within a couple of blocks of the train station. Perfect if you live within walking distance, but even if you have to drive or take the train, the environment feels much less artificial than the typical shopping mall. (I will admit that for many things, going to the mall is a necessity, but our downtown is a much more enjoyable place to be.)

About kids having nothing to do: in a suburb, kids are housebound without a car. On the other hand, in the city there are lots of places to go on foot and even more by bus or subway.

I believe that the reason why so many kids hang out at shopping malls is because it's the closest thing that suburbs have to an urban environment.

I've lived in Kentucky for most of my life, but had a two year stint in Osaka. I'm a burbs guy, specifically I prefer the suburban area near a small to medium sized city. I will concede that living in NYC is probably better than living in the burbs of NYC and dealing with the commute. My gripes with purely urban living:

1) You can get to A place that meets your criteria relatively easily, but it is much harder to get to YOUR place that happens to be your favorite. If you can walk to it, you are fine, but if you can't it really, really sucks.

2) I find life by train disorienting and restrictive and life by cab too expensive.

3) Some people just aren't psychologically cut out for population density above a certain level. I'm one of them.

4) Population dense areas invite the nanny state. If you are a shooter, for example, your life will be miserable.

I have kids and am not rich or well paid by any measure. But the simple benefit of PT on demand back and forth to work is simply incredible.

Yes - mass transit is awesome for work, especially from the burbs.

We eat out about once every 10 days, so we don't go out that much. However, here, we have the option of ordering pizza, or.... ordering bad pizza.

That's not usually the choice though; it's between good pizza and decent pizza. There are a lot of pizza places around where I live we can order from, including chains and independent places. Now, none of them are as good as Zeeks, but we've found a few places that aren't half bad. The benefits of my backyard outweigh the twice a month pizza pie. :)

If you have a car in the city, where you can park reasonably easily, the city completly rules over the burbs.

Well, sure, but who ever heard of easily parking in the city? Where we lived in Seattle I could usually park within a block of our apartment (fine normally, sucks if you are hauling groceries), but going anywhere...I had to add 20+ minutes to most of my in-city drives for finding parking. Going to the movies in the U-District? Better leave an hour early, even though it is only maybe 3 miles away, since it takes at least 30 minutes to go that far in the city + 15 minutes to park + 10 minutes to walk the 5 blocks from the car to the theater, etc. And that isn't even downtown, where you have all that hassle plus $10 for parking! And I already mentioned the reduced bus service after 10 pm, so mass transit is out - besides the fact that mass transit would easily take that long since I'd probably have to transfer. Ugh. I loved living in the city, but I rarely miss it. The bads outweighed the good.

In the burbs, you need as many cars as you have people over the age of 16 in your home. I would think this is very expensive for people with a few teenagers. In the city, you just need 1 per family.

I have to disagree with both halves of your argument here. First of all, I've seen some deep housing subdivisions where it is probably 2-3 miles from the back of them to the nearest commercial area (grocery store, movie rental, McDonalds, etc.). Agreed, who wants to walk that far. But that's nothing on a bike unless it is all hills. I survived part of high school without a car living in the burbs, I rode the bus to school (which was too far to walk or bike), rode it home, got rides to friends' houses or biked, etc.
Second, I'll argue again that having one car for a family just barely cuts it in the city. My brother and his wife (no kids at the time) lived in the city; they had one car. My brother took it to work, she hoofed it on public transportation. Worked...OK. But she was late frequently to things (late bus, missed bus, couldn't figure out transfers) and spent endless time trying to go anywhere because taking mass transit just plain takes forever.

We used to walk to pick up our vegatable box from the organic health food store for $20 every week. Cheaper and better than we can get out here.

Like I said...if you've got the money, city living is grand. $40 every two weeks just for your veggies is a luxury. As I said, there was *a* grocery store within walking distance of one of our apartments in Seattle - none within walking distance from the other apt - but it was too expensive so we drove the extra two miles to get groceries from the Fred Meyer.

You've got to pull yourself away from that computer, Sean.

If the suburbs are so great how come people are willing to pay so much to live in a city? If you happen to like the suburbs count yourself lucky, you like the product that is priced at a discount.

... Finally, something that Cowen does not address. Politics. It's more competitive and interesting, because it's purple, unlike urban areas where one party, the Democrats, dominate. One party cities (I repeat myself) inevitably experience corruption and inefficiency. Why try to improve these when the pols are perennial incumbents?

The rest here.

Jim Bim: "If the city is so great, why do people keep moving out to the suburbs?"

The reason has to do with GOVERNMENT and not somoething inherent about cities or suburbs.

Government has created lots of roads making it practical to live in suburbs. Government zoning has prevented new construction making the city very expensive. Government policies have ruined urban cities, while allowing suburbs to create school districts that don't have any poor children in them.

If New York City created a school district for only rich children, it would be a damn good school district, better than anu suburban school district.

Amen Jim Bim. That's something a lot of people forget.

I don’t have a fox in my backyard but I have seen them in Golden Park and in the Presidio about a 30-minute walk where I live. Last week I saw a colony of nesting Blue Herons in Golden Gate Park. I understand there is another colony in San Francisco at Lake Merced. I’ve learned a fair amount from volunteering for habitat restoration in the Presidio. There is a lot of nature in the city if you keep senses alert.

On public transit the smelly homeless person may sit next to you or you may have a good conversation about the book some body is reading. Walking along you may step in dog poop or you may ask the girl walking in front of you she picked up that stick, and you find out she is planning to be Buffy the Vampire, and you get invited to a great Halloween party.

The city is equity and the suburbs are fixed income.


I lived in Chicago for about 12 years. During that time, I parked directly infront of my apartment or house about 90% of the time, and always within one block. I didn't live in Lincoln Park or Wrigleyville, but other neighborhoods. I never had any problems parking in the city unless I went to LP or WV.

The three neighborhoods I lived in were Bucktown, Roscoe Village and Edgewater glen. I don't think you could park as easily in Bucktown or RV anymore, but its still pretty easy. I drove to Andersonville for eats every now and then, and parking was a little tougher.

I think the amount of time I spent looking for parking was about 1/10 of the extra driving time I now spend. Not only that I am forced to drive that extra distance every day, I have no choice. If I wanted, I could always either pay for parking or walk an extra 5 mintues for easy parking.

Now about that Pizza, the point wasn't the pizza, it was that pizza is the only choice. I had all of the major celebrated cuisines (Indian, Thai, French, Italian, Vietnamiese, Chinese) deliverable to my door or in walking distance. Many more too. Now, its only good not great pizza, and it really expensive compared to the city.

I think $20 a week for fruit and veggies for a family of 3 is pretty cheap. Its $80 a month for 1/4 of your food.

Thats another thing. We've found that its actually not cheaper to live in the Burbs. We thought it would be, but staples are essentially the same price. Once you factor in the extra car, insurance, and gas, its more expensive to live where in the burbs than it was for us in the city. This is not taking into account the extra time it takes to do literally everything.

One final thing about biking to that store 2-3 miles away. The fact is, if you see someone walking or on a bike with groceries/purchased items in the burbs, you think they are a freak of some sort. I work with lots of people from Germany, and one of them lived out in Oak Park, Ill. Its an excellent place, but as the german guy said "When I moved in, I wondered why everyone would stare at me as I was walking the 2 miles to the store. Now that I've been theree a few months, when I see someone walking, I wonder what kind of freak they are."

Now all this is just a long rant on my part as to why I like the city. I don't wabt anyone to make a choice they don't want to make. However, many, many people dismiss the city as being unlivable, and I find that just impossible to understand, having lived there for so long. People that live in and like the burbs completely dismiss or underestimate how much driving you do on a daily basis. If you don't like driving and would rather be playing with your kids or reading or anything else, its a huge issue.

Strip malls are a Stalinist's wet dream (remove all serendipity, purchase the consumer goods, quickly and efficiently return to the residential unit)

I live 2 blocks from Rittenhouse Square in Phila. I enjoy something you exurbanites have no chance at, because of the hideously sterile zoning/building patterns of the last 25 years.

You have extinguished spontaneity. Have fun on the freeway.

-and by the way, ...Chuck Berry? Jesus, if you're going to drive, do it with Back In Black. Come on.

Noe Valley isn't the only good place in SF, and all of SF is expensive. I lived at 5th and Balboa with access to one bookstore (Green Apple) and many restaurants representing every country of Southeast Asia except Laos and the Phillipines. And there were lots of other store, but I tend to go for food and books. Parking sucked (for my friends), though. And I know there were other good neighborhoods -- Castro, e.g.

City travel benefits aren't just for teens. In Chicago I could walk to the public library whenever I wanted from an early age, and also be sent out on errands to get a newspaper or some milk. At age 10 I could take public transit to special classes during the week. We also had skunks, on the wildlife front.

In Spokane, a city with much less public transit and a shortage of sidewalks in some areas, my niblings are far more resticted -- not much to walk too, streets are a bit dangerous to bike on. I did introduce my niece to the bus system there before she started high school, so she became a bit more independent, but before that she and her brother had to be driven to parks, friends, library, everything.

In Bloomington IN, a professor's children can walk to friends, the library, restaurants, even from school, depending on which school and the weather.

In San Francisco, I recall being surprised seeing tiny little girls scurry home from school. Chinese girls; maybe their families were less paranoid than most American ones.

Biking 3 miles for groceries isn't always an attractive option in winters, depending on your tolerance. I bike opportunistically, but I prefer walking or PT for baseline options.

I've never actually lived not in walking distance of groceries, and since Chicago I've lived in walking distance of a good bookstore. Dense urban (or urbanish suburb) for me, please.

The individual who framed the debate as one of a spectrum issue is entirely correct, as is the other person who discussed pre-car vs. post-car suburbs (my own words). The issue really seems to be whether it is viable and pleasant to actually walk somewhere, anywhere, and enjoy some level of personal interaction with your fellow man.
As a teenager in a Florida "post-car" suburb, I was desperate to be able to go somewhere, so I used to ride my bike to the 7-11. This experience was both dangerous and uninteresting.
I remember my childhood in a "pre-car" Baltimore suburb as much more charming. My best friend and I were able to walk and bike to local stores, the swimming pool and parks.
My husband and I are now looking forward to our impending move to NYC. We plan to live in the Upper West Side. Exactly how we are going to make living there work in the long run work, I am not sure. As of now we have no children. But how will we be able to afford a two or (gasp) three bedroom co-op in the City when our family grows, I don't know. But, we are determined to make it work.
For us, quality of life overrides any concerns over space. Last year, we visited Amsterdam and were lucky enough to stay in a two bedroom flat. This flat was home to husband, wife and two children. They made it work beautifully. And so will we.

New York City is whack, the suburbs are cool.

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