On the Death of the Suburbs

Previously I’ve questioned the continuing attacks on the suburbs from urban boosters and academics. Most of that sort of writing is self-justifying nonsense, but there is a way in which suburbs—at least some suburbs—could falter, and I watch it in action most days that I go into the city. The transportation links between the city and its periphery could fail. 

I haven’t run any numbers, but I find that almost every night the trains to Jersey have another delay of at least a half hour. Much of the time the morning trains do as well. Usually these are systemic delays that affect not only my train, but half, if not all, of the trains heading in and out of the city via Penn Station. When I miss dinner at home with the kids because of train delays, I can’t help but curse New Jersey transit out loud.

Given these delays, I’ve given up on trains in and out of Penn Station for the moment. The delays are generally the product of an unpleasant relationship between the regional transit authority and Amtrak, which owns the tunnels. The latter gets priority for its trains and doesn’t do enough maintenance on switches that are endlessly breaking. When I take the PATH trains out of the city to Hoboken and then take NJTransit back, I’m usually better off. The bus is also a safe route although given the recent rains, traffic jams have been more common too (as I write this, I received an alert that the bus lane into the city has stalled). 

Still, if these other routes go down (and smoke in the tunnels seems like a common problem on the PATH trains—deteriorating cables?) and if the subways continue their decline, drawing out my commute within the city, I might question my decision to live in the suburbs and I’m sure I wouldn’t be the only one. 

Technology has made commuting easier in the New York City area. Whether its traffic via Sirius radio or google maps in my car or Clever Commute alerts via twitter or e-mail, I have a decent chance of avoiding trouble going in and out of the city if I check ahead.

L. A. was worse. When I taught at SCI_Arc and did research at USC’s Annenberg Center for Communication, I’d be faced by massive traffic jams bringing not only the freeways but also the surface streets to a complete halt. L. A. was worse partly because of its reliance on the automobile but mainly due to preposterously low property taxes that led to chronic underinvestment.

The New York and New Jersey area is a little better off: taxes are high here although investment in infrastructure is still too low. Officials broke ground on a new tunnel under the Hudson River this month. It’ll take eight years to build, but I suppose I’m likely to still be here to enjoy it.

But the delays in and out of the city inspired me to think about the effects of this on the suburbs. It might not be pretty. If infrastructure continues its downward spiral (and money runs out to build that tunnel or delays make it take two decades) one hour commutes become 90 minute commutes, many individuals will move, causing a collapse of property values in the suburbs, particularly the more distant ones. Suburbs near urban cores and urban cores would increase in value. On the other hand, don’t overestimate the damage this will do to the city either. People tied to their homes will hunt for jobs outside the city and the jobs will follow. After all, as executives moved to places like Westchester and Connecticut in the 1960s and 1970s, corporate headquarters followed.

For all the talk about suburbs as "urban parasites," scholars have demonstrated that suburbs and city cores are now inextricably linked. If anything, such infrastructural collapse would lead to further growth in the distant suburbs and in exurbia (I, for one, would think about bugging out to Vermont before everyone else does). It’s very much in the interest of urban and suburban leaders to work together to find solutions.  

 

 

Previously I’ve questioned the continuing attacks on the suburbs from urban boosters and academics. Most of that sort of writing is self-justifying nonsense, but there is a way in which suburbs—at least some suburbs—could falter, and I watch it in action most days that I go into the city. The transportation links between the city and its periphery could fail. 

I haven’t run any numbers, but I find that almost every night the trains to Jersey have another delay of at least a half hour. Much of the time the morning trains do as well. Usually these are systemic delays that affect not only my train, but half, if not all, of the trains heading in and out of the city via Penn Station. When I miss dinner at home with the kids because of train delays, I can’t help but curse New Jersey transit out loud.

Given these delays, I’ve given up on trains in and out of Penn Station for the moment. The delays are generally the product of an unpleasant relationship between the regional transit authority and Amtrak, which owns the tunnels. The latter gets priority for its trains and doesn’t do enough maintenance on switches that are endlessly breaking. When I take the PATH trains out of the city to Hoboken and then take NJTransit back, I’m usually better off. The bus is also a safe route although given the recent rains, traffic jams have been more common too (as I write this, I received an alert that the bus lane into the city has stalled). 

Still, if these other routes go down (and smoke in the tunnels seems like a common problem on the PATH trains—deteriorating cables?) and if the subways continue their decline, drawing out my commute within the city, I might question my decision to live in the suburbs and I’m sure I wouldn’t be the only one. 

Technology has made commuting easier in the New York City area. Whether its traffic via Sirius radio or google maps in my car or Clever Commute alerts via twitter or e-mail, I have a decent chance of avoiding trouble going in and out of the city if I check ahead.

L. A. was worse. When I taught at SCI_Arc and did research at USC’s Annenberg Center for Communication, I’d be faced by massive traffic jams bringing not only the freeways but also the surface streets to a complete halt. L. A. was worse partly because of its reliance on the automobile but mainly due to preposterously low property taxes that led to chronic underinvestment.

The New York and New Jersey area is a little better off: taxes are high here although investment in infrastructure is still too low. Officials broke ground on a new tunnel under the Hudson River this month. It’ll take eight years to build, but I suppose I’m likely to still be here to enjoy it.

But the delays in and out of the city inspired me to think about the effects of this on the suburbs. It might not be pretty. If infrastructure continues its downward spiral (and money runs out to build that tunnel or delays make it take two decades) one hour commutes become 90 minute commutes, many individuals will move, causing a collapse of property values in the suburbs, particularly the more distant ones. Suburbs near urban cores and urban cores would increase in value. On the other hand, don’t overestimate the damage this will do to the city either. People tied to their homes will hunt for jobs outside the city and the jobs will follow. After all, as executives moved to places like Westchester and Connecticut in the 1960s and 1970s, corporate headquarters followed.

For all the talk about suburbs as "urban parasites," scholars have demonstrated that suburbs and city cores are now inextricably linked. If anything, such infrastructural collapse would lead to further growth in the distant suburbs and in exurbia (I, for one, would think about bugging out to Vermont before everyone else does). It’s very much in the interest of urban and suburban leaders to work together to find solutions.  

 

 

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