It's sad that urban analysis so often gets caught up with utopian nonsense. And few people who actually think about these things consider the suburbs any kind of utopia. But as much as I hate the chain restaurants, lawn mowing, and lack of pedestrians, the suburbs are not going away.
The latest silly article predicting the end of suburbia comes from Fast Company, a magazine which covers companies that are mostly based in suburbs. The story has the usual quotes from James Kunstler, the NY Times, and others who understand rants better than economics. Interestingly, it makes its point against the suburbs by claiming that 1 in 13 homes in Cleveland, a city, is vacant. While the census data shows an even higher rate, nearly 15% of housing units in Baltimore City and Detroit are vacant. These abandoned buildings have far less to do with subprime mortgages, greedy bankers, or other overcovered news stories, but rather neighborhoods that have been depressed for decades. Few suburbs can match the weeds and burnt out buildings that blanket Baltimore City.
The End of Suburbia crowd has been oscillating between high gas prices and a weak housing market as the reason for why suburbs are doomed. But while they speculate on the implications of more expensive oil, and more expensive credit, the populations of suburban areas continue to grow. Loudoun County, 30 miles west of DC, had 80,000 people, or one seventh the population of the District in 1990. Its grown over threefold in the last 19 years, and now has 280,000 people, or one half the amount of the distant center city. In between sits Fairfax County, with over one million people, or nearly twice as many as the District.
One of the most interesting stats of outer counties is their average household size. Rural Virginia counties like Louisa and Orange have about 2.5 people per home. DC and close-in Arlington County, Virginia both have 2.15. But Loudoun and neighboring Prince William have 2.9 people per household. Combined, these two counties have more people than DC, does anyone think these large households are all going to cram into 2 bedroom condos by Metro stops?
The reason the outer suburbs will survive weak housing markets and oil price hikes is that most of their residents don't drive downtown for work. Only 9% of Prince William citizens work in DC. Three and a half times as many work within the county itself. $5 gas might suck for the people going to DC, but they're a small minority.
Just because we don't want to eat at Applebee's or drive minivans doesn't mean others are going to stop choosing this lifestyle. If we don't like it, we just need to remember what former DC mayor Marion Barry said when he was re-elected in 1994 - Get Over It!