Where We Live

If you stop by here for the occasional urbanism-related commentaries, you're probably also reading Aaron Renn's The Urbanophile. It's a very good blog on some important topics, particularly to those of us in the Midwest. But there's something about the author's posts that have been getting under my skin for a while, and I think I finally know what it is. Despite being a very urban-centric blog, a theme that runs across many of the posts is a sympathy toward, even a defense of, suburban areas and populations. Check out these posts to get a taste of what I mean.

(from flickr user Dean Terry)

Renn has no qualms about believing "a great city needs great suburbs" and I'm not writing this post to debate the significance of suburbs to cities or metro areas. In discussing urban topics, it's tempting to believe that the places people live as a function of their preference for that kind of place. I think that's only a small piece of the puzzle, and a serious sticking point in many of our discussions.

In response to a point I raised about the urban/suburban dichotomy, Renn responded with this:
I would challenge all of us who love cities and find the idea of moving to the suburbs unattractive to look beyond our own personal preference and look at behaviors out the world. There are families in the city, but there are also plenty of young singles in the burbs. I watched the mayor of Carmel, Indiana give his state of the city address. During his 3+ years in office, he said the median age in Carmel had dropped by 7 years. That’s astonishing. As they built more condos and apartments, younger people started moving in. Obviously they found something they liked.
Believe it or not, I live in a suburb. It has some urban characteristics, notably that it's not horribly far from the central business district (about 8 miles) and relatively dense (about 7,000 people per square mile). But it's also very suburban in design. It's primarily a residential area with acceptable schools and draconian segregated zoning laws. There is a big-box center and strip malls surrounded by oceans of parking, street layouts that funnel traffic onto arterial roads, and it's not particularly walkable.

I don't live there because I find the environment attractive. I live there because it's very close to where I go to school. I live there for practical reasons above all else. To look at me and assume I prefer suburbs because I live in one is simply incorrect; a logical fallacy. Thus, I think the answer to where people live can be thought of as a function of at least three things: preference, practicality, real-estate speculation or some combination of them.

Yes, many jobs are now located in the suburbs - I'm not in denial of that fact. If people choose to live in a particular suburb because it's very close to the places they go on a daily basis, that's perfectly reasonable. What I have less patience for is people who live in a suburb and loathe and complain about their commute to the city or another suburb on the other side of town (I'll get back to this in a moment). And of course, what is there to say about people who live in a place because they thought they would make money on the home's appreciation? It's possible the area where they live is neither preferable (for non-monetary reasons) nor practical.

But I want to get back to the question of preference. Why do we assume that because people live where they do that they must prefer that place above any other? If people are completely rational, then this would be true; but rationality is a dubious assumption in any real-world social model. The best example on the question of suburbanization that I've seen comes from Jonah Lehrer's book How We Decide. The author sets up a thought experiment that can be summarized along these lines:
Imagine a family (mom and dad and two kids) are looking for a place to live. Their real-estate agent takes them to two homes, House A is in a suburb 10 miles from where mom and dad work, House B is in a suburb 25 miles away. The houses are both in areas with good schools and they cost about the same price. House A has 3 bedrooms; house B has 4 bedrooms. Twice a year, grandma and grandpa fly in from Florida to visit. Which house does this family choose?
A rational 3rd party who does a quick cost/benefit analysis will say the family chooses House A. The primary drawback to A is that it only has 3 bedrooms, so when grandma and grandpa come to visit, the family will have to deal with it. The drawback to B is that it's 15 additional miles from where mom and dad work. The 3rd party would say that A is the better choice because the bedroom situation is an inconvenience twice a year; the long commute is an inconvenience every single working day, all year-round.

Lehrer says that families too frequently choose House B, an irrational outcome. Mom and dad start contemplating how useful that extra bedroom will be when grandma and grandpa vist, about how no one will have to sleep on the couch or the kids won't be asked to share a bedroom. They also downplay the long commute, telling themselves that it really isn't that bad, that lots of people have long commutes. They might even try to spin it as a positive, convincing themselves that it will be a chance to clear their heads or catch up on podcasts. This is all in spite of evidence that suggests commuting is one of (if not the) least enjoyable activities in life.

Here's the dilemma: even if people are making choices that aren't in their own best interest, should we still structure urban and metro policy around that fact?

Thinking about metro policy in terms of personal preference is additionally problematic because it isn't exactly forward-looking. Some people might love the suburbs now, but there's no guarantee the same preference will persist a decade into the future. The ultimate variable is energy prices. If people find suburbs very attractive when oil costs $50 per barrel, will they when it costs $100? $150? $200?

I've been asked, "if you prefer cities, why didn't you go to college in the city? Then you could live in a place you that's both practical and preferable." The answer is, more or less, that I made a decision years ago that seemed like it made sense, but it turned out differently than expected. This is the same for people who buy homes in areas they think they want to live but which turn out not to be so great. Changing schools, like selling a house and moving, is difficult and costly. But an equilibrium can be found in the longer-term. In my career search I'm targeting companies in urban, not suburban areas. If I apply to graduate school, it won't be anywhere with a suburban or rural campus.

If understanding where we live simply by understanding the types of places we find attractive, it surely would make life much easier.


    Another reason people might compromise on a place location is to be more or less halfway between the workplaces of both adults in the household. I would love to live closer to work, but so would my wife, and we work in opposite directions. We have reached a reasonable compromise where I can take transit to the CBD door-to-door in about 45 minutes (25 minutes in-vehicle travel time) and she has a reasonable drive (25-30 minutes). It would be interesting to know how the growth in two-income households since WWII has affected the average distance between the home and the workplace.

    Also, you noted that changing schools is a difficult decision that most parents won't force upon their children unless absolutely necessary. It's possible that an adult changes jobs and the new commute is far less practical than the old one. I guess you can argue they shouldn't change jobs, but sometimes it's "worth it."