The Car & The City

by Trumwill

Peak Oil has been right around the corner for decades. Global warming requires a response that is going to make energy – oil in particular – more expensive. Commuters and drivers are subsidized with general funds. The solution to all of this is, of course, to stick it to the commuters. It’s nothing personal (ignoring everything negative we’ve said in the past about suburbanites), but we’ve got problems and it’s going to be up to them to change their lifestyles (which, coincidentally, we’ve never really approved of anyway). They’ll just have to take public transportation and live in walkable neighborhoods, like we do (or would like to, if it weren’t for the car culture making it nigh-impossible).

There seems to be an assumption, on the part of a lot of urbanists*, that solidifying our future (in terms of energy needs and/or the environment) or basic fairness (in terms of taxing negative externalities or subsidizing roads) will lead to a world more of their liking. If we just taxed gas or stopped requiring highways and parking (or if gas simply gets more expensive), the world will simply have to acclimate to their preferences.

As it happens, I do not oppose a carbon tax. I am in favor of increasing road taxes and fees so that the car culture subsidizes itself (though I do worry about it being regressive taxation). But I get off the train when we talk about the effect that these policies are going to have. Namely, while road construction and maintenance (for instance) subsidize suburban residents, they also subsidize downtown business. While the growth of suburbia was assisted by tax policy, now that people have gotten used to it, and now that our urban/suburban infrastructures have been built, I have enormous difficulty seeing mass conversion to smaller abodes, more restricted mobility, and so on. Not without a fight, anyway.

“But whether they want to or not, they’ll have to!”

Except that they won’t. Arguably, they will not be able to.

First, there are a lot of changes that people could make today if it were important to. Back home (a large city in the southern US), I know far more people that commute from one suburb to another. They could cut down on their commute considerably simply by moving to the suburb where they work. If gas cost is the primary issue, they could also reassess their choice in vehicles and get a hybrid or just a smaller car. A lot of people who could take advantage of park and ride don’t, but may start (making urbanists right on public transportation, though not necessarily on mode). And for some (maybe an increasing number), those with marketable skills may be able to find jobs closer by (with the pay cut being worth it by the money saved).

Our nations urban centers house a comparatively small portion of the population. Many of the nations largest cities (particularly outside the northeast) are sprawling megalopolii. Despite this, urban real estate is remarkably expensive. If people living in the suburbs try to move into the city, it will only become moreso. As it stands, we spend about 20% of our income on housing and about 5% of gas. Even if we make the unlikely assumption that real estate prices in more urban zones do not go up markedly, there is a lot more room to absorb costs on transportation than real estate.

Further, when push does come to shove, it’s not clear that increased urbanization and public transportation will be the answer. I do think that there will be some increased density as those that genuinely want walkable neighborhoods will more easily band together to provide them. I also do think that public transportation will become more attractive to more people (though I suspect it will be more of the Park & Ride variety rather than urban rail). But mostly, as it becomes increasingly untenable to live in the sticks and work downtown, it won’t be the people moving out of the suburbs.

In a lot of recent-growth cities, more and more employment is occurring in the suburbs. Increased transportation costs (or decreased road construction) will likely exacerbate this trend. A company having difficulty recruiting talent will create satellite offices or even more their headquarters to the suburbs. It would allow them to recruit more aggressively and save money on their own operational costs. In other words, more Round Rocks and Redmonds. The exacerbated rise of exurbs and suburbs more segregated from their anchor cities.

There may be other unexpected winners and losers, as well. For instance, smaller but growing cities may be able to more easily accommodate any transition compared to cities that have already spread their wings. The same way the initial rise of the suburb gave birth to Dallas-Fort Worth and Phoenix as major metropolitan areas. Building exurbs in cities of areas where land is cheap would likely prove to be easier than reconfiguring Chicago.

To the extent that people will respond to incentives, there’s actually a fair amount for urbanists to like. Smaller, more fuel-efficient cars. More density, to some extent or another. People driving less. And to the extent that urbanists are really concerned about negative externalities and fairness, there’s really no problem here. But as far as a clash of lifestyles goes, there will be all manner of unexpected winners and losers. A lot of people are convinced that the winners would be people that live in walkable, mixed-use, and dense neighborhoods and that the losers will be those polluting suburbanites. I tend to believe that the winners will be the capital-rich, megastores like Walmart, upper-middle class professionals (particularly those with stay-at-home wives), and makers of fuel-efficient vehicles, and that the losers would primarily be the poor, mom-and-pop shops, those in the working and service classes without options and capital.

To the extent that it needs to be done (for the sake of fairness, survival, or limited resources), come what may. In the end, who really knows how exactly it’s going to unfold?

* – I don’t mean this as a pejorative. It’s simply the best catch-all I can think of for smart-growth proponents, a certain type of environmentalist, and critics of suburbia. As it happens, I live in neither an urban or suburban area. I was raised in the suburbs, but have lived inside one city or another for most of my adult years.

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44 thoughts on “The Car & The City

  1. It’s interesting how much global warming and other environmental issues have become just another color of warpaint for the endless tribal battles of the culture war. Those awful people on team Red living in the suburbs! Certainly, rising oil prices short-term make living in the suburbs and exburbs more expensive not to mention the increasing environmental costs from global warming and photochemical smog. But long-term, the increase in oil prices not only will eventually change people’s behavior and living patterns (well, those that can afford it) but will also increase the incentive for technological change. For example, what if the price of conventional oil rose so much from reduced supply or increased demand, that suddenly covering the Nevada and Arizona desert with pools of hydrocarbon-producing bio-engineered algae becomes more profitable than digging the stuff out of the ground? What if self-driving cars made commuting less of a hassle, and driving more energy efficient? Certainly, walkable or bicycle-oriented dense communities could do the same as well, but shouldn’t we leave our options open? Or is all of this more about signalling our disdain for others’ lifestyle choices and forcing our own upon them?

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    • I agree that it offers an opportunity to lay into people with lifestyles some people don’t like, but it’s hardly “just” that. Commuting really is a big problem for the environment, particularly single-passenger commuters. The fact that it’s become an issue in the culture war, or has the potential to do so, doesn’t change that.

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      • Which brings to light the question… what if the solution to the commuting problem involves cultural changes that they don’t find appealing? What if it involves moving jobs out to the suburbs, an increased owning/renting divide (because workers would rent their houses to be able to move closer to their next job in another suburb), and so on?

        People equate suburbia with long commutes, but it really doesn’t have to be that way. And changing suburbia (making it more rent-based, putting more jobs out there, etc.) strikes me as logistically less problematic than moving everybody into the city or retrofitting cities with more usable public transportation options.

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        • One thing I’ve noticed is that urbanists almost universally favor savagely-punitive rent control. This would reduce the negative effects of an increased owning/renting divide, because the landlords would have much less control over what they could do with their properties.

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  2. Trumwill,

    This…

    “But mostly, as it becomes increasingly untenable to live in the sticks and work downtown, it won’t be the people moving out of the suburbs.

    In a lot of recent-growth cities, more and more employment is occurring in the suburbs…

    A company having difficulty recruiting talent will create satellite offices or even more their headquarters to the suburbs. It would allow them to recruit more aggressively and save money on their own operational costs.”

    …is brilliant analysis. I agree 100%. I would also mention a growing trend of people working from home. Most white collar jobs could easily be un-tethered from o0ffices completely. ALl of my management team works from home and are spread across the eastern U.S. and we function fine via conference calls and shared desktops. We have a couple of in-person meets per year.

    I also agree we may see more mass transit but it will be of the inter-suburb variety as they become communities unto themselves.

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    • I’m less bullish on telecommuting, though I’ve been actually working on getting a tele job for quite some time now. Some studies have demonstrated that people are more productive when they’re working in the same building. Employers are going to be loathe to give up the amount of control they can exert.

      But I do expect to start seeing more of it. But I expect it will be part of the sorting rather than a huge shift. Or something done on a part-time basis. Work a couple days from home, go in a couple days, and so on.

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      • I used to feel that way. I think there definitely has to be a level of trust and the hourly employee model must be changed. It has to be salary work and productivity has to be measured in accomplishments and not hours behind a desk.

        My company has also done it a bit differently by having the bosses work remotely and the employees stay centralized. If we can be productive in an office with no boss around there’s no reason we shouldn’t be able to make the leap to working from home.

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      • > Some studies have demonstrated that people are
        > more productive when they’re working in the
        > same building.

        Jury’s still out on this one, IMO. I’ve read a few of these studies and they’re not really conclusive (standard disclaimer: there’s a large body of literature here).

        It seems to me that a lot of the metrics for productivity are gamed to produce results for an industrialized workplace. It’s certainly the case that the vast, staggering majority of our management cadre approach management as an industrial activity, so there’s lots of embedded bias in there as well.

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  3. Besides the commuting problems associated with energy use and environmental degradation, Annie Lowrey points out the serious social and health consequences of commuting (http://www.slate.com/id/2295603/), which range from higher rates of divorce to obesity to lack of “social connections.” One doesn’t want to force a lifestyle on anyone, but, that being said, the negatives of the long commute are pretty damning. Coming up with a fair ways incentivize urbanism is where it gets difficult..

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    • Be that as it may, I am still unsure what makes urbanism, rather than a refitted suburbanism, the solution to this particular problem. I was raised in the suburbs and my father commuted less than 15 minutes round-trip, as does my brother. My sister-in-law commutes closer to 30 (again, round-trip). If push comes to shove, and we make commuting more expensive, I’m still uncertain as to why that means – necessarily – more urbanization. Somewhat igher density and more mixed use in the suburbs, perhaps, but still what the urbanists would consider “sprawl”.

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      • Less time together, more stress. Also, when you live in one area and work in another, there is a disconnect in your life. I used to live in Town A and work in Town B, about 60 miles away. The commute resulted in feeling a lot less “connected” with my wife. Not just because we had less time spend together, but because half of my friends (the ones from work) lived an hour away. My wives would never meet their wives, and so on. Disconnect. I’d imagine that it would also make men more able to compartmentalize and commit adultery. Having a Town A life and a Town B one.

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        • I’d imagine that it would also make men more able to compartmentalize and commit adultery.

          Dude, women too! But, yeah, your explanation totally makes sense. I’m just more used to the problems that result from one spouse working at home all the time. But, come to think of it, we’ve had a few friends split up in about the way you described.

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  4. I really disagree with the culture-war analysis of ubranism movements. You’re starting the discussion from the frame of what opponents say and never deal with what it’s proponents actually work towards.

    I am sure there are a number snooty urbanists out there that look down their nose at commuters, just as I can guarantee you there are at far more anti-urbanists out there who spend a lot of time sermonizing the superior moral character of the people who live in the Real America. Acknowledging their existence doesn’t really illuminate the issues at hand in any way.

    The main obstacle to urbanism is not even the imbalance of transit subsidies, it’s land-use regulations. A large part of your analysis takes for granted that urban housing is expensive and therefore not an option for many. But there’s a rather obvious problem with that analysis in that it’s expensive because it’s desirable yet the supply is heavily regulated and restricted. Not because we’re actually short of urban real estate, but because artificial restrictions on the supply drive up the price.
    Tackling that problem is the real challenge.

    After that, I also think your point on ‘downtown businesses’ is also very flawed. Wal-Mart is not urban; it’s rural/suburban and depend heavily on the car-culture subsidy for their very business model. I don’t see how advocating putting our thumbs on the scale for certain businesses makes sense, but we should be honest about who does and doesn’t benefit from whatever policies we advocate.

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    • Urban real estate is always going to be more expensive than suburban, exurban, and rural, because of its scarcity. Now, perhaps with land-use regulations, the skyscraper lofts would be built higher, but there is only so much of that you can do when the city population is 1/5 that of the metro area. How many of those people are you going to move in? How high do you have to build the skyscrapers? I don’t think there is enough room there to tilt the population balance away from the suburbs and into the city.

      I’d personally like to see more urban housing. I get frustrated when projects are scotched in my home town for one reason or another (almost always, I should be add, by people inside the city). But even if we build them, I don’t think it’s going to be the primary answer.

      I know that Walmart is not urban. However, it’s one-stop shopping. That’s why I think that they would stand to benefit. It’s more gas friendly than going to two or three places. The downtown places would lose the businesses of the suburbanites, which is why I think that they would not benefit. The same goes to the specialty stores. If gas is at a premium, I’m not going to go to Little Joe’s Hardware if I can go to the hardware section of a superstore, which I need to go to anyway. I’m not going to go to a bookstore when I can simply have it delivered, if going to the bookstore costs a lot of money.

      All of this assumes that I don’t live within walking distance. But even when I lived in the shadow of downtown, I rarely did.

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      • Also, I don’t think that the environmentalist movement is *driven* by culture affectations. If I’m right and the result is more suburbanization and a bunch of other things that they don’t like on a cultural level, I expect that many will simply look at the decreased emissions and be quite happy. But others will look for reasons why it’s really only making things worse (applying a level of scrutiny they would never apply if I am wrong) or look at the glass as one-quarter empty. Or they’ll lose interest in the subject I’ve become more convinced of this as time goes on. There is a certain quiet glee among some when they talk about how the suburbs are going to become “unsustainable.” And I’m generally cautious when “the world as I would like it to be” overlaps so neatly with “what must be done because of external forces”

        I don’t know how it will break down, what percentage see this as a culture war club and what percentage as a grave concern. And I would add that even if there are quite a few in the first camp, it doesn’t actually mean that they are wrong about commutes, the environment, sustainability, and so on. Every camp has people there for the wrong reasons.

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      • I think you’d find that the overwhelming majority of American cities are extremely low-density. I live in the Atlanta-area and it’s barely denser than the small town I grew up in.

        Matt Yglesias harps on this constantly and effectively. For example (and search density on his blog for a lot more):
        http://thinkprogress.org/yglesias/2010/07/01/197745/paris-denser-than-you-think
        The answer is hundreds of millions more people could live in the cities we have, and it doesn’t have to be Manhattan, though if people want to, why do we have to make rules to prevent it?

        Obviously not all would move, even in an urbanist’s fantasy world. But it’s very disingenuous to just say that it’s not possible without even considering the actual size of the populations and land areas we have.

        As for the retail issue, I don’t see why we should be putting our thumbs on the scale for business you happen to like. Isn’t that the exact thing your criticizing urbanists for doing?

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        • Obviously not all would move, even in an urbanist’s fantasy world. But it’s very disingenuous to just say that it’s not possible without even considering the actual size of the populations and land areas we have.

          Okay, but I said in my post “Who knows…?” and in my immediate prior response “I don’t know how it will break down.” I am not saying that increased urbanization is not possible. I am saying that I think that the alternative is more likely.

          As for the retail issue, I don’t see why we should be putting our thumbs on the scale for business you happen to like.

          I’m not really putting my thumb anywhere. I am merely stating who I think would benefit: one-stop shopping centers, because they save car trips that would be required to get the same things from specialty stores, and (I forgot to mention this) they have greater economies of scale when it comes to transporting inventory (which, as transportation of goods becomes more expensive, will become more important).

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          • Sure, but everything you say after it seems to assume the increased suburbanization would be the outcome and none to increased urbanization, so what are we to read from that?

            But I don’t get what is the causal mechanism that takes increased energy costs/reduced automobile subsidies to cause increased suburbanization? I can’t imagine them without some other piece moving. I can understand if certain existing suburbs get denser, but in keeping with Sam M, if existing suburbs get more dense and grow that’s still increased density which is still reduced energy consumption.

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        • I don’t think he’s saying that he likes Wal-Mart, so much as that if your goal is efficiency then a Wal-Mart in the suburbs is a lot more efficient than a large number of small stores downtown.

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      • A lot of this would seem to shake out in what you consider “the suburbs.” Traditional city boundaries are not all that useful. Pittsburgh, for instance, is made up a bunch of smaller neighborhoods with their own distinct downtowns, and some of them are really quite dense. If you drew the boundaries differently, Shadyside would be considered a suburb. Is Alexandria Virginia a suburb or a city? The more we build up those innerring suburbs, the more we have this definition problem.

        I honestly don’t think a lot of the supposed anti-suburb types really expect all the people to move into downtown Pittsburgh, defined specifically as the Golden Triangle, or downtown DC. I lived in DC, and to be honest, I don’t know what downtown would even mean. Instead, they see value in a general shift to more dense versus less dense.

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        • Fair point. I think that they are likely to get more density, though not as much as they would prefer. And I suspect that it will come at the cost of decentralization. Places like the Research Triangle or conglomerations of hubs. Dallas-Fort Worth, but most people splitting the difference by living and working in Grand Prairie rather than commuting from from Grand Prairie to Dallas or vice-versa.

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  5. I don’t think the growth of population centers around ‘satellite offices’ and the like would be a new thing as much a return to an old thing. The waves of pre-automobile industrialism had some concentrated, unified areas, like NYC*, but also created many smaller but discrete cities (e.g. Cleveland/Akron, Lowell/Lawerence/Worchester around Boston, the Connecticut coast) – which have only been woven into economically interconnected ‘metro areas’ with the triumph of the automobile.

    *but remember Brooklyn was also its own city until just before the turn of the 20th century

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  6. A response to everyone and no one in particular. If gas prices go up, or if we start charging tolls or otherwise taking measures to reduce emissions and commute times, I really don’t know* whether the result is going to be increased urbanization or increased suburbanization. I suspect it would be the latter, but I could be wrong.

    However, a lot of urbanists seem wedded to the notion that it will primarily be urbanization and increased density. I’m mostly laying out the case as to why I disagree. But it begs a question…

    Let’s say that I am right. Let’s say that the end result is the jobs moving out of the city. The rise of self-containing suburbs and exurbs. Maybe some more mixed-use and walkable neighborhoods, but mostly shorter drives and people consolidating their shopping trips to super stores.

    Other than some muttering, what effect would that have on your concern for emissions, commute times, and so on? If the concern is really fairness (stopping the mass subsidization of the car culture) and the environment (lower emissions), this should be considered a win. And doubtless, many would consider it so. But I suspect a significant number would not. And I struggle to think of a reason as to why this would be except that lifestyle preference, and not just the environment and fairness, is one of the motivating factors.

    If you would consider it a win, then our only disagreement is what would actually happen. That’s purely speculative and I could be right or I could be wrong. But I do think that the pro-urban folks should consider the possibility that I am right, and that when they think (for example) “emissions are a problem,” that the solution is not necessarily going to fall more heavily on those other people’s preferred lifestyles and the reorganization may, in fact, favor them over you.

    * – And the truth is, I don’t really care. I live in the sticks. I lived within walking distance of downtown (so that my wife could walk to work) in the last two places I’ve lived (commuting to suburbs each time). Before that, I lived on main street in the spotty section a small city. Before that, I lived in apartment complexes on the outskirts of the city (outside the inner loop, inside the outer one) and commuted to the suburbs. On the other hand, I was raised in the suburbs. If I lived in an urban area and had to choose between an urban or suburban location, I would choose… whatever my wife wanted.

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    • “The rise of self-containing suburbs and exurbs. Maybe some more mixed-use and walkable neighborhoods, but mostly shorter drives and people consolidating their shopping trips to super stores.”

      But that’s the thing. Once you have a ‘self-contained’ anything, you basically have a city by any other name. Macy’s on 34th street was a ‘super store’ before Sam Walton was even born.

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      • Maybe, but the suburbs that exist where people do live and work are still treated like suburbs and not small cities in the popular imagination. When jobs move from downtown to the suburbs, people think of it as jobs moving from downtown to the suburbs and not as the suburbs consolidating into mini-cities. At least in my experience.

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    • I think this touches on an important point. Cities already have much lower CO2 emissions than the surrounding suburbs (and definitely the exburbs) so one way to lower emissions is to make suburbs more energy efficient like cities. In some ways, you can already see this happening, too. For example, in the inner suburb of San Francisco that I live in, the city is adding a lot more bike lanes, building near transit, etc. In fact, I ride my bike to public transit to get to work. Even though San Francisco is supposedly more bike-friendly, I find biking in my suburb to be a lot safer than in San Francisco. This may be because I’m more familiar with the area, but it does suggest that suburbs could be re-organized without too much extra effort into being less car-focused. And this is just one example of how suburbs might potentially develop as natural resource and environmental pressures affect the cost of living.

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      • From a regulatory standpoint, I really do think it will be easier to retrofit the suburbs (and create new ones!) for increased density and less travel than the cities. Bike lanes are an example of that.

        But I think a lot of it is going to have to do with employment. Move the jobs to the suburbs, you can cut down on commutes considerably. Williamson County in Texas is an example of this. They have Dell Computers and despite low density (both in Round Rock and the county at large), lower CO2 emissions than a lot of dense cities (including Austin/Travis, its anchor). People live there, work there, and don’t spend nearly as much time in their cars because of it.

        It’s also worth noting there are a lot of lower-density cities (by which I mean lower density than a lot of suburbs) with car addictions that nonetheless manage lower emissions. As with the more self-contained suburbs, I think they manage this by putting people close to their jobs even if the people in particular are (compared to major cities) not packed in closely to together.

        If I’m wrong, and people genuinely would like to be packed in closely together so that they can save money (and the environment) by walking and such, you still have a problem with the people currently in the city not wanting everyone to come join them. It just strikes me as a logistically difficult thing compared to simply spreading the people (to avoid traffic) and jobs (to keep them close to the people) out. It could happen (or we could start seeing more urban suburbs like Bellevue, Washington). I’m mostly trying to make the minimalist argument, saying that it might not (which is my opinion, but based speculative). And wondering the extent to which people who think that it would be the suburbanites’ burden the bear would be okay with that.

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  7. I don’t know about most businesses, but I think the most hardcore “urbanists” in North America have got to be the movie distributors. The idea that more than half of the movies released in North America can only play in a few urban centers because the rest of us everywhere else on the continent will refuse to see anything but “Hangover 2: The Exact Same Shit” or “CGI: The Movie” is remarkably condescending.

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    • Where I live, we don’t even get first-run movies, most of the time. We pay first-run prices, but releases somewhere in between first-run and dollar theater. I’m sure it will not surprise you that the offerings tend to be “least common denominator.” I doubt Hangover 2 will even play here, if only because of the R-rating.

      The nearest “city” to where I live has only six screens. They do first-run right, but they also have to hedge their bets with the safest material possible.

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      • It’s the same where we live and it’s a small city! I mean, part of it is that cinema is a very expensive art form and that tends to lead to intensely conservative business decisions. The other part of it is that the studios and distribution houses think that people who don’t live in cities have no interest in culture. So, it’s sort of a combination of an over-leveraged industry and that it’s run by cultural elitists.

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    • I think the movie distributors know their business, and it just turns out that movies like “Pirates 6: Superhero Avengers of the Carribbean” are the ones that people plunk down their money to watch, just like they willingly prefer to shop at Wal-Mart instead of Ye Olde Corner Shoppe and eat at McDonald’s instead of Charming Expensive Sandwich-and-Cocktail Refrectory.

      If there are lines out the door in the urban markets for people wanting to see a movie like “Gay Cowboys Eating Pudding,” then my local exurban Ultraplex will ask for, and get, and show, “Gay Cowboys Eating Pudding,” for as long as it can fill at least a quarter of the seats for every showing. That’s exactly what happened with “Brokeback Mountain,” which ran up here for three weeks and while some of the local holy rollers grumbled about it, the theater showed the movie for as long as the paying audience chose to support it.

      So arthouse movie fans up here willingly drive an hour or more to go see their preferred fare in the city because they are motivated consumers. Less motivated consumers are, well, less motivated, and therefore not a sufficiently profitable audience to whom the theaters and distributors wish to market.

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  8. Americans go from job to job: it’s difficult to find anyone who’s lived in the same town all their lives. They live where they can afford the rent/mortgage, which is never close to where they work. Then there’s people like me who live in hotels, close to work, making three times more than my salaried compatriots. When I was commuting regularly to and from Atlanta, I’d see the same people on the same flight, week after week. Once I woke up on an aircraft and had to look for my boarding pass to work out which way I was going.

    When I lived in downtown Chicago, in Old Town, I wanted to get rid of my car. Good thing I didn’t because the job didn’t last and I ended up driving sixty miles a day to and from my next job out in Arlington Heights. I tried to stay in Old Town, loved the amenities of the city, but after two years decided I’d had enough of the driving and a kid was on the way, so I moved to a town down the road from my job, which had moved even farther west to Inverness to new headquarters.

    After six months there, the company let half the IT staff go and I was on the short end of the stick. I was two weeks out from closing on a new house. Closed on that house anyway and took a consulting job downtown. Rode the METRA train and took a bus across the Loop.

    I can’t win. Now should I have held onto my lovely apartment in Old Town? The house I bought was all I could afford at the time and ate up all my capital and left me house-poor.

    My solution? Keep my kids in the same school system and turn into a consultant. Sears was a great client, sympathetic and understanding: in exchange for a discount on my rate, they let me do most of my work in my house while my kids were tiny and my wife was in college. But I still had to go in for meetings and when they moved to Hoffman Estates, life was almost idyllic: I could ride my bike to work.

    American life requires a vehicle, unless you’re living right downtown. Even when I lived in Old Town, my non-car-owning friends were forever importuning me to take them shopping at Big Boxco out in the burbs, or help them move their shit from place to place. If we commute to work alone, at least we have the independence to get back home.

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  9. In my recent experiences in Italy, I took note of the infrastructure and urban layout of homes and workplaces because, well, that’s an interesting thing to observe. Bear in mind that Italy got to rebuild a lot of its cities and infrastructure essentially from scratch after World War II, aided by a lot of Marshall Plan money, and has gone from a marginal economic case pre-war to one of the leading industrial and economic powers of the contemporary world. So unlike us, they got an opportunity to build their cities to suit, although I wouldn’t want to have gone through what they did in order to get that opportunity.

    A lot of Italy is rural, pastoral, farmland and used as such, with small villages housing the people who service those agricultural areas (not necessarily the owners themselves). A lot of it is rugged hills and mountains, unsuitable for more than tiny villages.

    The bulk of the people there live in communes of various sizes, ranging from large villages of a few thousand to world-class cities like Rome and Milan. The larger cities have suburbs and exurbs, perhaps with more famous names than in the USA but suburbs and exurbs all the same. Pistoia was once an object of contention and warfare for the Florentines, but now it’s a place where housing is more affordable than in crowded and dense Florence, where a lot of the jobs are.

    So there are commuter trains servicing these cities, but there are also a lot of autostrada and superstrada linking these cities to their satellite communities. As here, a lot of people drive to work every day instead of taking public transportation or living near where they work — in part because there is only so much infrastructure, in part because the infrastructure is not always efficient or convenient, and in part because housing in the central urban areas is significantly more expensive than it is in outlying regions.

    Also as here, there is a mix of industrial and service-based jobs, and particularly the industrial jobs are not located so much in the central business districts of a lot of the cities (those are reserved for financial, governmental, and tourism activities either by law or by economic pressure) but generally in the outskirts of the cities and near the infrastructure which supports it.

    The result is not the “greenbelted” cities urbanites once dreamed of, but “graybelted” cities with their outer rings being the unattractive heavy and medium industries on the outside, a middle ring of mostly medium-density residential buildings (think apartment blocks or condominiums) and businesses servicing the residential needs of the inhabitants like retail stores and auto repair shops, and a central business district (we’d call them “downtowns”) where the more prestigious white-collar jobs as well as the tourism and high-end urban housing can be found. Italy being Italy, the central business districts are as much historical as modern in appearance, but the industrial graybelt and the residential belt, pretty much everything is postwar construction and the bulk of it is from the 1960’s or later, when Italy’s economy really began to take off.

    The most interesting analogue to Trumwill’s point, though, is that there are a considerable number of people who will have a job at one point in the outer graybelt, but live in a different part of the residential belt entirely, with little access to public transportation to get from A to B (or A to C, if the spouse works as in most younger families these days). This requires the use of cars instead of busses or urban light rail or commuter rails.

    Densely packing jobs into central business districts creates horrendous traffic, both for ingress and egress, and within the CBD itself. Europeans compensate for this by walking around their CBD’s more than Americans would, but they also have more restrictions on auto use in their CBD’s so it may not be a matter of choice. The cities are older and laid out on traditional lines; only rarely has a city been re-designed with traffic flow as a significant consideration and only the centers of cities seem to follow grids. The historical and cultural reasons for that are fascinating but off point here.

    The pricing effect of all this is to push most middle-income earners out of the CBDs and deny them reasonable housing choices near their industrial jobs in the graybelts. The housing that strikes a reasonable balance between quality, price, and proximity to the services that make residential life livable, is all in the middle belt; the closer to the center you get, the more you’re going to have to pay and therefore the more out of reach that kind of housing becomes for most people.

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  10. It was interesting to read about land use in Italy. I live in Germany for about 25 years now. Here urbanization is following the US style to some extent. Frankfurt is the major urban center where I live, and people commute there to work from all directions. There has been “white flight” here too, with the inner parts of Frankfurt housing the poor and the immigrants. Wealthier people have moved farther from the city center to the nearby cities and towns, some of which could be considered suburbs. Many job have also migrated to these suburbs – corporate headquarters and research center are more likely to be in upscale towns outside of Frankfurt than in the city proper.

    Light manufacturing has moved away from cities altogether and is out in the country – right off an autobahn of course. Cheap land and access to the transportation network, road not rail, are what these businesses need. More freight moves by truck over here than by rail, and workers at these rural factories and warehouses don’t (can’t) move by rail either.

    All cities in Germany are now ringed by shopping centers and malls featuring large stores very much like Walmart and Home Depot. You need a car to get to these places. Downtowns still exist here as shopping meccas, but they have to compete for business with the malls and shopping centers. Small, local retailers are also still important here – local supermarkets, bakers, butchers, restaurants, etc. People like to be able to walk or bike to get to their daily necessities. Housing is denser here than in the US, even in small towns and suburbs. Houses are smaller, yards are smaller, and apartment buildings get mixed in with single family homes. One thing that I particularly like over here is that towns are surrounded by farm fields and woods. This is even true of large cities. You are in the town, and then you are in the country. You rarely have isolated homes out in the country. These fields and woods provide people with places to walk and bike.

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  11. Ah Redmond.
    Speaking as one who commutes from Seattle to Redmond, the reverse commute is perhaps more efficient for public transportation than the forward commute. Yes, moving people out of Seattle is inefficient, but 25% of them take mass transit of one sort or another. With the newly imposed congestion charges on the 520 bridge that cost more than a bus ticket, that is likely to move higher.

    The benefit of the reverse commute is that suburban workplaces are always convenient to mass transit (Microsoft colocates its campuses with bus terminals) while suburban residences are not.

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