Urbanists to suburbanites: Stay out of our trendy ‘playgrounds’


Downtowns need arterial streets. They need freeway access. They need parking. They cannot just be enclaves for the young and trendy. City leaders need to keep that in mind when they make decisions. 

In New York, the city has introduced a “congestion tax” – effectively, a cordon tax – for all cars entering lower Manhattan. In Cincinnati, the City Council voted for a ban on new surface parking lots downtown. In Indianapolis, the state Legislature is trying to prevent the city from halving the lane capacity of the primary east-west arterial road to accommodate a rapid transit bus.

In each of these scenarios, the goal is simple – make downtown more difficult to access by car, a flashing sign that says “no suburbanites allowed.” Unless, of course, those suburbanites conform to the ways of the denizens of the central city, leave their car at home and take a train or bus in.

For much of the United States’ history, the central city was the commercial hub – home of the largest companies’ offices, the largest stores and the best restaurants. But with the invention of the automobile – and the freedom they provided, coupled with the opportunity for larger homes and a better way of life, generations have found their way to suburbs.

The urban core went from being the hub that served a number of spokes coming in from elsewhere to being one star in a galaxy, as downtown stores were replicated in – or replaced by – multiple suburban shopping malls.

Firms built satellite offices or moved their main offices into suburban locations. Big-box stores and supermarkets offered more convenience, lower prices and a wider selection. Not only were they closer to their suburban neighbors, they also offered ample free parking, which made them even more easily accessible to the growing number of people who were buying cars.

Read Free Cities Center Director Steven Greenhut’s column about density. 

Read Andrew Smith’s Free Cities Center column, ‘An Ode to the Suburb.’

But parking bans, lane closures and cordon taxes are all symptoms of a larger issue, which is that the urban cores in many American cities have been transformed into playgrounds for largely young, progressive urban professionals. And they are trying to remake the city in their image.

Drawn by the density, availability of “third places” – coffee shops, bars and available nightlife – and a perception of vibrancy, recent college grads have been flocking to downtowns for a generation.

A recent Business Insider story highlights this trend. “For nearly two decades millennials morphed dense, amenity-rich urban neighborhoods across America into exclusive playgrounds for the young and childless,” writes Eliza Relman. “Compared with Gen Xers and baby boomers, a much larger share of millennials moved to cities in their young adulthood – and stayed for longer. They wanted craft-cocktail bars over picket fences, walkable commutes over two-car garages, SoulCycle over swimming pools. In turn, cities were yassified in their image.”

It’s not surprising that a group of people who recently graduated from college would want to extend the best four years of their lives and try to find a home that re-creates that life. Meanwhile, the jobs are going elsewhere. Remote work, suburbanization and a number of other factors has led to a downtown office space vacancy rate of 25%, the highest in three decades.

The result has been a transformation of the urban core from a district that relies on office traffic during the day and morphs into an entertainment district at night into a largely residential one. As a result, while commercial vacancies mount, the prices of urban apartments and condos are skyrocketing, leading cities to consider converting office space to residential.

Along with the growing populations of young professionals in downtowns, prices are growing, too, often pricing out the millennials who desire to fill the blocks of high-rises and five-over-ones, with housing prices in dense urban cores often 34% higher or more than in other areas. Some are moving to suburbs and trying to transform them into the cities they left, or clamoring to move back.

A couple in their mid-30s interviewed by Relman said living in the suburbs made them “miserable” because “the closest coffee was 15 to 20 minutes away, there wasn’t a lot to do in the area, and none of our friends wanted to make the drive to visit us.”

However, their desire to make downtown a playground for millennials has been counterproductive. The disdain for cars has led to “traffic calming” – speed tables, right turn on red bans, lower speed limits, reducing the number of lanes, limitations on parking and cordon taxes.

In fact, Cincinnati’s parking lot ban was hailed by planners a measure that would “increase walkability and slow downtown traffic.” In other words, it would create more congestion and frustration from people having to drive more, and drive farther, to find parking, which has artificially been made more scarce by legislative fiat.

But what the desire to “promote walkability” and transit use by frustrating drivers has also done is make it difficult to access for the majority of an urban area’s residents who live in the suburbs. Unlike pre-World War II America, people don’t have to venture downtown to have their dining, shopping or entertainment needs met. And more so, they’re not working downtown. So the efforts to craft cities in the image of transit-loving millennials who prefer walkability to drive-ability, they’ve essentially driven out the 90% of people who own cars.

And that’s had dire consequences. Not only are office vacancies declining in the urban core, downtown retail vacancies are also growing, while suburban retail is doing well.

The proper response is to allow the market to work with regards to real estate – but understanding the consequences of the decentralized decisions of those attracted to urban living. As urban scholar Sanford Ikeda often states, “[A] city cannot be a work of art.” Central planning cannot create an ideal city.

A city is a thriving, vibrant place that reflects the decisions and desires of the people who live and work there, and property owners need to be allowed to direct their real estate to its highest-value use – even if that is a parking lot.

But for urban areas to maintain the things that make them vibrant – the restaurants, retail and entertainment – they cannot rely solely on residents within walking distance. They need the foot traffic from office workers and those coming in from the suburbs. By making the urban core difficult to access via car, they’re keeping away the additional customers downtown businesses need to stay afloat.

So downtowns need arterial streets. They need freeway access. They need parking. They cannot just be enclaves for the young and trendy. City leaders need to keep that in mind when they make decisions. 

Andrew Smith is an economics instructor at New Palestine (Indiana) High School and an adjunct instructor for Vincennes University.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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