Remember When The Suburbs Were Doomed?

Software-development focused online communities skew male, and generally younger (e.g. 20s to mid 30s). Most live in dense urban areas (the Bay, Seattle, NYC, London, etc), often in smallish apartments and condos. Few have families.

As is a side effect of the human condition, there is a tendency to cast one’s own lot as either the inevitable situation for most (e.g. people who have it different from me are living on borrowed time), or as if one’s personal situation is a more righteous, principled choice (better for the planet, development, futurology, etc. This is an observation I personally learned seeing myself do exactly these rationalizations over time).

Stories declaring or predicting the end of the suburbs always do well on these forums. I’ve seen poorly researched stories predicting this topping sites like Hacker News again and again: It tells the audience what they want to hear, so the burden of proof disappears.

But this assumption that suburbs are doomed has always struck me as counter-intuitive. While there has been a significant migration from rural areas to urban areas in virtually every country of the world (largely as rural workers are effectively displaced by factory farming or obsolete skillsets and it becomes a basic survival pattern), suburbs seem to be as bulging as they’ve ever been. In the United States, for instance, the fastest growing areas of the country have been medium density (e.g. suburbs and small cities). Very high density areas have actually been dropping much faster than even rural areas have.

The suburbs aren’t actually dying.

But maybe they will soon? The argument that they will is completely predicated on a single thing happening: We’re going to run short on oil, transportation costs are going to explode, and suddenly the onerous costs of living in far flung places is going to cause mass migration to the city centers, everyone defaulting on their giant suburban McMansion mortgage, the rings turned into a desolate wasteland.

Increasingly it seems like we’re more likely to keep oil in the ground than to run out. Alternatives to this easy energy source are picking up pace at an accelerating rate. As electric vehicles hit the mainstream, they’re becoming significantly more economically viable options for high mileage drivers (fuel for electric cars costs somewhere in the range of 1/5th per mile compared to gasoline, even in high cost areas like California). Where the miles are much cheaper from some solar panels or a windmill than they are a gallon of gasoline, even at the current depressed prices. And that’s excluding the significant mechanical costs of internal combustion engines that would soon be dramatically undermined by mass produced electric vehicles.

You can go much further for less than ever before, with the specter of oil’s decline being less and less relevant. If anything transportation is going to get a lot cheaper.

Of course the commute itself has always been a tax on life, and personally I can say that I quit jobs after doing the grueling big city commute. Only we’re on the cusp of our car doing the driving for us. Very soon the drive will be quality time to catch an episode of a good show, or maybe a quick nap. The capacity of even existing roadways will dramatically increase once you remove human failure and foible.

Connectivity…well everyone everywhere is connected, incredibly inexpensively. When I was a kid we had to pay $0.30/minute+ to talk to people 20km away. Now continent wide calling is free. Internet connectivity is fast and copious almost anywhere. Many of us work remote jobs and it really doesn’t matter where we are.

We’re virtual.

I’m not making any predictions or judgments, but the inputs to the classic assumptions has changed enormously. I recently was entertaining the idea of living even more remote (right now I work at home in a rural area exurb of Toronto — this doesn’t qualify as even suburbs — but there are of course far more remote areas of this country), and it’s incredible how few of the factors are really compromised anymore: I’d still have 100s of channels, high speed internet, 24/7 essentially free communications (text, audio, video, soon enough 360 vision at some point with depth) with every family member, overnight delivery of Amazon Prime packages, etc.

Being in a less dense area just isn’t the compromise it once was. And that’s talking about fully rural areas.

The suburbs — where you still have big grocery stores and bowling alleys and neighborhood bars and all of the normal accouterments of living — just aren’t much of a compromise at all. When someone talks up the death of the suburbs, I marvel at the 1980s evaluations of the 2010s world. I would argue the contrary: a few communicable disease outbreaks (e.g. SARS v2) and humans will scurry from density.