Drones, smart homes, driverless cars and other new tech will favor the growth of the suburbs
October 30, 2016 12:00 AM
By Tyler Cowen
For a few years it seemed that Americans were moving mostly to the cities, but now the trends are toward the suburbs once again. Long-turn trends favor suburbs even more.
One reason is the rise of Uber and other ride-sharing services. Uber helps users virtually everywhere, but in cities, there are subways and buses and walking might be an option. Uber therefore is swinging the advantage to the suburbs, or to spread out suburb-like cities such as Los Angeles.
Self-driving vehicles are also likely to help the suburbs most. One of the worst things about the suburbs is the commute to the city or to other parts of the suburbs. But what if you could read, text or watch TV — safely — during that commuting time? What if you could tackle your day’s work just as you do on a train or plane? Commuting would seem a lot less painful. As driverless vehicles evolve to accommodate work and leisure uses of the automobile space, pleasure will replace commuting stress.
What about drones? They too would seem to favor remote areas where it is harder to access useful goods and services. Drones may do more for exurbs and rural areas than for the suburbs, but it seems cities will gain least. Walking or biking to nearby shops is a potential substitute for drone delivery. Rolling sidewalk drones might find it harder to negotiate crowded cities, and cities with a dense network of tall buildings may be less friendly to flying drones. Population density may increase the risk of a drone falling on someone.
Now think about virtual reality. Its advocates claim that it will be used for sex, to simulate travel and to watch sporting events and concerts with an intense 3-D accompaniment. You will be able to do all that in the comfort of your living room or basement. So you won’t need a city for vivid cultural experiences.
Or consider the advent of the “smart home” and the internet of things. Wouldn’t it be nice to just talk to your stove/computer/3-D printer/robot and say, “Make me some pureed squash”? Any forecast on this topic seems speculative. Still, the suburbs often have more new homes and more new appliances because it’s more difficult to rebuild or to re-equip older city apartments. So I suspect the arrival of the smart home will favor the suburbs, too.
Suburbs are sometimes portrayed as ignoble compared to cities, and media centers such as New York and Washington attract young, pro-urban writers who trumpet their hometown virtues. But let’s not forget that it is the suburban sprawl of Silicon Valley that has produced many of the biggest recent tech breakthroughs.
Suburbs are also the part of the United States that now leads the way when it comes to the racial integration of school systems. More densely populated areas are seeing increases in segregation by income and, often, by race. Therefore the suburbs are probably becoming where America’s melting-pot dream is strongest.
Cities are more environmentally efficient than suburbs. Still, a lot of cities are less green than they look once you see them as dependent on a surrounding belt of manufacturing and energy transmission. It’s not really in Manhattan’s moral favor that it exports many dirty activities to China or northern New Jersey, even if doing so makes New York City statistically greener.
I therefore suggest that America’s new and glorious suburban future won’t be so painful or tedious or immoral. Suburbanization is continuing, most of all, because people want it. This trend will become stronger if southern cities such as Atlanta, Dallas and Houston implement the building restrictions that already are keeping lower-income and middle-class people out of San Francisco and Manhattan.
I should confess a bias in writing this article. In my 54 years, I have not once lived in a major U.S. city, although always right outside of one. Thus I can assure city dwellers that their new suburban overlords will be benevolent ones.
Tyler Cowen is a professor of economics at George Mason University, which is located in Fairfax, Va., just outside of Washington, D.C. He also is a columnist for Bloomberg View and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution.
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