What About "15-Minute Suburbs"?
And introducing a new publication I'm a part of!
So—I’m on the board (official title, partner-writer) of a new urbanist publication, Resident Urbanist! This newsletter isn’t going anywhere. Just like I write at a number of different magazines, I’ll be writing at Resident Urbanist twice a month. The focus there will be more applied/specific uses of urbanist ideas in terms of real places, and less of the abstract ideas stuff I sort of focus on here. Both are really important.
My first piece there went up yesterday: “You Might Live In A 15-Minute Suburb.” It’s a more specific follow-up to a piece I did here, titled, simply, “15-Minute Suburbs.” This is actually an idea I got from someone on Twitter, arguing against walkable urbanism: paraphrasing, I can get everywhere I need to get in 15 minutes or less in my car, what difference does it make if I drive or walk?
It’s a challenging question, because it raises this question of urbanism as “eating your vegetables”: Well, you shouldn’t drive because driving is dangerous and bad for the environment, so you should walk/bike/take transit even if it’s less convenient.
That may be true, at least to a degree, but it certainly isn’t going to appeal to most Americans. Urbanism shouldn’t be putting on a hairshirt and offering it up for the holy souls in Purgatory. Urbanism has to actually be appealing and convenient to people who don’t care about the issues at stake. Some of us take transit, for example, because we affirmatively like and support transit. But most drivers don’t “support” driving; it’s just a default. Urbanism has to make alternatives feel that easy too.
So my answer is, if your suburban community is really dense enough and amenity-rich enough that a 10- or 15-minute drive gets you pretty much everywhere you need to go—with the exception of work, because the geography of offices makes it pretty hard for everyone to have that short a commute—then you’re already somewhere on the urbanist spectrum.
Around D.C., parts of the main suburban counties, Arlington and Fairfax in Virginia and Prince George’s and Montgomery in Maryland, are like this. (Most of the outer counties, Prince William and Loudoun in Virginia and Frederick and Anne Arundel in Maryland are different—still semirural or exurban.) In the inner counties, where there are older suburban communities that have kind of “filled in,” you really can get to tons of different useful stores and services in a matter of minutes.
I did a partial cataloging of this in my initial piece here:
What’s within a 15-minute drive of my home? My barber, my doctor, my dentist, two Trader Joe’s grocery stores, two Wegmans supermarkets, a Whole Foods, three Asian supermarkets, a fishmonger, three home-improvement stores, two Targets, two Walmarts, a thrift store I like to visit, dozens of restaurants, the coffee roastery/shop where I sit and work. Those are just the places I frequent.
But… what if you can’t drive? This is the absurd thing about American suburbia: not that driving is frequent and normal, which it will probably be in most of America for a very long time, but that in many cases it’s effectively mandatory. From my new piece:
A heavily car-oriented 15-minute suburb still raises a problem for everyone who cannot drive. Who’s “everyone”? Not just people in a wheelchair. Anybody with a broken leg. With vision problems. Children and teens. The elderly. Everyone was once too young to drive, and will one day be too old or physically unable. In other words, “everyone” is, or will be, you. Mobility should not be reliant on perfect health.
The other big issue with de facto reliance on cars is the expense, especially for a larger family. It’s not uncommon for households to own three or even four cars. And yet:
Estimates of the cost of car ownership differ, but tend to hover above $10,000 per year, per car. Think of the savings if every multi-car family could choose to drop just one vehicle. Unlocking these places for families or households with only one car would be an extraordinary step forward for what urbanists want.
What I’m calling “15-minute suburbs”—older, denser suburban places that have a lot of people and a lot of stuff—are some of the most promising environments in the country to “leaven” with some urbanist ideas. Not transform, not get rid of urban-renewal style. Just incrementally add certain urban characteristics. For example, allowing a lot more density right around rail. Reducing off-street parking requirements to make an easier landscape for small businesses. Things like bikeshare and more efficient bus service. Anything that can make a car trip feel optional, or make it possible for a family to drop one car, is a big win for the convenience and finances of families.
You might think those reforms would simply intensify traffic. But this is a key point:
You might fear that this would make such places impossibly crowded and traffic-choked, which they can sometimes feel like from behind the wheel of a car. But the key is that where people and amenities are already densely located, it’s easier to turn car trips into walks, bike rides, or transit trips.
Arlington, Virginia added a lot of density in the last 20 years, especially along the Metro (subway/rail) corridor. There are bikeshare docks and e-scooters all over the place. Guess what? Arlington’s car traffic dropped in that period.
The blue bars all show percent decreases in auto traffic on major throughfares, from 1996 to 2019 (so the pandemic doesn’t account for the drop):
Finally, I want to share one more slightly abstract point, about how the time we spend behind the wheel disappears into a kind of black hole. Nobody really likes it, at least for running errands (I love road-tripping, not so much schlepping to the store). I think a lot of people would find they really like having the option, in nice weather, on a less time-crunched day, to take a nice walk or bike ride to the store for a couple of items, or to a dentist appointment, or what have you. We might say we don’t care, but we don’t really even know what that would be like.
Think about this, especially if you’re skeptical:
Ballooning travel times due to frequent traffic can make 5, 10, or 15 minute drives illusory. If you actually enjoy those travel times only 25 percent of the time—if your proximity to necessities relies on the absence of other people—that reinforces the zero-sum logic of car-centric mobility. This can happen because of long, crushing rush hours, or it can happen more imperceptibly as a new exurb fills in, creating a feeling of constantly deteriorating mobility. And those travel times still don’t include parking—possibly pretty far from the store’s entrance—and walking from and back to your car.
I saw a Twitter thread once about how easily we write off time spent in the car. “It’s only 10 minutes,” you might say of a 13-minute trip that usually ends up being 16 minutes, “and 10 minutes is hardly any time at all!” Count the round trip and the parking-lot walk, and a trip you categorize in your mind as almost nothing ends up being over half an hour!
Urbanism to me isn’t a subset of environmentalism or a question of social justice, at least not primarily. It’s about making people’s time more pleasant and productive, our mobility easier and safer. And above all, it’s the belief that Americans deserve beautiful and lovely places to live in, every day.
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