Sunday Train: Rescuing the Exurb from its Design

Burning the Midnight Oil for Living Energy Independence

Back in April, Hope Yen was on the Huffington Post with Sprawling Suburbs Growth Falls To Historic Low Amid High Gas Prices

All across the U.S., residential exurbs that sprouted on the edge of metropolitan areas are seeing their growth fizzle, according to new 2011 census estimates released Thursday.
"The heyday of exurbs may well be behind us," Yale University economist Robert J. Shiller said. Shiller, co-creator of a Standard & Poor's housing index, is perhaps best known for identifying the risks of a U.S. housing bubble before it actually burst in 2006-2007. Examining the current market, he believes America is now at a turning point, shifting away from faraway suburbs to cities amid persistently high gasoline prices.
"Suburban housing prices may not recover in our lifetime," Shiller said, calling the development of suburbs since 1950 "unusual," enabled only by the rise of the automobile and the nation's highway system.

As it was originally designed, Outer Suburbia and Exurbia was designed to fail in an era where increasing energy efficiency will be a fundamental platform for ongoing growth. However, its possible to retrofit Outer Suburbia and Exurbia to a more sustainable design.

The Design of Exurbia and Outer Suburbia

I'm not going to distinguish between Exurbs and Outer Suburbs here. Exurbs are "residential areas outside of an urban area and beyond suburbia", like the small three street exurb in which I grew up ... and that's what I automatically think of when I say Exurb, a mix of small residential developments, with farmland on several sides, and housing along state and county highways, with farmland sitting in the middle.

But after I left, Suburban Columbus spilled over the Franklin County / Licking County border, and now it is entirely arbitrary whether you wish to call the place I grew up Outer Suburban or Exurban. The sharp and clear formal distinction between an incorporated suburb and suburban housing in an unincorporated township is a difference that is harder to see on the ground, a the population of a rural township becomes dominated by suburban residential voters.

The common feature of the two is the average length of the drives. The length of the drive to get to the supermarket. The length of the drive to get to school. The length of the drive to get to the Mall. The length of the drive to get to work and school. The length of the drive to get ... just about "anywhere".

Outer Suburbia and Exurbia is the twin processes of zoning for single use and "drive until you can afford the housing" taken to their extremes. Exurbia proper may not always be single use, but when the alternative nearby use is corn and soybean fields, or a quarry, or some other rural primary resource extraction, its not an alternative nearby use that you have much reason to visit.

Writing from the Exurban area surrounding the Research Triangle, real estate agent Lynn Hayes says,

I can verify this idea that cheap gasoline made the exurbs possible. When gas prices first shot up in 2004 the market for homes in Chatham County and western Orange County dropped significantly despite the fact that elsewhere the housing boom was still raging unabated. Clients who previously were looking in these areas decided to buy homes closer to their work because of high gas prices.


It’s difficult to imagine that gas prices will drop, so unless the dream of public transportation in the Triangle becomes a reality the market for homes in the exurbs is likely to continue to be a challenge. There will always be people (like me) that crave the peace and solitude of wooded seclusion and who will be willing to drive a bit more and pay a bit more for that privilege. The lower property taxes of the rural areas offsets the higher gas costs anyway.

But as the market for rural housing shrinks, as long as the supply continues to expand with new developments home prices in these areas will languish and expectations of home sellers will need to comply with the new market realities.

Exurbs are where the effect is most dramatic, because the vehicle miles that you need to drive in Exurbia for so many different tasks are so dramatic, but the effect is felt across outer suburbia. And its not just transport, but also a demographic shift in the "younger generation" that are currently teenagers and Twenty-Somethings. Earlier this month, Steve Yoder wrote, for the Fiscal Times:

Also driving down demand for houses in the outer suburbs are demographic trends. Recent college graduates and young professionals are making the place they live a priority – 77 percent of them say they plan to live in an urban core even if it’s more expensive, according to a February 2010 study by real estate consultancy RCLCO. The study’s author found that more Gen-Y’ers than Gen-X’ers are willing to live in a smaller space if it means they can walk to work or shops. At the other end of the age spectrum, baby boomers are now selling their houses as they retire and are looking to live nearer urban amenities.

Property Values and Slums

However, over the past thirty years, we built a whole lot of residences in the outer suburbs and the exurbs. Are we going to allow them to become slums?

Remember that slums are not an intrinisically urban phenomenon. Our association of slums with the inner urban areas of large cities is a historical consequence of the same shift to the suburbs that seems to have come to an end with the end of cheap gas and the collapse of the housing bubble. However, what makes an area a slum is quite general: you get a slum when the value of the properties fall below the replacement cost.

That is the silent threat looming over Outer Suburban and Exurban properties. If property values drop below replacement cost, then the rational financial response is to find the activity with the best positive cash flow, and to extra value from the property while allowing the property to run down. Which is to say, when property values drop below replacement cost, the financially sensible thing to do for the property owner is to act as a slumlord. Of course, no every property owner wishes to become a slumlord, but as properties in an area are allowed to run down, further eroding the value of all properties in that area, there is a growing incentive to sell out to someone who is willing to be a slumlord.

Suburban Retrofit: Redesign In Place

If values are sliding because of the cost of travel per mile in an area that requires a lot of miles of travel to get things done, there are two responses that can boost value:

  • Reduce the numbers of miles that need to be traveled to get things done, and
  • Reduce the cost of transport per mile

Both of these goals may be pursued with the same policy response.

(1) Suppose that you had a small, multi-use "suburban village" that was in relatively easy travel distances.

(2) Suppose that the suburban village was connected by lower cost transport to additional suburban villages as well as to one or more larger urban multi-use areas.

Why, if you could manage that, you would have redesigned the transport experience of the residents of that Outer Suburban or Exurban area. Instead of a long drive to location A over here, another long drive to location B over there, and another long drive to location C out yonder, they would have a short drive to location A, to get one or several things done there, and then a lower cost trip from location A to location B or C.

Which brings up the "unless" brought up by the real estate agent on her blog: "so unless the dream of public transportation in the Triangle becomes a reality". If you have a large area of Outer Suburban and Exurban homes, with their value under pressure because of the high cost of driving, then you do not need to find a Suburban Village location: they can be created around the stops of some common carrier transport corridor.

This is something that does not need to wait upon a change in policy in Washington DC. A state can establish a policy that encourages the establishment of suburban villages around transport corridors. What is required is an easement from zoning regulations allowing for three or four story multi-use development an eighth of a mile around a designated transport service stop, and three story multi-residence development a quarter of a mile around a designated transport stop. The multi-use zone should allow for both ground level retail and ground and/or second story professional uses, with townhouse residences above. The easement should also include a maximum allowed parking minimum, with allowance to include pooled parking in the zone to meeting parking minimums.

Since local zoning is a power derived from state powers, a state has the power to override local zoning rules. In localities where zoning rules are enforced by "owners agreements", the easements represent a temptation to allow an exception to be granted to the owners agreement, especially as there is a clear boundary line for the exception.

It would only take a couple of successful redevelopments of mixed use Suburban Villages before property developers in other states start to lobby for similar easements to be provided for in their states.

The Transport Corridor Backbone

There is a great deal of flexibility in what transport corridor is used as the core of this system. A conventional "commuter rail" system could be electrified and upgraded to allow for higher frequency of service. Improvements to support a 110mph "Rapid Rail" corridor could be used to also support a regional rail service into an urban area. A streetcar system in an urban area could be extended out into a "Rapid Streetcar" system, running on a dedicated corridor to more widely separated stops in the outer suburbs and exurbia. A expressway median could be converted into an express busway, supporting multiple express bus routes that leave the expressway on the Outer Suburban / Exurban side to the express stops in their service area.

Advocates of sustainable transport should push for transport corridors to rely on electric power rather than fossil fuels ~ but the key point is to establish a dedicated transport corridor. Once a dedicated transport corridor is provided, circumstances will push us toward electrification of those services.

The Suburban Villages depend upon the Transport Corridor that they share, but the Transport Corridor also depends, in part, on the Suburban Villages. The flip side of the Suburban Village easement is a capital levy on newly developed property permitted by the easement, to contribute to capital costs of the transport corridor, and an Incremental Property Tax levy of 1/5 of the property tax on property permitted by the easement for operations of transport on the corridor serving the Suburban Village.

Support Strategies

The above is the core of the Suburban Village Transport-Oriented Development strategy. There are also a number of support strategies that can be pursued to support the reorientation of Outer Suburbs and Exurbs to their own central place that is a launch pad to car-independent regional transport.

While the Suburban Village is sized to be a walkable neighborhood, there are people who will walk well over a quarter mile to get to a local store or to get to regional transport. Sidewalks and safe pedestrian crossing for a radius of a mile or more around the stop would leverage the value of proximity to the Suburban Village, and a mile radius around the suburban village has four times the area of the suburban area itself.

Shared cycle signage and some means for cyclists to trip "automatic" lights can extend the cycle accessibility of the Suburban Village to a radius of three to five miles, depending on terrain, so the territory in cycle reach of the Suburban Village may be 36 to 100 times the area of the Suburban Village itself. While reliance on the existing "national cycleways" of our existing public rights of way gives a universal grid, only a brave minority will venture to use 55mph to 65mph State and National Highways for transport cycling, so upgrading roads in the cycle over 45mph in the areas to include rideable shoulders will fill in what would otherwise be a hole in the cycle transport hinterland of the Suburban Village.

In Outer Suburbia and Exurbia, the reach of Neighborhood Electric Vehicles is more often limited by regulation than by their speed and battery capacity. In many states, neighborhood electric vehicles are limited to roads with speed limits of 30mph, 35mph or 40mph speed limits, and qualifying areas are suburban developments or small towns that have been swallowed by Outer Suburbia, forming Neighbor Electric Vehicle islands accessible only by National, State, County and/or Township highways with speed limits that put them off limit to Neighborhood Electric Vehicles. A Neighborhood Electric Vehicle access network plan can identify a grid of secondary roads, rideable shoulders and access lanes to give access to the Suburban Village for a radius of three to five miles, with the same 36 to 100 time leverage as with cycle transport.

Suburban VIllagers

So, everyone should yearn to become a suburban villager ... Oh, wait, no, that's not it.

Ah, now I remember. Urban downtowns and inner suburbs have their appeal. But it takes all kinds to make up the world, and treating that as the only and sole approach to sustainable development is putting all of our eggs into a single basket. We are better off working out sustainable urban ways of living, sustainable suburban ways of living, and sustainable rural ways of living, so that different people can find a sustainable way of life that they are most comfortable with.

There is, in addition, a political dividend to working on ways to use sustainable development to rescue outer suburban and exurban areas from a downward spiral into slums and abandoned properties. This bridges the stereotype that transport corridors other than expressways are an "urban" concern and funding transport other than cars is a concession to "urban" interests. Addressing a real need of suburbanites to cut back on their driving miles, without cutting back on the things that they can do, is something that energy-progressives can do that Big Oil, the roadworks lobby, and their well-funded cronies in the Republican, and at times Democratic, parties cannot offer. They are all-in on automobile transport, and cannot rescue property values in Outer Suburbia and Exurbia from the impact of energy prices without betraying their vested interest.

Midnight Oil ~ Dreamworld

The Breakfast Creek Hotel is up for sale
The last square mile of terra firma gavelled in the mail
So farewell to the Norfolk Island pines
No amount of make believe can help this heart of mine

End - your dreamworld is just about to end
Fall - your dreamworld is just about to fall
Your dreamworld will fall




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Excellent book on the origins of this issue

geomoo's picture

The Geography of Nowhere by James Howard Kunstler. I first came across Kunstler as an insightful commentator in the documentary film Mega Mall, which reveals the combination of external money interests and short term profit that conspired to bring the enormous mall to West Nyack, New York against the wishes of local residents. The politics of stopping these perverse incentives, which often amount to draining wealth from a local area and moving on, ruining traditional downtown shopping areas in the process, will be challenging. There is a lot of money to be made going in the opposite direction of the one described in this essay, and where there is money there is a very tough fight to be had. Anyway, good analysis. I highly recommend the book. Incidentally, Kunstler uses downtown Portland as an example of what kinds of zoning and building create a functional city. Yes, residences on the upper floors of commercial buildings. Also buildings close enough to frame the street and give the pedestrian a feeling of place. Traditional zoning regulations are a challenge to this scheme. For example, in exurban neighborhoods with larger required building lots, and usually no sidewalks, it is difficult to imagine a successful conversion to low energy transport. As Kunstler says in his book, we haven't come close to seeing the enormous price we are going to pay for the foolish decisions that we made or, in many cases, had foisted upon us by vested interests, especially big oil.

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But under this system ...

BruceMcF's picture

... since the set-asides and parking minimums are waived, the larger required building lots become additional space for infill development. That's the point of an easement ~ the local area can say "you have to build like this, that and the other", and the state comes in and says, "except right around here, you're allowed to break those rules and build at higher density".

And, yes, Geography of Nowhere is excellent.

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zoning? city planning? sounds pretty socialistic to me.........

sartoris's picture

I'm not against suburbs by default. It's fairly natural for people to want to raise their children away from the 'mean streets' of the big city. A parent wants a nice quiet little place with a park or two to bring up their babies. Heck, I know I did. However, city planning in America is just not going to happen. We don't have the stomach for 'planning'. Build a gas station there, build a strip mall there, put another starbucks there and talk about progress. It is my opinion that suburbs by themselves are not the problem. The problem, as I see it, is a meaningful national transportation policy. Highways alone do not constitute a transportation policy. Americans should be able to live without having to own a car. A city should not need to have 500k residents to have a 'basic' public transportation system. Remember, the only reason Eisenhower was able to get the National Highway system approved (those kwazy conservatives thought it was the boondoggle of all boondoggles) was by saying it was a matter of National Security. I would really like to see America develop a reasonable infrastructure policy. Course, I would like to see the Cubs win 20 in a row too..........

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City Planning and Zoning already happen all across the US ...

BruceMcF's picture

... set-asides that require houses to be a certain distance back from the property line. Height limits. Areas where property can only be residence, and can only be single-residence, unless a special variance is obtained. Parking minimums for retail, parking minimums for offices, parking minimums for gyms so that people can park as close to the gym as possible as they drive to their workout.

The way this easement system would work is by allowing those rules to be broken in certain designated ways in certain areas around a qualifying stop.

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You remind me of a Michael Moore anecdote

geomoo's picture

I think it was Moore. He heard some financial person in discussing some issue or other after the housing market collapse suggest off-handedly that if the problem was too much inventory to move, they could burn some houses down. That's the kind of urban planning one could expect in America. Still, I appreciate Bruce's positive spirit and I never like to insist that things will turn out bad. But, if the past is a predictor of the future . . .

Not to mention that making these changes will require fossil fuel energy to create. We don't have much time left for that.

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We have more fossil fuel available ...

BruceMcF's picture

... than we ought to be burning. And from West Texas through Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, Nebraska, Wyoming, Iowa, North and South Dakota and Montana, we have over five times the wind power resource as our present rate of electricity consumption, so its not as if a constraint on fossil fuel energy has to lead to insufficient energy to build Suburban Villages.

Indeed, under the simple geometry of circles, a quarter mile radius around a stop or station on a dedicated electric transport corridor is a 16th of an square mile. A 3 mile radius around a dedicated electric transport corridor is 9 square miles. So even if the residential density in the 16th of a square mile is four times the residential density in the hinterland, that's a 36 to 1 ratio. A 5 mile radius yields a 100:1 ratio. The physical retrofit of 0.25% to 0.7% of the space, and 1% to 3% of the residential property market, can reorient the entire space from maximum disorganization and maximizing vehicle miles to local orientation to a single primary destination.

That's substantial leverage. Its substantially less energy and material intensive to retrofit 0.25% to 0.7% of the area and 1% to 3% of the residences of an outer suburban or exurban area than to provide infill development in inner suburban areas for the entire population of that area.

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This is the Sunday Train ...

BruceMcF's picture

... I am not prognosticating, I am advocating. I'm not predicting whether TPTB will work to keep it from happening, I'm arguing that advocates and activists for sustainable energy independence should work to find ways to stop it from happening.

Obviously, since the core power to reverse it is a state level power, a state that is deep enough in the pockets of Big Oil could well resist the pressure of property developers to change the rules. But in lots of states, what property developers would prefer to happen has a good chance to prevail over what Big Oil would prefer to happen.

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I appreciate the positive energy

geomoo's picture

What else are we to do, throw our hands up? You keep right on, Bruce. We need these analyses, and none of us truly know what the future will bring. I tend to be quite pessimistic, but I try never to confuse my best guesses with certainty. Simply reading rational analysis of possible solutions makes me feel more positive. I really appreciate it, even though from my pov, you are often more optimistic than the situation supports. Keep being that way, please. And expect me to keep bringing critiques. Honestly, you never know when public feeling and public policy may make a dramatic shift, and it's our jobs to be ready to take advantage should that ever occur.

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My point is that framing the question in terms of ...

BruceMcF's picture

... the odds of what will happen is not what I've done, so "optimism" and "pessimism" is off to one side addressing a different question.

That is, its neither optimism nor pessimism to sketch out a reform policy position ~ one could well believe that the prospect for success is one in a hundred or one in a thousand. But the prospect for success without working out what success would consist of is zero in a hundred, and zero in a thousand.

And sometimes, often after decades of struggle, you win one. Consider the people who worked for decades to get the Expo line built in LA.

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Since this dynamic is likely to continue

geomoo's picture

I will respond to this in the interest of avoiding possible friction in the future. I understand what you are saying, and I find it to be 100% reasonable. I expect that sartoris is with me in already understanding that you are presenting an analysis of what is possible and desirable. Yet it is a natural part of the discussion to also assess the likelihood of implementation of any presented policy and even more important to take a look at the forces which might militate against implementation. This is not a trivial issue--these considerations are the primary reason for my recent nearly complete withdrawal from on-line discussions, and I propose to explain my thinking herein.

My initial supportive reply upthread was more concerned with feelings than with the issues. I want to be quite clear that, although I almost always respond to ideas and suggestions with a critical analysis--what could go wrong--this is not any indication of my thoughts of the inherit value of the suggestions nor even of their likelihood of success. I have a critical mind and I like to be realistic. In the process, I find that I often put people on the defensive or even hurt their feelings. I want to be quite clear that when responding to informed, well-meaning, and intelligent people like you, I am almost never implying criticism of the offered suggestion per se and especially not of the individual offering the suggestion.

i will also acknowledge a destructive tendency among many of us who feel disfranchised, ignored, and alienated from the mainstream to respond with kneejerk pessimism which predicts failure. I believe we are protecting ourselves from disappointment as well as trying to find some shreds of dignity in demonstrating that we do understand that we are being screwed. This tendency of information for its own sake is discussed by Riesman in The Lonely Crowd and is an aspect of post-emotional theory. I confess to suffer from this tendency, although I try to keep a lid on it by confining my comments to critique without going so far as to predict.

Now for the other side of the coin. After years of active on-line participation and especially after study of post-emotional theory, I have come to believe that a high percentage of on-line and other discussion, even highly informed and grounded discussion, is completely disconnected from results in the real world. I believe this is a problem which should be taken seriously and, insofar as possible, that we should seek ways to adjust our behavior so that our ideas and commitments are translated into affecting the real world. Naturally, today this is a very steep hill to climb, but I see no alternative but to search for ways to start the ascent, no matter how hopeless it may seem. One of the first steps is to be realistic about how likely any discussion we engage is to return results.

Some people have analyzed in detail how we could save the human race from the destruction of our home environment by planting a seed colony on Mars or other planets. These discussions can be fascinating and internally logical in their details. I believe it is important, however, to point out the enormous obstacles which make such a plan very unlikely ever to come to fruition. Yes, there is zero chance of planting a colony on a far away planet if we don't even discuss it, but at what low probability does it become essentially a waste of time and energy to focus on such matters. If there is a one in a trillion chance of something happening, I suggest that it is valid to point this out and to suggest that competent thinkers apply their energies elsewhere. I am not suggesting that the current analysis suffers from such far-fetched likelihood; I am merely stating that a valid response is to evaluate whether the analysis stands enough of a chance of implementation to be worthy of our time and focus. It was an analysis of this sort that my initial response was meant to kick off. I appreciate the aspect of your response which participates in that analysis, such as pointing out possible approaches with more likelihood of success. I don't feel that wishing to beg off from even considering these questions to be very useful unless the point is merely to avoid becoming distracted for the time being from the primary analysis.

I hope this comment does not seem petty. It is not about feelings; it is about being realistic about the level of challenges we face today and especially about being willing to take a clear-eyed look at how skillfully we are applying our energies. This is a burning question for me these days.

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The question of whether it could ...

BruceMcF's picture

... feasibly succeed is what membership of a supporting political coalition the policy could feasibly attract. Analyzing why a policy is desirable without analyzing who stands to benefit from the policy who would not ordinarily support policies seen as populist and/or progressive is critical, since a coalition of progressives and populists on its own is not going to achieve any substantial sweeping change.

Property developers are accustomed to wheeling and dealing for political favors from entrenched insiders ~ after all, a favorable rezoning, zoning variance, or location of an expressway exit is often the source of the bulk of the profit that they take away from a property development deal.

That is one reason why a Transit Oriented Development approach that is entirely focused on the large central cities and inner suburbs (that TOD advocates so often live in), argued entirely on the basis of environmental and quality of life grounds is in a substantially weaker position than one that offers a broader range of development opportunities and can be argued in terms of the financial benefits of leveraging improved energy efficiencies, in addition to being argued on the basis of environmental and quality of life grounds.

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