Why Suburbanites Should Support Good Urban Design

Well, I had this great post thought up on why stakeholders outside the bicycling and transit communities, from all areas of our metro should support alternative transportation options.  Then this crazy Brit wrote his piece in The Times, which is about 100x better than I could have done (seriously, if you haven’t read it yet, go do so).  We could replace the words kilometer, pound, petrol, and theatre with mile, dollar, gas, and theater, and run the piece in a US paper and none would be the wiser.  Walker Angell also put together a great piece a few weeks ago highlighting bicycle benefits.

I’ll shift it up a little with a few duplicate a few points to make the case for why everyone should be big supporters of good urban design and transportation systems, even if they live in suburbia (for the record, my bio below notes that, for the time being, this includes me as well).  I do this because it has become frequent for mostly good urban projects, ideas, or proposals to meet staunch resistance from a variety of stakeholders who seem to miss the bigger picture of both direct and indirect benefits to themselves (I can’t stress enough: resist reading Strib comment sections).  So, why should people from all areas of our metro, using all forms of transportation, support good urbanism!?

Direct Benefit: Minimizing Congestion Increases

Let’s be completely honest: the suburbs aren’t going anywhere.  We’ve invested billions in pavement (we’re spending $400 million a year on metro area highways ALONE to keep up with maintenance and “upgrades”), businesses have spent similar amounts in capital facilities across the metro, and hundreds of thousands of homes litter our 6,000+ square miles.  And more people are coming – about a million are expected to come in the next 30 years (well, so say the experts, but who really knows).

But it’s that exact reason that allowing better urban design and transportation networks can alleviate our daily congestion woes.  Even if you never step foot in a bus or ride a bike for daily transportation, even if you never live in an apartment downtown Minneapolis or a row house in Kingfield, allowing other people to do these things helps us all out.  Every person riding his/her bike from North Minneapolis to downtown represents a car not on a local street.  Every person choosing to drive shorter distances is a person not living on the fringe of the metro driving all the way in on interstates.

In a similar vein, allowing suburbs like Lakeville, White Bear Lake, Chanhassen to allow smart growth principles in or near their cores or town centers maximizes existing public infrastructure, adding population and businesses without the need to turn all those 2-lane arterials into a 4-laners to mitigate congestion.

Note the amount of public infrastructure : development ratio

Note the public infrastructure : development ratio

Direct Benefit: Increasing Personal Safety

A lot of people die each year while driving cars, or while being around others who drive them.  34,000 in 2012, in fact.  Another 55,000 die prematurely as a result of vehicle emissions each year.  While vehicle collision deaths have trended downward over the past decades, it saw an uptick recently, and much of the increase in fatalities are coming from pedestrians and bicyclists being struck – much of that a result from distracted driving.

This is a national crisis, the equivalent of roughly 29 9/11 attacks… every year.  And while we’ve spent well over $1 trillion preventing future attacks, one has to wonder if this complex would be better spent on incremental improvements to our built environment and transportation system – making streets narrower, slower and safer (for both drivers and peds/bikers) as well as increasing the mode share of safer transportation modes.

Remember that, apart from drivers accessing skyways directly from parking ramps, every car driver is a pedestrian at some point.  Every person from the suburbs who goes downtown, to the U, or even to their local strip mall or city center will be safer in their car and on the sidewalk with better urban design.

Indirect Benefits

While the idea of every American owning a detached structure and owning multiple cars may be burned in to our psyche as ideal and economically efficient, the reality is it’s not.  Revealed preference theory shows that people are willing to pay more to live in walkable, urban environments, all else considered equal.  Conversely, it can be assumed people would be willing to spend the same on less housing  (size, quality, etc) if it were in a walkable, pleasant environment.  This doesn’t include the savings these folks will see in transportation costs.

How will unshackling urban design and transportation options benefit single-family home owning suburbanites?  For one, all that saved time and money benefits local economies.  More people living closer to goods and services, spending less on gas, cars, mortgage payments, etc (most of which leaves our metro area through national or international corporations) can spend more of their hard-earned cash on local businesses.  That’s good for everyone in our metro.

It’s also no small stretch to say that better urban design is far more pleasant for residents and guests, including folks from suburbia:

Urban Core Comparisons: Minneapolis to Paris (left image courtesy of Freakonomics)

Urban Core Comparisons: Minneapolis to Paris (left image courtesy of Freakonomics)

Commercial Centers: West St Paul vs Germany (left image from Star Tribune)

Commercial Centers: West St Paul vs Germany (left image from Star Tribune)

The two combinations above compare Minneapolis to Paris and an MSP suburban commerce center to one in Aschaffenberg, a suburb of Frankfurt, Germany.  Which seems like a better place to live or shop in each?  Work?  Visit?   Which would you feel proud bringing out-of-town guests and family to on a weekend afternoon?  What are the odds of each attracting tourism?  This is not to say “BUILD STUFF FOR TOURISM, LOL” – we’ll more that likely end up with sub-optimal, heavily subsidized projects (and potentially let what others think of our region be a significant justification for transit projects that may not be a wise investment as well).

Allowing more people to live in this type of urban environment, whether in Minneapolis and St Paul proper or the suburbs themselves, could go a long way toward reducing some ills we face in society.  How much more productive could we be?  How much less could we spend on health insurance?  How much more effective will our schools be if kids can walk or bike in?


Better urban design is achievable.  We have the tools to do it.  We have the market demand for it.  We have all the incentives in the world to do it – from pollution reduction to health improvements and helping keep dollars here in the Twin Cities where possible.  It’s very likely that the specific, detailed changes on individual streets or blocks might cause some pain.  But ultimately, us suburban dwellers stand to gain far more than we may lose by encouraging great design and transportation options.  Heck, some may even decide to jump on the bandwagon.


13 thoughts on “Why Suburbanites Should Support Good Urban Design

    1. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini Post author

      Tough to answer in comments section. I think most people have a sunk mental and monetary cost built in. Many individuals already own a car (most families have 2). They already own their home, and have jobs wherever their jobs are. The idea that warm, safe cars get us where we need to go can’t be challenged by regressive technologies, no matter how many negative externalities can be eliminated (that’s assuming you can get them over the hump of “is climate change real” and “does car culture have negative health effects” – a challenge for those who put blinders on).

      I also think any efforts like this are perceived to be interventionist; conservatives see it as government forcing a certain transport mode or living situation (stack and pack apartments!) down people’s throats while more liberal minded people see the problem stemming from developers just wanting to make as much money as possible off people and destroying our history (or what left we have of it).

      It’s a tough issue to nail down 100%. Sorry I couldn’t be a little more specific…

      1. Walker AngellWalker Angell

        I wonder if, in time, people will begin to think more about commute distance when they purchase their homes—like in terms of being within walking and bicycling distance of work and amenities?

        1. brad

          It doesn’t seem like people are confident enough they’ll be working at the same job for a long time to put too much stock into that. If what I say is true, though, (and assuming they don’t want to move everytime they get a new job) they should be more likely to look for a place that is well-connected to multiple transportation options.

  1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

    I love the “sprawl repair” sketch of the two different versions of the same development. I think one of the biggest barriers to why suburbs and exurbs aren’t doing this is the way we conceive of streets. (And I won’t do an monkey business with streets vs. roads vs. stroads here.) In good urban design, a street is fairly unpredictable. There are many access points, there are parked cars, there could be pedestrians cropping up whenever. As a result, those streets are mostly 30 mph zones in Minnesota, occasionally 35 mph. But what’s safe at 30 is not safe at 55, and engineers know this. So in order to make it safe at 55, engineers go to any all lengths to remove everything unpredictable from the road: boulevard trees, bicyclists in-lane, parked cars, and probably most crippling: cross streets. This area is known as “access management.”

    And the results are staggering. The best example I had recently was eating at Panera Bread at Southbridge in Shakopee. I wanted to get on eastbound Old Hwy 101. If you can stretch your imagination and picture how this might be if it were a traditional grid, I’d probably turn right out of the parking lot, go north to 101, and turn right again. 101 is a high-speed road, so naturally a minor street does not have access. So perhaps I can use the slightly smaller County Road 21, that has access to 101? Well, no, no connection to that either. What about Southbridge Parkway, the minor collector that has access to 21? No, right-in, right-out only. So perhaps Old Carriage Court, the minor street that serves only this development? Nope, that too has a median, no parking allowed, right-in, right-out at the location I entered. So I can go slightly north to a location with full access to Old Carriage Court, then wait for a protected left-turn cycle to access Southbridge Pkwy. Then wait for another protected left-turn cycle to access County Road 21, where I can finally turn onto Old 101. Which in a grid, is exactly what I could have done to begin with. But I can assure you, between every red light, I was able to drive 60.

    Access management has other problems than just inconveniencing motorists. It funnels more traffic onto arterial streets, meaning that those become wider, busier and — perfectly enough — more in need of access management to remain safe. In a residential context especially, it prevents frontage on the road. The “main street” of a community often becomes the back side of a privacy fence. There are no eyes on the street, no homeowner to shovel the walk, and an overall feeling of neglect and emptiness.

    But again, you can drive really fast till the next red light.

  2. Monte Castleman

    Suburbanite here.
    I’m not opposed to light rail, buses, walkable developments, or the like as everyone should have choices. But personally I’d much prefer to live in the picture on the lower left, which I do- wide streets to drive my SUV and a small detached single family house just minutes from a freeway entrance- and resent city people telling me this is the “wrong” way to live. If city people want me to respect and support their lifestyle and transportation choices they can reciprocate.

    1. Sean Hayford OlearySean Hayford Oleary

      I think I agree with you insofar as urbanists often fail by portraying good urbanism as a much broader issue than it really is. It often becomes associated with attacking a suburban/exurban/rural lifestyle, associated with particular political leanings, etc. But that’s not the point.

      In fact, I think choice is exactly the point. Because even far out from the city, you may be able to drive your SUV, but not everybody can. Even in the exurbs, there are many people who are too young, too old, or too poor to have a car to themselves. But the way we’ve built communities in the last 40+ years has basically ignored those people, and has focused solely on able-bodied, middle-class, 20-50-somethings. Especially as people approach old age, we’re left with difficult choices: you could pack up leave the community you’ve lived in for decades; you could continue to drive well past the age that it’s safe; or you could basically be confined to your home. Those are all incredibly unattractive options. That’s not sensible, and that doesn’t support choice.

      Fortunately, most solutions proposed for the suburbs really do support everyone. I was just over at Burnsville’s Heart of the City development today. I happened to drive there, and there was ample free parking to accommodate me. The only difference is that it wasn’t the sole aesthetic and functional focus. Pedestrians weren’t forced to navigate through 1/4-mile lots to get to the front door of a business. And even as a motorist, it was great to park once and be able to walk from storefront to storefront. And it was great to see that there were actually pedestrians and transit users afoot — being able to choose a different mode of transportation than I did, and having it serve them equally well.

    2. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini Post author

      That’s a very fair opinion to have, and I don’t think most people supporting good urban design want to force people to do anything. But I also think that people with the preferences you have need to acknowledge that orienting all our places around cars, as has been done for over 50 years, has de facto forced many people into car ownership through design, even in cities. It should also be noted that one of the first guttural responses to people who want investments in transit, bicycle facilities, safer/narrower lanes is that they don’t pay their fair share, which by proxy assumes that car infrastructure does pay for itself; a statement that is simply not true. This is the case for direct costs (current revenue vs expenses, likely future revenue vs. expenses), and it becomes far more imbalanced when considering the externalities (eg pollution, aggregate health costs, societal costs of accidents, parking, fed/state transfer payments to cities to upkeep infrastructure that property taxes don’t support, etc). I think many urbanists would agree on some level that if these massive subsidies were removed, many people would simply choose to live in a more dense pattern, ride transit, walk, etc. Transit may even pay for itself in this scenario.

      There’s nothing wrong with wanting/liking to drive and have convenient access to places. But there are certainly negative consequences. We’ll just have to agree to disagree on what is a more appealing place to live, work, or be (the lefts or the rights).

  3. Eric SaathoffEric S

    This article and the one linked to in the Times make me wonder how the proportion of biking to driving compares to the proportion of money spent on biking vs driving infrastructure.

    In my mind I imagined whether these could be tied together. Would we get more money for bike infrastructure? If so, would that lead to a greater bike share, and thus a greater share of the infrastructure funds the following year? It’s an interesting thought to consider where this would balance out.

    I am not capable, but I think it would be interesting to do a comparison of major cities and the proportion of bike/car infrastructure spending vs. proportion of trips on either. Perhaps there are cities with lesser bike share who are spending a greater proportion of infrastructure funds on a regular basis.

  4. Alex CecchiniAlex Cecchini Post author

    Apologies, yes this is Robert St, the image was taken from the Star Tribune’s piece on the re-design not having room for street trees. Robert St heads straight south from downtown and I always forget the border for “South St Paul” is ~52. I’ll make the correction in the post.

  5. Tal F


    I’m coming to you via streetsblog, so I’m on your side, and if you check out my blog you will see that as well, but I have to disagree with you here.

    There are many advantages to good urban design, not least of which are things you mention such as increased safety and economic efficiency. However, none of this matters to the typical suburbanite if they can’t reach the city, and given the poor transit options out in the suburbs, that typically means reaching the city by car. Sure, they like the amenities of the city, and they like the idea of walkable places. Heck, they may even like walking around in them after they’ve parked their cars. But none of this matters to them if they have nowhere to park, or if it costs a ton of money to park because garages are all underground and tucked away.

    Sure, some of this is nearsightedness on the part of suburbanites, since too much car-centric planning can wind up completely killing the city core, as happened in Detroit and other rust belt cities. But that’s off in some uncertain future. What matters to them is that right now there are some great amenities downtown, but they can’t get to it, or it takes too long. Widening a street or highway, or paving over an older residential building to make room for parking is appealing to them since it improves their lives right now. We all now that, like a drug addict, the city’s drivers will eventually adapt to the change and things will be even worse than before, but they want that short term boost right now.

    It will be exceedingly difficult to convince suburbanites to support good urban design.

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