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.


Alex Cecchini

About Alex Cecchini

Alex likes cities. He lives with his wife, two kids, and two poorly behaved dogs just south of Uptown (Minneapolis). Tweets found here: @alexcecchini and occasional personal blog posts at fremontavenueexperience.wordpress.com.