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Teleworkin' It
The Suburbs in an Internet Era

The whole world woke up and found it was suburban. That’s the prediction of a new piece in The Economist that argues the world has a whole is quickly becoming ex-urban, with population densities in many major world cities declining. Rising affluence is sparking suburbanization in economies like China just as it once did in the West. The piece is largely sanguine about the effects this will have on quality of life, but does believe countries with growing suburbs can learn from some mistakes the West has made:

Suburbanites tend to use more roads and consume more carbon than urbanites (though perhaps not as much as distant commuters forced out by green belts). But this damage can be alleviated by a carbon tax, by toll roads and by charging for parking. Many cities in the emerging world have followed the barmy American practice of requiring property developers to provide a certain number of parking spaces for every building—something that makes commuting by car much more attractive than it would be otherwise. Scrapping them would give public transport a chance.

The second is that it is foolish to try to stop the spread of suburbs. Green belts, the most effective method for doing this, push up property prices and encourage long-distance commuting. The cost of housing in London, already astronomical, went up by 19% in the past year, reflecting not just the city’s strong economy but also the impossibility of building on its edges.

One thing the piece does mention is the way new technologies allow people to live in the suburbs while keeping carbon consumption down. As telework becomes more common, workers in jobs that can be done remotely will save carbon by telecommuting. Online delivery services of everything from food to clothes will also decrease emissions. And the way these technologies will allow people to stay home more often will not only reduce the environmental costs of suburbanization, but also the social costs of serious commuting. The West didn’t have the ability to take advantage of these technologies when suburbanization began here—but we, and the rest of the world, now can.

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  • FriendlyGoat

    1) Glad to see TAI still talking about carbon, since many of the readers who comment here do not believe there is any problem.

    2) I can’t blame people in world cities for wanting to go to the suburbs for many reasons. In America, though, we keep hearing about a lot of young people who want to live a connected life in urban centers.

    3) The founder of Uber recently said that Uber expects millions of people in world cities to decide they do not need to own a car because using Uber is cheaper. I doubt that works for daily commuting.

    • Corlyss

      “Glad to see TAI still talking about carbon, since many of the readers who comment here do not believe there is any problem.”

      Oh, there’s a problem, and a very serious one: namely idiot policy makers who keep trying to make the fictitious AGW a world crisis so they can slyly effect their total control over prosperity.

      “In America, though, we keep hearing about a lot of young people who are opting to live a connected life in urban centers.”

      I heard that very same thing on PRI’s Market Place Fri. I missed most of the week, which was about gentrification, but I caught part of the last report in which they said that very thing – suburbs were dying because people were moving back to the cities. Can’t think they are talking about the service workers and lower- to- middle class folk who are being pushed out of affordable housing close to work in favor of what we used to call yuppies.

      “millions of people in world cities to decide they do not need to own a car because using Uber is cheaper”
      Brings to mind an episode of MASH when Hot Lips and Hawkeye were supposed to go help out the 8063rd and their jeep broke down on a dirt road. She was having a fit because he couldn’t fix whatever was wrong, and his excuse was he’d lived in the city all his life and took cabs.

    • bff426

      Wait- I thought Uber depends on people who own their cars to provide the rides…

  • Corlyss

    “As telework becomes more common”

    LOLOL You guys never give up, do you?

  • J K Brown

    It is striking that the quoted article still thinks that work will remain in the city “center”. That is very anachronistic. Dense urban areas do offer some benefits for the mingling and interactions of innovators. But their interacting also predicates their living in the dense urban core. But manufacturing, such as remains, is not a dense, high-land-price, area activity. The area per employee has grown 10 fold since the early 20th century thus the huge factory is better suited for the suburban belt, drawing the workers from the same area. Some small, old manufacturing and workshops do remain in the urban core but mostly due to sunk costs and aging owners. As the owners die off/retire, the land become more valuable for other uses, the metal shop, etc., will move to more convenient transportation locations where land is cheaper and residential neighbors are distant.

    Services such as Amazon will also transform not only work, but also government. Enterprise will be less like the New England Township of early America with the town being the center of business to more like the dominating county form of government of the southern colonies. The county became dominate because the town was not needed as the waypoint of trade as the plentiful waterways and large plantations made direct trading with overseas feasible. Towns and cities did not dominate outside of seaports until railroads created the centralization, but roadways have reversed that except for entrenched interests that try to prop up decaying town/city centers. Now even the smallest of new enterprise has a “waterway” to the world via the UPS truck that delivers and can pick up directly to/from the suburban home.

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