The Suburbs are Killing America

Yoseph
7 min readFeb 8, 2022

The suburbs are killing America. They might be nice, you might like your little home with a yard and a TJ Maxx a mere 10 minute drive away. I never will contradict if you enjoy your version of American Individualism. I’m not writing to debate what you prefer. I’m telling you that the suburbs are killing America. How you respond to this fact is up to you.

There are trees that stand in the forest that have, for all intents and purposes, died. They look solid, and besides maybe a bit of yellowing in the leaves, you wouldn’t think it’s dead. As the fibers that create the rigidity of the massive organism are consumed by fungus or bacteria, the entire structure becomes fragile. The tree’s size, awe inspiring, now becomes shackles of death, pulling down on the once strong and solid core. It is a slow process, and from the outside barely noticable. And then one day, the rot wins. A windstorm comes, and the once mighty tree crashes down violently to the forest floor.

This is America today. A country torn apart by racism, exceptionalism, individualism, and greed in slow, systematic ways since it’s inception. It has grown big without ever seeking a cure for the fungus that took root at it’s core. Contrary to the theatre of “moral decline” politicians and attention perform, the American Rot is a very simple process of not seeking treatment. Letting a tumor grow. Letting the rot persist while the tree grew big and heavy and magnificent. It is a tangible rot hiding in plain sight, in our everyday lives, in the way we eat, work, play, live, go about miniscule tasks like picking up kids from soccer practice or hanging out with friends after school.

This is what makes it so hard for many to see: it is normal. To many Americans, grocery shopping is a simple rhythm: get a shopping list together, grab the car keys, hop in the car, drive to the supermarket, park, buy your groceries, fill up your car, drive home, park, unload the groceries. There is nothing weird here. Nothing is strange or cool or interesting about that little rhythm. And American life is composed of many similar rhythms, which can be vastly different from person to person and community to community, but often share similar characteristics. If you grew up in a suburb and went to public school, you likely experienced the rhythm of taking the bus, or having your parents or siblings drive you, and maybe when you reached the legal driving age you got your first car and you started driving yourself to school every morning. In some schools parking lotteries become a game. In my high school prime parking spots at the front entrance of the building were auctioned off to raise money, and since not every driving teen could be given a spot, parents would fight ruthlessly to get their kids one of these hallowed few parking spots, paying thousands of dollars for a year-long permit.

The rhythm of American life. Whether you are personally familiar with it, or know it but have not experienced it firsthand, it has defined the lives of millions of people for decades in this country. Lives, identities, and livelihoods are built around it. Yet like the tree that looks strong while it rots, all these normal rhythms thinly mask a gigantic, massive, potentially immovable problem that Americans have build themselves into.

Suburbs.

If you’ve been online in the past few years, you likely have learned of the burgeoning hatred toward the suburbs and suburban sprawl by urbanists and YIMBYs and NUMTOTs and freeway fighters. But while the discussion around the American suburbs is wide and intersectional across so many topics, this piece of writing is not a discussion about culture or vibes or how freeways have historically destroyed Black communities and lower income communities of color in America, though those are important. This is instead a look at the looming tax burden our suburban sprawl has created, and how the most likely outcome for America’s suburbs is decline and decay.

So how expensive are roads anyway? Well, it depends. Not just by if you live in a hilly or flat place, or if the roads are wider or narrower, although those factor into the costs. The key metric for roads, and by extension any public infrastructure that supports modern life like power lines, sewage, sidewalks, and drainage, is cost per person. It’s a simple thing to understand really — say you are renting a six-bedroom apartment in New York City for $6000 a month. If you were the only person living in the apartment, you’d be living in an extremely expensive New York apartment. If you lived in the apartment with five roommates who each pay $1000 a month, now you’ve got a relative steal on your hands. The same is true with public infrastructure: density splits the costs more manageably.

There’s another very important point to make here. Contrary to popular belief in America, no one is an island, and just because you live in a freestanding house with a fence and a yard does not mean you are “self-sufficient”. Even if someone lives relatively “off-grid”, any semblance of modern life is underpinned by networks of interdependency. Someone is paying for the infrastructure around each house. Someone must pay for the drainage and for the roadway construction and the electrical maintenance. And that someone is… the government.

Well, kind of. The funding for suburban sprawl is a fascinating case of tax incentives for construction and American ideology. Since the government is inefficient, as the American story goes, the most efficient way to encourage development of single-family housing for American families to buy and live in is to incentivize private developers and private buyers. This is an opaque network of costs and kickbacks that I won’t get into here. What is clear is that private developers who build massive suburban developments do not pay for the infrastructure within the neighborhoods.

The high cost of maintenance is compounded by an exorbitant cost of construction in America, where projects often cost significantly more and take significantly longer than other high-GDP nations. For example, the cost to build a mile of highway increased threefold from 1960 to 1980. Adjusting for inflation, the cost per mile has exploded from less than $10M in 1960 to over $30M in 1990. The assumption that these cost increases are justified is incorrect — other countries have not seen this explosion in building costs. One explanation could be the nature of American distrust toward government and hyper-reliance on private developers and contractors. As large developers maximize profitability, there is a tendency toward “above-board corruption”, where through lobbying, delays, and other efforts the costs of projects are inflated, benefiting the developers and their shareholders. Ultimately while we can attempt to form order from this dismally opaque industry, what is clear is that Americans are forking over way more money than they should toward construction projects. When compounded with the low-density, high-mileage design of suburban communities, this is a recipe for disaster. Suburban investments often happen all-at-once, with huge sums going toward development of malls, roads, traffic lights, etc. in otherwise undeveloped space, and the subsequent bill for repairing and replacing will come crashing down in thirty years-time.

The factor that also must be considered is tax revenue from the homes themselves, which hypothetically will create the pot of money that will be used for replacing the infrastructure when it breaks. The sobering reality is that the pot often doesn’t exist or is measly in comparison to the actual amount of money needed for simple maintenance. And tax revenues in car-centric suburbs and exurbs are likely to decline over the coming decades as young wealthy Americans increasingly move toward denser urban centers. A perfect storm is at hand. Costs, long dormant, will pile up. Meanwhile revenue sources, taxes from homeowners, will fall. The resulting gap will create a new subsidy system, where wealth is extracted from cities to support flailing suburban communities.

And all these calculations do not begin to factor in the complex knock-on effects of America’s love affair with suburban development. For instance, while transportation departments typically create projection on the economic benefit of large urban freeway projects, the methods for calculating these numbers have been widely criticized as deeply flawed. They also fail to adequately consider the economic costs of lowering density in urban cores, reducing walkability, increased noise and physical pollution for those living near freeway projects, and higher individual costs from increased car-dependency, whether that is through the costs of owning and maintaining multiple vehicles for a family, or the healthcare costs of low-activity lifestyles that are normalized by car-centric infrastructure.

What we know now is that there’s a huge problem on the horizon. The car-centric suburbs cannot financial support themselves. Even if construction prices are brought down to earth, the low density coupled with high societal costs means there will be a massive gap between how much suburban homeowners pay into the public purse and how much they need pulled out in order to fund the infrastructure of their lifestyle.

This is the rot. There are ways out of the mess, but for America that means making a full 180 on the accepted way of life and investing heavily in public housing, public transportation, and public amenities to make city centers attractive, affordable places for individuals and families to live. It also means giving up on the suburbs and letting many of the hallmarks of modern American life — the mega malls, the mega churches, the mega supermarkets — die a quick death. The alternative, business as usual, would be disastrous.

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Yoseph

Software Engineer passionate about the future of cities. Currently building libraries for Azure IoT.