As readers of this column likely know, I’ve been doing some traveling. I just completed a three-year cross-America trip, living for a month each in 30 cities. It began in the fall of 2015, when I left my hometown of Charlottesville, Va., and headed for Miami. From there I moved roughly clockwise, ending up in New York City in late 2018. I took the trip to research urban issues, to explore our country’s great cities and find out what makes them unique -- and what common challenges they all share.
Now the trip is done, and while I’ll continue writing this column, I’d like to step back and reflect on what I learned in my travels.
I got to see firsthand how our country is undergoing massive and fascinating demographic changes. People are moving into major metros, while rural America declines. And these metros are rapidly urbanizing: Not only did I witness the “Great Inversion” of population back into cities described by my colleague Alan Ehrenhalt, I also saw the fast-growing suburbs sprouting around them. This growth has made major metros the new heartbeat of America, full of jobs and diversity. The trend has occurred disproportionately in Sunbelt metros, such as Houston, Dallas and Atlanta (all stops on my route), which have become America’s biggest boomtowns.
All this growth has created housing shortages in many of the metros where people most want to live. Part of the reason the Sunbelt has grown so fast is that it has “elastic” metros with strong job markets but relatively less-regulated land use policy. So housing there gets built to meet demand. “Inelastic” metros, largely in the Northeast and on the East and West coasts, have more regulated land use and less construction.
Consider the 2018 Census figures for home permits: 5 of the 6 most active metros were in the Sunbelt, including Dallas (63,000 permits), Houston (57,000), Atlanta (39,000) and Phoenix (31,000). Meanwhile, many coastal metros have arguably greater demand, but, because of their building-averse NIMBY politics, less activity. San Francisco, San Diego, Portland and Boston each had under 18,000 permits.
Throughout my travels, I grew convinced that the housing shortage in those inelastic metros has become America’s seminal urban issue. It’s forced people -- particularly the millennials of my generation -- to live in crowded apartments, endure long commutes or move away from their preferred cities altogether.
This led me to identify what’s likely the biggest cause of anti-housing NIMBYism: transportation. For existing residents in these metros, it’s unclear how new transplants will get around, or where they’ll park. Congestion is a big concern even in smaller cities. That’s compounded by the fact that public transit isn’t working; even as major metros grow, transit ridership has fallen in 31 of the 35 major transit markets. So just because more people move to an area doesn’t mean they’ll discard their automobiles for transit; in fact, economic growth in U.S. cities has become synonymous with greater traffic.
The answer to this dilemma isn’t straightforward, but I think it will surface when cities truly learn to price car-related infrastructure. Right now, driving and parking feels “free” to drivers. But if cities installed per-mile congestion charges and dynamically priced parking policies, they would force a demand for more efficient use of city space.
My final big takeaway was simply that America is a great place to roam. This nation is vast; it feels like 100 countries in one. That’s why America should never have uniform planning prescriptions. More housing is needed, as a general rule. But how that housing will be laid out, and which transportation grids will best serve it, deserve regional and local answers. Perhaps in a decade or so, I’ll take another cross-country trip to see how this urbanization has unfolded.