What happens in suburbs when people can't afford to drive?

Riordan Frost
Riordan Frost is a policy associate with Minnesota 2020, which describes itself as a "progressive, new media, non-partisan think tank" that focuses on education, health care, transportation and economic development.
Submitted photo

Suburbs aren't emptying at any rapid pace, but in Minnesota their growth has significantly slowed. While the latest census maps of suburban counties indicate major increases, those were mainly due to rapid growth in the early years of the past decade. Population growth slowed significantly in the later years. Some suburbs within those counties even lost population while the suburban poverty rate rose.

Now that the latest census data has been released, we can compare growth rates in the decade just past to those of the '90s. The changes are impressive. Having a decreased population growth still means that the counties are growing. (MinnPost's Steve Berg examines the reasons some first-ring suburbs have seen their populations actually decline.)

This is all happening against a landscape of increasing suburban poverty rates. According to a Brookings Institute report, "by 2008, suburbs were home to the largest and fastest-growing poor population in the country." The report, titled "The Suburbanization of Poverty," tracks trends from 2000 to 2008, finding the Midwest home to the country's largest increase in suburban poverty rates.

This combination of slowed population growth and increased poverty rates is not good news for the suburbs or for the people below the poverty line. Suburbs are largely designed for, and dependent upon, cars. Having a car carries high costs, from maintenance to (steadily increasing) gas prices, and this makes them a burden for impoverished people. That far-flung suburbs are designed for cars means they're typically underserved by transit.

The suburbs' lack of diversified transportation systems is not only a problem for getting to work. Writing in the Next American City magazine, Theresa Everline profiled a social service agency in a northwestern Chicago suburb. Due to the recession, the agency saw its clientele grow sevenfold from 2001 to 2009. A significant barrier for the agency's clients is getting to the building.

Many suburbs were designed on the assumption that their residents would always be able to commute. While some suburbs emphasized commercial development, others were content to stay primarily residential. "Bedroom communities" are a perfect example of this type of development. The problem is that these communities have little to no amenities for their residents. For people without cars, this translates into food deserts -- areas where good food choices are few -- and limited access to necessary public services and health care.

All of that paints a rather gloomy picture. So what should we do to improve the situation in these suburbs? One good suggestion is presented by Ellen Dunham-Jones, coauthor of "Retrofitting Suburbia: Urban Design Solutions for Redesigning Suburbs." In an interview with the New York Times, she expressed excitement at the prospect of suburban shopping malls closing down. As she sees it, whenever a mall in the suburbs fails, there is a chance to turn it into a mixed-use downtown that suburbs never had.

Dunham-Jones focuses on the elderly population in suburbs, pointing to the increasing number of aging people in those communities. When these people lose their mobility, their ideal suburban homes turn into islands of isolation. The same can be said for people below the poverty line.

Moving away from a community may be undesirable or economically infeasible, especially for aging or poor populations. That's why Dunham-Jones believes the "downtown" or "town center" concept, with commercial and residential space as well as improved transit, is a workable solution.

This is what cities focused on smart growth and transit-oriented development have been doing already, but it is time to spread some of this thinking to the suburbs. Some of them are making steps in this direction, but those steps need to be larger and more widespread. This will make suburbs more sustainable, both economically and environmentally. It will also be vital for the mobility and quality of life of those who cannot or do not drive -- and even for those who do.

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Riordan Frost is a policy associate with Minnesota 2020, which describes itself as a "progressive, new media, non-partisan think tank" that focuses on education, health care, transportation and economic development.

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