Today's Opinions, Tomorrow's Reality 

Saving the Suburbs

By David G. Young

Washington, DC, October 12, 2010 --  

Self-driving technology and electric drive trains offer a path to salvation for the suburbs most pressing problems. Are they too late?

When the twin headed demon of skyrocketing gas prices and a crashing housing market hit residents of America's exurbs two years ago, things looked pretty bad for the future of sprawl. In the Washington suburb of Manassas, an ugly expanse of strip shopping centers and tract homes where the 30 mile commute downtown takes over an hour in gridlock, the foreclosure crisis hit hard. 1 On some streets, a quarter of homes faced foreclosure, and today even more sit vacant as short sales2. By mid-2008 home values in Washington's furthest out suburbs had declined by 25 percent, while home values near the city center held relatively steady with a decline of only 3 percent.3

Environmentalists and urban idealists rejoiced with the thought that seven decades of sprawl could finally be coming to an end.4 As the sprawl of the suburbs has grown further and further from the city, the strain on roads has turned once pleasant drives into congested nightmares, and has made traffic something that everybody loves to hate.

Yet reports of the suburbs impending demise may prove highly exaggerated. Technologies are emerging that could breathe new life into the suburban dream. Last week, Google revealed that it has been successfully testing a self-driving car, able to automatically steer, accelerate, brake and navigate itself to a chosen destination.5 While research on self-driving vehicles has been going on for years, notably through the U.S. military-sponsored Grand Challenge competition, Google's revelation was surprising because its vehicles have already been widely tested with great success in California traffic.

If this technology is successfully commercialized, the hour plus commutes from Manassas to downtown DC would become far less painful. Unburdened from the need to maintain a vigilant stare at the brake lights of the leading car, exurban commuters could use the time to read, watch television, or catch up on email -- much like their better-heeled colleagues from more central areas who commute by rail. And given that the fast reaction times of robotic cars can allow higher speeds and less distance between vehicles, this future prospect would allow more cars to fit on the existing road network, potentially shortening that hour-long commute to one that takes much less time.

Meanwhile, the slow advance toward electric vehicles offers an escape from a return to high gas prices. Most experts agree that the drop in the price of gasoline since its peak of $4.11 per gallon in July 20086 is a temporary phenomenon -- once the world economy resumes its historical growth, high prices will return. But the replacement of huge oil-dependent SUVs with smaller electric vehicles that can derive their electric power from a variety of fuel sources could break this link. If economies of scale ultimately make electric cars cost-effective to manufacture, the commute from Manassas to downtown Washington could stay affordable no matter what happens to the price of oil.

Will these technologies save the suburbs? Given that the majority of Americans live in suburban areas, and almost all of the housing stock built in the last half century is in the suburban zone, these areas will clearly be around for a long time, and many residents will use whatever inventions necessary to protect their investments and lifestyles. In short, the suburbs aren't going to disappear any time soon.

What is less clear is whether the suburbs will maintain their status as the location of choice for future generations, even with these new technologies. Fashion is a very fickle beast. Once a trend begins to lose its luster, groupthink can quickly turn a coveted idea into one that is almost universally shunned. The U.S. suburbs could change from the epitome of the American dream to something as despised as the French banlieues.

But fashion aside, the self-driving car and the electric car offer a path to salvation from the suburbs' two most pressing problems. Time will tell whether these technologies can be brought to the mass market before sprawl loses its hold on American culture.

Related Web Columns:

Tarnished Luster
The Decline of the Suburban Lifestyle
, May 27, 2008

Who Will Kill the SUV?, April 8, 2006

Promoting Obnoxious 'Burbs, June 15, 1999


1. WTOP, Four Northern Virginia Areas Appear on Top Foreclosure List, June 25, 2007

2. Washington Post, Walking Away With Less, September 26, 2010

3. Washington Post, D.C. Region's Foreclosure Rate Soars, June 19, 2008

4. Washington Post, The End of Sprawl, December 30, 2007

5. New York Times, Google Cars Drive Themselves, In Traffic, October 9, 2010

6. USA Today, Gasoline Price Drop Continues, to $3.958 Monday, AAA says, July 28, 2008