Tomorrow’s Cities, Tomorrow’s Suburbs

Author: Review by Philip Langdon
Issue Date: Sun, 2006-10-01
Page Number: 18

By William H. Lucy and David L. Phillips

APA Planners Press, 2006, 378 pp., $55.95 paperback.

Did you know it’s safer to live in cities or old suburbs than at the outer edge of metropolitan development? That’s one of the findings in Tomorrow’s Cities, Tomorrow’s Suburbs, a new book by William Lucy and David Phillips of the University of Virginia’s Department of Urban and Environmental Planning. The two professors point out that in the US, vehicular traffic is a leading cause of death; 41,821 traffic fatalities were recorded in 2000, nearly triple the number of the nation’s homicides (15,517). The risk of those two kinds of death, taken together, is greater “in exurbia and outer suburbs than in either central cities or older suburbs,” they write. Traffic fatality rates for motorists and pedestrians are highest in places where population density is low.

Children and teen-agers are especially at risk. Each year, the authors report, about one in 20 teenagers is injured in a car crash. Lucy and Phillips attribute much of the danger to the street and road networks in the recently developing suburban and exurban areas, the longer travel distances and higher traffic speeds there, and the frequent lack of sidewalks or crosswalks.

Are cul-de-sacs safer?
The authors devote an entire chapter to “the cul-de-sac safety myth.” In model communities such as Radburn in northern New Jersey, cul-de-sacs sprang into being partly because grid street networks were seen as posing too high a risk of accidents, particularly for children. But are cul-de-sacs really safer? This turns out to be a hard question to answer definitively. A subdivision full of cul-de-sacs is very inefficient to traverse on foot, so people are impelled to get around day and night by motor vehicle, which exposes them frequently to danger along the roads.

“Another problem with cul-de-sacs is that they lull some parents to sleep,” the authors say. Parents let their children play on the cul-de-sac’s pavement, which leads to accidents. A study in Washington state found that the most common cause of pedestrian deaths among children younger than five was vehicles backing over them in the street or on a driveway. In the majority of instances, those killing the children “were family members, most often the parents,” Lucy and Phillips report.

If gridded communities are more dangerous than communities with cul-de-sac enclaves, that fact should show up in accident statistics. Lucy and Phillips looked at Virginia communities that had no traffic fatalities for at least 25 years; they found that all of the fatality-free communities “had grid systems or variations on them.” Ultimately, the authors don’t quite prove that a development pattern containing many cul-de-sacs is more dangerous than a grid system, but they lead readers through a complex mass of facts in an interestingly nuanced fashion.

One of the main purposes of Tomorrow’s Cities, Tomorrow’s Suburbs is to challenge the popular beliefs that have encouraged conventional suburban development and discouraged urban living. This they do quite well. The book is packed with statistics and comparisons, some of which were new to me. For example, they show that neighborhoods where the housing is old are less likely to be lower-income than has traditionally been suggested by the “filtering” or “trickle-down” theory of housing (which says houses pass into the hands of successively poorer people as they age).

Contrary to the filtering theory, relative incomes have been rising for the past 15 years or more in many neighborhoods that were built prior to 1940. Meanwhile, many “middle-aged” neighborhoods — those where the houses were constructed in the two decades or so after 1940 — have gradually become home to more and more people with below-median incomes.

The authors emphasize that suburban neighborhoods full of small houses from the 1940s, ‘50s, and ‘60s are losing their appeal. In 1950 the median-sized new house contained 1,100 square feet. By 2002, the median new house was nearly twice that size — 2,114 square feet. Lucy and Phillips argue that if many small, middle-aged, suburban houses are not enlarged in coming years, substantial parts of the nation’s metropolitan areas will be avoided by homebuyers. That will be bad, they say, because it will exacerbate sprawl.

Lucy and Phillips possess an impressively comprehensive understanding of trends affecting metropolitan development, and they appreciate many things that new urbanists value: mixed uses, mixed incomes, walkable neighborhoods, access to transit among them. This combination makes Tomorrow’s Cities, Tomorrow’s Suburbs an excellent planning source.