The suburban dream

Paul says:

The post is implies, that there is a huge latent demand for cycling in the UK, which will translate into actual cycling if the infrastructure is provided. The truth is that many adults in the UK prefer to drive a car, live in a low-density suburb, and at least accept (if not prefer) a longer commuting distance. They will not cycle, regardless of what infrastructure is provided.

Perhaps some people in this country do still love their suburbs.  But most British people fell out of love with identikit low-density suburbs decades ago.  The rise of the suburb occurred because a push from the city coincided with an opportunity in the suburbs.  For a long time since industrialisation, cities had been dirty, smelly, cramped, and disease ridden.  They hosted steam trains, steam ships, factories, and a coal fire in every home.  Bankside Power Station (Tate Modern) opposite St Paul’s was just one of several central London power stations pumping coal and oil smoke directly into the places where people lived and worked right up into the early 1980s.  The city was enveloped in a constant cloud.  Nobody wanted to live there; everybody wanted a house as far away from the smog and disease as they could get.

Beginning slowly with the first railways, then rapidly with the expansion of the commuter railway networks, and then in its final trickles during the motor car age, that long pent-up demand to leave the dirty city was unleashed into the suburbs.  People rushed out of the city up to whatever at the time was the limit of practical transport.

Neither the push nor the limits exist today, and the demand has dried up with them.  The power stations have been pushed downwind to the coast and cleaned up with pollution scrubbers, the trains are all electric or diesel, and infectious diseases are nothing like the worry they used to be.  People stopped leaving the inner city a few decades ago, and are now moving back in: the populations of Southwark and Tower Hamlets have boomed with the redevelopment of the Docklands with high-density residential developments.  Every inner-borough of London is The New Islington: the once run-down and undesirable area that has seen the poor kicked out by the returning rich.  It’s a part of the current housing scandal: the fact that the social housing of our inner cities — the Heygate and Aylesbury estates in Southwark; West Kensington and Gibbs Green in Hammersmith; Robin Hood Gardens in Tower Hamlets; arrays of brutalist megablocks put up in the last two decades that their close neighbours, the power stations, operated — has and is being run-down ahead of a sell-off to developers who will replace it with desirable private homes.  We don’t need cuts to housing benefit to force the poor out of inner cities — local authorities are already doing it.

Meanwhile, those who really don’t like the city have left it entirely.  If you’re going to commute for over an hour each way just so that you don’t have to live in Inner London, you might as well get on an Intercity 125 or the M4 all the way to Wiltshire.

The people in the suburbs aren’t the people Paul thinks they are any more.  “Suburb” today conjures images very different from the gardens and fields on the London Underground posters of the 1930s, and it’s not an attractive image.

London, Bristol, Manchester, Newcastle, Cardiff: our cities are visibly in the process of pulling themselves inside out, if they haven’t already completed the process.  The low-density neighbourhoods on the periphery are not desirable these days; people don’t choose to live there anymore.  They are being left to those who have been priced out of the New Islingtons — people who can’t afford a wasteful car-dependent lifestyle. They are changing demographically, and over time, as the car becomes ever further from the reach of their residents, market forces if nothing else will change them physically.

15 thoughts on “The suburban dream”

  1. The big 20s/30s estates are inhabited by people who don’t yet “get” bikes. The roads are big and spacious (and not heavily parked up), so you do feel a fair amount of threat from over-fast traffic. The people won’t press for traffic-slowing (it’s the middle classes that grab all the attention), but they’ll be glad of it none-the-less. Put in parking bays and switch them from side to side, with build-outs. Put in speed cushions on bus routes and tighten up side-road radii. Put in bike stands outside shops. Take down all the anti-cycling signs, and get rid of the cycle barriers – they make it feel like an anti-social activity. Most people will still walk – it’s cheaper – but you will get some people cycling.

  2. If the suburbs have gone out of fashion, then why are they still building places like this all over South-East England (just built, as you can see from the road surface)…,+Cambridge,+United+Kingdom&hl=en&ll=52.211734,-0.074278&spn=0.018118,0.057635&sll=37.0625,-95.677068&sspn=47.301626,84.550781&t=h&z=15&layer=c&cbll=52.211734,-0.074278&panoid=0DTZV9jyuAGI9kXbRg4bnA&cbp=12,110.56,,0,3.15

    The exceptional population growth in central London can not be extrapolated to a general return to high-density urban living. Most large European cities have have some high-density districts showing recent population growth. That is no evidence that suburbanisation in the wider sense has ended. (Evidence would be the disappearance of new housing starts on greenfield sites).

    I was comparing trends with those in the Netherlands, and statistics published today show that all population growth there, is now concentrated in 28 of the 31 largest cities. That sounds like an indication of de-suburbanisation, but the report attributes growth to new suburban developments within city boundaries, like Leidschenveen…,+The+Hague,+Netherlands&hl=en&ll=52.064365,4.409423&spn=0.018046,0.057635&sll=37.0625,-95.677068&sspn=47.301626,84.550781&t=h&z=15&layer=c&cbll=52.063846,4.408799&panoid=mTL0dVKl9FiaQakwaqMg0g&cbp=12,38.4,,0,-0.2

    The Netherlands and South-East England are roughly similar in size, population, and urbanisation. Both have a trend to central urban lifestyles of the kind you describe, but both have a countervailing trend to sprawl.

    In any case, the high densities in central London have conspicuously failed to generate high cycle use, so pushing them higher probably won’t do that either. On the periphery, no such trend can be expected, even if low-income households are dumped there. There is no evidence of any de-motorisation among lower-income groups. There is plenty of evidence that rising car ownership and use is a resilient trend, even during recessions. See this research on assymetric ownership trends (you can read it if you google it):

    and here, suggesting no trend to abandonment…

    “People on low incomes who own cars usually do so because they would not be able to meet their basic lifestyle commitments without them, but tend to use them frugally to keep motoring costs to a minimum.”

    1. Cambourne is not a suburb. It’s something… weird. But not a suburb in the sense that we have been talking about. I don’t know what it is, or why they’re building it. People build weird things not knowing what they’re doing.

      Prince Charles is building something equally weird. Technically a “suburb” of Dorchester, but something entirely unlike traditional suburbs. I don’t know what to make of that place either, but both developments say that something quite different from the traditional suburbs is going on.

      High density population in central London has conspicuously failed to generate high cycle use because the conditions for cycling in central London are extremely hostile and most people would never cycle there as long as they are asked to mix with large volumes of high energy motor vehicles. Do try to keep up ;)

  3. I lived in a suburban housing estate for about 8 years. For me it was tolerable as I was away all day at work bu for my wife it became intolerable and she was desparate to leave, which we did, increasing our “investment” (if that is the right word) in real estate by 60% and giving up our mortgage-free status in the process, to buy a house with plenty of ground in proper countryside.

    To me, a suburb is the worst of all worlds – you have all the disadvantages of the city in noise, pollution, congestion and lack of privacy, and all the diadvantages of the country, in everything being such a hell of a long way away and no shops, cinemas, cafes etc in walking distance. My impression of what a suburb means to people who live there is that it is affordable, and relatively easy to escape from each day.

    Perhaps, just possibly, suburbs could become more attractive if some changes were made. One of the things we had expected about a suburb, and were disappointed with, was that we tought our children could play oin the street with other kids. Except of course that they can’t, because it just isn’t done – if the suburban street is not already a rat-run or plagued by neighbours who drive too fast (even where, as in our case, it was a cul de sac) your neighbours don’t like their kids to play outside their gardens, and they ferry them everywhere in the X5s so the kids never really come into contact with each other. If some proper traffic caming were to be implemented, simple things like fitered permeability to turn a through road for cars into a through road on foot or bike but a cul de sac for cars, maybe they would be nicer places to live, and the residents wodl quickly realise that they have gained more than they have lost. I often wonder what would happen if somone cameovernight and dropped a couple of big concrete planters in teh middle of the street to block tha cars, left them there for say 3 months, and then surveyed residents on how they felt about the impact and whether they would like them to be permanent.

  4. I agree with Paul M – I am originally from the Suburbs. I moved to Northampton town centre when I was at Uni and loved the fact I could walk everywhere even though I had a car which I actually needed to get to Uni as that was a few miles out of town.

    When I left Uni I moved back to the London Suburbs and within months was annoyed that if I wanted to go to the pub/restaurant/cinema/shopping etc I needed to drive (public transport only really works if you are travelling into London. Travelling across is a lot harder without having to travel up to central London and back out again). After a while I gave up and moved more centrally where I have stayed. I mainly cycle and walk everywhere now but I still have my car for the longer journeys and the trips back out to the suburbs to see my friends (sadly train companies don’t run trains late back into central London only out of it).

    Suburbs could be great but increasingly where I came from, places you would go to socialise or shop or have a pint are becoming flats/houses forcing those who live there to drive more.

    I’m not anti-car and I am not saying people should ditch the car in the suburbs but the way suburbs are developing are favouring those with cars and stripping others of the choice to travel by another mode of transport.

  5. Not sure I’d agree with your take on this. The air quality in the inner cities can still be very bad, its just these days you can’t see it. I’m now out in the burbs and my kids asthma has gone, they play outside on the streets with their mates, cycle to school etc etc. 1930’s suburbs can even come with cycle infrastructure as there was a brief period when it was built before CTC started campaigning against it. Leisure cycling is very strong in the burbs, and traffic congestion at choke points mean that bikes are often the quickest way of getting around. No place is the same, there are burbs and then there are burbs (but you can keep your chic urban “next islington” thanks, cough!)

  6. This is from someone who lives in a suburb if ever there was one, in the heart of London’s Metroland, and who has lived in the inner city, and in a small town.

    Paul M’s statement:

    “To me, a suburb is the worst of all worlds – you have all the disadvantages of the city in noise, pollution, congestion and lack of privacy, and all the diadvantages of the country, in everything being such a hell of a long way away and no shops, cinemas, cafes etc in walking distance.”

    is just a personal glass-half-empty, glass-half-full thing, isn’t it? You could with equal truth restate this sentence:

    “To me, a suburb is the best of all worlds – you have all the advantages of the city in everything being close, with shops, cinemas, cafes etc in walking or cycling or public transport distance, without the noise, pollution, congestion and lack of privacy of the inner city.”

    At the moment Metroland is certainly very car-sick and cycle-hostile. Contrary to what Richard Mann says, the roads are extremely heavily parked-up, with most households having 3 cars, only some of which they accommodate on their property. I’ll probably do a blog post some time to show this. However, changes are afoot. Planning policies and demographic and financial pressures are pushing change in Metroland. Many old industrial and commercial areas are being replaced with high-density housing, making the suburbs more like the inner-city, and car-culture increasingly obviously unsustainable. At the same time patterns of movement are changing, commuting into central London becoming less significant, connections between the suburbs becoming more important. Though the planning framework is not yet correct for encouraging the bike, I think this will have to change as movement will have to be accommodated somehow, there will not be room for cars, and building serious new public transport (trains and trams) is not financially on the cards.

    Quite frankly, I think most discussion of urban/suburban environments and the bike is pretty irrelevant. It’s usually just one of the misguided “It couldn’t be done here because things are different here”-type arguments”, on a par with arguments on climate or hiiliness or history. Any housing environment of any density can be made extremely bike-friendly, or extremely bike-unfriendly, depending on policies. As David Hembrow I expect would point out, some of the highest cycling levels in the NL are in some of the lowest density areas.

    David Arditti
    Vole O’Speed

  7. I think you are wrong about the suburbs. Most people still prefer them and a move to the city centre would appall them. London is unique in having reasonably pleasant and affluent inner city areas, and of course London’s outer suburbs are much further out than other cities outer suburbs, making them much less bicycle commuter friendly.

    Where I live in Manchester, and I suspect in other provincial cities too, nobody except a very small number of affluent, mostly childless professionals want a city centre life. The leafy suburbs are more popular than ever. The over-supply of city centre flats has caused huge price drops, and that has enabled social housing providers to take some of them over, much to the annoyance of private buyers.

    Even at 53 I still commute from Altrincham, one of Manchester’s outer suburbs and 9 miles out from the centre. I am a typical cycle commuter – a professional person on a decent wage.

    Londo’s boom in cycling can be explained by the fact that there is a very large concentration of young professional people within a few miles of the city centre. It would be a mistake to think that similar booms can take place in other cities. The demographics are very different.

    1. Manchester looks, from my very limited experience, to be somewhat early in the process, but I am sure that it is in the process. Inner-city areas are in the process of refurbishment and redevelopment, most obviously in Salford. We’ll see if there aren’t desirable inner-city areas in a few more years time. The fact that city centre apartments aren’t selling right now might be more to do with the fact that nothing is selling right now.

      Regarding it being London centric: Bristol and Edinburgh are far further on in the process than Manchester and are the best demonstrations of the phenomenon that I can think of. Pretty much every city is somewhere on the trajectory, though.

  8. I’d tend to agree with Pete – this seems a bit London centric.

    The plus for us in the north (or Manchester at least) is that our suburbs are at eminently cyclable distances, for the most part. With decent provision on trains, that distance could be extended further still.

  9. @pete,

    With respect to Manchester, I suspect that the reason “nobody except a very small number of affluent, mostly childless professionals want a city centre life,” is because we still make it ridiculously easy for the people who choose to live in the suburbs over the city to drive into the city whenever the need arises. If density increased further (like London) or we imposed deliberate constraints on motor traffic in the city centre (like in proper civilised countries), I could easily see it being more popular with the demographics who currently choose to shun it. This would be in part because of the civilising effect it would have on the city as a whole, and in part because it would cease to be convenient for people to choose to live in the suburbs whilst still being able to frequent the city by car and erode the standard of living for the people who live there.

  10. I don’t think there’ll ever be an appetite for high density urban living in the UK. Instead of focusing on how journeys are made we should be asking if journeys are necessary. Many people travel a long way each day to sit a desk to do a job which can now be done at any desk anywhere.

    Perhaps we should take advantage of new technologies by returning to the historical norm of population distribution in the UK – that is everyone spread out more evenly across the country, living and working in thriving small towns and villages. Big cities with their traffic gridlock would then become a thing of the past. The only snag with this approach is that the few who currently live in our sparsely populated countryside would object. Groups like the CPRE are influentual and fiercely protective of the status quo which just happens to suit them.

  11. Housing development can be made bike-friendly, but that does not mean that people will cycle. Outer-suburban development encourages car use for the reasons noted in other comments here, essentially because everywhere you need to go is further away than it would be, if you had stayed in the city centre. Public transport is also typically radial, and can not provide for ‘suburb-to-suburb’ journeys, which can be quite long. The car, which has no fixed route and is always available, has a huge advantage in these circumstances. Modal split can not be separated from planning and housing policy.

    David Hembrow might indeed suggest that the Netherlands has found a way around this. Typically he would point to good cycling infrastructure in some new development, and say it has led to high levels of cycling. However, he can’t back this up with any reliable statistics. There is no reliable evidence that policy in the Netherlands has broken the traditional link, between high-density historical cities and high cycle usage. Put simply: you can not get the adult members of 3-car suburban households to cycle by providing cycle infrastructure, no matter how good it is.

    Many cycling campaigners in the UK have come to believe that de-motorisation is possible, if you build enough high-quality cycle infrastructure. They believe that Dutch experience proves this. Unfortunately it does not. I know that is disappointing news for those cycle campaigners, but shifts in modal split are deeply embedded in specific models of society and economy, and there are no uncontroversial quick fixes.

  12. Paul, as usual, sets up straw men in order to knock them down. Nobody ever claimed de-motorisation was possible. But they did claim that improvement in the current situation, and a move away from car-dependency to a more balanced pattern was. If it is not then all this is a waste of ASII. Also nobody ever claimed there would be “uncontroversial quick fixes”. Paul’s last sentence is just obscurantist blather.

    David Arditti
    Vole O’Speed

  13. In the rich outer suburbs, “everyone” drives. In the poor outer suburbs, “everyone” walks / buses / aspires to own a car.

    But what they have in common is that they exclude cycling as a realistic choice, because there is little/no provision for bikes, and there’s enough threat to make it foolhardy. That can be changed by slowing the traffic in residential areas, and “doing something” to the main roads. Bike stands at destinations also help.

    How many people actually take up cycling is almost irrelevant – it’s not an objective in itself – if congestion isn’t bad, there’s no sense of threat, and the kids can gad about, what’s the problem?

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