Are Americans Willing to Densify?

Last week, I took a look at the growing problem of urban sprawl in the DFW area. The truth is, over recent years, residential preferences of Americans have changed. Some call it the “de-urbanization” of America. No matter what the term, it’s obvious that Americans, specifically North Texans, are moving from big cities and into smaller ones. This is especially alarming for the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, because as people move outward into smaller cities, the metroplex grows, thus creating more congestion on our transportation network which generally wasn’t designed to handle all of the suburban traffic.

The obvious solutions to this are to offer more mass transit throughout the metroplex, and for residents to move back into cities. The former solution, however, would be incredibly difficult to implement on such a large scale. Sure, implementation of mass transit can help commuters within big cities, but those commuting from smaller cities usually rely on local roads and freeways for transport. As more and more people move outwards, the existing rural roads become more and more congested, suddenly creating massive traffic problems for commuters. And construction of new retail businesses in these sprawling areas just adds to the problem. 

Sure, it may be possible to build a mass transit system that covers  much of the metroplex, but it wouldn’t be feasible. Furthermore, it would be nearly impossible to create a system that covers all of the hundreds of sprawling subdivisions out there. And sure, roads are just fine as long as they have the capacity to support all of the rush hour commuters. But there lies the problem–many roads don’t have the sufficient capacity, and expanding them is an expensive, temporary solution. The only efficient, long-term solution out there is a re-urbanization of society.

It may seem like a ridiculous suggestion at first, but when we look back at the history of residential preferences in the United States, it almost seems like a possible and natural scenario. See, every time there’s a change is residential preferences in society, there’s always an impetus that causes it. The invention and implementation of factories during the Industrial Revolution caused a massive shift in preference from rural living to living in big cities. Eventually, though, pollution and congestion, along with the spread of low-cost, low-density housing, pushed people out of big cities and into suburban homes. Around the same time, the idea of an Interstate Highway System was in development. However, with the massive growth of suburban development, the costs incurred in expanding and maintaining these highways has exploded, leaving little money of the development of new highways. The situation is so bad now (in DFW) that there is not even enough revenue to support existing highways, which is why we’re seeing the continual development of toll roads and toll lanes.

With the perpetual frustration of road congestion and the growth of pay-to-use roads, I believe it’s inevitable that we will see the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex begin to densify. With more and more people becoming impatient over their worsening commute, we will see an increased demand for more mixed-use and high-density developments, and, eventually, and decrease in urban sprawl. The only question now is, “when?”

  • Bob Voelker

    An “in-between solution” that may be more practical and feasible in DFW is development of nodal density — around our mass transit stations. We are a suburban region — and a large and growing one – and moving to downtown Dallas or Fort Worth is not an acceptable solution for most of our residents — but we can densify in places where density makes sense — and putting density at mass transit stations, providing walkable or bikeable access to mass transit — may be our best solution.

    • Scott

      I like that idea. Even though there are quite a few big cities in the DFW area, they are all basically suburbs of Dallas or Fort Worth. Plano, for example, has nearly 300,000 residents, but it’s still not much more than a suburb of Dallas. Making cities like this more self-sufficient may help decrease highway traffic between other cities and within the city.

  • therealarod1984 (@therealarod1984)

    Bob’s comment about nodal density is already happening to a large degree. The CBD in Dallas is growing in population very rapidly due to the availability of mass transit. And there are dense mixed use developments either going up right now or in development all along DART and DCTA rail stations. Hebron, Beltline, Farmer’s Branch, Inwood, and Parkland all along the Green Line and A-Train. Richardson is about to break ground on a huge development near the PGBT station on the Red Line. There are several other examples. Totally agree that rail needs to be part of the solution to limit urban sprawl. But when you have hundreds of thousands of people moving in every year, there is really no way to prevent sprawl from occuring.

  • Bob

    People want to live far from their workplaces, and want to spend time in traffic. If they didn’t, they’d make different choices. This, of course, isn’t entirely true. It isn’t a simple matter to move to a different place, or find a different job or school, but people will, over time, seek the situation they like best, or dislike least. As commute times increase, people will choose jobs and homes closer together. Nodal density helps this. Having multiple large employment centers helps.

    I don’t think there’s a solution to be enforced. People will either become intolerant of longer commutes, or will just accept them. We’ll either find jobs and homes closer together, or just keep sitting in traffic.

    In spite of many jobs being in urban cores, people want suburban lifestyle. Even Dallas and Fort Worth, the big cities, are only partly big cities. Large areas of the cities are essentially suburban areas, surrounded by more suburban areas. It’s what people want. Engineers have to find solutions to give people what they want. Or they don’t find solutions and people adapt. Engineers don’t dictate public demand and tell people what to want.

    • Scott

      Sure, I agree that a lot of people want to live a good distance from their workplace. I don’t think they particularly want to spend time in traffic, but I see where you’re coming from. But the reality is, there’s not much urban/high-density development out there. Most of the new stuff being built is almost all suburban. I guess it’s just a matter of preference, though.

  • Bob

    I live away from the big cities in a rural town, and don’t often go to the big cities. I don’t want frequent access to malls and museums and zoos and sports events and other big city stuff, so I don’t deal with much traffic. I’m content to stay in my home area. The problem, as I see it, is that people want two conflicting things at the same time: suburban or semi-rural homes and convenient access to urban employment centers and entertainment. Your job as a civil engineer will be to give people what they want. That’s a job I don’t envy. People want things that are not feasible.

    DFW doesn’t have natural barriers, like the mountains around Los Angeles, the water around Manhattan, or the lake on one side of Chicago. There’s open land for hundreds of miles in every direction. As long as people don’t want density, they won’t be forced into it by geography, although some may be forced into it by traffic.

    I’m wondering how long we’ll be able to provide water for an ever-expanding population. Slow traffic sucks, but lack of water is intolerable. In terms of both traffic and water, the next few decades will be interesting.

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