November 26, 2000

Working suburbs will turn cities inside out

Posted in People ·
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In 1987, Steve Martin and John Candy starred in a movie about two all-American Dads desperately trying to get home for Thanksgiving. Planes Trains and Automobiles went on (rather inexplicably) to be one of the biggest films of the year with an “it could happen to you” message in the varied transport disasters befalling two unlikely bedfellows on a filthy late November night.

In typical American fashion, the generosity of the human spirit triumphed over adversity and both men emerge enriched and happier human beings.

In the real world, such episodes tend to end more like The Shining. The milk of human kindness was definitely not flowing around Sligo Airport last Wednesday morning when the plane to Dublin (which had been cancelled the night before) aborted its landing due to fog and returned to base, leaving us stranded for the second day. A few angry passengers who had gone through the same torture the night before, marched over to Avis and Hertz only to be told that there were no hire cars available and, with the train strike in full swing, there was no way of getting back to Dublin. People were understandably livid and barked down mobiles as if the poor individual on the far end were some sort of hot air balloonist ready to swoop to the rescue.

My colleague and I eventually blagged a lift and arrived in Dublin to a scene of industrial anarchy the likes of which Europe hasn’t seen since France downed tools in 1996. Rush hour was hell as irate drivers snarled their way home.

Why do we do it? The taxi, train and now pilot strike coupled with traffic jams demands the question, why do we commute? Why does our society regard the city as a place of production and work, when in reality cities are becoming places of consumption and play?

Historically, cities have been centres of production where business gets done and things get made. Since the Renaissance, industries have tended to cluster around cities and urban workers because they can flit around from job to job, have been more productive and better paid. In recent years, services have taken over from manufacturing in the heart of cities such as Dublin, turning much of the city into an office.

However, this traditional blueprint is changing rapidly. Successful cities of the future will be those that make the transition from the production/work place to the consumption/play place quickest.

This is not futuristic crystal ball gazing; this is reality and “reverse commuting”– living in cities and working in the suburbs or further afield — is the fastest growing demographic phenomenon in the US. In the past two decades, the commute from the city to the suburbs has grown threefold.

In the 1980s, of all US jobs, 66 per cent were created in the suburbs. By the mid 1990s this figure had risen to 80 per cent. Last year’s movie American Beauty depicted the average US suburb as sleepy, inactive and dull with a bunch of bored, disillusioned forty somethings mooching around trying it on with each other. This may be the Hollywood image of the suburbs but the reality is quite different. Silicon Valley is a suburb and Microsoft is located in a suburb. Many of the world’s most savvy investment funds have eschewed Wall Street for the glades of Greenwich, Connecticut.

In reality, suburbs are the creative font of the American economic boom. Yet cities such as Seattle, New York and San Francisco have not seen their fortunes collapse. On the contrary, they are growing strongly. People are now choosing to live in certain cities and work in the suburbs in stark contrast to the hollowing out of many US inner cities (the “doughnut” effect) which was observed in the 1970s and 1980s.

However, only those cities that have rapidly turned into places of consumption and leisure are making the grade. In the US, the most significant factors now determining the survival and growth of a city are theatres, hotel rooms, restaurants, cinemas and the like. Good schools and transport are also a must. Interestingly, statistics show that the more theatres, the quicker the expansion and the more bowling alleys, the faster the slump.

Taken a step further, improvements in telecommunications, the net and more contract-based work will accelerate the evolution of the city from work to play. Before the industrial revolution, the home was the centre of work, play and socialising. By 2000, the home has become little more than a dormitory for most people. It is likely that the home will reassert itself again, as the commute is eliminated.

In 30 years time, if US trends are correct, our grandchildren will find it extraordinary that millions of people trooped between one place (home) to another place (office) in the morning, only to repeat the very same exercise at night. Odder still, will be the idea that they moved from one relatively spacious place (the suburbs) to a crammed sardine-tin (the city). The commute requires a transport system capable of carrying huge volumes of traffic for two shortish periods a day (rush hour). Buses, trains and taxis, in fact, the entire infrastructure, is built to cope with huge capacity in rush hour, followed by a massive slump in use.

In the meantime, one building (the home) is left unoccupied/unused during most of the day and one building (the office) is crammed for eight hours. Then, when the bell sounds, these offices, usually in prime rental sites, are left totally empty from 6pm to 8am. This is a monumental waste of capacity and money, particularly as land prices in the city far outstrip those in the suburbs/countryside.

As home working, working in the suburbs and partying in the cities becomes the norm, the entire complexion of Dublin will change — if it is to survive as a pleasant, growing city. In effect, the city will have to be “turned inside out”. Jobs are more likely to be created outside the M50, while offices in town will be turned into apartments. Relocating of civil service jobs will match the steady movement of business parks and production to the suburbs.

Unfortunately, given the amount of time the transport infrastructure will take to build and in light of the fact that the entire plan is predicated on getting commuters into and out of town at rush hour, a serious problem might be emerging.

Consider the strange case of canals, regarded in the late 18th century as the future of transport. Following a huge building programme both here and in Britain, canals were rendered almost redundant 50 years later by the advent of steam freight trains. Imagine if in ten to 15 years time rush hour ceases to be an issue and instead of getting people into town for nine, they actually want to go from suburb to suburb?

With so much money now set aside for easing the rush hour, what would happen if the rush hour itself faded away?