I left the hospital to go home for the first time in the back of a car. Thereafter, I grew up driving everywhere. After the Army took our household away from Florida, our habitual roundtrip drives stretched across the Southeast to locales as distant as Maryland. But whether I was heading down half the Eastern seaboard or simply to football practice, the mode of transport was an SUV, minivan, flatbed, or sedan — all of which were fixtures of my youth. That’s life in suburban America.
You can imagine my bemusement when I encountered New Yorkers and other urbanites at Yale who had never sat behind the wheel of a car. But I now understand the broad restraining orders their hands hold against steering wheels. In New Haven, most amenities were within a 15-20 minute walk of our residences near downtown. For greater bustle, frequent Metro North trains would take us down the Connecticut coast to New York City in less than two hours. While my friends living in nearby Hamden or Seymour had to commit to a 10-minute drive, even for a quick bite to eat, it would have been indescribably inconvenient to own a car in the Elm City.
Now that I’m in Northern Virginia — and let’s be honest, D.C. public transit, while admirably cleaner, is not remotely as functional as New York’s — I confess to missing the convenience, even as I enjoy the old brand of freedom a car allows. Yet it turns out my urban friends’ peripatetic lifestyles, abetted by public transport, are becoming more normal in 2010s America, especially among my generation. Part of this shift predated the Great Recession, but the lasting effects of a staggering economy have clearly cast their shadow.
In post-recession America, many cities are growing faster than their suburbs. Of course, rural living has been on the decline for quite a while — even the famously “country” land of Dixie has long been mostly urban-suburban. But for years, it has been a truism that the tale of Middle America is set in suburbia, which remains as distinct from downtown as from the sticks. To have “arrived,” we have always been told, is to have a spacious yard and white-picket fence, amenities that are not well suited to Manhattan or Dupont Circle. However, millennials are increasingly “arriving” to lives of perpetual internships and the soul-crushing yawn of socioeconomic uncertainty. Meanwhile, the white-picket fence and the cars that pass it are sinking into poverty as our so-called recovery breezes airily past even exceptionally talented people cursed with the trappings of ordinary living.
Cities are beating out suburbia because people are looking for more compact, economical ways to live. For many, this means concrete needs like driving less, so as to be as close as possible to the office, the store, and a respectable array of entertainment options. It’s about doing more with less, even as the flow of wealth toward downtown makes compact living ever less affordable. But that’s really just a nice way of saying that folks are increasingly stuck, and there is no clear end game in sight. What happens, after all, when a growing number of Americans cannot afford either a car or to live where public transport is actually useful?
This problem is bipartisan. For liberals, the escalating costs of alleviating suburban poverty will exacerbate the strain on a weakening welfare state, which conservatives increasingly distrust. For the right, masses of young people stuck in unflattering college-like circumstances are not exactly the most fertile circumstances for building a robust new generation of stable families and conservative disposition from what is now an overwhelmingly liberal demographic that wants government to do more.
At some point, our political leaders will redouble the focus on jobs and broad economic growth that has so far eluded the policies of this government. Whatever one thinks about the economic effects of immigration reform, modernizing our immigration system will not alone be enough to save the American Dream. For that we’ll need to figure out how to pull the cars and white pickets back from underwater — and set the promising interns in the cities free.
Anthony Rek LeCounte is a Yale-educated conservative. He blogs at Token Dissonance.