Off Track: Republicans and America’s Urban Future
by David Kaner | University of Chicago
Recently, a group of friends and I had a discussion about where we wanted to live after college. We were a geographically diverse group, hailing from different cities, suburbs, and small towns all over the country. No two of us were majoring in the same discipline or had the same career aspirations. Yet everyone could agree on one thing: wherever we ended up, we wanted to be living in a walkable, urban environment. Strolling or riding, not driving, is the ideal.
Of course, young Americans have always had an affinity for the big cities. Where would the Beats have been without New York, the hippies without San Francisco? Yet our generation’s desire to live downtown, or at least in the inner suburbs, is unprecedented. According to housing industry research, of the 80 million people in Gen Y, born between the early 80s and the early aughts, “88% want to be in an urban setting.”
This is reshaping the landscape of the country. From Chicago’s Wicker Park to Portland’s Pearl District, urban neighborhoods have seen a surge in growth as young people clamor for space near restaurants, retail and mass transit. Meanwhile, cities’ closest suburbs, like the DC area’s Alexandria and Silver Spring, have gone from horizontal to vertical as office towers and apartment buildings spring up around Metro stations.
It would be unfair to paint these demographic trends in a completely positive light. The growth in affluence and youth population in urban areas is making our suburbs poorer and grayer, presenting a host of new challenges for policy makers. Furthermore, demographic changes to established communities raise numerous questions of race and class politics for which there are no easy answer.
Yet, all things being equal, Washington and the states should be encouraging this trend. It is in no small part due to our nation’s suburban character that volatile oil prices are one of the Achilles heels of the American economy and the bête noir that drives our foreign policy. Transit-dependent urban dwellers use far less gasoline than their suburban and rural brethren. In fact, due to their dense environs, they use less space, energy and water, and generate less waste, too. It may surprise you to learn that it is in New York City where one finds the Americans with the lowest carbon footprints. Our economy, security and environment would all benefit if more of us chose apartments over McMansions.
Why, then, is an entire political party reflexively hostile to mass transit, the lifeblood of urban life? This year, as in previous years, President Obama has proposed a transit budget that would help reshape the way Americans travel, funding projects that will benefit and encourage growth in cities for years to come. The Republican response? A bill that would take away mass transit’s dedicated funding stream — first instituted, it should be noted, by Ronald Reagan — and leave federal support even more uncertain.
This is no surprise politically: The Republican Party’s strength is rural areas and exurbs, not the urban core. But it represents a lack of vision. As the latter grows and the former shrink, more people than ever before will want their representatives favoring busses and trains over cars. And even those representing non-urban areas should recognize that a forward-thinking transportation policy is good for the nation, even if their constituents will benefit only indirectly.
Do we want to encourage a cleaner, more efficient urban America? Or do we want to perpetuate the sprawl, waste and pollution that characterize the automobile age? The next generation is already voting with its feet.Originally from New York City, David Kaner is a Law, Letters and Society and Political Science major at the University of Chicago. He also writes for the Chicago Maroon.