Aging in Suburbia has a subtitle, “Gray Homes and Green Cars.” It is meant to be more than a colorful caption. The places we choose to live, our gray homes, and technology are not independent. Personal mobility is a fundamental technology that it is on the brink of epic change. Along these lines, a recent article by Nobel Prize winner Robert Shiller speculates that cultural changes- like those brought by the Internet- could profoundly change where and how we want to live.
To put this in perspective, home builders are puzzled as young people are staying put in the biggest cities, instead of moving out to the suburbs. The financial industry is worried that Millennials favor renting over home ownership. Are these housing trends real, and, if so, do they stem from economics or sociology, as Shiller posits, and also from the advent of new technology?
Travel tech and housing are vitally linked. Before rail, most people lived on farms or in cities; it was difficult and time consuming to travel between them. With the technology of trams and rail, distances were compacted and streetcar suburbs prospered. Distance was best overcome by the last technology, the personal car. With cars access to the suburbs thrived and there was a full, consummated marriage between transportation (car) and house location (suburb). The Baby Boom generation, with its dual-working couples, accelerated two-car households. Some might argue that the technology of the car enabled Baby Boomers to become homeowners in the first place.
The reason is that Baby Boomers faced a formidable problems as first time home buyers. There was a general shortage of suitable properties, and for a period of time, young people could not qualify for new mortgages because of double-digit interest rates. Meanwhile, there was a widely held view that the cities were “decaying” – not desirable places to raise young families. Like the Millennials today, Boomers rejected the housing that their parents and grandparents had built, and struck out for something different.
Thanks to the expansion of the suburbs, and newly built roads, Boomers could afford to buy, provided they acquired farther-out properties. This was called the “drive to qualify.” Cars, which were relatively affordable, enabled the long drives.
The Baby Boomers, then young adults, willingly traded their time (often exceeding one hour a day) to reach their new properties. Fortunately for real-estate markets, interest rates receded to single digit numbers. But, with cheaper credit Baby Boomers continued to buy homes in far-flung suburbs, and supported the growth of mega-mansions.
Today, the “drive to qualify” is relegated to history. The youngest generation, the Digital Natives, prefer to “Click to Participate.” New technologies and mobility are eroding their reliance on solo, single-vehicle ownership. There is a growing recognition that long commutes from suburbia are costly, in multiple ways. And young adults, who have spent their youth being chauffeured around the Burbs, seem particularly keen to find a healthier way of commuting, like the bicycle or car.
Next, add to the equation a new technology called the Internet. As Robert Schiller speculated, the Internet could profoundly change how we interact with other people, and how we maintain our physical and social network. In future blogs, we will explore the implications for places we gather, like suburban shopping centers and Starbucks-like coffee shops. The physical landscape will not, and cannot stay the same. This leads to the somewhat gloomy observation that the suburbs may be no place for old men…or older women. The Baby Boom Generation built its lifestyle around the car, but as they age, they will necessarily become less safe and less capable drivers. Staying-in-place means confronting ones’ reduced mobility while putting others, the non-drivers, at risk.
Meanwhile, as technology marches forward, the new kids on the block, the Digital Natives, are re-evaluating what makes a physical neighborhood appealing. They are questioning whether it should be anchored by machinery that is not in-use, and parked, 95 percent of the day. We may look back in twenty years and see gray homes cast aside, as new transportation modes, the green cars, take root. Meanwhile, our green cars may not be physical vehicles and in some cases, just another acronym for a connected, mobile app.