Friday, April 6, 2012
Two interesting news items crossed the desk this week.
In the first, the U.S. Census reported that population growth in the country’s outer suburbs declined dramatically in 2010 and 2011 compared to the previous decade. And in the second, we learn that people in their late teens and twenties apparently would prefer a smart phone to a car, and that the percentage of young people obtaining a driver’s license has decreased consistently since 1983.
Taken together, these stories hint that our cultural taste for the automobile – and automobile commuting and its associated sprawl – might be waning a bit. But I can’t get over thinking that the news – at least the second piece of news – means something quite different.
Communities of place – cities, towns, etc. – exist because civil society and its economic, social, and cultural relationships have generally required physical proximity. That need for physical proximity has declined, of course, as the telegraph, telephone, internet, and whatever’s next allow us to live farther and farther apart. And it was that capacity to create virtual communities that facilitated much of the growth in outer suburbs and exurbia over the last few decades. If we don’t need to be together physically, we don’t need cities.
From this perspective, the fact that young people prefer a smart phone to a car suggests something different than that we might be entering a car-free future. It might suggest that the physical component of our culture is increasingly less important, reducing further the need for us to gather in specific communities of place. This might be problematic. Is there an emerging generation that will drive less, rely on the car less, and thus reduce our tendency to sprawl and consume more and more land per person? Or will that emerging generation not need cities? Will virtual communities, and the “cities” of Facebook, allow us to sprawl even more? So while we might drive less, at some level, we might also live farther and farther apart, consuming more land and more resources in the process.