An article of faith among urban planners is that people–especially Millennials and empty nesters–want to move to city centers. This belief is used to justify upzoning, subsidies to dense downtown housing developments, and restrictions on developments at the urban fringe.
Yet the Antiplanner’s faithful ally, demographer Wendell Cox, has repeatedly debunked this claim. His latest report shows that, not only are city centers not growing particularly fast, exurban populations–people with urban occupations living in essentially rural areas–are growing much faster and now outnumber city center populations by 3 million people.
Cox’s numbers might differ a little from other people’s because he doesn’t use political boundaries to distinguish cities from their suburbs. Instead, he relies on what he calls the “city sector model” that classifies land according to its history. Downtown is the really dense urban core (basically, the part with skyscrapers). The rest of the “city” is the area built before World War II. Areas built between 1945 and 1980 are the first-ring suburbs, while areas built after 1980 are the outer-ring suburbs. Populations in metropolitan areas outside the urbanized area (the area with more than 1,000 people per square mile) are exurbanites.
Thus, Cox counts areas that are politically suburbs but built before 1945 as the inner city, while areas built between 1945 and 1980 are suburban even if they are politically a part of the central city. This helps deal with the fact that some cities, such as Houston and Indianapolis, have strong annexation powers and make up as much as 75 percent of their urban area, while others, such as Portland, have only weak annexation powers and only make up about a third of their urban area.
Cox estimates that about 2.28 million people live in the downtown areas that planners claim are so popular, up from 2.21 million in 2010. Meanwhile, the exurbs have grown from 27.9 to 29.1 million, while outer-ring suburbs have seen the most growth, from 45.9 to 49.3 million. Inner-ring suburbs grew from 71.5 to 73.5 million, while cities non including their downtowns grew from 22.9 to 23.5 million.
Based on this, it’s clear that downtown population growth has been little more than a rounding error. While some people say the problem is that zoning prevents developers from building more housing downtown, that doesn’t explain why developers need subsidies to build in downtown areas that have been zoned for residential or mixed-use.
It’s likely that more people would live downtown if they didn’t have to pay the cost, but that doesn’t translate to true demand. Demand is a curve showing the amount people would consume at various prices. Downtown housing is expensive because land is expensive and high-rise construction is expensive. In the real world, the number of people willing to pay the real price for such housing is low.
While the future remains unpredictable, it seems likely that driverless cars are going to accelerate exurban growth more than central city growth. Driverless costs will reduce the time cost of commuting, but they won’t change the fundamental facts that downtown land is costly to buy and high-density housing is costly to build. This means driverless cars will make exurban living attractive to more people while having little effect on the attractiveness of city center lifestyles.