The key to our future lies in Flyover Country
From time to time I do get a little agitated by the opinion and news media in the design/planning/development world. I admit it. It’s a weakness. I’m working on it, despite a few aggravated moments on Twitter. Breathe in, breathe out. In particular, though, what agitates me are two recurring themes: a lack of appreciation and understanding for how large our country is outside of the major media centers; and how the narratives and focus on the issues in just a few cities can be so damaging to cities everywhere else.
The latter theme is something I’ll be exploring in depth on this site, because it has relevance to literally thousands of cities and towns and we need more voices in the discussion. Other talented writers like Jason Segedy, Aaron Renn, Pete Saunders and Strong Towns also do a great job with the topic. They are all worth more media attention than they receive. But let’s talk about the former a bit, too.
Newsflash: The United States is a very large country
I’ve lived most of my life in what is often called “flyover country.” While that term is often used to describe the vast middle of North America, the reality is that it describes part of the cultural gap so prevalent between our various cities and towns. Actual location is frankly irrelevant. That cultural gap is a stark divide between the six or eight large metros that are the most urban in the United States, and everywhere else.
Some people refer to these regions as Legacy Metros or Coastal Metros – both of those are fine terms and useful in their own way. For my purposes, I call them Transit Metros, because a) they have by far the highest usage of public transportation; b) it’s possible to live throughout the urban and suburban areas and primarily use public transportation; and c) there is a large, critical mass of walkable urban neighborhoods. In America’s Transit Metros, you don’t find rail transit just on one or two corridors, or serving only a few neighborhoods. You don’t find just one or two thriving urban neighborhoods. Instead, you find entire high-quality transit systems that serve the majority of the population, and walkable neighborhoods in the core, in inner suburbs and even in commuter suburbs.
What are these cities? The six that clearly fit the bill are New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Boston and Washington, DC. Some are obviously stronger than others in terms of transit coverage, but all of them have at least good systems. Two that are close but not quite as definitive are Baltimore and Seattle.
Now, let me be clear. I love these cities. I’m an urbanist, and a city lover and always have been. I wish we had more cities like them around the country, with strong and successful downtowns, public transportation to all corners and walkable centers is both urban and suburban locations. Our country would be stronger and healthier economically and socially if that were the case. I’m not here to bash the transit metros. At least not too much. After all, we still have to have our fun.
I’ve also been a critic and advocate for change all of my life in our flyover cities and towns. I know these places quite well, and understand their challenges and possibilities. I have a deep affection for the people and the places, and am passionate about their continued improvement.
So along those lines, here are some quick numbers, just to reveal the reality of life in the US, and why I do find myself getting agitated.
2017 population of Transit Metros
New York City – 20.3 million
Chicago – 9.5 million
Washington, DC – 6.2 million
Philadelphia – 6.1 million
Boston – 4.8 million
San Francisco / Oakland - 4.7 million (and honestly, just OK transit)
Total population of these six metros: 51.6 Million
Total 2017 US Population is approximately 325 million
These six cities represent 15.8% of the total US population
2nd tier transit metros
Seattle – 3.9 million
Baltimore – 2.8 million
Total population of all eight of these metros: 58.3 million
This represents 17.9% of the total US population
Popular urbanist city Portland has done very well for itself, but has a substantially smaller transit system (and associated ridership) than these other cities. The same is true for Los Angeles, for Denver and others. The metro-wide gulf in terms of development pattern, lifestyle and transit usage is quite large between these eight metros and everywhere else. I do include two of the last three heavy-rail cities on the list of six: San Francisco and DC. I don’t include Atlanta because MARTA simply hasn’t had the same impact on development patterns and lifestyles as BART and DC Metro have had.
The 80-20 Rule
267 million people is a whole lot of people that don’t live in one of the eight cities noted. It would seem to me that we should concern ourselves a whole lot more about how 80% + of the population lives, and what they aspire to. It would seem that it’s a pretty big deal, if we care about the future of the country, to understand what shapes these places and how they can grow and change successfully.
I’ve made a point over the years to note that every city and town that existed before WWII was a walkable place. And, that all of our cities had good transit systems. All of that is true, and if you doubt it, just do your own research. I used to do a series of posts called "Why I do this" like this and this just to illustrate the point. We had remarkable systems of streetcars, inter-urban rail and inter-city rail. You know the story by now about what happened.
One of the primary differences between today’s transit metros and everywhere else is that the everywhere else were largely built around streetcars instead of heavier, dedicated rail. Those streetcars were easily ripped up and replaced when it became popular to do so. When that happened, our flyover cities quite quickly became drive-through cities instead of places to walk, bike and use public transportation to move around.
My point to my friends that live in and write about our transit metros: Don’t be so cocky. You didn’t build it. Your city is thriving today largely because of legacy transit systems that were too expensive to destroy, and you had enough critical mass of walkable neighborhoods to save you. Other cities hadn’t quite evolved to that point yet, and were vulnerable to the shock waves of the car culture. Your good luck doesn’t mean you have it all figured out more than anyone else. In fact, if you did, you wouldn’t be struggling so much with affordability, scooters and the dreaded Uber. (Sidebar: I happen to love Uber and Lyft, and will expand in a future post on why they are so important to the future of flyover cities.)
It’s also no small point that it was people fleeing the transit metros that created the sprawl of Florida, of Arizona and frankly of much of the Sun Belt. You built that, too. Get off your high horse.
Breathe in, breathe out.
We are a country where our cities and towns share many more issues than not. Our big transit metros are hot today, which I happen to think is great. I want them to succeed. But they also share all of the same questions and issues of other cities such as: transportation planning overly weighted to cars and driving, zoning and planning processes that don’t allow cities to change as they did historically (which has major consequences for affordability and displacement), financially fragile local governments, and large democratic institutions that are slow to change and often immune to input. So don’t get cocky because you have a bigger, better legacy from a previous era. You may be more like flyover country than you think. That’s not a bad thing, by the way, the bar-b-q is better.
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