Can We Save the Planet, Live Comfortably, and Have Children Too?
The Covid-19 pandemic has brought about what Zillow calls “the great re-shuffling,” as more people head out of major metropolitan areas to work, often remotely, in less dense, even rural areas. The recent surges in urban crime and disorder, in once-placid London and Paris, and once-triumphant New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, are likely to make things even tougher for the urban core.
As technology shifts, particularly for white-collar workers, the economic logic behind urban densification and expanded mass transit weakens. Today, nearly 45 percent of the 155 million-strong U.S. labor force is working from home full-time during the pandemic, up from below 6 percent in 2019. When the pandemic ends, this portion will no doubt drop, but experts like Stanford economist Nicholas Bloom suggest that it will remain at least 20 percent of the workforce.
Some 60 percent of U.S. teleworkers, according to Gallup, wish to keep doing so, at least for now. Globally, some 80 percent of workers expressed a desire to work from home at least some of the time. Equally important, believe that this shift will continue, disproportionately affecting our largest, most celebrated business hubs. Both executives and employees have been impressed by surprising gains, and now many companies, banks, and leading tech firms – including Facebook, Salesforce, and Twitter – expect a large proportion of their workforce to continue to do their jobs remotely after the pandemic.
The coming conflict between reality and the green urban agenda
These preferences counter the narrative, so popular with planners and pundits, of the need for greater density and smaller living units in metropolitan areas, amid the expansion of mass transit.
If the densification agenda was weak before, it is almost delusional now. Even before Covid, the largest core-city populations have been stagnant or declining, including fabled American cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. Nationwide since 2010, 90 percent of major metropolitan-area growth took place in the suburbs and exurbs. Jobs followed this pattern as well before Covid started undermining the economic rationale for high-rise office towers and massive new transit investment.
To be sure, some industries may choose to concentrate in the core by preference or tradition, and certain groups, largely the childless and the super-affluent, may remain in the urban playground for reasons of culture, social contacts, or easy access to international airports. But with the rise of remote work, most are likely to labor at home or nearby. They will travel less; upward of 33 percent of all business travel, critical to the health of many inner-city economies, could be permanently lost, as people opt for remote meetings and training sessions.
A commitment more of faith than reality
But you cannot count out the urban density crowd out, as they retain enormous political and media power. The election of Joe Biden, the continued embrace of density by Britain’s conservative elite, and, most important, the growing power of the corporate-backed green movement will result in more policies that run against the general preference for lower density living. Density and transit, many elites believe, are key to saving the planet.
In reality, the linkage between density and environmental sustainability is somewhat dubious. High-rise offices, it turns out, may not only be overbuilt but also far more prodigious in spewing greenhouse gases (GHG) in both construction and operation than more modest building. Similarly, the difference in emissions between single-family houses and townhomes, on the one hand, and dense urban apartments, on the other, appears not as stark as widely suggested. A study in Australia a decade ago found that when common areas and lifestyle preferences are added, inhabitants of single-family homes and townhomes actually produce less GHG per capita than denizens of dense urban apartments. A more recent study suggested that actual GHG emission reductions in denser areas were much smaller than expected and were substantially weakened by higher consumption rates and a greater share of single-person households.
At the very least, even green advocates know that GHG reductions derived from densification are hardly impressive. According to projections from the pro-density Terner Center at UC Berkeley, California’s draconian forced-urbanization policies – adding 3 million homes in dense urban areas – might reap a 1 percent decrease in state emissions over “business as usual.” For this at-best minuscule gain, governments around the world – from California to the United Kingdom – seem willing to spend billions on such things as high-speed rail, light rail, and subways.
Transit advocates in the U.S. believe that President-elect Biden’s choice for Transportation Secretary, former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg, will ride to the rescue with billions in new funds. But it will take more than money to make transit work. Buttigieg will confront the uncomfortable reality that even before Covid, ridership on most urban transit systems was stagnant or failing. The disaster was particularly marked in America’s predominately decentralized metropolitan areas, where massive investments in rail failed to make a material difference in commuting. In Los Angeles, for example, rail lines costing at least $20 billion have been built since 1990, yet transit ridership dropped by one-quarter on the core Los Angeles county transit system from its 1985 peak to 2019. Yet population has increased 20 percent.
And even in the most transit-dominated metropolitan areas, commuting has dropped like a rock during Covid. For example, in New York, commuter rail ridership is down at least 75 percent. Regional rail (BART) ridership is down nearly 90 percent in San Francisco, while commuter rail ridership is down 95 percent and is showing almost no sign of recovery.
The solution the planners and greens hate
The pandemic has opened a new path to serious GHG reduction: the dispersion of work, particularly to the home. Some suggest that reduced commuting time and congestion would further lower emissions.
Some environmental activists see advantages in the dispersion of work, citing significant drops of roughly 17 percent in GHGs due to the lockdowns and shift to home work. Over the last 15 years, telework’s ability to reduce both emissions and personal vehicle use has been widely recognized, including by environmental groups like Resources for the Future and “progressive” Silicon Valley firms like Sun Microsystems.
But some others, citing the density mantra, suggest that telework increases vehicle travel– such as suggested in California Department of Transportation report. This is ludicrous. When people travel less frequently to work, they travel less – it really is as simple as that.
Suburbia and a greener future?
One problem – for planners, developers, and much of the green lobby – lies in what the growth of online work means not for the planet but for their agenda. The lockdowns have encouraged the migration of workers farther away from the urban core. A recent Harris poll found upward of two in five urban residents now considering a move to less crowded places. The latest consumer survey from the National Association of Realtors found that in the Covid environment, households are “looking for larger homes, bigger yards, access to the outdoors and more separation from neighbors.”
Ironically, just as blue state politicians take over in Washington, economic and demographic power is shifting to metros in red states; metros receiving the greatest net domestic migration include Austin, Las Vegas, Raleigh, Jacksonville, and Tampa-St. Petersburg as well as smaller metropolitan areas, like Boise, Spokane, and Fayetteville (Arkansas). Similarly, the best peformers in terms of jobs over the five pre-pandemic years (2014-2019) have been metropolitan areas such as Austin, Nashville, Phoenix, Raleigh, Jacksonville, and Charlotte.
By contrast, traditional “tier one” metropolitan areas like New York, Los Angeles, and Washington have added fewer jobs than the major metropolitan-area average. The Seidman Institute at Arizona State University reports that out of the 36 metros with more than 1 million jobs, the least job losses for the year ended in November 2020 have been in Austin, Indianapolis, Dallas-Fort Worth, Phoenix, Atlanta, Denver, Kansas City, San Antonio, Tampa-St. Petersburg, and Cincinnati. Tier-one metropolitan areas New York, Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago ranked in the bottom ten.
Metros will have to accommodate to new realities. In California, a 2020 state Business Roundtable study revealed that upward of 40 percent of the working population could operate largely from home, including many middle- and low-wage workers. And other states from Vermont to Maine to Iowa as well as localities like Tulsa are seeking to lure information workers by providing cash incentives and housing subsidies.
Telework is already most concentrated in the more suburban-oriented metros in the South and Intermountain West, where taxes are lower and single-family homes tend to be more affordable than in California or the denser core areas of Boston and New York. Workers are leaving San Francisco to telework elsewhere; Pinterest just paid $90 million to terminate a $440 million lease deal in the city.
How Shall We Live?
The ability of people who used to work in Hollywood, Wall Street, or Silicon Valley to work out of Dallas-Fort Worth or even Fayetteville, Arkansas represents an opportunity for global sustainability. The question is not whether it is necessary to reduce emissions but how to do so sustainably in terms of economics and public acceptance.
Spending billions more on new expensive transit systems could provide futile amid dropping ridership trends, so evident during the pandemic. It seems clear that more employees will choose telework, and that “satellite” offices could be built for teleworkers who prefer shorter commutes. Autonomous vehicles, by eliminating the need for massive driving, could boost dispersion of work and residence even more, and could eventually be entirely powered by renewable or nuclear energy.
This seems a far brighter future than the prospect of “de-growth” supported by many green activists and powerful corporate leaders who want to force usage of the very transit services that people have largely avoided and which current trends suggest will be even less attractive in the future. In Britain, the government’s Climate Change Committee is considering legislation that will make it impossible to sell single-family homes – including those built decades ago – that do not meet stringent energy standards. Such a regulation could escalate house prices, further burdening the middle class, which the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has characterized as “threatened” around the developed world.
Pushing this policy against clear public preference threatens not only jobs but the principal means for entering the middle class and accumulating wealth: homeownership. Perhaps most portentous might be the impact of forced-density policies on birthrates. In North America, at least, the vast majority of families reside in single-family homes. The more density, and the closer to the urban core, the lower the birthrate.
We may be accelerating the evolution of an increasingly childless world – marriage rates in the U.S. have dropped to 50-year and 35-year lows, respectively – while East Asia and Western Europe suffer even lower fertility rates. Future prospects in a world defined by forced density and de-growth can be seen in the growing numbers who remain outside the labor force and increasingly live with their parents until their thirties. Many may eschew, as some suggest, intimacy, much less marriage.
Greens, going back to Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 book “The Population Bomb,” long have proposed draconian curbs on fertility, sometimes targeted primarily on non-whites, as The Guardian recently asserted. To many, the density agenda’s impact on declining fecundity represents an ideal result – they celebrate those who “give up having children to save the planet.” Yet we do not have to address climate change at the expense of families, the economy, and community. The clear solution is to find ways to reduce GHGs without undermining the very things that, for most people, make life worth living.
Joel Kotkin is the Presidential Fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and executive director of the Urban Reform Institute. His new book, The Coming of Neo-Feudalism, is now out from Encounter. You can follow him on Twitter @joelkotkin.
Wendell Cox is principal of Demographia, an international public policy and demographics firm and co-author of the “Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey.”