I think Rich Wilkins is misunderstanding how crucial urbanism politics is to the future of the Democratic Party and state and national liberal coalitions more broadly.
First, urbanism politics isn’t about anti-car, it’s about reducing car-dependence by giving people more transportation choices, not fewer. We shouldn’t try to stop anybody from owning cars, but we also shouldn’t have regressive subsidies for cars and accessory goods like parking. We should aim to make it as easy as possible for people (especially low earners) to live their lives conveniently without owning a car, and this goal should take precedence over supreme convenience for single-occupancy vehicles anywhere and everywhere.
This matters for the Democratic Party’s future political fortunes for two reasons.
One is that it delivers on the substance of a key Democratic issue theme: wages. Democrats care a lot about raising wages and disposable income for low earners, and the two most expensive items in the average household budget are housing and transportation. Significantly reduce the costs of those two things, and you’ve given low earners a nice fat increase in their real wages that they can spend on other stuff.
But the other reason is pure electoral politics.
Rich is absolutely right that the suburbs are the battleground areas Dems need to win for national, state, and regional elections. But the specific areas to win in these places, where the ticket-splitters mostly live, are what Richard Florida calls the “distress burbs.”
We have written a great deal about the role of density in metropolitan voting patterns, highlighting the remarkably consistent and robust political red-to-blue tipping point that occurs when a metro reaches a density of roughly 800 residents per square mile. I took a deeper look at our emerging political geography in a recent feature for Politico magazine, where I argued that the suburbs have become the key turf in American politics today [...]
“[A] pervasive divide separates the Republican low density areas of metropolitan peripheries from the Democratic urban centres and minority suburbs.” At the broad metropolitan level, votes follow the same red/blue, rich/poor pattern identified by Larry Bartels and Andrew Gelman at the state level. Sellers found that municipalities with educated and affluent voters tended to vote with their state’s winners – they voted more Republican in red states and more Democratic in blue states.
With these bases locked down, the key political footballs – the new “swing states,” so to speak – are the swelling ranks of economically distressed suburbs, where poverty has been growing and where the economic crisis hit especially hard [...]
It’s the distress ‘burbs – poor non-minority and the middle-class suburbs – in the middle of the graph, with a near even split in votes for Republican and Democrat candidates.
That magic 800 people per square mile number can be read as a description of where Democrats live, but it can also be read as a target that municipal-level Democrats should be trying to hit when designing their local zoning codes and land use policies. Rather than accepting current housing patterns as they are, they should be trying to change the built environment to make the political landscape more favorable to Democrats.
The exurbs are fucked, from a political standpoint and from a development standpoint. Nothing to see there.
But the distress burbs in many places already share some development characteristics with urban cores, only they are less dense and harder to traverse without a car. But if we improved transit connections between these places and central cities, and started allowing denser town-center style land uses around transit stations, then we would start the cycle of infill development and get closer to the magic 800.
Just for frame of reference, Bethlehem – far from an urban hellhole – has a population density of 3,885 people per square mile. That’s about 5 times as dense as the Democratic tipping point. Even South Whitehall Township right outside of Allentown has a population density of 1,115 people per square mile. So we aren’t talking like Center City Philadelphia population density here. We’re talking about slightly smaller lot sizes, and a bit more infill construction.
We can easily get to an average of 800 in some of the US House and state districts in MontCo and DelCo and Bucks by focusing on building more densely in a few key places, basically around SEPTA stations. It’s a long game, and it’s one Democrats have to start playing now to turn PA deep blue 20 years down the line.