Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Are the suburbs moving themselves behind the eight ball?

The census has provided a lot of data for planners, but in my mind, none may be as important as the age breakdowns. In no other time in this country's history, has there been as many retirees and those contemplating retirement than now. At the same time, there never has been a lower percentage of younger folks to support these aging folks, whether it is a ride from home by a family member or social security taxes. Make no mistake, the baby boomers have changed a lot of things, and they just won't quit.

In Monday's Dallas Morning News at the bottom of the metro section's front page, a headline reads "Shortage of transportation options concerns aging suburbs." A similar story in front of the paywall can be found here.

Essentially, the authors highlight various exurban cities like Plano or Frisco, state how they used to be primarily younger a decade and more ago, and then show many older folks are aging in place, rather than moving to retirement villages in Florida.

This creates problems because these cities are primarily automobile-oriented and lack adequate health services, "livable" communities, social services and transportation options. A different official is quoted in both stories that state essentially these cities have not planned well enough to accommodate these older generations. There is a lot of irony in this.

Effective planning in other states have planned for a variety of things, including the needs of the elderly, for decades now. Oregon, Washington, Colorado and New York, to name the front-runners, have a physical environment that is made for all people, not just young married couples, families with kids or the elderly. Different life stages call for different uses of the land and urban fabric. People should have the choice of what kind of environment to live. But in Texas, it is primarily auto-oriented sprawl. And since the law limits effective planning, the cities with the best planning departments are merely guides for development, while others cities only process permits.

So what's a Plano to do? Sadly, the answers are much harder to come by than identifying the problem. Plano has a subsidized taxi service. However, funds are tight and there is a months long waiting list. They at least are a member of DART, and have fair transit service (it isn't poor, but neither is it adequate). When fixed bus service isn't enough, some folks can get on the list for DART's paratransit service. DART also has On-Call areas, where folks can pick up the phone and get a bus to their area. Plano has also done a decent job in creating walkable areas in downtown Plano and Legacy, though the later has poor transit access. Meanwhile Frisco is only just now developing a walkable area, and it is targeted to younger folks. They are beginning to implement a taxi-voucher program too, but they have a much more difficult raod to climb, particularly without a meaningful transit service. Same thing with other suburbs like Allen, McKinney or Midlothian.

In the article, Louise Broderick of Plano is quoted as saying "I can't take the bus. There is no bus in my area." That is a major problem of the auto-oriented design, which makes providing any kind of bus service complicated. Cul-de-sacs and buses don't mix.

When I was in school, the number was one-third of Americans can't drive, whether they are too young, old, disabled or unable. That number is surely going to rise in the coming years, both in real numbers and percentages. The areas that can offer that living balance are going to be better off. There will be people who will stay where they are now, at the detriment of their family and public safety. But there will also be, and already has been, those older folks and empty-nester's who find more walkable areas to reside.

If the foreclosure crisis wasn't the nail in the coffin for contemporary suburbia, the baby boomers surely will add another.

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