You Might Live In A 15-Minute Suburb

Cars aren't just a “yes vs. no” choice, but often “too much vs. just right”

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Imagining a 15 Minute Suburb

Those of us who can’t or don’t like to drive, or who simply enjoy walking or biking, intuitively get the appeal of the “15-minute city”—a trendy name for, basically, an old-fashioned urban neighborhood with a mix of housing, shopping, and everyday amenities (parks, doctors’ offices, schools, etc.) that can be accessed within 15 minutes by walking, biking, or transit.

But for people who don’t mind driving or don’t really think about it—quite a lot of Americans—the concept might be a little baffling. I already live in a 15-minute city, many suburbanites think. In fact, I can drive to lots of places in less than 15 minutes!

Does it really matter if we measure proximity by car, especially in the suburbs? Yes and no. But first the “no.” There’s a solid case for why “15-minute suburbs” are great.

If they’re not great, that implies we want to get rid of all cars—which we don’t—and which in any case isn’t going to happen except, maybe, within specific parts of large city centers. Urbanism, like politics, is the art of the possible. We should think about cars and driving as means to the end of getting somewhere. They’re useful, and in some places they may always be necessary, but every car trip you can cut or shorten is a step in an “urbanist” direction.

If you really live somewhere where the average travel time by car to most of your everyday needs is no more than 15 minutes, you’re already in a much better position than a lot of Americans—whether people in hollowed-out rural areas, urban neighborhoods with walkability but lacking amenities and services, or spread-out exurban areas or Sunbelt suburbs with soul-crushing traffic.

In other words, true “15-minute suburbs”—which happen to be mine, the first- and second-ring communities surrounding Washington, D.C.—are a special kind of place. If you’re a 15-minute suburb, you’re already on the way to maturing and growing into something new: not urban, still suburban, but with some key urban characteristics. Urbanists should get behind this; relatively dense, amenity-rich places are good. But there are ways to make such places better for everyone.

A heavily car-oriented 15-minute suburb still raises a problem for everyone who cannot drive. Who’s “everyone”? Not just people in a wheelchair. Anybody with a broken leg. With vision problems. Children and teens. The elderly. Everyone was once too young to drive, and will one day be too old or physically unable. In other words, “everyone” is, or will be, you. Mobility should not be reliant on perfect health.

Another issue is the expense of a car—often two, even three—as a prerequisite for getting anywhere. Small reforms like upzoning around rail stations or bus corridors, or permitting some sort of small retail in residential neighborhoods, might tip that balance towards one car in 15-minute suburbs. Estimates of the cost of car ownership differ, but tend to hover above $10,000 per year, per car. Think of the savings if every multi-car family could choose to drop just one vehicle. Unlocking these places for families or households with only one car would be an extraordinary step forward for what urbanists want.

Another slightly more abstract issue with 15-minute suburbs is how, exactly, you calculate your trip times. For example, ballooning travel times due to frequent traffic can make 5, 10, or 15 minute drives illusory. If you actually enjoy those travel times only 25 percent of the time—if your proximity to necessities relies on the absence of other people—that reinforces the zero-sum logic of car-centric mobility. This can happen because of long, crushing rush hours, or it can happen more imperceptibly as a new exurb fills in, creating a feeling of constantly deteriorating mobility. And those travel times still don’t include parking—possibly pretty far from the store’s entrance—and walking from and back to your car.

I saw a Twitter thread once about how easily we write off time spent in the car. “It’s only 10 minutes,” you might say of a 13-minute trip that usually ends up being 16 minutes, “and 10 minutes is hardly any time at all!” Count the round trip and the parking-lot walk, and a trip you categorize in your mind as almost nothing ends up being over half an hour!

In other words, a truly urbanist 15-minute suburb should be built on proximity—whether by car or, hopefully, other travel modes—not on long distances on empty roads or spread-out development whose selling point is that it’s half empty.

And unlocking proximity—density not just of people, but of retail, services, and amenities—is why we need to upzone for density, locate housing near transit, and permit low-intensity retail closer to, or in, residential areas. There’s also the issue of scale—you can’t have lots of conveniently accessible businesses with small physical footprints if they’re held to impossibly expensive parking requirements: parking minimums are another regulation to look at scrapping in older, denser suburbs.

You might fear that this would make such places impossibly crowded and traffic-choked, which they can sometimes feel like from behind the wheel of a car. But the key is that where people and amenities are already densely located, it’s easier to turn car trips into walks, bike rides, or transit trips.

Another issue is that a densely built typical suburb may have a lot of retail and services, but other than a coffee shop or library, it will typically lack “third places,” high quality locations for spending lots of unstructured time in that are neither work nor home. That too is probably related to the reliance on driving and on errand runs that involve stopping and parking at a number of separate locations. Places worth lingering in are connected to getting around in a less stressful and rushed manner, with more time to pause or stop, as one does, for example, when walking.

We don’t always know why we like the lovely walkable towns and cities we prize in America or around the world. But a big part of it is that such places do not revolve around driving, and offer the ability to drive alongside many other ways of getting around.

You could sum it all up like this: urbanism isn’t a game, and you don’t win by not driving. Nobody is a “motorist,” “cyclist,” “pedestrian,” or “transit rider.” We all need to get around, and we all likely get around in different ways. Walkable urbanism is about building places where everyone, at different ages and physical abilities, can get where they need to go. Cities are already built for that. Exurbs may never be. But our older suburbs are maturing into something complex and interesting, and they might just be where the action is.

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Addison Del Mastro is a Partner Writer for the Resident Urbanist. He writes from Northern Virginia on urbanism, retail, cultural history, and other assorted issues, with a focus on the ideas and psychology behind urbanism. Of particular interest to him are small towns, the ongoing urbanization and "growing up" of the suburbs, and what urbanism looks like outside of the big city. He runs The Deleted Scenes. You can follow him on Twitter and Threads.

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