How Suburban Infrastructure Got More Expensive Over Time

The central insight of Strong Towns is that in the post-WWII suburban era of the United States, we have built places that are financially unproductive. Our cities, towns, and subdivisions do not generate enough revenue to support their operation and long-term maintenance. It is not that we can’t build such places, but due to decades of hidden subsidies, overbearing standards, and institutional inertia, we are neither willing nor able to pay their true costs.

To be clear, this isn’t just a question of density or the lack thereof.  It’s not simply about automobile dependence either.  There are dense cities with good transit and bike infrastructure that are still mired in debt and unable to afford to fill potholes or replace burned out street lights. Plenty of inner-ring suburbs are in similar straits, and there’s no lack of stillborn exurban subdivisions that never recovered from the 2008 recession. However, there are also resilient and solvent places from the biggest city to the smallest rural hamlet. That is achieved by matching governmental revenues with governmental expenditures. Farmland can be solvent if infrastructure expenses are in line with the low-density use of the land. This may mean narrow, sometimes unpaved roads, ponds and wells, volunteer fire departments, and community policing. That doesn’t require density.

Theoretically, a suburban development pattern could be resilient as well. The dendritic street grid of the suburbs should allow the inner streets to be smaller and less highly engineered, since they carry so little traffic. That’s not the case, at least not anymore. The streets in suburbs used to sit much lighter on the land, which better represents the image they’re trying to project. After all, the suburbs were supposed to evoke a more country setting, without all the vagaries of the city.  Early examples were actually platted like cities, but never grew enough to warrant city level services.

A Tour Through the Evolving Suburbs, 1890-Present

Terrace Park, Ohio, is a railroad suburb east of Cincinnati that was incorporated in the 1890s. It was platted with standard 25’ wide lots on a typical gridiron layout. However, the Little Miami division of the Pennsylvania Railroad that served Terrace Park was not a particularly strong commuter operation, and development was slow in the small village until the post-WWII era and the completion of Columbia and Wooster Turnpikes, which provide Terrace Park with a direct highway link to downtown Cincinnati. Homes were built spanning four or five lots, and today’s zoning code precludes anything but single-family homes.

The slow development meant the streets could not be built to a high standard from the start, especially not with the financing and technology of the 19th and early 20th century. These developments were literal subdivisions, where a plot of land was divided into smaller properties and sold off to individuals. Those individuals then had to find their own builder to construct the house. The development company would do some token grading of the streets and perhaps run some gas and water lines. The properties would usually have some deed restrictions placed on them requiring minimal construction standards and setbacks, but the developers were out of the picture for actual home construction. The result, however, is a surprisingly calm and safe public realm, even despite the lack of sidewalks. This is a typical street in such a pattern:


Note that the pavement is at best 20’ wide, and with the lack of curbs, street parking is provided via the homeowners putting down some gravel.  Terrace Park is named for the shelf of very permeable and stable gravel deposited by glaciers on which the village sits, so additional subsurface preparation and drainage aren’t really necessary to support vehicles. While there are sidewalks on some streets, they’re generally only on one side and there’s still no curb and gutter, while street lighting is limited as well. Nonetheless, it’s a very walkable and bikeable community due to the narrow pavement that slows motor vehicles, the presence of fences and trees in the right-of-way, and the variability of the parking that requires drivers to pay attention. Terrace Park also has no sewer system, so the houses rely on septic, further reducing the burden on the public coffers.

Early planned garden suburbs from the same time period exhibit many of the same characteristics as Terrace Park, though with a more curvilinear street pattern and a bit more finesse over the character of the street right-of-way. Glendale, Ohio, another railroad suburb, this time north of Cincinnati, looks very much like Terrace Park from the ground, with narrow streets and no curb and gutter:


While not a grid, the curved streets are still connected to each other, so traffic isn’t funneled onto collectors or arterials. The aesthetics of Frederick Law Olmsted played a part in the development of such suburbs, similar to Indianapolis’ Williams Creek neighborhood:


Riverside, Illinois is the prototypical example of such a suburb, although like most of Chicagoland, it has since gotten much heavier handed street development, with full curb and gutter, wider pavement, and a more extensive sidewalk network. Riverside is also denser than Glendale or Williams Creek, however, so a higher level of development might be appropriate (given the commensurately higher tax base to maintain it):


It wasn’t until the 1920s that the first turnkey subdivisions started to appear, where the streets, sidewalks, houses, and landscaping were all completed in one fell swoop. Due to The Great Depression, however, those developments remained fairly rare. The immediate post-World War II suburbs had a tendency to be a bit lighter on the ground, similar to their forebears.  Take Madeira, Ohio for example:


Notice the similarly narrow pavement width that follows the terrain, the lack of curb and gutter, and the lack of sidewalks. However, the design here is more manicured and regimented, with no informal parking areas, no fence lines, hedges, street trees, or front walks. Those differences make this a much less pedestrian friendly area than the older examples we looked at. Indianapolis has a lot of neighborhoods like this, many of which were probably platted and began basic street construction before the Depression, but which sat fallow until after World War II:


Late 20th Century: The Over-Engineering of Suburban Streets

Once we get to the 1970s and 1980s, however, the development standards became so intense that they were the equivalent of inner city neighborhoods, but serving only a fraction of the number of households by comparison. This is about the time that the traffic engineering profession removed their street design speed guidelines for anything less than 35 mph. Universally designing to accommodate those higher speeds, even on residential streets, made the design easier, while also placating fire departments with their increasingly onerous need to move bigger trucks faster to more distant and harder to get to calls.

This required wider pavement, easier curves, shallow grades, bigger clear zones with no trees or poles, deeper bases for the pavement, extensive drainage with curb and gutter, and very wide cul-de-sacs for easy turning around. All these design choices communicate that this is a place to drive fast.  Because the street had now become a realm only for fast-moving motor vehicles, separate sidewalks were now a necessity just to walk the dog or to visit a neighbor.  With such a heavily built street section, the notion of septic systems or wells became completely unpalatable, not to mention any overhead utilities.  So we end up with fully underground electric, phone, and cable, separate sanitary and storm sewers, gas, and water. Of course residents also require fast responding police and fire service, schools, libraries, snow plowing, garbage collection, and other must-have city services. This Mason, Ohio subdivision could just as easily be in Atlanta or Denver:


There’s still room to park cars on both sides of the street and drive down the middle.  The Ohio examples are actually fairly tame as far as street width is concerned.  This street in Naperville, IL, despite being fronted by quite high-end homes, is the width of a 4-lane arterial road:


Here’s Austin, Texas, which again could be anywhere, and look at all that pavement:


Keep in mind that these are not through streets. They only provide access to the homes along them and not to anywhere else.   

Another major difference between modern subdivisions and older ones is the pseudo-gated arrangement of fully enclosed “pods.”  This is where the houses are all accessed from an internal street network that only connects to the outside world through one or two entrances.  The houses turn their backs to the through streets with landscaping, or in the Southwest, walls. This certainly doesn’t help with pedestrian or bike connectivity, and as Chuck Marohn has described, it’s well designed to create massive traffic by flinging all trips out of the underutilized but still dangerous and over-engineered residential streets onto increasingly overtaxed collector/distributor and arterial roads.

The design of “pod” subdivisions inflates infrastructure costs in another, subtler way. The frontage on existing through streets isn’t used for access: drive past one of these subdivisions on a neighboring arterial road, and you’re likely to see a blank wall, hedge, or at best, row of backyards. Since new subdivisions don’t take any advantage of the pre-existing investment in street infrastructure, it means that even more expensive pavement must be laid within the subdivision. This tiny development, which looks like it has 12 lots, has an entrance befitting a sizable gated community:    


The takeaway from all this is that we have made our suburban development pattern so expensive that we can’t afford to pay for it. At the same time, we’ve made places that are less hospitable, uglier, and overall more unpleasant to be in. The traditional development pattern seen in places like Terrace Park or Glendale, even if their development was not entirely incremental, still results in places that are more idyllic, safer, and as a bonus, less expensive to build and maintain.

(Cover photo by Jeffrey Jakucyk.)

About the Author

Jeffrey Jakucyk (Twitter: @jjakucyk) an intern architect, photographer, transit historian, cycling advocate, and urban enthusiast based in Cincinnati, Ohio.  He graduated from the University of Cincinnati in 2003 with a Master of Architecture degree and a certificate in historic preservation and currently works at Luminaut, a downtown Cincinnati architecture and interior design firm.  He has 15 years of experience at architecture firms of varying sizes, with a focus on custom residential design, additions, remodeling, historic preservation, cabinetry design and detailing, interior finishes, and mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems. He has designed and managed projects throughout the Cincinnati area, including the complete restoration of the Emily Rauh Pulitzer House in Woodlawn, Ohio, an early International Style/Bauhaus home from 1938, which received an Award of Merit from the Ohio State Historic Preservation Office in 2013, as well as an Award of Excellence from DocomomoUS in 2016.  He was also the project manager for the remodeling of the historic Groesbeck Lodge at the Cincinnati Nature Center into the Center for Conservation, which received a Best Adaptive Reuse award from Heritage Ohio in 2018.  He also has an extensive background in architectural and sports photography and local transit history.  He maintains an extensive website detailing the history of the Cincinnati area’s streetcar, interurban, and railroad lines which has been the go-to reference for anything related to the history of rail travel in the region for nearly 15 years.