Crisis May Drive Turn to Suburbs


RALEIGH — A decade ago, in the aftermath of the Great Recession, business analysts and policymakers thought they saw a turn toward a new urbanism. Downtown lofts and dense developments were the vogue. There was an uptick in transit use. Old-style suburbs and market-bubble exurbs were supposedly yesterday’s news.

The results didn’t fully match the hype. Transit use soon fell back to very low levels. As the economy improved, people went back to buying cars — and, as their families grew, larger houses with larger lots.

Still, some demand for the new-urbanist lifestyle remained, in North Carolina as well as elsewhere. It wasn’t entirely ephemeral. But will it survive the COVID-19 crisis?

As many transit-skeptics like me have long argued, it is far more efficient to alleviate traffic congestion — and carbon-dioxide emissions! — by telecommuting than by running half-empty trains and buses at the taxpayers’ expense. Now that employers in Charlotte, the Triangle, the Triad, and other communities across our state have had months of experience with large-scale telework, many are reportedly planning to keep large swaths of their employees working from home, at least for part of each week, until sometime in 2021. Some employers may make it a permanent practice.

If the change proves lasting, the effects on North Carolina most-congested highway corridors could be surprising. Cell-phone data show that North Carolinians were traveling nearly 50% less in early April than they were in mid-March. Mobility has increased a bit since then, of course, but even after Gov. Roy Cooper lifts the stay-at-home order in the coming days, traffic is unlikely to return to pre-COVID levels for some time.

Even a sustained 10% drop from the baseline, reflecting increased telecommuting, would be significant. And it would come without a massive expenditure of public funds.

It would come with some private expense, though, at least in the long run, because I believe that as people spend more time at home, they will want more home to spend it in.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that homebuyers are starting to seek more square footage and acreage than they were before. And in a new survey, real-estate agents across the country reported a small but noticeable increase in the share of buyers wanting to move away from downtowns and toward suburbs.

John Hood (@JohnHoodNC) is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on “NC SPIN,” broadcast statewide Fridays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 12:30 p.m. on UNC-TV.