OPINION: Bay Area Reflection: Endless Suburbia

California has a history of ill-advised suburban developments stretching from the 1800s to the present day. East Los Angeles, LA’s first suburb was subdivided in 1873. The neighborhood hosted middle-class families in houses of a folk Victorian style using pre-manufactured elements that imitated the rich. The houses offered water pipes and access to horse-drawn streetcars, some of the first in LA. Today, East Los Angeles has gone the way of many early suburbs and has been swallowed by the LA sprawl.

As veterans returned from World War II and the economy recovered from the Great Depression, white middle- and working-class families fled to newly-built suburbs, which provided new housing and the promise of the American Dream. The booming suburbs were built with the assumption that most families would own a car. Naturally, this was linked with a surge in automobile sales, as families moving to suburbia needed them to travel in the city. Built for consumers, the suburbs set the tone for America’s residential and middle-class expansion.

Levittowns and other suburbs featured mass production to create cookie-cutter houses and an emphasis on material possessions that pushed consumerism. The suburb’s lack of public spaces and focus on family togetherness came at the expense of the community, creating a sense of isolation

Over time, the Bay Area has become a flourishing suburbia with a history of large suburban planned developments. Starting in the Gold Rush, California faced a series of booms in demand for housing. The creation of suburban areas provided an opportunity for developers to profit from the demand by creating repetitive, cookie-cutter houses.
Silicon Valley’s housing and economy is directly linked to the technology industry. Shea and Shappel are a big suburban developer in the Bay Area, linked to many of its housing booms and have directly contributed to suburban growth. Housing prices skyrocketed and people were pushed into the suburbs. Around the Bay Area, neighborhoods are categorized by low-rise buildings and an auto-centric transit system.

“Cozy” neighborhoods are stale and repetitive. There are many neighborhoods characterized by typical grids of generic five-floor patterns that are uncannily indistinguishable from each other. What was once an easy way to save time has made neighborhoods eery and impersonal.
Highways, expressways and gargantuan geography-splitting motorways tie all of these carelessly planned suburbs together. To stand a chance on one of these, Americans need a passable car, parameters defined by the global automobile industry.

The Bay Area infrastructure is virtually impossible to navigate, with a heavy reliance on cars, resulting in a lack of a good transit system. Instead of integrating a way of getting from suburb to suburb. The Bay Area builders of the 1850s and post-war 1900s did what was the fastest and cheapest. The resulting gridlocked road system that leads suburbs to downtown does not make sense for the average commuter.

In the Bay Area, the public transit system is composed of several different systems, each funded and constructed separately. These systems do not work together due to clashing schedules, routes and prices. Thus, taking the VTA to Caltrain to Muni just is not reasonable.

Better coordination is necessary. With the several smaller companies in the Bay Area, usable public transit systems usually cluster around bringing people into downtowns, not between suburbs.

There is also a distinct lack of walkable infrastructure. Even if efficient and effective transportation were to be put in place, a lack of walkability limits the effectiveness of public transit. Most cities in the Bay Area make wide use of stroads, an ugly word to describe an ugly affliction. A combination of streets and roads, stroads take the worst aspects of both and leave behind the benefits.

Stroads are often three or four lanes on both sides separated by an island or median with skinny sidewalks and bike paths on both sides. Stroads make travel dangerous by having driveways that lead to stores, creating dozens of potential points where a car can swerve into the driveway and hit a pedestrian. Bay Area roads do not do a good job of indicating to drivers when they should look out for pedestrians. A simple paint pattern along an intersection is not enough to communicate the severity of confusing a crosswalk with a left-turn lane.

Large roads should not be packed with entrances in and out of stores, sidewalks and bike lanes. Most streets should be one-lane, at the very most. If room is left, sidewalks may be used by restaurants for outdoor dining, and a bike lane can be added, as well as parking for cars so that they do not have to cross the sidewalk.

The suburbs have a noticeable effect on its residents’ quality of life. Their reliance on automobiles corresponds with a lack of sidewalks, making walking dangerous, especially at night. The addition of sidewalks is often opposed for being too urban, limiting a potential solution to the plight of the suburbs. An absence of sidewalks worsens existing issues, making it harder to access public spaces and isolating families into their own bubbles.

Having accessible infrastructure like mixed zoning, more carefully-designed roads and better bike paths and sidewalks makes moving from place to place easier. Reforms like these work hand-in-hand with changes to the public transit system, allowing people to travel more safely and conveniently. Better public infrastructure simultaneously addresses the environmental issues of the suburbs while also connecting residents and breaking isolation.

With a reliance on cars and isolated family units, shared public spaces take a hit in the suburbs. The mall is an iconic aspect of suburbia. While providing a self-contained, walkable place, malls are not an ideal solution to suburban sprawl’s lack of shared space. A good public space is easily accessible, has a wide range of activities and has a wide age appeal. Being purely focused on commerce and largely accessible only by an automobile, malls lack the hallmarks of good public spaces and exacerbates the issues of the suburbs.

The widespread nature of malls and lack of public spaces, in general, is indicative of a larger problem within suburbs: isolation. Everything from suburbs’ history to design to transit systems creates a lifestyle focussed around individual family units, only interacting with other units for work or commerce. The suburbs and the American Dream breed consumerism and negatively impact their residents’ quality of life.

The suburbs were never built with actual concern for residents’ well-being. Suburban sprawl creates unattractive isolated neighborhoods with isolated families. In the Bay Area, suburban sprawl is linked to a high cost of living and its messy public transit system. It is time to reconsider the suburb’s place of pride in the American Dream.