Everybody hates the suburbs right? Or at least all the cool people. They talk about a return to the downtowns, about walkable spaces, about riding bikes to work. It is all interesting stuff, but are people really rallying against the suburbs? Any look at population growth by area in North America will tell you that that’s not the case. People, as it turns out, are choosing to live in places that work for them in terms of space, budgets, and their own definitions of livability. Just ask Mercedes Benz.
Mercedes Benz’s views on the suburbs are only one fascinating insight that comes out of this New York Times interview with the company’s head of research and technology, Eric Larsen, but to me it is a key one. Mr. Larsen keeps ahead of trends, and one trend that he sees as a reality is that the U.S. is a big market for ‘family values’. That phrase might be tinged with all kinds of political baggage, but basically it means that Americans still have families and need cars to drive them around in. In his view, it is one reason why suburban development is not going away.
Not that today’s suburbs are like the ones the Brady Bunch lived in. As Mr. Larsen says, today’s suburbs often have little downtowns, although not much nightlife. And yes, it may well be that neither mom nor dad is home baking pies during the day. The observation that rings truest to me, however, is that these days after school activities are not things that happen in the gym at the elementary school, but often things that mean schlepping miles away to do.
Those of us who are parents know how this works. The best music teacher (or at least the one that you deem the best for your kid) may not be the lady down the block but the one who lives twenty minutes away. The local dance club may be okay for lessons, but if your daughter is in competitive dance its worth the commute to the next town so she can up her game. That means more driving, and as Mr. Larsen puts it, ‘a pain point for affluent parents, our customers, people who have more money than time’.
The most obvious conclusion of all this is that people still need biggish cars, and they will continue to drive them a lot. Technology is increasingly playing a role in things too, however. Mercedes Benz has a service called ‘Boost’ where minivans drive kids to their activities and parents are able to track them with a phone app (the vans have a concierge to take the kids inside as well as the driver).
Interestingly, Mercedez also sees Hybrids cars and the suburbs as going hand in hand, given that potentially everyone could have a charging station in their garage, and maybe a rooftop solar panel to produce electricity. Electric cars, in contrast, would be more of a challenge given that finding ways to keep them charged may not be practical.
There is nothing wrong with developing downtowns, and nothing wrong with people choosing to live in them. For all kinds of reasons though, suburban living is not on the wane. Companies that actually want to sell their products would be well advised to recognize that reality.