Suburbs still thrive as more choose urban life

Chris Togneri
| Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2013, 9:17 p.m.

Shane Culgan's daily morning commute from Penn Hills to Downtown lasted more than 90 minutes.

Today, getting to work involves a short elevator ride and a stroll across the street.

“Takes about five minutes, depending on how many buses are coming down Stanwix,” Culgan said. “I love being so close to work. I don't have to worry about gas or parking. I can come home and cook myself lunch now.”

Culgan is part of a growing group of Americans choosing urban life over suburban.

Leigh Gallagher, author of “The End of the Suburbs,” said a decades-long trend of people fleeing cities for suburbs appears to be over. Instead, they are leaving communities designed around car travel for urban centers that provide public transportation and other city amenities, Gallagher and other researchers said.

Pittsburgh and Philadelphia — two cities gaining residents after decades of bleeding population — are microcosms of this trend, she said.

“Pittsburgh is often cited as a city where the Downtown is resplendent and resurgent. It has a thriving arts scene, a robust health care system,” said Gallagher, an assistant managing editor at Fortune Magazine. “The city has really reinvented itself in many ways.”

Several factors drive people from suburbs, Gallagher said, including high gas costs, long commutes and a desire to be near entertainment venues and fine dining restaurants.

“A lot of people move to the suburbs thinking they'll be able to spend more time with their families. But you're spending so much time getting back and forth that your child doesn't see you as much,” she said. “We now have 3.5 million people in the U.S. doing commutes of more than 90 minutes each way, and people are getting a little tired of that lifestyle.”

Not everyone is convinced, however.

Dale Walters, 50, is a software specialist for a Downtown firm. He drives from Murrysville, a commute that can last 50 minutes even though the distance is less than 20 miles.

He wouldn't move to the city, “because of the noise and the lack of space,” Walters said. “In Murrysville, I can walk around. We have a lot of parks. In the city you're either in an apartment or in a house that's very close to other houses.”

It amounts to personal preference, said Bob Gradeck, a research specialist with the University of Pittsburgh's University Center for Social and Urban Research.

“Some people make the tradeoff for a large lot; other people don't want to cut the grass,” he said.

Despite the shift, the suburbs are not hurting, Gradeck said, and many towns continue to grow. Yet more and more, “a lot of people appreciate the things you find in cities versus suburban areas.”

The city's population, about 306,000, is increasing for the first time in decades, census data show. Downtown, once primarily a business zone, is gaining residents.

Developers added more than 2,500 residential units Downtown over the past two decades, said Downtown Pittsburgh Partnership spokeswoman Leigh Ann White. The neighborhood's residential population is estimated at 8,200 people, up from 6,425 two years ago.

John Wyke, 24, won't soon join them.

He doesn't mind his commute from Penn Hills to Downtown: “Just turn on the radio and go.”

Pittsburgh doesn't offer enough to lure him from the suburbs, Wyke said.

“My sister lives in Hoboken and used to live in Manhattan, and it's a whole different feeling there,” he said. “I've been to other big cities, and it's just different. It's not too lively here.”

Gallagher differentiates between old and new suburbs.

Old suburbs, she said, were designed as functional and pleasing communities with pedestrian-friendly business districts and quaint homes. She cited Oakmont and Dormont as examples and said such suburbs will survive.

New suburbs popped up after World War II and were designed around automobile use. They have strip malls, gas stations and cookie-cutter homes. Gallagher believes these areas will continue to lose people.

“They were designed when we thought cars were magic,” Gallagher said. “But society changes. Consumers want something different now. … Some have suggested that these new suburbs will be the slums of the future.”

A study released in June by TRIP, a Washington-based transportation research group, says congestion costs Pittsburgh-area motorists a combined $1 billion a year in lost time and wasted fuel.

Walters agrees that long commutes are a drag. “But I'd still prefer some place like Cranberry than Downtown,” he said. “It just comes down to space issues.”

A recent study by the Philadelphia nonprofit Pennsylvania Public Interest Research Group shows that nationwide, people are driving fewer miles per year, an eight-year trend fueled in part by people moving to cities to take advantage of public transportation.

Ashley Afranie-Sakyi, a PennPIRG spokeswoman, said “new suburbs and cheap gas” are a thing of the past.

Gallagher, who grew up in the Philadelphia suburb of Media in Delaware County, said she is not anti-suburbs.

“I have nothing against the suburbs,” she said. “Some people like that. My argument is that fewer people like it today.”

Chris Togneri is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-380-5632 or

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