BOTTOM LINE, UP FRONT: Part of it is because the rent is too damn high - but it's also because of failed urban design policies.
Older folks in the US like to get nostalgic about the old days, because back then it was safe to let kids play outside without supervision. My dad, who grew up in Boston in the 1950s and 1960s, regaled us with stories of how they used to go to the neighbors' houses and play stickball in the street. Older buildings still have these types of signs on them saying "no ball playing." (The sign in the image is one I took in Brooklyn.)
Thinking of it from the 21st century, the idea of it is a little ridiculous. What parent in their right mind would let their kid play soccer or baseball on a New York City or San Francisco or Los Angeles street? It raises lots of questions, doesn't it?
OK, FINE, KIDS WENT OUTSIDE TO PLAY BACK THEN, BUT WAS SAFER IN THE OLD DAYS - FEWER KIDNAPPERS, MURDERERS AND SUCH, RIGHT?
Nope, it wasn't safer in the old days. Using the murder rate as a proxy, New York City in 2020 had a lower murder rate than New York City in 1960. (Data is pulled from the City of New York's open data portal, and the U.S. Census Bureau.) I've used NYC because I have good data, but the trend is broadly similar in other major cities.
I've used the murder rate as a proxy for a city's safety, because it's hard to compare crime rates between eras. Laws, enforcement patterns and cultural standards change over time. (For example, in the 1950s, homosexuality was illegal, but women couldn't legally refuse to have sex with their husbands.) To do apples-to-apples comparisons across time and space, criminologists use homicide rates as a measuring stick. Man has killed man since Cain and Abel. And it's not hard to determine whether a homicide has happened. The Princess Bride notwithstanding, there's no such thing as "mostly dead."
OKAY, MR. SMART GUY. THEN WHAT IS IT?
So, there's two things.
First, there's the housing shortage. As I, and many people my age know extremely well, the rent is too damn high. Or the mortgage, if you want to buy. A nothing-special, century-old 3-bedroom house in a place like Berkeley will easily run you $1.2 million if you want to buy, which is $8000 a month. Because personal finance experts advise you shouldn't spend more than 1/3 of your gross income on housing, this means you have to make $24,000 a month ($288,000 a year) to afford it. This means that many objectively affluent people are getting squeezed like crazy. It's also why you don't see a whole lot of children in the Bay Area.
But there's another, unseen reason.
It's because urban streets aren't designed for families. City streets these days are usually designed with only one purpose in mind: to transport as many cars from point A to point B as possible. This has been an integral assumption of the Green Book - the traffic engineer's standard manual - for decades. Other uses of public spaces have largely fallen by the wayside, though this did somewhat change during the COVID pandemic, when streets were closed to promote social distancing. Sadly, cities are reversing those changes now. University Avenue in Palo Alto was a delight to stroll down, and children were playing soccer in the street when it was closed to cars, but all that is done now. Mayor Adams in NYC tried to do the same thing in NYC, but the neighbors revolted.
But it doesn't have to be this way. Old World cities are still built like this. The last time I was in Madrid, I stayed on the Plaza del Dos de Mayo, a public square in the Malasaña district of central Madrid. The plaza is a classic public square, fronted on all sides by restaurants and six-story apartment buildings. Families would sit in the square, the parents would drink their coffee or wine, and the kids played soccer there. There was no danger of some jackass in a Ford running down your six-year-old. Same thing in Tel Aviv, where the big, broad streets of the city center are built with playgrounds in the median. If you want to see how this works, look at Ben-Gurion Boulevard. Ben-Gurion is the same width as Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. Ben-Gurion has one narrow lane of traffic in each direction, and most of the rest of the street is devoted to space for people going about their daily lives. Sunset, by comparison, uses nearly every last square inch for car traffic.
The crazy thing is, Americans also used to do things like this. In the early 20th century, among the crowded tenements of Manhattan, the NYPD closed off streets in the densest parts of Manhattan so children could play baseball, hopscotch and to do all the other things that children do.
SO WHAT ABOUT THE TRAFFIC, THEN?
Quite frankly, there's two things. First is that the truly essential traffic - deliveries and such - can be restricted to particular hours, as they do in Europe. Second, there's a well-established principle in traffic engineering called "induced demand," meaning that traffic expands to fill the road space allotted. This is how LA could spend a billion dollars expanding the 405 freeway, and traffic got worse. The only really good way to actually reduce traffic congestion is a political hard sell: impose tolls on the congested areas, as they do in London and Stockholm, and use the funding to improve public transit.
This is going to be a political hard sell, I admit; but then again, this is why I'm a guy with a book, and not a politician.
Obligatory plug: The book is coming out in November! It's up for preorder on Amazon etc, but if you want a signed copy, you can preorder it from me.