The Rise of the Cyber City

The technological decoupling of geography from economic opportunity could make Gen Z filthy rich.

Ravenel B. Curry III Distinguished Fellow in Strategy and Statesmanship
Apartments undergoing construction on March 19, 2024, in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)
Apartments undergoing construction on March 19, 2024, in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Brandon Bell/Getty Images)

Nature documentaries follow the annual Great Migration of roughly 2 million wildebeests from the Serengeti to the Masai Mara and back every year, and it is not hard to find footage of grimly determined wildebeests braving the waiting crocodiles who assemble in the Mara River for their regular feast. Likewise, every year the grizzly bears of Alaska wade into the rivers to feast on the returning salmon, as millions of fans watch the show on live cameras and vote in the “Fat Bear” contest for the most successful predator.

But the greatest migration on planet Earth is not in the wilderness. It is in and around the human cities of our world. Morning and evening, five to six days a week, hundreds of millions of commuters have long swarmed into and out of the world’s central business districts. The human commuters may not face crocodiles and grizzly bears on their treks, but they nevertheless provide vital nourishment for the denizens of the concrete jungles at the end of the commute. Building and maintaining the office towers in the dense urban cores toward which the swarms of migrants converge, feeding the hordes on their lunch breaks, building and operating the mass transit and road networks that ferry them to and from their homes, storing millions of cars in parking garages and lots throughout the city center and surrounding train and subway stops far out into the suburban ring: These activities employ tens of millions of people around the world and consume a significant portion of the world’s daily energy and financial expense.

In America, the Great Migration is both the creator and the defining institution of the “car city,” the dominant form of urban life. The car city, with its mix of suburban and exurban sprawl and legacy central cities, shapes patterns of wealth accumulation, income distribution, and political division across the country. Mass commuting by car across a widely dispersed urban area made America’s post-World War II middle-class society possible. But the rise of the car city was a mixed blessing. The environmental, social, and financial costs of the daily commute are responsible for many of the most acute problems our society confronts.

It isn’t just urban geography and political economy that the Great Migration has transformed. The Migration shapes the social lives of the commuters and their families so profoundly that we often aren’t aware of just how massive the consequences are. Before the Industrial Revolution, for example, most families spent the majority of their waking hours working together on tasks that were necessary to keep the family housed, clothed, and fed. Usually, the nuclear family was a small and not always very distinct element in a large pool of relatives with many generations with aunts, uncles, and cousins all part of the mix. The modern family, an isolated nuclear unit in which parents might work in very different jobs in very different parts of an urban megaplex, surrounded all day by people who their spouses rarely meet, and both the education and care of the children largely delegated to teachers and out of the home day care workers, is radically different from anything previous generations knew. It is almost certainly a factor in the weakening of institutions like marriage, the general loosening of family ties, and the rise of isolation and alienation endemic to modern life.

After 100 years in which the rise of the car city and the gradual decline of the rail cities of the 19th and early 20th centuries shaped American culture and politics, we are seeing the beginning of a radically different form of urban life. Think of it as the cyber city. The rise of the cyber city is going to be at least as disruptive as the move from rail to car cities, and many of our social and political institutions may not survive the shift. Nevertheless, for social, economic, and environmental reasons it is something to welcome. Among other things, it promises to renew the economic machinery that made post-World War II America a paradise for the middle class and to provide Gen Z and its successors the kind of opportunity their predecessors enjoyed.

Until very recently, most people thought that the car city was the highest form of urban living and that the Great Migration would dominate our lives forever. Since the pandemic, doubts have been spreading. Work from home (WFH) opens the door to a new kind of urban living, and the shift from the car city to the cyber city looks like an upgrade. Cyber cities won’t be utopian paradises and they will have their slums and their dark alleys, but they offer more opportunity to more people at less social and environmental cost than car cities ever could.

The rewards of that upgrade are potentially so great that accelerating and facilitating the transition from the car city to the cyber city should ground the domestic policy program of any movement aiming to lead the United States in the next generation. Getting the transition right and making it quickly is not just the key to American prosperity and renewal at home. It is critical to maintaining America’s place in the world. The greater economic productivity, social cohesion, resilience, and environmental sustainability of the coming cyber city will enable a new era of American economic growth and help foster a sense of national unity and pride. Those forces in turn can underwrite a new era of American power globally, helping to maintain the peace in a rapidly developing and volatile world.

Although I think ultimately both parties will get with the program, Republicans are probably better placed to lead the transition than Democrats. This fact could, if Republicans play their cards well, make them the dominant political force for decades to come.

Especially in times like ours when rapidly cascading social and economic changes driven up the slope of the Adams curve by accelerating technological progress threaten to overwhelm us, it’s important to ground ourselves in past developments that can make the present more understandable. History matters most when the present is chaotic, and even a casual glance at the history of cities will clarify both the opportunities and the frustrations that we feel today.

Cities matter, never more than today when, unlike in past ages, a large and growing majority of people in the United States and around the world live in them. Cities, suburbs, and exurbs are where most of us grow up, build our social networks, find our spouses, educate our children, work, and accumulate our wealth. A change in the form of urban life will affect our lives in all these realms and will influence everything in politics from the distribution of votes in Congress and the Electoral College to the nature of political parties and the content of political debate.

Cities are where history is made. The word “civilization” comes to us from the Latin word for city. The Greek word for city, polis, gives us our word for politics. Since the dawn of civilization, cities have been the center of culture and politics. In Western culture, the three very different cities of Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome produced what remain today the intellectual, political, spiritual, and aesthetic traditions shaping our common life. The Renaissance is unimaginable without the vibrant Italian city-states out of which it came. In modern history, great cities like Paris, London, Vienna, and Berlin left their stamp on European history and culture during the Old World’s golden age.

Cities emerge from the interplay of geography and technology. Urban living brings people together, allowing for the specialization of labor and fostering the development of new products and new skills. But bringing people into close physical contact creates a set of problems, and the shape and size of cities is determined by how these are addressed.

Almost all the great cities of antiquity, and many down to contemporary times, sprang up based on their access to waterborne transport—still today the system by which most of the world’s long-distance trade is carried out. People in cities eat more food and their industry consumes more raw materials than can be produced in their immediate neighborhood. Iron for the blacksmiths, brick and marble for the builders, yarn for the spinners, and a thousand other goods must be brought to and then exported from the city.

Food is the worst of it. Even small cities require, literally, tons of food. Until the Industrial Revolution, agricultural goods could either travel by ship or barge, or be hauled in animal-drawn carts. But animals also need to eat, and oxen cannot bring food from long distances without consuming most or all the food in their wagon. Wind- and water-driven transport was more economical. Cities without good access to rivers or ports could only draw on food grown within a small radius; that limit capped their growth and handicapped their trade. Sanitation was also a problem; before modern techniques of sewage treatment cities needed rivers or the ocean to carry their detritus away.

The interplay of geography and technology doesn’t just dictate where cities can exist. It shaped the development of cities, the nature of the states based in them, and the international political sphere in which they interacted. Greece, where mountains divide much of the country into small, sea-facing valleys with rocky and thin topsoil, developed a host of relatively small, independent-minded city-states. The richer soil and less forbidding geography in Italy created a harshly competitive political arena. The fertile land supported a large population, and the absence of the kinds of natural barriers to land warfare created by Greek geography led to a strenuous competition among cities, out of which Rome, after centuries of testing struggle, emerged as a highly organized society designed for conquest and empire.

With the invention of railroads, the economics and geography of cities radically changed, and cities with millions of inhabitants became common. Throughout the Atlantic world, those rail cities, with a dominant and dense urban commercial and industrial core surrounded by suburbs on radiating lines of commuter rail, helped define the 19th-century politics and culture that we think of today as “modernity.”

In American history, the rise of the great railroad cities was politically challenging and culturally disruptive. Small trading cities like Boston, Philadelphia, and New York played vital roles in colonial times down through the early republic, but as these cities grew into huge urban centers, and as dozens of new metropolises sprang up almost overnight, American life was turned upside down. Even the more commercially minded Founders like Alexander Hamilton believed that great cities were inimical to republican government. One reason they believed that the United States could flourish under the Constitution was the absence of great cities like Paris, London, or ancient Rome with their extremes of wealth and poverty, their overweening aristocrats, and their seething mobs.

By the late 19th century, the United States was home to greater cities than anything Rome ever knew. These smoky, smelly cities teemed with immigrants whose religion, language, culture, and politics had little in common with prevalent American social and political norms and ideals. The horrified descendants of the Founders could not decide what was worse: the spread of Roman Catholicism, the great and vulgar fortunes made by the rising industrial tycoons, or the deeply corrupt political machines that established themselves in major cities and extended their tentacles into state and national government. Many prophesied the collapse of the republic under the weight of these shocking developments.

Populist politicians appealing to the rural vote decried the alien culture, the pollution, and the concentration of wealth that characterized city life. As the barnstorming, Bible-thumping populist orator William Jennings Bryan put it in his famous 1896 “Cross of Gold” speech, “Burn down your cities and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic; but destroy our farms, and the grass will grow in the streets of every city in the country.”

Yet these cities, and the wealth they created, provided the basis for America’s rise to world power in the 20th century. They stimulated the development of new building techniques, new approaches to public health, and saw the rise of great museums, concert halls, and opera houses that exposed Americans to the cultural accomplishments of the European golden age then at its height. The American popular culture that would repeatedly sweep the world from the age of ragtime to the triumph of rap and hip-hop would never have developed without the mass audiences of the new cities. The mastery of logistics and production that would make America an irresistible force in the two world wars was born in the struggle to supply these cities with the food, energy, and materials needed to sustain the activities of these ever-growing industrial centers. The canyons of Wall Street and the commodity markets of Chicago were where Americans learned the financial mastery that enabled them to supplant Britain as the world’s banker and trader.

Squalid and filthy in the beginning, under their cloaks of coal smoke many of the rail cities moved toward a new kind of beauty. The leafy suburbs of the Philadelphia Main Line, the magnificent public buildings, glorious railroad stations like Grand Central and the much-lamented Penn Station, and the clean lines of the skyscrapers testified to a new aesthetic for urban living that fit the needs and exploited the technology of the industrial age. The combination of density, wealth, and cultural ferment produced by different cultures and peoples living and working cheek by jowl made rail cities like Vienna, Paris, and New York centers of glittering artistic accomplishment. Nineteenth-century intellectuals decried the rise of the smoky, soul-sucking monstrosities of the rail cities; 20th-century intellectuals would lament their decline.

Railroads allowed cities to reach an unprecedented degree of concentration, bringing many millions of people drawn from the hinterlands into urban life throughout the Atlantic world. These cities became hubs of wealth creation and cultural innovation, but they were also citadels of class privilege and wealth stratification. Though these cities covered a large area by historical standards, exploding past their medieval walls and converting large tracts of nearby farms into factories, commercial districts, and residential developments, they were geographically compact compared to what would come later. Railways channeled development into city centers and along the train tracks leading in and out of the city. Factories needed immediate access to rail to send and receive bulk shipments. Retail outlets also needed to be as close as possible to railroad stops, so that both goods and customers could easily reach the store.

As late as 1920, the rail cities seemed to be the highest stage of urbanization, but new technologies were already preparing their supersession by a new type of city built around the automobile. Advances in power generation and transmission meant that factories could operate at a greater distance from the old urban cores. Cars and trucks freed both commuters and shippers from the tyranny of railroad tracks and rigid schedules.

The car was a game-changing technology that rewrote the rules of urban living. Rail centralizes; cars disperse. Geographically, cities sprawled far into the countryside. London feasted on Surrey; New York swallowed nearly half of Long Island, spread across northern New Jersey, and climbed up the Hudson to Yonkers and beyond. The American Sunbelt, where rail cities had never really flourished, exploded into extensive car cities from Los Angeles past Phoenix and Dallas to Tampa, Orlando, and Miami.

Lenin said that Bolshevism plus electricity would lead to the establishment of a true communist society in the Soviet Union. In America, electricity plus the automobile led to the emergence of a new type of city. Since World War II, America’s rail cities have been fighting a rear-guard action against a less centralized form of urban living in which suburbs and exurbs compete with city centers.

The rise of car cities in America defined the 20th century. Suburban living and single-family home ownership was once an elite preserve for people who could afford the relatively high costs of commuting by rail. The car, and the network of highways that quickly appeared to service the new drivers, opened both suburban living and home ownership to the masses.

The reasons lie in the interplay of geography and technology that have driven the process of city formation and growth for thousands of years. If people must work in a group of factories and stores in a central district and must walk to work, they must live within roughly 2 miles of their workplace. That is, they must live within an area whose size is defined by the old geometrical formula: the area of a circle equals π (Pi) times the radius squared. When the radius of your circle is 2 miles, everyone trying to reach a given set of factories must live within an area of about 12.6 square miles. Driven by this logic, the rail cities of the industrial era saw unprecedented levels of population density. In 1890, New York’s Lower East Side had a population density of about 250,000 per square mile.

The Great Migration changes this. If the workers could commute as much as 25 miles, that same population could be dispersed across almost 1,960 square miles, reducing population density by a factor of nearly 160. Double that distance to a 50-mile commute, and the circle of habitable land goes up almost fourfold to about 7,854 square miles. Scatter the residents of 1890s Lower East Side across that space, and the population density per square mile shrinks to about 30.

Longer commuting distances helped make the American middle class. Thanks to the cars and the freeways that made the Great Migration possible, more and more working people were liberated from the crowding and the cost of tenement living.

The arrival of the car didn’t just change commuting distances. It changed the way that economic development works. In the railroad age, developers and politicians understood that the major economic impact of building commuter rail lines was to increase the value of the real estate that lay near the new transportation axis. A potato field became much more valuable when the construction of a rail station made it a desirable building site.

But there was a catch. A railway sharply increases the value of land near a station or siding, but the effect drops off dramatically as the distance from the station to a given property increases. One must live very close to a train station to have a manageable commute, and the pattern of development looks something like ink spots of development surrounded by much larger areas of much less valuable land.

Roads change this. Once roads and cars enter the picture, anybody with a driveway can access the transport network. The ink blots of rail development yield to the vast expanses of suburbs and shopping malls that characterize the car city. This is what enabled ordinary families to buy homes within commuting distance of their jobs as the car cities expanded.

Powerful as geometry is, it was not by the theorems of Euclid alone that postwar America promoted mass home ownership. Recognizing the social benefits of mass property ownership that appealed to the Founders and understanding that making land available to voters has been good politics since the days of the western frontier, Congress voted for programs ranging from the construction of the interstate highway system to a set of tax policies that made home ownership attractive. With far-seeing bankers like A.P. Giannini showing the way, and federal agencies like Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac stepping in to support the housing market, the banking system was set up to make 30-year self-amortizing mortgages as affordable as possible, and American capital markets developed around the dynamics of mass home ownership. Similarly, state and local governments built additional roads and provided the additional infrastructure (water, electricity, and sewers) that facilitated the rise of the car city and its accompanying sprawl.

The automobile plus bankers like Giannini and dedicated highway builders like Robert Moses changed America forever. Affordable single-family housing, mostly in the suburbs, was the heart of America’s post-World War II economic miracle. The Census Bureau estimates that in 1950, about 23.3% of the population, or 35 million people, lived in suburbs, a percentage that doubled to nearly 50% by the end of the 20th century.

Flash forward to 2016, when 175 million Americans, or approximately 55% of the population, lived in the suburbs and the new classification of exurbs. In total, from 1940 to 2000 median home values increased by approximately 290% when adjusted for inflation, turbocharging the Great Wealth Machine for tens of millions of middle-class Americans. By the end of 2022, baby boomers had $78.3 trillion in assets, with nearly $19 trillion of that wealth coming from real estate. Not all middle-class Americans lived in suburbs or exurbs, but the majority did, and almost half of the wealth of middle-income Americans was in the form of home equity.

Access to relatively cheap suburban housing made the average American family stakeholders in the country’s growing prosperity. Between the “forced savings” of the mortgage system (part of each monthly payment reduces the loan principal, increasing the homeowner’s equity) and the general appreciation of property values in a growing economy, the American middle class was able to accumulate wealth.

Newlyweds could afford small starter homes, then trade up as their incomes increased along with their family size. When the time came to downsize and retire, the equity in their homes would provide for the purchase of a smaller retirement condo or cottage with enough left over to help with the costs of retirement. Home equity could also serve as collateral for loans to launch small businesses and to build an inheritance for the next generation. Meanwhile, the consequences of the housing boom rippled out across the economy. Roads, highways, sewers, schools, and shopping centers sprang up across newly bustling suburban tracts. A wave of securitized mortgage loans along with the state and municipal bonds backed by the rising value of suburban land deepened and strengthened American capital markets. Millions of jobs in construction helped more working families join the swelling ranks of the middle class.

While intellectuals moaned about suburban sprawl, the millions of Americans who stormed into the suburbs in their shiny new cars discovered new and exciting possibilities for a new kind of city living. As Americans rushed to embrace the charms of suburbia, they built new kinds of lives and new institutions. From shopping malls to megachurches, Americans spread out across the landscape, increasingly overcoming the sharp distinction between the city and the country that characterized the highly centralized cities of the railroad era.

The post-World War II flight to the suburbs helped make a new kind of American society. In the rail cities, ethnic groups of immigrants typically clustered together. In the suburbs that increasingly characterized the America of the 1950s and 1960s, the descendants of Polish, Irish, Greek, Russian, and Italian immigrants increasingly lived in the same suburbs, went to the same schools, and intermarried. Increasingly, membership in a largely secular America with a commercialized culture replaced identification with specific religious and ethnic traditions and communities for many suburbanites. A national culture based on network television, popular music, and Hollywood movies reigned in the suburbs, as local accents and cultures slowly lost ground. The substitution of immersive electronic media for geographical propinquity as the cement of American community-building would only become more important (and more problematic) in the decades to come.

The automotive age was not an unalloyed blessing. In a handful of great cities, led by New York, downtowns flourished despite and perhaps to some degree because of the rise of the suburb and exurb. After a period of decline as affluent residents moved to the suburbs, these cities would rebuild as new generations were drawn to the amenities, opportunities, and shorter commutes that urban living offered. But for most cities across the country, the rise of the automobile suburban city after World War II would ultimately lead to the hollowing out of city cores.

The racial consequences were particularly destructive. While the rise of the car suburb promoted integration among whites, it also intensified de facto racial segregation in housing and education even as de jure segregation came to an end with the civil rights laws. Black Americans, whose own Great Migration to the northern cities took place as immigration from Europe ended during World War I and again after the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924, were excluded—in many cases by deliberate racial discrimination, in others because of income stratification—from the new suburbs. For decades, they were largely confined to the increasingly hollowed out urban cores even as economic opportunities in the inner cities dried up. Following the urban riots of the 1960s, “white flight” from the urban cores to the suburbs accelerated, as both residents and businesses abandoned the inner cities for greener pastures beyond.

For all these reasons and more, Black America largely missed out on the wealth effects of the new city. The consequences of sharply limited access to suburban home ownership outweighed the economic benefits of desegregation. In terms of household net worth, Black America would fall further behind whites and Asians in the decades following the landmark civil rights bills of the 1960s.

Many of the leading trends in American politics are rooted in the contest between the old rail cities and the postwar proliferation of car cities. The old city cores were high-cost, high-density, high-tax zones where close alliances between real estate interests, public sector unions, and machine politicians steered decision-making toward their preferred outcomes. The suburbs generally had lower cost structures and were often able to combine better services with lower taxes. With some exceptions, especially on Long Island and in northern New Jersey, the political machines and patronage networks that dominated the core cities failed to make the transition to the suburbs. Politics in the car city, like the urban landscape itself, was less centralized and less subject to any overall direction or control.

The center cities remain more hospitable to left-wing politics today than most suburbs, and the left in turn is generally more sympathetic to causes like “promoting urban density”—and an instinctive dislike of cars and suburban sprawl remains deeply embedded in the cultural left.

The right, by contrast, remains instinctively pro-car and pro-suburb. Suburban homeowners often voted to the right of their tenement dwelling parents and grandparents. The so-called Reagan Democrats of the 1980s were heavily clustered in the suburbs. The children of the poverty-stricken Okies who migrated out of the Dust Bowl to California in the 1930s and 1940s became Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan supporters in the suburban car paradises of Southern California in the decades after World War II.

The rise of the car city and its democratic consequences for wealth distribution served to rejuvenate American faith in American institutions. The original American republic was conceived as a nation of independent farmers, with a minority of independent tradespeople and merchants in the coastal cities. A republic of property holders would, people believed, be insulated from the evils classically associated with urban “mobs,” people who owned nothing and turned to the government for bread and circuses. Property owners had a stake in the system, and they had the experience of managing their small farms and enterprises. Protestant in religion, Anglo by culture, the large majority of Americans would share values and experiences that would, the Founders hoped, enable the unprecedented experiment of a republic on a continental scale to succeed.

The rapid development of the rail cities amid the post-Civil War upheavals of industrialization challenged all of these assumptions. The arrival of mechanized farming made family farms increasingly uneconomical. The urban American ideal of the plucky young apprentice rising to become a master craftsman operating his own business was no longer applicable in a world of gigantic factories. Given that the immigrants came increasingly from non-Protestant, non-Anglo backgrounds, railroad-era America looked less and less like anything the Founders had imagined. That the large cities were run by utterly corrupt political machines reinforced widespread fears that industrial America would break the republic. Some looked forward to a socialist utopia; others feared an era of mass corruption and mob rule.

The rise of the car city after World War II offered what seemed like a miraculous solution to an insoluble problem. As the urban masses moved to the suburbs, they became property owners. As they left their tightly closed ethnic communities behind and as they progressively assimilated toward American cultural norms, they became less collectivist in their thinking and embraced traditional American ideas about individualism and enterprise. The urban political machines lost power nationally as suburban voters broke with machine politics. American exceptionalism seemed vindicated. The republic had survived the transition to the industrial age.

The most recent period of serious American alienation and polarization came in the 1970s as the Wealth Machine choked and sputtered just as the baby boom generation started to come of age. Inflation drove mortgage interest rates through the roof, peaking at 18.6% in 1981. Gas prices exploded thanks to the rise of OPEC. In 2015 constant dollars, the average price of a gallon of regular gasoline went from $1.83 in 1965 to $2.97 in 1981. With the average American car getting less than 15 miles per gallon in the 1970s, and misguided government policies creating shortages and gas rationing. Young boomers couldn’t afford to buy homes or to drive from the suburbs to city jobs. It was conventional wisdom in the 1970s that the boomers would be the first American generation to fail to exceed the living standards of their parents.

What saved the boomers was the rejuvenation of the Wealth Machine during the Reagan years. Mortgage interest rates fell from their peak of 18.6% to 10.77% by the end of 1988, Reagan’s last full year in office. Gas prices fell as the world adjusted to OPEC’s new power. Most boomers have ended up better off than their parents and are now the envy of younger generations who despair of matching their wealth and security.

When the Great American Wealth Machine restarted in the 1980s and the baby boom generation followed its parents into the relative affluence of home ownership and suburban living, it seemed, as Reagan put it, that it really was “Morning in America.” And when, on top of that, the United States prevailed over the Soviet Union in the harrowing ordeal of the Cold War, even sober-minded people were tempted to believe that we had come to the “end of history,” and that America, that paradise of the middle class, had won

Decades later, we seem to have reached a new impasse. Internationally, the United States faces its most serious challenges since World War II. Politically, many Americans have grown disenchanted with democratic liberal capitalism and the broader American political tradition. Economically, younger Americans are scrambling, often without success, to find their place in the Wealth Machine. The most significant question in American life today is whether the American dream can be reconfigured and reenergized, as it was after World War II and again in the 1980s, or has the old system finally reached the end of the road.

The answer to this question is bound up with the future of the American city, and here, I believe, there are strong grounds for optimism. The car city has largely fulfilled its potential for human betterment, but the rise of the cyber city offers new opportunities for the coming generations. If we can get the policies right, Gen Z is going to be richer, perhaps a great deal richer, than its parents.

Suppose the Great Migration were to lose its centrality in urban life. What if the wildebeests didn’t have to cross the crocodile infested river? What if the salmon figured out how to breed in the ocean? What if the benefits of decentralization and dispersion could be extended across a wider geography without condemning workers to inordinately long and expensive commutes? What if tens of millions of American commuters discovered that they could work from home?

This, of course, is what happened during the pandemic.

When the pandemic hit, businesses all over the country suddenly discovered that, thanks to the internet, they could continue to function even if all or most of their employees stayed home. Much of the nation adapted with alacrity to the new conditions. In 2021, the number of people riding mass transit fell by around 50%. Overall, American workers are believed to have saved 60 million hours per day during the pandemic simply by omitting the commute. Younger Americans used the time to socialize and exercise more. Older ones spent the time on child care, household chores and repairs, and meal preparation.

The short-term consequences of this discovery were dramatic. In 2019, the last year before the pandemic, the Census Bureau reports that the average one-way commute in the United States was 27.6 minutes, up by about 10% from 2006. For the average worker, this would mean around 230 hours per year lost to the Great Migration, roughly the equivalent of six weeks of normal working time. Add to that the frustration and stress of the peak-hour commute, the costs of transit or driving, and the occasional nightmarish, nonaverage days when traffic was congested or transit systems broke down, and it’s clear that the daily commute was, for those still engaged in it, a massive source of inconvenience and expense.

While many workers returned at least part time to their offices when the lockdowns ended, WFH continues to change the way Americans work. As recently as March 2024, more than 35 million Americans, close to one in four workers overall, were teleworking all or part of the time. Close to half of all teleworkers worked only from home. Long term, studies indicate that 37% of all jobs could be done entirely from home. That number is likely to grow as the Information Revolution moves more of our lives online. The concentration of teleworkers is highest in information (54.6%), finance (55.4%), and professional and business services (46.2%). On-site working is, naturally enough, concentrated in industries like construction, agriculture, and leisure and hospitality. Potentially, at least, the impact of WFH on the future of the American workplace and the American city could, as a certain former president would put it, be Yuge.

Since the pandemic, we’ve been engaged in a series of debates that mostly take place outside the political process but that in fact are critical to it. Is the Great Migration, costly and inconvenient though it may be, the necessary and inevitable foundation of the modern city and modern workplace? Or does WFH open the door to a new and better way of life?

Much of the opposition comes from the world of business where many managers had concerns, some substantive and important. Managing a dispersed workforce presents challenges for motivation, training, and team building that are genuinely concerning. Younger workers need mentoring. Sharing a workspace brings people together in ways that promote serendipity and shared learning. A sense of community and corporate culture matters. Some fear that productivity and motivation would decline as more workers spent more time at home. There are certain businesses where face-to-face contact is vital.

Managers weren’t the only stakeholders with qualms. As big city mayors and bankers were quick to point out, the external, knock-on consequences of the revolution could be catastrophic. If high-paid workers in IT and finance never set foot in a central city, it becomes difficult for cities like New York to tax their salaries. Even if most workers stayed home only one or two days a week, the impact on transit systems, already in many cities heavily burdened by fixed costs, would be dire. A smaller Great Migration means that businesses can shrink their holdings of expensive downtown office space, reducing their real estate costs. That in turn hits landlords and reduces the value of downtown commercial real estate. This not only affects real estate companies and their banks. It reduces the tax base.

A decline in commuting hits the urban tax base in other ways. Fewer workers are buying meals or patronizing downtown stores, reducing both employment and tax collections. Many companies will ultimately move their offices out to the suburbs and exurbs where their workers are, reducing tax collections and downtown property values still further.

The numbers can be significant. Washington, D.C., anticipates a 30% deficit in its transit system’s $2.5 billion annual budget, with the deficit widening through 2035. Meanwhile, the District projects a cumulative shortfall in its commercial real estate tax of almost half a billion dollars through 2026. According to one study, commercial real estate in New York has lost 50% of its value because of the WFH phenomenon. The cumulative effect of transit costs and declining tax collections has, according to a report from the New York Comptroller, led to an $8.6 billion annual budget gap for New York in 2026, and the shortfall could grow over time if commercial real estate values continue to fall.

In many cities, the prospect of a WFH “doom loop” is real. Fewer commuters reduce tax collections. That forces cash-strapped cities toward a mix of tax increases on the businesses and workers who remain and cuts in services. It makes less and less sense to live in cities where taxes are going up and the quality of life is diminishing. More workers choose to stay home rather than face cash-starved transit systems where schedules have been cut back, or venture on city streets that are less safe as police forces shrink. More businesses move to the suburbs. Tax revenue shrinks further, and cities make deeper cuts and more aggressive tax increases. Millions of retired local government workers could face serious issues as cities struggle to pay pension debt while funding current operations from declining revenues.

The potential racial consequences of a further dispersion of wealth and opportunity to farther-flung suburbs are troubling. Inner city residents would enjoy fewer job opportunities even as their neighborhoods became less safe and their schools lost funding.

For the foreseeable future, local, state, and national politics in the United States are likely to reflect the difficulties of the old city cores, still struggling from the impact of the car and hit harder by the rise of the cyber city and locked into the high costs of legacy institutions and political arrangements. Cities like Chicago and St. Louis will be desperate for revenue to cover their pension debts and high operating costs. Voters outside these cities will be unwilling to subsidize them. Individual families will look to escape the heavy taxes and regulatory burdens of the old cities by moving out to the newly available exurbs and suburbs as WFH makes remote work more available and appealing.

These problems are real, but American downtowns have weathered storms before. The resistance to WFH will slow the pace of change. There will be smart adjustments to the new conditions. Downtown office blocks will be converted into apartments. Space now used for parking garages can be repurposed in ways that make city living more attractive. Many people, especially in their 20s and before marriage, like living in dense neighborhoods with vibrant street scenes and entertaining nightlife. Monuments, museums, universities, and cultural attractions will continue to lure visitors and residents to cities like Boston, Philadelphia, Washington, and New York, and the hotels, bars, and restaurants they frequent will sustain a significant population. Even as some inner cities fall into deeper decay, the strongest urban centers may well emerge from the transition richer and more dynamic than before.

All that said, the rise of WFH threatens a massive dislocation in the life of the American city, a shift that is likely to be much more far reaching than the shift between the rail and car cities that the 20th century witnessed. This raises an important policy question: Should public policy attempt to promote WFH, slow it down, or take no stand at all?

My own view is that WFH and the suite of technologies in its train that promise to upend the rules of urban geography offer historic opportunities that we should seize with both hands. To revitalize the American economy, bolster American democracy, and promote the well-being of American society, we need to move toward a new kind of tech-enabled city in which the rising generations can prosper and flourish in ways we can only imagine today.

America flourished as its cities evolved. The small trading cities of the colonial era grew into the great centralized railroad cities of the mid-19th century. The rise of the automobile led to the sprawling, decentered metroplexes of our time. The forces that scattered the old downtowns across the suburban landscape are gaining energy from the Information Revolution, and a new kind of distributed city is beginning to form—one in which the dense networks of social and economic engagement that were historically limited to face-to-face contact in densely packed urban centers will be largely liberated from geographical constraints.

If the rail city allowed an unprecedented degree of concentration, bringing multiple millions of people together to conduct industrial activity on an unprecedented scale, the car city decentered the rail city, bringing a larger area of land and a larger number of people into the highly productive and innovative urban economy. The distributed city of the future, in which communications technology, 3D printing, autonomous vehicles, delivery by drone, and other technologies that allow the near-universal expansion of work, will largely transcend geography. Like the description of God sometimes attributed to the philosopher Empedocles, the distributed city can be compared to an infinite circle whose center is everywhere, and whose circumference is nowhere. The city and the countryside will be integrated, with human beings able to live anywhere from dense urban cores to remote rural retreats while fully participating in the economic, cultural, and political dimensions of urban life.

We are not there yet, and WFH alone won’t get us there, but embracing WFH where practical is an important step with significant benefits. WFH begins to break the modern city’s dependence on the Great Migration, and that in itself is a significant upgrade. The Great Migration historically might have brought many blessings, but it is also a curse, and an increasingly expensive one.

Whether considered from an environmental, economic, or social point of view, the Great Migration is one of the costliest activities that human beings pursue. Reducing the number of daily commuters by 40% would significantly reduce the commuting time for the 60% still on the road, slash the costs of building and repairing the complex and extensive infrastructure the Migration demands, cut transportation emissions by well over 40% thanks to the reduction in congestion, and liberate millions of people from hundreds of hours annually of unnecessary and uncompensated travel time. There are significant civil defense benefits as well. The more effectively the economy can operate with more workers staying at home, the less vulnerable we are to plague, terror, earthquake, fire, and flood.

Among those who benefit most will be those with family care responsibilities and those with physical limitations that make commuting difficult. It will be easier for parents to juggle child care and work responsibilities and for adult children to care for older parents. Older people who still want to work but find commuting a difficult physical challenge can stay in the workforce longer, a development that will help bolster our pension and retirement systems while enabling employers to hold onto skilled and experienced workers.

We are likely to see a return to stronger communities and a recentering of human life on neighborhoods and families. The era of the car city was an era of bedroom communities that emptied out during the working day, and an era of rapid mobility as workers followed their careers from city to city. Loosening the power of geography over our working lives will give us more freedom to live where we choose, enabling people to put down roots without giving up the opportunities that, in past decades, came only with mobility. The distributed city will allow human civilization to synthesize the blessings of rural and urban life, and allow the reintegration of school, work, and community life in ways that strengthen the bonds connecting relatives and neighbors.

These benefits are important enough to justify a pro-WFH tilt to government policy, but the immediate payoff, and the real reasons why a pro-growth, pro-market, and pro-America political party should put WFH at the heart of its agenda lie elsewhere. WFH and the technologies that empower it aren’t just breaking up the Great Migration. They are opening the doors to a new era of middle-class prosperity that will make the zoomers rich. Opening those doors as quickly and as widely as possible and doing everything in our power to help the latest generation prosper should be the top priority of American politics.+

The Great American Wealth Machine temporarily choked as the boomers began their working lives. The Wealth Machine has come under a more diffuse set of pressures in the 21st century. But the rise of WFH can help get the enrichment process back on track.

There are many reasons why the Wealth Machine isn’t working as well or as quickly for the zoomers. Some are social and cultural. More zoomers are spending more years in school than members of past generations did. This delays the onset of economic adulthood and contributes to another phenomenon: Zoomers are getting married later and having children later, which often means they aren’t ready to buy their first home until their 30s. This matters less to Gen Z’s long-term economic prospects than some fear. Gen Z may be starting adult life five to 10 years later than past generations, and carrying more student loan debt, but advances in medicine mean that most zoomers will stay active, healthy, and working longer than their parents—and still enjoy many years in retirement.

The real issue is geography as the car cities approach their natural limits. The Great Migration brought huge tracts of land into the urban and suburban economy, as the radius of the area within which people could commute steadily expanded. But there are physical limits to the commute, and in much of the country those limits have been reached. Home prices are too high for young people to buy, and zoomers who want to buy a “starter home” either have to pay through the nose for housing that offers a reasonable commute, or buy something nicer much farther out of town, leaving them with daily commutes of 90 minutes or more. With two working parents and young children in the home, this is not a realistic alternative, and zoomers often end up renting instead. This may be their best short-term choice, but it means they are missing the chance to build the home equity that boosted past generations.

The density crowd, nostalgic in some ways for the cheek-by-jowl living of the rail cities, wants to address the resulting shortage of affordable housing by allowing denser building in existing urban and suburban neighborhoods. Reforms that reduce lot size and allow the construction of apartment buildings in single family neighborhoods would, proponents argue, give zoomers more housing options within a reasonable distance from work.

This isn’t entirely a bad thing, but it won’t solve Gen Z’s core problems. Changes to zoning laws encounter fierce resistance in almost all settled neighborhoods, and denser housing would still leave most zoomers either renting or living in smaller houses with smaller yards than their parents and grandparents had

WFH, along with technologies that we can quickly bring online, offers a much better path. Commutes that are unmanageable five days a week are more easily managed once or twice. A focused national effort to promote the shift to e-cities, seen as the first step toward the cyber cities and distributed cities of the more distant future, will open huge new tracts of land for suburban and exurban development.

There are many things we can do to promote the emergence of the new city. Regional development plans and infrastructure projects can prepare the way for the exurban boom. “Smart roads” that support self-driving cars can very quickly enable most commuters to concentrate on things besides driving while enhancing driver safety and accelerating the traffic flow. Companies that adapt to changing worker expectations and social needs can offer satellite workplaces that shorten commutes for exurban workers. Tax policy should reward companies that place less burden on urban infrastructure by developing management techniques that allow them to let more workers spend more time at home. Similarly, the home office deduction, which allows workers to write off the portion of their housing costs that go to the purchase and maintenance of space used as an office, should be broadened (and extended to those taking the standard deduction) to help young families get their feet on the property ladder.

Geography isn’t the only factor making home ownership more challenging for young families today. Whether it is inflated real estate commissions, skyrocketing insurance premiums, or land use and construction regulations deliberately designed to make home building more difficult, federal, state, and local governments need to work with the private sector to reduce the transaction and carrying costs that make home ownership unaffordable. The social benefits of home ownership are large enough to justify significant investments to ensure that Gen Z gets the same opportunities that helped their parents and grandparents find their place on the Wealth Machine.

The WFH families that buy these homes will be well positioned to benefit from the next era of American growth. Their homes will become more valuable as improvements in technology and the widespread adoption of WFH policies make the WFH lifestyle more widely accepted and more hassle-free. They will spend less on cars and on transportation than their parents and grandparents did, even as they are able to access the economic and at least some of the cultural benefits of urban living without leaving their homes. They will have more hours to spend with children and loved ones, and they will inhabit flourishing neighborhoods with other families similarly liberated from the worst consequences of the grinding, crushing daily commutes that shaped the lives of their predecessors.

Changed racial attitudes and the enforcement of anti-discrimination in banking will give Black families much greater access to the latest iteration of the Wealth Machine than their parents and grandparents had. Instead of forming ghetto-like communities of tightly concentrated ethnic enclaves, immigrants will enjoy the same opportunity to integrate into the broad pattern of American life that the car cities gave to their predecessors after World War II.

As happened after 1945, the wave of new infrastructure construction and new housing that WFH can unleash won’t just help the families who are able to move into new homes. It will create millions of new jobs, enabling more workers to join the growing ranks of a rejuvenated American middle class. And by planning intelligently (no new subdivisions in flood plains!) we can mitigate the effects of climate change and design new environments that are both user-friendly and low in emissions. Instead of mass bedroom communities at a distance from stores and other facilities, we can integrate more of the amenities of town life with country living. Gen Z can design new kinds of neighborhoods, new ways to integrate parks with residential areas, and new types of community schools and institutions that fit the needs of a new generation living in a more flexible and humane urban setting.

Those hoping to celebrate the end of American exceptionalism may have to exercise the virtue of patience for a few more decades. America is one of a handful of countries well positioned to lead the transition to a new kind of humane urbanism. We have the space to expand, we have the growing population, and we have both the ingenuity and the energy to re-imagine our cities and upgrade our society. The age of American opportunity is not drawing toward a close. It is moving toward a renewal.

Read in Tablet.