Europe’s Overlooked Suburbs: Key to EU Election?


In the run-up to the elections for the European Parliament, The Economist magazine suggests that the old political divisions no longer apply (“Between somewhere and anywhere: The politics of suburbia in Europe,” May 11, 2019). As the chaos of a British Parliament is unable to meet its self-defined Brexit deadline, The Economist observes that “Culture wars have taken hold of European politics and eclipsed the old left-versus-right distinction,” suggesting that the traditional majority social democrats and Christian democrats could find themselves outnumbered after the election:

“Two sub-genres have emerged in discussion of recent national elections. On the one hand, mournful reports from rural or post-industrial strongholds of locals resentful of big cities and fearful of migrants. On the other, scoffing reports of a pro-European backlash among bearded, bicycling types networking their way around city centres and drinking flat whites.”

This notion has been the mantra of much mainstream media reporting from Paris and London to Washington. In France, now with 26 straight weekends of mass “yellow vest” (“gilets jaunes") demonstrations over six months much of the narrative suggests the protestors hailed largely from rural areas, essentially the unwashed masses protesting yet another fuel tax increase. The narrative went on to suggest that, unlike city folk, they couldn’t get around on mass transit (or bicycles). All of this is overly simplistic, but consistent with a view that the hundreds of millions of people that have settled in the suburbs around the world for decades, now want --- or should --- to crowd into urban cores.

The Economist, sees through the fog: “It might make more sense to look at the suburbs, the places in between.” Indeed.

To start with, more people live in the suburbs of France than in the urban cores. Paris is the ultimate example, where the Ville de Paris (urban core) has shrunk from nearly 3 million people in 1954 to about 2.2 million today, while the suburbs have exploded to include more than 10 million of the metropolitan area’s 12.5 million residents. They are scattered across 6,630 square miles (17,200 square kilometers), an area nearly as large as the states of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined.

Mass transit in France and elsewhere is largely concentrated in the urban core, with particularly high use to central business districts. These are the only areas with sufficiently high concentrations of destinations (places people want to go) that can be served by mass transit at a cost the taxpayers can afford.

According to 2010 INSEE (the national statistics and census authority) data, the central business district (Le quartier central des affaires) accounted for approximately 9 percent of the jobs in the Ile-de-France region. The percentage is even smaller in the labor market, which is the metropolitan area (the “aire urbaine” as it is called by INSEE.

Paris certainly boasts one of the most comprehensive and effective mass transit systems in the Western World. Appropriately, it focuses on the urban core and central business district because that’s where it can be most effective. But with 80 percent of the city (metropolitan area) residents living in the suburbs, outside the urban core (ville de Paris), and more than 90 percent of jobs outside the CBD, most suburban residents must rely on cars to earn a living and live a middle-class lifestyle.

This is illustrated by the number of jobs that can be readily accessed from the suburban new towns of Paris. Residents can reach more than twice as many jobs by car in an hour as can be reached by mass transit, despite the extensive suburban (commuter) rail, Metro, light rail and bus services (see: Sustainability, Dysfunctionality and Practicality, data and citation in Table 2).

France has a small rural population. UN data indicates that only 20 percent of France is rural, about the same rate as in the United States. What have been characterized as the “carbon tax” riots have not been limited to rural residents, but also considerable working-class and middle-class participation. These people are not living in “the sticks.”

The working-class and middle-class attitudes emerging in France are evident elsewhere in Europe, though less spectacularly. The Economist reports that many European suburbs are made up of “typically inner-city slums relocated by idealistic planners.” But, for the most part, the suburbs are also home to a mix of neighborhoods, from affluent to a large share of middle-class households. And, a good number of them live in detached and semi-detached houses (see photograph above), as any drive around the suburbs of most major metropolitan areas in Europe will show.

The Economist asks “What sort of place, on a sprawling and diverse continent, reveals its overall state of mind? The crucial divide used to be left versus right.” But now, “it is in suburbia that Europe’s most important political shifts are occurring.” This is not surprising. For some time, more people have been in the suburbs than in the urban cores of larger European cities and it's not surprising they want their voice heard.

Evidence of this divide continues to mount. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has just released a report (Under Pressure: The Squeezed Middle-Class), which starts from the proposition that:

“A strong and prosperous middle class is crucial for any successful economy and cohesive society. The middle class sustains consumption, it drives much of the investment in education, health and housing and it plays a key role in supporting social protection systems through its tax contributions. Societies with a strong middle class have lower crime rates, they enjoy higher levels of trust and life satisfaction, as well as greater political stability and good governance.”

An early section is ominously entitled: “The middle class dream is increasingly only a dream for many,” and the report documents how middle-income households are challenged by costs, especially housing, rising much faster than incomes.

As The Economist concludes: “To understand the fault lines in today’s Europe, then, go to the suburbs. … Go to where the Ikeas are.”

Wendell Cox is principal of Demographia, an international public policy and demographics firm. He is a Senior Fellow of the Center for Opportunity Urbanism (US), Senior Fellow for Housing Affordability and Municipal Policy for the Frontier Centre for Public Policy (Canada), and a member of the Board of Advisors of the Center for Demographics and Policy at Chapman University (California). He is co-author of the "Demographia International Housing Affordability Survey" and author of "Demographia World Urban Areas" and "War on the Dream: How Anti-Sprawl Policy Threatens the Quality of Life." He was appointed by Mayor Tom Bradley to three terms on the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, where he served with the leading city and county leadership as the only non-elected member. Speaker of the House of Representatives appointed him to the Amtrak Reform Council. He served as a visiting professor at the Conservatoire National des Arts et Metiers, a national university in Paris.

Photograph: Detached housing in Paris suburbs (by author)