Have fun, stay single — it’s sustainable
“Being alone — there’s a certain dignity to it.”
Good news, single people: Living alone not only gives you the freedom to vacuum in your underwear and leave crusty dishes in the sink; it also has a societal benefit. As a so-called “singleton” or “solo” (barf), you’re helping make your city more sustainable.
That’s what Devajyoti Deka of Rutgers’ Alan M. Vorhees Transportation Center argues. In a study called “The Living, Moving and Travel Behaviour of the Growing American Solo,” Deka found that people who live alone — about 28 percent of U.S. households, a threefold increase since 1950 — also live more sustainably, dwelling in apartments instead of single-family homes, commuting shorter distances to work, and owning and using cars at lower rates than couples and families. And solo dwellers tend to prefer living in cities.
Which all makes practical sense, of course. One person needs less space, and the cost of owning and maintaining a car is much more of a burden when not shared. Urban areas present more job opportunities, and solos can pursue them without being held back by a partner’s career or family obligations. (Deka found that solos make at least $5,000 more per year when they live in the city.) Plus, discounting the few misanthropes out there, most people don’t live alone because they want to be alone, and living in a dense city neighborhood offers plenty of social outlets to ward off loneliness.
Catering to a growing solo population means cities also must cater to their more sustainable lifestyles. Eric Jaffe at the Atlantic Cities writes:
[T]he paradox of solo attraction to urban life is that modern metro areas were largely planned and designed with the nuclear family in mind. As a result, if cities want to keep the solos coming, they will have to make it worth their while. …
Deka says there are two things cities must do to retain their solo edge. The first is to promote and enhance public transportation, which of course most are doing for sustainable reasons anyway. The second is to recognize that, contrary to much popular belief, there are twice as many elderly solos (above 65) [as] young ones (18 to 34).
That raises two additional problems for cities that hope to attract and keep solos. One is the need to develop better housing for the elderly — be it affordable and livable single-occupancy studios or nicer nursing homes. The other is figuring out a way to improve mobility for older people, including the expensive paratransit services upon which they so often rely.
“Affordable and livable single-occupancy studios” — like the microapartments causing such furor in Seattle — can be attractive to solos of all ages, despite efforts to smear them as glorified flophouses for transient students and low-wage workers. Indeed, their biggest market could be not twentysomethings but single senior citizens. I bet Seattle’s anti-microhousing crusaders would be much less comfortable denying Grandma a place to live than they would be shutting out more shiftless millennials.
The data about solos provides yet more evidence that those fighting high-density development in cities are out of touch with reality. The anti-density folks worry that an influx of compact single-occupancy apartments will create crowds and chaos and drive families out of the urban core. But as the Atlantic Cities points out, urban areas have long been designed for single-family living; now that solos increasingly drive demand for housing, cities should be rethinking design with them in mind. The good news is, a city oriented toward solos’ sustainable preferences ends up benefiting everyone: An increase in housing supply eases prices across the board. Better public transit ameliorates traffic and pollution. And all those single people with their better-paying urban jobs stimulate the economy.
Not to mention providing homes for lots of orphaned cats.
Claire Thompson is an editorial assistant at Grist.
Also in Grist