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How America's small cities are welcoming the tired, huddled masses
Michael Belfiore

Michael Belfiore

If you live in one of America's biggest cities, there's a good chance you're on the move. That's because after decades of migration from the country's smaller cities and towns to the big cities to find better opportunities, the trend has reversed.

Driven out by rising housing costs and lured by amenities and jobs in smaller areas, many city dwellers are now trading big city life for less congested locales.

Some of the rising stars among smaller municipalities are showing how small and mid-size cities can adapt to domestic immigration and thrive. It all starts with mobility.

The Great Migration

The three biggest cities in the U.S., New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, all lost population in 2018, according to U.S. Census Bureau data compiled by Bloomberg News. New York was the biggest loser, with an average of 277 people leaving every day. But Los Angeles still lost 201 people a day. Chicago lost 161 people—even more than the 132 people New York lost in 2017.

But there's a silver lining, especially if you're a city planner in a smaller metro area. All those people are going somewhere: to smaller cities.

Phoenix gained almost as many—200 people a day— as Los Angeles lost in 2018. Austin got over 100 new residents a day (101), as did Las Vegas (105), to name just a few of the gainers.

Want to entice more of the people fleeing big city life to your smaller city? Make it easier to get around. The fastest-growing small cities in America are showing how it's done.

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Today, each commuter in Los Angeles loses 128 hours a year on average, and those in Chicago lose 138 hours.

The challenge and opportunity of mobility

Commuters hate traffic. And no wonder. Time stuck in traffic costs them dearly in the biggest American cities. New Yorkers lose an average of 133 hours a year that way, according to mobility analytics company IRIX. 

Seeing the opportunity, Las Vegas planners have put technology to work on the problem of getting around more quickly and with less frustration. On the city's famous Strip, for example, the city allows Lyft to operate a ride-hailing service using a fleet of self-driving cars. And the program works. In 2019, the company hit a milestone of 50,000 self-driving trips on the Strip, demonstrating its popularity.

Along with providing the benefit of less time wasted behind the wheel, autonomous driving saves money and lives, according to McKinsey & Company. Ultimately, says McKinsey, self-driving cars will free parking lots for other uses such as parks and homes, doing even more to improve city life.

Smart city infrastructure

If you have to drive yourself around, you can do that with less frustration in Las Vegas as well. Across the city, smart traffic lights share data with specially equipped cars. This allows drivers to travel at the optimal speed to hit as many green lights in a row as possible.

After launching in 2016, the technology has spread to other growing cities, including Phoenix, Orlando, and Dallas.

Vehicle-to-infrastructure, or V2I, makes what automaker Audi calls catching the green wave possible. V2I promises safer as well as more efficient commuting as traffic signals about to turn red warn drivers to slow down.

If you're on foot, such smart city infrastructure can benefit you too. In Dallas, a pilot project has increased pedestrian traffic, always a good development for cities seeking to reduce car traffic.

The pilot also points the way toward reduced traffic with the help of smart parking spaces. In the near future, the spaces will alert drivers when they're available, relieving you of the need to circle an area looking for them.

Integrated mobility

Growing cities are also turning to integrated mobility strategies to get people out of their cars and onto bikes, scooters, and on foot for the last mile to and from public transportation.

According to Deloitte, most car trips in the United States are under five miles.

This presents an enticing opportunity for city planners to meet a growing need while freeing people from cars. In 2019, Dallas began a partnership with Uber designed to do exactly that. In select areas, Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) offers free and discounted ride shares from Uber through both its GoPass app and the Uber app.

“We need to be a little more adventuresome," said DART president and executive director Gary Thomas about the partnership.

It's a mantra that could apply to growing metro areas across the U.S. as planners rise to the challenge. What's that mean if you're looking beyond congested big city streets for greener pastures? The grass is only getting greener.

Click here to learn more about the future of urban mobility and how you can help make your city even more appealing to people moving from big cities.