From lintheads to high tech: the Sun Belt, and why America continues to head south

Who would live in a town like this? Phoenix, Arizona. Image: Getty.

The United States of America is often divided into different belts. The heavily religious South East holds the title of the “Bible Belt,” while the de-industrialising North East and Midwest, once known as the “Steel Belt,” is now designated as the “Rust Belt”. Whether it’s reflective of social trends, common economic features or similarities in climate, nearly every state in the union is part of some sort of belt.

But of all the belts that criss-cross the United Sates, one in particular seems to be in the midst of a resurgence: the Sun Belt.

Referring to the collection of states that compose the lower third of the US, stretching from North Carolina to southern California, the Sun Belt has seen some of the strongest population growth in the union. Between 2014 and 2015, the Sun Belt as a whole saw over 500,000 new residents arrive – most of its attributable to domestic migration. Of the ten fastest growing metro areas over the same period, all but two were located in the Sun Belt.

And so, many commentators have heralded the return of the Sun Belt. “With the economy healing,” notes Slate magazine, “Americans have started settling back into their old habits, moving off to warm suburbs in states like Florida and Texas.” CityLab has dubbed the Sun Belt 2015’s “population winner,” while the Brookings Institute has noted a “noticeable expansion of Sun Belt migration”.

AirCon and the Cold War

The idea that the Sun Belt composed a distinct region emerged initially in the late 1960s, courtesy of Republican Party strategist Kevin Phillips who, in The Emerging Republican Majority, noted the region’s growing electoral importance to his party. (Ironically, Republican strength in many Sun Belt states - North Carolina, New Mexico, Texas and Georgia -- is now weakening due to the population growth and demographic change, set-off by the Sun Belt’s boom.)

Between 1940 and 1980, the Sun Belt saw its population grow by just over 112 percent; by way of comparison the combined North East and Mid West saw their population grow by just 41 percent. The US’ economic and demographic centre of gravity has gradually shifted south.

A number of factors drew Americans to the Sun Belt region. First, the creation of the interstate highway system under President Eisenhower opened up once isolated southern regions, particularly in the South West. At the same time, the invention of air conditioning made both the arid desert climate of the South West and humid heat of the South East more tolerable.

Related to this was the defence boom, as the Cold War resulted in a flurry of federal spending on the defence and technology industries. Writing in the 1980s, the political consultant and writer Richard S. Morris noted that states in the North East, with 45 percent of the US population, received 28 percent of national defence spending; the Sun Belt, at the time holding 38 percent of the nation’s population received almost half. The Pentagon, he quipped, was “a five-sided building that faces south”. The clustering of highly skilled and educated personal in the defence sector – as well as the large grants given to research universities – also boosted the civilian sector, leading to growth in areas like the Dallas-Fort Worth “Silicon Prairie”.

While the South West has been viewed as an ideal destinations for Americans to migrate to, the South East, at least since the end of Civil War, has been a place from which people escaped. From African-Americans moving to Chicago and Detroit, to white inhabitants of Appalachia crossing north of the Ohio River, the South East has been a place of outward migration.

Yet the Sun Belt’s post-war rise has seen this trend starting to reverse: for the first time in roughly a century, a combination of federal defence spending and business friendly policies meant that many south eastern states have shared in the inward migration.

What’s in a name

The name itself may have helped: rebranding the southern third of the US as the Sun Belt, Bruce J. Schulman notes in From Cotton Belt to Sunbelt, “offered the land of Dixie a fresh identity”.

Bradley R. Rice expanded on this theme in the 1990s. ”The South was known to be hot and muggy,” he wrote in his contribution to Raymond A. Mohl’s Searching for the Sunbelt: Historical Perspectives on a Region. “The Sun Belt was portrayed as sunny, mild and mechanically cool. The South was unsophisticated and backward; the Sun Belt was seen as cosmopolitan and forward looking.”

This image revamp boosted the region’s appeal as a place for both people and business to relocate. Whereas the old South East was seen as a place of “sharecroppers and lintheads”, the new name made it sound dynamic and high tech. “Yankee executives might balk at moving to the South, but they might seek to locate in the Sun Belt”.

This renewed image is still drawing people in today. While jokes may persist about the backwardness of the Southern US, and images of the racial horrors of its past still linger in the popular imagination, in the past 60 years the demographic and economic weight of the US has steadily continued to shift south. From North Carolina’s “Research Triangle” to the sprawling cities of Texas’ or the population magnet that is Atlanta, Americans are flocking to the Sun Belt in search of more affordable living and better job prospects.

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How can cities become more bike friendly? The Netherlands offers useful lessons

(Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images)

It might seem like cycling is in the DNA of the Netherlands, a country where even the prime minister takes his bicycle to work. But the Dutch haven’t always lived as one with their bikes. In the Amsterdam of the early 1970s, cars were considered the wave of the future. They can be seen filling up squares and streets in historical photographs, and killed an average of over two Amsterdammers per week, including many children.

It is nothing more than an “accident of history” that the Netherlands embraced cycling, says Marco te Brömmelstoet, the director of the Urban Cycling Institute in Amsterdam and a man better known as the city’s cycling professor. Today’s bike rider’s paradise was created after parents and activists took to the streets to protest “child murder” by car. A Saudi oil embargo, rising gas prices, concerns about pollution and anger about the destruction of entire neighbourhoods to build motorways did the rest. 

Amsterdam, 1958. Not a cyclist's paradise. (Keystone/Getty Images)

What’s important about this history is that it can be replicated in other cities, too. Of course, the Netherlands has certain advantages – it’s flat as a pancake, for example. But in the eyes of traffic reformers, the rise of e-bikes (and even cargo bikes) means there’s no excuse for prioritising cars everywhere. 

So how can cities, flat or not, follow Amsterdam’s path to creating places where cycling is a pleasant, safe and common way to get around? The Dutch have some tips. 

Separate bikes from car traffic

Any city could start painting dedicated bike lanes on the streets. But in the Netherlands, those white marks indicating space for cyclists are considered just a minor first step. 

“A line on the road is not enough. Motorists will ignore it,” says Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht. If other cities want their residents to choose bikes instead of cars when dodging pandemic-era public transport, protecting them from fast-moving car traffic must be the priority, Van Rossem says. 

The Dutch research institute CROW developed a widely praised design manual for bicycle infrastructure, full of tips for creating these protected lanes: A row of vertical white posts or a curb can serve as a physical separator, for example. Still, cyclists tend to feel safest in a "solitary" path, separated from the road by grass, trees, or an elevated concrete island. 

“The main bottleneck, the main reason why people don’t cycle, is that they don’t feel safe,” Van Rossem notes. “To start, construct separate paths.”

Turn those bike paths into a network

Many cities may have some bike lanes on some streets, but leave cyclists to roll the dice everywhere else. Will conditions still be safe when they turn left or right? Often they have to continue their way without any protected facilities for cyclists. 

“In many cases, cities take fast action, without thinking it through very well,” says Lucas Harms. He leads the Dutch Cycling Embassy, a partnership between the Dutch government and several companies, which promotes Dutch bike knowhow globally. “Don’t build small pieces of bike lane from nothing to nowhere. Think about a network of cycling infrastructure.” 

Utrecht aims to have cyclists within 200 to 300 metres of a connected path anywhere in the city, Van Rossem says. Avoid constructing those paths in sketchy industrial areas, he warns. “A connection through an unattractive area may be fast, but won’t be used a lot.”

Embrace the ‘fietsstraat’, a street where bikes come first

On some streets, drivers have to give up their privileges. (Rick Nederstigt/AFP via Getty Images)

A peculiar Dutch invention called "fietsstraat" (cycling street) holds strong potential for the rest of the world, Kevin Krizek says. He’s a transportation professor from Colorado who spent three years at Radboud University in Nijmegen. 

On cycling streets, cars are “guests”, restricted by a speed limit of 30 kilometres per hour. Drivers are not allowed to pass, so cyclists comfortably dominate the road. In the Netherlands the fietsstraat is usually paved with red asphalt, to resemble a bike path and notify drivers of their secondary status. But creating a cycling street can be easy. “All you need to do is put signs at intersections,” Krizek says. The effect is revolutionary in his view. Drivers have to give up their privileges, and cyclists can take the lead. 

Some Dutch traffic experts worry the cycling street won’t work if a city doesn’t also have a robust cycling culture. In the Netherlands, drivers are aware of the perils of urban cycling because they too use bicycles. Moreover, Dutch cities use sophisticated “circulation plans” to direct cars away from city centres and residential areas, onto a few main routes. 

Without “calming” traffic this way, the cycling street could be a step too far, Harms says. “In a city like New York, where all roads are equally accessible and full, it’s better to separate bicycles and cars,” he says.

Redesign intersections for cyclists' safety

If cyclists have to cross intersections “at the mercy of the Gods”, you’re not there yet, says Harms. When he travels abroad, he often finds clumsily designed crossings. As soon as cars turn, cyclists may fear for their lives. 

Harms recommends placing physical barriers between cars and bikes in places where they must cross. The Dutch build elevated islands to direct traffic into separate sections. The golden rule: cars wait behind bicycles. That way, drivers can see cyclists clearly at all times. Barriers also force Dutch cyclists to turn left in the safest way possible. They cross the street first and wait for their turn again before making their way left.

“You can create that with simple temporary measures,” Harms says. Planters work fine, for example. “They must be forgiving, though. When someone makes a mistake, you don’t want them to get seriously injured by a flower box’s sharp edge.”

Professor Krizek points out how the Dutch integrated cycling routes into roundabouts. Some are small; some are big and glorious, like the Hovenring between Eindhoven and Veldhoven, where cyclists take a futuristic-looking roundabout lifted above the highway. Most of those traffic circles move high volumes of cars and cyclists through intersections efficiently and safely. For a simpler solution, the Dutch manual suggests guiding cyclists to quieter streets – crossing a block up or down may be safer. “Nobody knows how to do intersections better than the Dutch,” says Krizek. 

Ban cars, or at least discourage them

A man rides down from a three-level bicycle parking garage near Amsterdam's main train station. (Timothy Clary/AFP via Getty Images)

The quickest, most affordable way to make a city more bikeable is to ban cars, says Ria Hilhorst, cycling policy advisor for the City of Amsterdam. It will make streets remarkably safe – and will most likely enrage a significant amount of people. 

Amsterdam doesn’t outlaw cars, but it does deliberately make their owners feel unwelcome in the historic city’s cramped streets. Paid parking is hugely effective, for example. Many car owners decide to avoid paying and use bicycles or public transportation for trips into the city. Utrecht, meanwhile, boasts the world’s largest bicycle parking garage, which provides a dizzying 12,500 parking spots.

To further discourage drivers from entering the city’s heart, Amsterdam will soon remove more than 10,000 car-parking spaces. Strategically placed barriers already make it impossible to cross Amsterdam efficiently by car. “In Amsterdam, it is faster to cross the city on a bike than by car,” Harms says. “That is the result of very conscious policy decisions.”

Communicate the benefits clearly

Shopkeepers always fear they will lose clients when their businesses won’t be directly accessible by car, but that’s a myth, says Harms. “A lot of research concludes that better access for pedestrians and cyclists, making a street more attractive, is an economic boost.”

Try replacing one parking space with a small park, he recommends, and residents will see how it improves their community. Home values will eventually rise in calmer, bike-friendlier neighbourhoods without through traffic, Van Rossem says. Fewer cars mean more room for green spaces, for example.

“I often miss the notion that cycling and walking can contribute a lot to the city. One of the greatest threats to public health is lack of exercise. A more walkable and bikeable city can be part of the solution,” says Ria Hilhorst. “But in many countries, cycling is seen as something for losers. I made it, so I have a car and I’m going to use it, is the idea. 

“Changing this requires political courage. Keep your back straight, and present a vision. What do you gain? Tranquility, fewer emissions, health benefits, traffic safety, less space occupied by vehicles.” 

Again, she points to Amsterdam’s history. “It is possible; we were a car city too.”

Karlijn van Houwelingen is a journalist based in New York City.