Life in exurbs defined by time in car

Texas town has seen a traffic boom along with population explosion

December 18, 2005|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

FRISCO, Texas -- When Max Bledsoe was growing up on a farm here a quarter-century ago, this was a tiny railroad town of 2,000, far removed from the bustle of cosmopolitan Dallas, 30 miles to the south across the flat North Texas plains.

Now, as a health teacher and softball coach at Frisco High School, Bledsoe works for a school district with more employees than the town once had residents. It serves an exploding exurb of 82,000, where the rush of new roads and shops has almost caught up to the booming population.

"Used to be, a drive into Dallas was a 30- to 40-minute event, something you could do on a whim," Bledsoe said. "But now, it takes 20 minutes just to get out of town."

Frisco is an exurb caught in an adolescent age of gawkiness, where every major artery is under construction, or soon will be, and a drive across town can be a maddening crawl between orange cones and roaring bulldozers.

America is growing at its fastest in places like this, at the margins of some of its biggest cities, in the domain of the automobile and the master-plan subdivision, far from the urban centers that spawned them.

They begin as embryonic subdivisions of a few hundred homes at the far edge of beyond, surrounded by scrub. Then, they grow - at first gradually but soon with explosive force - attracting stores, creating jobs and struggling to keep pace with the need for more schools, more roads, more everything.

And when no more land is available and home prices have skyrocketed, the cycle starts again, another 15 minutes down the turnpike.

But in the meantime, life here is framed by hours spent in the car.

It is a defining force - a frustrating, physical manifestation of the community's stage of development, shaping how people structure their days, engage in civic activities, interact with their families and inhabit their neighborhoods.

Ask residents why they moved here, and they tend to give the same answers: more house for the money, better schools, a lifestyle relentlessly focused on the family.

Ask them what the trade-off is, and most often they mention the traffic.

Chris Gray, 34, moved to Frisco eight years ago with her husband, eager for a bigger house in an affordable, family-oriented community. Gray quit her job as a financial consultant for Electronic Data Systems in Plano, the previous exurban boomtown just to Frisco's south, and decided to become a stay-at-home mother for her two daughters.

But her husband, who works near downtown Dallas, has paid the price.

"I can't count on him being home before 7 o'clock," she said. "Even if he leaves the office at 5:30, he's not here until 7. This morning, he left at 5:30 and it took him 35 minutes. But if it's raining outside, he can count on a two-hour drive."

Gray has been able to volunteer for her neighborhood association and local PTA, and to become a cheerleading coach at school.

"I love Frisco to death," she said, "but it's having growing pains."

And no wonder.

Between 1990 and 2000, the Dallas North Tollway was extended to these parts, and Frisco's population grew nearly 450 percent, to 33,714. It has been growing about 20 percent a year since.

And still, less than half of the 71-square-mile city is developed, leading urban planners to predict that if current growth continues, the population will reach 200,000 to 250,000 in 2020.

A decade ago, there was one elementary school here. Today, there are 18, and four more are due to open next fall. A second high school opened last year, and two more are due in 2006. A seventh middle school will open in 2007. And three times as many schools will be needed by 2020.

The North Texas Tollway Authority is at work on another extension, this one through the center of Frisco to the town's northern edge. Plans call for taking the road north into the next county, where developers are carving up the land around Prosper, the next community in the path of exurban growth.

One of the forces driving people into the exurbs is the ability, with less expensive housing - in Frisco, the median home price is $228,827, city officials say - to cut back to one income and enable a parent to stay home and get more deeply involved in school and family activities.

That is what Gray does. Since her youngest daughter began attending preschool, she has returned to her old job part-time, working three days a week from home.

The result is that the modern exurb has more daytime residents than the suburbs did a generation ago, urban experts say. And that has created more traffic throughout the day, the morning rush hours giving way to traffic jams caused by shoppers, school drop-offs and lunch crowds.

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